As a nation we are experiencing ‘collective exhaustion’
According to statistics, a third of UK employees claim to experience mental and physical exhaustion frequently due to their work, with 88% experiencing burnout in the last two years (1). British media is reporting that as a nation we are experiencing ‘collective exhaustion’ because of factors as varied as the cost of living crisis, mental health issues and ongoing effects of covid-19 (2). And these are not factors limited to the UK, they are endemic to our 21st Century lives across the globe where we have a severe imbalance in our relationship to work and rest. Work being anything that costs us energy, and rest being anything that restores our energy.
Do you feel like you have a good balance in your life between things that cost you energy and give you energy? When did you last feel truly rested?
The notion of rest is an important one in the Christian faith. In the Bible, we read an account of the creation of the world, where it says:
And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (NRSVA, Genesis 2:1-3)
God, who has no physical need of rest, shows us that rest is important.
Even God, who has unlimited energy, ability and power, took a day to rest after the work was done. God, who has no physical need of rest, shows us that rest is important. Some Christians take this Genesis story literally – believing it to be an account of the creation as it actually happened; others take it metaphorically – as a story with truths about who God is and how God works that go deeper than literal facts. Either way, this scripture teaches us that God values both work and rest, that both are part of God’s existence and God’s plan for us and all creation. The word hallowed, which means ‘to make holy’, shows us that rest is not merely the practical consequence of hard work, but a sacred time that needs to be given space in our lives.
Yet so many of us, religious or not, manage to get this balance wrong and exhaustion is not just bad for us physically but it is also detrimental to us mentally, relationally, and spiritually. In his 2019 book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer writes:
Rest is not merely the practical consequence of hard work, but a sacred time that needs to be given space in our lives.
"Many of us live with a low-grade fatigue and chronic anxiety that rarely, if ever, goes away. We careen through our days at breakneck speed, and wonder where God is in the fray. The reality is, most of us are just too busy to live an emotionally healthy and spirituality vibrant life. Hurry is incompatible with the way of Jesus. The love, joy, and peace that form the nucleus of Jesus’ kingdom are all impossible in a life of speed (3)."
Comer suggests that our wellbeing is dependent on being able to rebalance our lives, to practise rest, to move more slowly through life. More than this, he claims that this rebalancing is essential to understanding Jesus, to living well as a Christian, and to achieving spiritual insight.
Capitalist societies can seem to value work over personal wellness, where our value is derived from the amount we work and earn, and not from the hours we spend resting. In capitalism, utility and productivity are idolised, at the cost of our wellbeing.
Prioritising our own rest is then, in a way, an act of counter-cultural radical living, inspired by God who took time to rest.
The notion of Sabbath, meaning a day of rest, modelled for us by God in the Genesis story of creation, gives us a framework to practise rest. When we set aside time for Sabbath, when we restore a balance of work and rest, we might find ourselves liberated from narratives that tell us we’re only worthy when we’re useful. And people for whom work is impossible - older people, disabled people, unwell people, parents, children and babies – are recognised as innately worthy. When we allow ourselves rest, we are breaking out of unhealthy societal systems that only award value to those who are able to earn money.
Prioritising our own rest is then, in a way, an act of counter-cultural radical living, inspired by God who took time to rest, and by Jesus who said: ‘Come to me… and I will give you rest’ (4). Rest is not merely a snatched moment that we make time for in order to sustain our work. As theologian Cole Arthur Riley writes, “Rest is not a reward in exchange for your exhaustion. You are worthy of it now. You don’t have to wait until it hurts.”
Can you claim the sacred space of radical rest in your own life?
‘Come to me… and I will give you rest’.
This takes a re-wiring of our thinking; we do not merely rest in order to be more productive when we work, but as a way of liberating ourselves, as a way of seeking wholeness and wellness.
In the 1960s, Christians Frank Lake and Emile Brunner became concerned about the numbers of Christian people they saw burning out and exhausted - not living in the counter-cultural way that the Gospel promoted. They developed a model called the Cycles of Grace and Works to help explore how rest and work related to faith.
Simply put, the Cycle of Grace operates as a direct opposite to the Cycle of Works. In the Cycle of Works, which is the way most of us operate, and most societies encourage us to operate, achievement comes first, which earns us significance, sustenance, and a sense of acceptance or belonging. In other words, the things we do are the things that give us value. In the Cycle of Grace, however, belonging comes first, and from that springs our sustenance, significance and achievements. The cycle is reversed; our value is guaranteed first, before we have done anything at all.
Can you claim the sacred space of radical rest in your own life?
This is at the heart of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus: we rest in the knowledge that we are loved children of God, and that – no matter what we do – there is enough love to sustain us. We have limited energy that will run out as we overwork ourselves, but God has infinite love that can sustain us. Work, in God’s economy, does not earn you anything that you don’t have already in abundance: love, dignity, worth. And if this is the case, then you are free to rest; you can rest without apology, and without loss of value.
Do you believe you have value simply for being you? Or do you believe your worth is derived from your work, your restlessness?
Work – the expending of energy for some bigger cause - is no doubt an important part of our lives; God’s plan for each of us includes contributing to society and building God’s Kingdom, each according to our skills, experiences and personalities. Scripture tells us that each of us was made to be fruitful, to be productive, in the broadest sense. But this is not our primary purpose; God did not make us merely to be a godly workforce; we were made, all of us, first and foremost, to be loved. From our belovedness flows both our worthiness to rest, and our sustenance for work. The challenge for Christians, and all people, is to accept this belief, and through it, restore our balance of work and rest – sacred, radical, rest.
3. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer, 2019