An Unhurried Life: Reflections on Rest and Sabbath

Editors’ note: 

Jesus was relaxed.

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Prominent theologian and pastor Dallas Willard once asked a friend this question:

“If you had one word to describe Jesus, what would it be?” 

Many fit well.  Courageous and loving, patient and kind. He did the miraculous, loved the unlovable, stood up to the powerful and spoke truth to the influential. He was courageous and strong-willed, yet had a heart for those others moved past quickly. He died on a cross and conquered death. He rose again and reigns in glory.

Willard offers his own word though:

Jesus was relaxed.

There is a part of me that doesn’t like the word relaxed. It sounds far too much like lazy and selfish. Relaxed sounds inadequate and unhelpful to describe who Jesus was, yet others such as Alan Fadling describe Jesus as the unhurried saviour. The more that I think about it though, the more it rings true.

After waiting thirty years for his ministry to begin, his first act was to follow the Spirit into the wilderness. He seems frustratingly unhurried on his way to heal the synagogue officials daughter (Mk 5:22-43) and to visit his sick friend Lazarus, who died during Jesus two-day delay (John 11:1-43). On several occasions, Jesus retreated from the crowds and the attention to spend time one-on-one with His Father, to the point that the disciples even left him behind one day (John 6:16-21).  His sense of timing often seems strange by our standards.

Cultural Addiction to Hurry

“Our grandchildren”, wrote John Maynard Keynes in 1930, would work around “three hours a day” – and probably only by choice. Economic progress and technological advances had already shrunk working hours considerably by his day, and there was no reason to believe that this trend would not continue.  Social psychologists began to fret: whatever would people do with all their free time?

That sounds like a dream compared to what most of us experience in every life. Ours is a culture that values the hustle, the overzealous achiever and the omnipresent email. We boast about how busy we have been, how fast our pace of life is and how little free time we have now that we are all grown up.  We dream about long holidays and winning the lottery to escape the sapping drudgery of our hurried lives yet we rarely stop to ask if what we are getting is even what we most deeply desire. 

Many of us have been so conditioned to be efficient that times of slowing down and relenting seem unproductive, irresponsible, lazy and even selfish.  We know that we need rest but can no longer see the value of it as an end in itself. It is only worthwhile if it helps us recharge our batteries so that we can be even more efficient in the next period of productivity.

There are many times where hurry is the best response, such as an emergency. People get injured or sick and need to be hurried to the hospital. Urgent issues arise that need immediate attention and quick action. The problem is that when we find ourselves living with a constant sense of urgency, we get stuck here. Every situation feels like an emergency, whether it is or not.  Our bodies weren’t designed to live with the constant adrenaline shot that hurry brings, and our souls don’t function well when we live there.

Overwork is heart-hardening, literally. People who are driven and work long hours are more prone to developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Thomas Merton, a Trappist prophet in the early twentieth century had this to say about the effects of overwork:

“The fact that our works are done in the service of God, is not, by itself, enough to prevent us from losing our interior life if we let them devour all our time and all our strength. Work is good and necessary, but too much of it renders the soul insensitive to spiritual values, hardens the heart against prayer and divine things. It requires serious effort and courageous sacrifice to resist this hardening of the heart.”

Many of us are permanently stuck in deadline mode, hurrying and hustling ourselves to the next task and leaving little time to ease off and recharge. The things that need slowness – friendship, laughter, creative thought, loving and planning – get lost in the mad dash to keep up with the crowd.

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Heart Issue

At the heart of our busyness is our heart. We are busy because we are working hard to meet the desires of our hearts. 

Tim Chester wrote one of the most helpful polemics on busyness, The Busy Christians Guide to Busyness.   Chester believes that a life of over-busyness is rooted in a false belief that God does not meet the desires of our heart, so we must meet them ourselves.  We believe the lies of the world such as “I need money” or “I need to prove myself”.  The great news for every Christian is that, in God, we have liberating truths that set us free from the slavery to our schedules.

Chester looks specifically at six lies that have captured our culture.

