By Alison Marie Smith

Discipline of Rest

Most days, I like to use Celtic Daily Prayer to guide the time that I spend with God. This month's devotionals are about the desert mothers and fathers, a movement of Christian hermits in the third century who created a commune in the Scetes desert of Egypt. This week’s devotional stirred several thoughts in me:

Once Abbot Anthony was conversing with some brethren, and a hunter who was after game in the wilderness came upon them. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves, and disapproved. Abbot Anthony said: ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’

This he did.

‘Now shoot another,’ said the Elder. ‘And another, and another.’

Then the hunter said: ‘If I bend my bow all the time it will break.’

Abbot Anthony replied: ‘So it is also in the work of God. If we push ourselves beyond measure, the brethren will soon collapse. It is right therefore, from time to time, to relax.’

We live in a culture that respects and frequently worships productivity and busyness. That is why the spiritual discipline of rest may feel uncomfortable or unattainable to us. Rest, really? How am I supposed to rest when I am juggling my job, marriage, kids, social life, and household chores? I have too much to do.

But, as Abbot Anthony understood it, this is the way of Jesus. Slowing down, making space for margin and rest. Setting aside time to simply be. This doesn’t mean we are lazy or unproductive. Rather, it means we understand our limits, the point where we can still serve and work with love and joy. We honor our commitments, and we cautiously discern when to say yes and when to say no. Is work controlling us or are we in control of work? If we get to the point where work controls us, we have gone too far.

In his book The Good & Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith makes this claim: The number one enemy of Christian spiritual formation today is exhaustion.

Do you agree? I do. I know that when I am exhausted and close to burn out, I am irritable, unhappy, and not functioning at my best. God doesn’t want us to merely survive life, he wants us to thrive in life. This means we need to find a better balance, we need to pursue rest with enthusiasm and intentionality so that we can function at our best.

James Bryan Smith goes on to say,

The human person is not merely a soul housed in a body. Our bodies and souls are unified. If our bodies suffer, so do our souls. We cannot neglect the body in pursuit of spiritual growth. In fact, neglecting our bodies necessarily impedes our spiritual growth… If our bodies are not sufficiently rested, our energies will be diminished and our ability to pray, read the Bible, enter solitude or memorize Scripture will be minimized.

Jesus himself understood the need to rest. In Luke 5:15-16, it says that more and more people were hearing about him and following him, yet he “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” This withdrawing is seen again in Mark 1:35. If Jesus, who we as Christians believe is God in the flesh, understood and honored the discipline of rest, how much more do we need to pursue and honor rest? Essentially, when we disregard our need for rest, we’re saying we’re better than Jesus and that’s just crazy talk.

So let’s get practical. How can we incorporate rhythms of rest in our lives? Here are a few ideas.

1) Sleep

James Bryan Smith suggests this:

At least once per week sleep until you cannot sleep any longer. Sleep until you can finally say your are completely rested. If you have family members you need to care for, you might need to ask someone to help you so that you can try this out.

Or, if sleeping uninterrupted as long as you need is unattainable right now, aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep three times this week.

2) Restful Activities

What activities help you to feel refreshed and rejuvenated? A nap? Try to take a 30 minute snooze a couple of times this week. Exercise? Try to incorporate physical activity regularly in your schedule. A bubble bath or reading a good book? Get some special soap or head to the library this week so you can make that happen!

Note: I think TV or movies can be restful when used in moderation. With netflix and hulu, it’s easy to binge watch TV, and I easily slip into this. In the moment, it seems restful, but after watching hours of TV, I find that I am actually not rested. Rather, I feel restless. Pay attention to this, pick activities that truly are restful to you and help you connect with God. If entertainment is one of those, limit yourself to one movie or two television shows a few times a week.

Intentionally schedule these rhythms of rest. Protect the restful time that you have set aside, don’t allow yourself to cancel this time for other activities. For some of you, this will be a hard discipline to incorporate. It may mean saying no to commitments this week and scaling back on the unrestful, but maybe important, activities in your life. Rest is hard because it forces us to acknowledge that we can’t do it all, that we have limits, that we are not all-powerful. Rest reminds us that we are human, that God is God and we are not. But for those same reasons, rest is good.

Do you long for rest in your life? Or do you avoid it and keep plugging away? What challenges you about rest? How have you seen the benefits of rest in your life? Share your ideas and experiences!

Alison Smith works for InterVarsity and seek to pioneer work among students who are part of the Greek system in the university. She and her husband Sean live in Utah. See more of her writing at her blog.