Lately, I have been exhausted. Not just tired, but flat out weary. The last couple of years have taken their toll and my need for restoration requires far more than a good night’s sleep. What I long for, what I crave, what I need, is rest.
Rest. It seems so simple, so achievable, so effortless. And yet, most of us fail miserably at it. Ask us to work a 60-hour week? Done. Add a few more items to the to-do list? Done. Manage one more activity or event? Done. Rest? Impossible.
Why is rest so difficult? Why do we have such trouble understanding and embracing rest? Perhaps, it’s because we don’t really understand it. And we’re not alone in our confusion.
Early in the Old Testament, we are introduced to two contrasting kingdoms, Empire and Shalom. Empire encompassed much of the world at that time. It advertised wealth and success and glorified worldly gain. It didn’t matter who got hurt or what was lost in the process. Anything and everything were expendable in the quest for power and position. Shalom, or peace, on the other hand, was God’s kingdom. Shalom meant being content and knowing how to say no to the constant echo of more. Shalom meant people over acquisition. It meant love over self-interest. It meant the promotion of others rather than yourself.
It is in this tension between Egypt’s Empire and God’s Shalom that Israel finds herself in the first chapter of Exodus. While the book opens with Israel in slavery, they had not always been slaves. Originally Israel came to Egypt as welcome additions. In fact, Joseph and his brothers were given “…the best of the land” (Gen 47:6), the land of Goshen, which was located along the Nile River and rich with life and vegetation. Before they were slaves, the Israelites were willing, profitable citizens of Egypt, reaping the full benefits of Empire. They had bought in, hook, line, and sinker. In fact, they had become so entrenched in Empire that later, as they wandered in the desert, they longingly remembered and yearned for its comforts.
So God brings them out. Knowing that the longer Israel stayed in Pharaoh’s world, the further they would be from Shalom, God takes them out of the Empire to get the Empire out of them. He guides them through the wilderness, providing graciously for their needs and teaching them about Shalom. He instills the values of justice, generosity and righteousness and deepens the partnership between God and man. Finally reaching Mount Sinai, God delivers the handbook for Shalom, the 10 commandments. In this list of 10 “shall nots”, God outlines the kingdom He is calling Israel to. A kingdom of valuing others. A kingdom of interdependent community. A kingdom of mercy. And a kingdom of rest.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…”
Rest doesn’t just make the list. It comes before murder, adultery and lying. God values rest so highly that He doesn’t merely suggest it, He commands it. In the kingdom of Shalom, rest is essential.
Flash forward several hundred years. Israel had long forgotten God’s laws, abandoning Shalom and fully embracing Empire. The prophet Amos accuses them of taking advantage of the needy and profiting off the weak. He chastises them because they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (2:7). Israel was pursuing self-promotion and success with no regard for those who might be caught in the crossfire. Interestingly, in chapter 8, Amos reprimands them for another reason. Consumed with worldly gain, Israel resentfully asks,
“When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?”.
Israel had forsaken the Sabbath. In a greedy grab for wealth, they had no patience for the Sabbath. Or for rest. Rather than honoring the Sabbath how God intended it, a time to pause, remember and worship, they saw it as an inconvenient interruption to their burgeoning economy. Who has time for rest when there is grain to sell and deals to be made?
The idea of rest is such a heated topic that by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, first century Jews were still deliberating and arguing about how to honor the Sabbath and truly rest. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is chastised for healing on the Sabbath and even plucking a head of grain. Perhaps in an effort to stop all the controversy and resolve the issue, in Matthew 11:28, Jesus makes an invitation.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
And there it is. “I will give you rest.”
The Greek word for rest in this verse is anapausis and it translates literally as “the cessation of movement.” The cessation of movement. All movement. Not just the movement of our bodies, but the movement of our minds and hearts. To anapausis is to stop the labor of worry, of rumination, of regret and anxiety. Can you imagine that? It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around the cessation of all movement. Pausing my physical movement is easy. I can easily and happily take a break from tasks and to-do lists. But intentionally pressing pause on the thoughts and emotions that leave me heavy laden is a significantly more difficult task. While my body may be resting, my mind is nearly always racing. Even at night, as I lay motionless in bed, I am engulfed in ponderings about the day, anxiety about the future, and regret about the past. To let that go, even for a day, seems darn near impossible.
And yet, this is precisely what Jesus is proposing. But how? In a world spinning so fast we can barely catch our breath, how can we possibly stop all movement? The secret lies in the first three words of the verse. “Come to me.” Rest without Christ, rest mustered by our own doing and ability will never deliver. Rest requires more than a day off or lazy morning. In order to anapausis we have to relinquish all our inner turmoil and effort to the only one able to carry it. We must lay all the movement at the foot of the cross and just pause. Pause to take in the wonder of God. Pause to take in the miracle that we are loved. Pause to take in the unmitigated truth that there is no amount of doing that can move us any closer to, or graciously any farther from, our Father. And in the pausing, in the resting, we are able to receive the movement of God’s hand and heart. We are able to trade our incessant, fruitless striving for a crown.
The worry, the fear, the anxiety, the questioning; it’s all too much for us to bear. We were never meant to carry it. Instead, God bids us come. Come and trade labor for freedom. Come and abide in the kingdom of Shalom. Come and anapausis. Come and rest.