Spiritual growth and rest when there is little work: what now?

In February of this year, I advanced to Ph.D. candidacy and was determined to set a high bar for dissertation writing by the end of July. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to fall behind—I felt an urgency to write about my topic. After a few years of researching theology of work literature and exploring labor trends in our current economy, I sensed the greatest need both for the academic conversation and the situation of workers today was a holistic understanding of work and rest. With the rise of the gig economy and the increasing digital reach of employers beyond the physical workplace, Americans had become busier than ever, more prone to burnout and stress with the lines blurred between work and non-work activities.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world shut down. In America, some workers began to fulfill their tasks remotely, while others were furloughed or laid off. Meanwhile, many essential workers saw their time on the job—and their potential for infection—increase. In the first weeks of the lockdown, I wondered if the isolation and upended routines would increase our appreciation of God’s design for rest and restore rhythm in our lives once we emerge on the other side of this crisis. At least in my circle, where many friends and family are involved in education or ministry, the lockdowns provided an opportunity to pause (and hit play for the next bingeable streaming show). But it also added additional strain for those of us with children, and nowhere to turn for help. As my responsibilities around the house caring for my 15-month-old son increased, it quickly became apparent that whatever rhythm for work and rest I attained would pale in comparison to what I sought to write about in my dissertation.

The uneasiness of our situation reminded me of the biblical account of the Babylonian exile, particularly the reflection of Joseph Ratzinger (Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI). In his homilies on the creation stories in Genesis, Ratzinger spoke of the importance of God’s rest on the seventh day for humanity (Gen 2:1-3) yet how the “people had rejected God’s rest, its leisure, its worship, its peace, and its freedom, and so they fell into the slavery of activity.” Only during the 70 years of captivity did the land enjoy its own Sabbath rest (2 Chr 36:21). Meanwhile during the Babylonian exile, the creation hymn in Genesis 1:1-2:3 helped Israel experience a religious awakening and return to the land with a zeal for the Sabbath.

If we are indeed in exile now, maybe we too must long for the rest we can experience on the other side. Based both on my research and meditation on the theme of God’s rest in Scripture and church history, I believe the Sabbath contains dual aspects of remembrance and expectation. Our attitude toward and participation in God’s rest imitates the Creator’s seventh-day rest (Gen 2:1-3), celebrates the new life given to us now through the resurrection of Christ — our incarnate Sabbath-Temple — on what the Eastern Church Fathers called the “eighth day,” and anticipates the consummation of the new heaven and earth in the “eternal Sabbath” with God. Our calling into life with God allows us to experience the peace and freedom of this Sabbath rest in the present, while also creating in us a longing for the perfect, unending rest that is to come. That being said, I outline below some cultural challenges we face in experiencing God’s gift of rest that the pandemic has only magnified.

God’s Sabbath rest facilitates celebration

One reason we can’t experience God’s rest as designed is because we cannot celebrate. The loss of festivity during the pandemic exacerbates what Josef Pieper observed when he wrote that the glorification of work and productivity undermines celebration (see In Tune with the World). In his own context, Pieper was targeting Communism’s romanticism of labor as the sole meaning of a person’s life. But in many ways, our culture’s pre-pandemic pace of life and evaluation of a person’s worth through their accomplishments similarly distorted our ability to engage in festive activities that were meaningful in spite of being useless for our productivity quota.

Obvious examples include the increasing pattern of millennials to delay marriage celebrations for career goals or for financial reasons, or the prevalence of professionals leveraging parties or leisure activities for networking and social ladder-climbing (what’s the purpose of golf if not an outdoor business meeting or sales pitch). But the festivity of the Sabbath is gratuitous and useless. The first humans entered creation’s seventh day with a feast for which they did nothing to earn (Gen 1:29-30). Jesus became the Sabbath rest (Matthew 11:28) and his miracle at Cana promised the abundance of festivity in his coming kingdom (John 2:11). Jesus described the messianic kingdom in terms of a banquet (Luke 14:7-24), and the church has used the book of Revelation to long expectantly for the wedding feast of Christ and his bride.

In the meantime, the church celebrates regularly the resurrection of Jesus, which is the guarantee of our eternal rest with God. We ought to do this with feasting, just as the early church did in the book of Acts. But during this pandemic, our birthday parties, weddings, and church festivities have been postponed or limited. What I hope comes from this season of scarcity is a deeper recognition of the festivity we have previously ignored, given to us in Christ free of our performance, and that we can emerge on the other side of this crisis ready to celebrate regularly in foretaste of what is on the other side of Christ’s return.

Whole-life discipleship shows us God’s Sabbath rest also encompasses our work

I’ve often heard people talk about finding the best “work-life balance,” what seems like an unattainable pursuit since work and life aren’t meant to be set against each other this way. Work is inextricably wrapped up in our identity as God’s image-bearers and our relationship and responsibility to one another. A more appropriate phrasing might be “rhythms of work and rest,” one I’ve appreciated seeing in recent books by pastors and practitioners.

The Christian teaching on Sabbath rest, however, points to a deeper reality: our work proceeds from God’s rest and moves toward God’s rest. In a cosmic sense, the first full day of humanity was creation’s seventh day and the last day will be the eternal Sabbath. But even in mundane terms, Sunday is the first day of the week, and we engage in our work from rest and work toward rest.

God’s rest encompasses our work — and our whole-life discipleship — not only in that it stands behind and ahead of our daily labors, but also in how the Holy Spirit makes God’s presence available to us always — even when we work. But a key part of this equation is missing for many of us: the opportunity to work. On the one hand, our rest is stifled because we can’t celebrate, but on the other hand, the inability to work has prevented many Americans from experiencing the gift of rest from work. Yet even this point serves to highlight a pattern that went unaddressed before the pandemic — studies had shown American workers were spending more time than ever working, whether in the office or at home. Many of us were already resisting the gift of God’s rest, to find our ultimate satisfaction in what Christ has done for us while simultaneously celebrating what God has accomplished through our efforts. I’m concerned that our new patterns of remote working may continue to deepen our estrangement from God’s rest, but I remain hopeful that a longing for rhythms and a celebrative spirit can ultimately restore what’s been broken.

Topics: Overload and Burnout, Personal Wholeness, Spiritual Formation Practices

About the Author

Craig Sanders is a Ph.D. candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University with a research focus on the sabbath and theology of work. He earned his master of divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also served as editorial director. He and his wife, Kaitlyn, have one son, Auggie, and a daughter on the way. They live in St. Louis and are members at Apostles Church.