“What did you do this summer?” Teachers ask this perennial question at the start of each new school year. It often prompts extended show-and-tells about family vacations, afternoons at the swimming pool, and little league triumphs. In high school, it’s often met with a mumbled, “I worked.” As a middle-aged man at the start of a two-week vacation, it’s a question I’ll be asking myself.
My work email is in vacation mode. My duties at the church are covered. My five children (ages 10 through 20) have no trouble finding ways to entertain themselves. My wife has summer projects of her own (and my attempts to help with these usually do the opposite). So, I’m faced with the question, “What am I going to do?” But, I wonder, is that the right question to ask?
Being active, especially with work, is a good thing, in general. The Lord created human beings to subdue and rule over the earth. He put Adam in the garden “to work it and watch over it” (Gen 2:15). Paul commanded the Thessalonians: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). If we are able, we should be willing to work. In Psalm 127, Solomon reminds the Israelites that our labor, sans the Lord’s labor, is nothing but vanity:
Unless the Lord builds a house,
its builders labor over it in vain;
unless the Lord watches over a city,
the watchman stays alert in vain.
This particular psalm is a “song of ascents,” a psalm for the Israelites to sing on pilgrimage to worship at the temple. Such a trip constituted a “vacation” in the truest sense. A traveling family would have vacated their home and vocational labor to observe a festival in Jerusalem. And as they ascended Mount Zion, worries over their home might have plagued them: Will my neighbor remember to care for my animals? This trip is expensive, and I’m not working — will we have enough when we return?
But Solomon reminds the anxious traveler of the Lord they’ve come to worship. He is the one who builds the house and watches over the city. It’s a good reminder for all of us on any kind of vacation, whether it’s only a moment of rest on our coffee break or the trip of a lifetime: Put your trust in him. You’ve worked hard. It’s time to vacate the office or the factory and rest. Trust the Lord.
Constant work with no rest, Solomon tells us, is vanity: “In vain you get up early and stay up late, working hard to have enough food.” Like the alcoholic, the workaholic almost always denies she has a problem. “I just really enjoy working,” she pleads. “The Lord gave me these skills and all this opportunity. And, besides, I’m not lazy,” she might say. But underneath the spiritual veneer, she can’t work hard enough.
Psalm 127 presents a picture of someone working hard to have enough food. Out of all the possible reasons to work hard without rest, providing enough food for the family would rank No. 1 on the legitimacy list. But, according to Solomon, even basic sustenance does not warrant being both the early bird and the night owl. This is why Jesus teaches us to ask our Father in heaven for our daily bread.
If the provision of food does not warrant burning the candle at both ends, how much less do our other pursuits? In vain we get up early and stay up late, working hard to have enough fame, enough pleasure, enough information, enough fitness, enough beauty, enough social media followers, enough money for that summer vacation. And if you doubt Solomon would approve of this application, take a break here and read Ecclesiastes.
Yes, the Lord gives us work and every other good gift — but we must never forget that he gives us rest.
“Yes,” says Solomon, “he gives sleep to the one he loves.” Sleep is the ultimate vacation. God created us to need, each day, about eight hours of sleep — a condition “in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). By design, we vacate consciousness for a third of our lives (a good portion of which is near total paralysis). We are never more vulnerable and externally unproductive than when we sleep. So why did the Lord fashion us to require extended periods of helplessness?
God gave us sleep to remind us that we are not God. He gave us sleep so that we would trust him. The child’s bedtime prayer knows this: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” As such, sleep is a gospel parable, reminding us that “to the one who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Sleep pictures our utter helplessness before God — our complete lack of righteousness. In this gospel parable, we see there is no work we can do to protect ourselves from the wrath of God. So we surrender ourselves in faith to Jesus Christ: We hope in his work — his righteous life, substitutionary death, conquering resurrection, and crowning ascension.
Vacation, too, should be approached as a gospel parable, a confession of faith. Not all of us get paid time off work, but we all have times when we're not working (at least, we ought to!). Whether it’s a lunch hour, a full day, a week, or a month, we rest from our work, trusting the Lord to provide for our needs. We remove labor from our calendars, our bodies, and our minds. When anxieties arise, we remind ourselves that it is vain to believe that work wholly depends on us, and we go to the Lord in prayer.
As a pastor, I’m grateful that my church provides me with a generous amount of paid time off. When I reach a point of feeling the need for extended rest, it’s always there. In this, as the body of Christ, they picture Jesus well.
But all employers — whether churches or businesses — should strive to exemplify Christ in their approach to vacation. A Christian employer should not start by asking, “What is the industry standard?” Instead, his first thought should be, “What does it look like to imitate the Lord?” If the Lord “gives sleep to the one he loves,” so the Christian employer should approach giving vacation with Jesus’ mindset, looking “not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). Instead of finding ways to avoid it, if possible, the Christian employer must give rest to his employees. And, as the Lord models, he must ensure they can vacate in every way. This means he looks beyond financial provision to see that his workers can mentally leave the workplace with their responsibilities covered, thus avoiding sending off the employee with a yoke of guilt.
As I reflect on my own vacation, perhaps a better question is, “What didn’t I do?” As I write, I’m only on day two, but Lord willing, here’s how I hope to answer it: I didn’t work but trusted the Lord and the church to cover my duties. I didn’t worry about the church but trusted the Spirit to supply their every need in my absence. I didn’t spend every moment worrying about whether I was wasting my vacation.
God didn’t design us to think about whether we’re sleeping to his glory as we sleep. He created us simply to sleep. I trust that these two weeks of vacation are his gift in love. So I’ll rest in faith, enjoying whatever permissible form that rest might take.
Now it’s your turn: What didn’t you do on summer vacation?