The Image of God: Rest

The Image of God: Rest

Rest is part and parcel of living in God’s story. And this is a story that precedes us, a story we live in now and forever. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” This is why the Bible so closely connects the principle and practice of Sabbath with the invitation for rest. To devote one day of seven to wholehearted, embodied resting is to live more fully in God’s story. 

Karioshi suggests that the necessity of rest can be a matter of life and death. This Japanese word essentially translates as “death from overwork,” a tragically regular phenomenon in Japan in which men and women die, whether of natural causes or suicide, because of too much work and no rest. Even though this concept is given a name in Japanese, it’s not a foreign concept to the American worker.

We have a problem with rest. We don’t do it. In the United States nearly 50% of workers do not take full advantage of their paid time off. Further, Americans are half as likely to be taking vacation in any given week as they were 40 years ago. Even as we give lip service to the fact that rest is important, we have trouble actually stopping our work long enough to embrace rest.

As an international relations major in undergraduate, we read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: an early document drafted and approved by the United Nations to serve as a guiding frame for national legislation. I was surprised by Article 24, which declares, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

Article 24 is, in fact, a decent distillation and summary of the biblical concept of Sabbath, with one glaring omission. The Declaration assumes that this right, and the other rights it enshrines, are self-inhering. That is, these rights rise out of us as human beings and have no external referent.

The Bible gives a different origin of our rest, not first in us, but first in God, and given to us:

Genesis 2:1-3

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Exodus 20:8-11

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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

In other words, we know rest is important, but we’ve forgotten the true source of and reason for our rest. And when forget where rest comes from—true, soul-satisfying, bone-deep rest—we fail to stop work long enough to rest, and we miss out on a truly full and flourishing life.

So, in a world that doesn’t remember why we rest, is less and less likely to stop work at all, and who increasingly has trouble understanding rest as a key part of life, what do we do? The Scripture offers a threefold practice in response to our unwillingness to rest: remembering rightly, stopping intentionally, and embracing the life God offers.

The fourth commandment is the lengthiest of the 10 commandments. Further, it is one of only two that do not begin “Thou shalt not.” Instead, the first word of the fourth commandment is “remember.” What does remembering have to do with rest? In rest, we first and foremost remember who God is. Everything in the true and better story starts with God. And what do we remember about God? God is a God who created, a God who works, but beautifully, wonderfully, almost surprisingly, he is also a God who rests (Gen. 2:1-3)—a God who completes what he started, who brings to fruition all his plans, and as a result can step back and enjoy all that he has made.

My brother-in-law is a civil engineer. Specifically, he works as a Director of Traffic Engineering and Survey. In other words, he makes roads. In his case, he spends a lot of time taking bad roads and turning them into good roads. Speaking of driving on a road that he designed, he says, “It feels like completion and immense satisfaction. I constantly look left, right, and ahead at all the features my team designed over the course of months and years. I think about all the challenges we overcame to make the road function in a way that the public can enjoy it without even really thinking about it.” After all, we only really notice that road when it doesn’t work for us.

We all know the difference between a task checked off the list and a job well done. Creation is God’s job well done. On the seventh day, God looked left, right, and ahead at all the wonderful beauty of his creation and was glad. God is not an exhausted worker or a detached clockmaker; the God of the Bible is a delighted craftsman.

But the truth of rest does not simply require remembering who God is; it requires remembering who we are. To get the frame of reference on this, we must look even earlier in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1:26-27, God says, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” And what God says, God does: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Who are we? Humans are image-bearers of the almighty God who created all things by the word of his power in six days and rested on the seventh. As image bearers, we are called to work in this world to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor. When we experience rest from that good work as a job well done, we are, momentarily, looking like God. It is an integral, inescapable part of being a human being—we were made to rest because we were made in God’s image. True rest is not a picture of laziness or inability but a picture of sufficiency, joy, and delight.

Yet, even this is not the full picture. We are not simply in the image of God, but also we are creatures, created by God. All too often, we rest not out of a job well done, but out of a desperate necessity, a deep exhaustion. Remembering who we are in rest is remembering that we are not God, that we cannot care perfectly for our children or our aging parents, that we cannot perfectly love our roommates, that we cannot work at our maximum limit one hundred percent of the time. Eventually, as they say, our bodies keep score and we shut down and sleep.

And, sometimes, as one pastor put it, sleep is one of our greatest acts of faith, because sleep is the declaration that God is God and we are not, and that is good news.

Rest starts with remembering, but it does not end there. Consider the remainder of the fourth commandment: “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…”

The second pattern or practice of rest is to stop. We are meant to rest by stopping. Sabbath, the word that appears throughout Scripture in connection with rest, has as its most foundational meaning “to stop.” In Genesis 2, it says that God finished his work and rested. A more basic translation might be that God finished his work and stopped. Exodus 20:8 reads “Remember the Sabbath day.” We could also say, “Remember the stopping day.” God gave his creation, and specifically his people, the gift of Sabbath as one day of seven to embrace the practice of stopping.

True and better rest means stopping work.

This is, after all, what God did. What did Genesis 2 say?

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