  • I’m busy because I need to prove myself
  • I’m busy because of other people’s expectations
  • I’m busy because otherwise, things get out of control
  • I’m busy because I prefer being under pressure
  • I’m busy because I need money
  • I’m busy because I want to make the most of life

These lies have become so all-encompassing that they have worked their way into almost every area of our lives.


Jesus laid out a radically different vision for his people. He says:

“Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:29-30)

There is something deeply appealing about those words.  God’s intention isn’t for us to be perpetually burnt out, rushing from one activity to the next in the hope that our next action will be so glorious it will complete us. God instead invites us to rest in Him, because he knows that is where we will find our satisfaction, our joy and true contentment.

He knows that our hearts are most satisfied when they are resting in Him, for it is there that we can discover how deeply God loves us and desires us for who we are, who He has created and who He has redeemed, and not for what we can bring Him. We can easily convince ourselves that God loves us because of what we do and what we can bring him in the middle of a busy season. Yet when we rest, we acknowledge that we have nothing to give God and He is what we truly, deeply need.

Rest has been important from the beginning of creation. God uses the example of His own resting on the seventh day of creation to establish the principle of Shabat,  which simply means ‘to cease, to end, to rest’. We call this Sabbath. One day out of every seven, Israel was to rest from their labour and remember the Sabbath.

The rest has become deeper and more satisfying now that Jesus has come.  Whilst Israel kept the Sabbath as a means to being made right with God (as part of the Law), Christians can trust in Jesus for their rest. They can rest in the knowledge that he has satisfied every need that we will ever have.

  • We can rest because we are accepted by God, and don’t need to prove ourselves.
  • We can rest because Jesus has met God’s expectations for us.
  • We can rest because Jesus is in full control.
  • We can rest because Jesus is our safe refuge in all circumstances.
  • We can rest because through Jesus, God has gifted us everything we need.
  • We can rest because through Jesus, we can have life and life to the full.

Every emotion and urging that fuels our over-busyness has been dealt with on the cross and the resurrection, through Jesus. Every fear that we have about ourselves before God has been matched by Jesus.  God now invites us to stop the busyness, to cease, to rest, to end, and to draw closer to Him and be filled with satisfaction and contentment.

Pillars of Sabbath

Having a weekly time of Sabbath has not been easy for me, and when I do so, I often felt more tired than before. Most of the time, I slept in and watched movies all day.  This is the image I had of a day of rest.  However, I was challenged when I heard Tony Miller speak on abiding in Jesus; when he said that ‘Sabbath is not about doing nothing, but about doing the right things with great intentions’. 

Miller suggested four ideas that we can use to guide us into Sabbath rest: relent, rest, rejoice and reflect.

1. Relent

Stop thinking about the workload you have to go back to. Stop working on the proposal that is due later this week. Stop reading endless articles on Facebook. Stop thinking about the people you need to call. Stop checking your emails on your phone. Stop, cease, relent.

Turn off your mobile phone for the day. Leave your work at work. Don’t check your emails. Whatever you need to do to let your mind free from the daily cycle, do it. Stop, cease, relent.

2. Rest

Everyone has activities that give them back more than they take. For some, it might be cycling or crocheting. For others it might be watching movies, sleeping in, enjoying a good coffee, surfing on the coast or going for a hike in the wilderness. Whatever it is that allows you to loosen your tense shoulders, and take a deep breathe out, go and do it.

3. Rejoice

Christians can rejoice in the Sabbath because we have a saviour who has accomplished everything we need.  Every desire that propels us towards perpetual hustle has been met and matched in Jesus and in this time, it can be so important to let that wash over us. If resting is a deep breath out, rejoicing is a deep breath in. It’s a filling of the spirit, of being reminded who Jesus is and how deeply he loves us. It’s a meditation on the grace that has saved us and a feasting on the word.

4. Reflect

One of my personal struggles is simply to stop long enough to consider where I am at personally with God. It’s all well and good doing work for God, but unless that work is with God, it will never be fruitful.  Doing noble things for God is not the same as spending time with Him.  Thinking great thoughts about Jesus is not the same as vital communion with Him. Helping others understand the gospel is not the same thing as drinking deeply from the wellspring of grace for myself.

I pray that this will help you treasure Jesus more as you trust Him in your rest.

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