Therefore, since the promise to enter his rest remains, let us beware that none of you be found to have fallen short. For we also have received the good news just as they did. But the message they heard did not benefit them, since they were not united with those who heard it in faith. For we who have believed enter the rest, in keeping with what he has said, So I swore in my anger, “They will not enter my rest,” even though his works have been finished since the foundation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in this way: And on the seventh day God rested from all his works. Again, in that passage he says, They will never enter my rest. Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news did not enter because of disobedience, he again specifies a certain day—today. He specified this speaking through David after such a long time: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. Therefore, a Sabbath rest remains for God’s people. For the person who has entered his rest has rested from his own works, just as God did from his. Let us, then, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall into the same pattern of disobedience.-Hebrews 4:1-11 (CSB)
I remember one of the first times I read this passage, I had to stop and read it again. “Wait a minute…You mean we have to work to rest?” It seemed like such an oxymoron to me. Rest should come easy. But as I chewed on this passage, I realized how much truth there was here. As I held my life up to the verses before me, I recognized how difficult it is to rest. I saw in black and white that rest is God’s desire for me.
According to OECD stats, U.S. workers work an average of 1,767 hours per year versus an OECD country average of 1,687. This is 435 more hours per year than German workers and 400 more hours per year than United Kingdom (UK) workers. That’s an average of over 8 additional hours per week.
Our culture puts a high emphasis on work. There seems to be a never-ending supply of work to do. Especially in college ministry. I often walk around campus, and I am burdened heavily by the number of students I pass by daily who don’t know Jesus Christ. Couple that with the seemingly growing pace of college life, and it is easy to get swept up in the busyness that college students often simultaneously complain about and boast in.
From the beginning, God worked, and then he rested. He set aside a day of rest for us also. He codified it into law when giving Moses the ten commandments, saying “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. And when instructing them on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus, God tells them they should “afflict themselves and do no work”, and that this will be a “sabbath of solemn rest” which “is a statute forever.” God is establishing the importance of rest. He uses terms like “solemn” and “afflict” to help us understand how we are to approach it, and that it will feel like we are causing ourselves distress to enter into it. This distress, or affliction, is not a bad thing. It is a natural feeling when we humble our will to the will of God.
Right before the pandemic started, I found myself more irritated with people around me, with my family, with the state of ministry. I was judgmental toward students, never feeling like they were doing enough to follow Jesus. I compared my ministry to the ministry of others and always felt like I was coming up short. My instinctive answer was “I just need to work harder.” But I felt more depressed the more effort I put in without returns. I realized I was experiencing signs of burnout. For several years God had been leading me to slow down, but I kept seeing all the work that needed to be done around me, thinking “if I don’t do it no one else will” or “no one will do it as well as I can.” Now I was running to the end of myself, and I knew something needed to be done, or rather, I needed to be undone. So, I took a sabbatical.
This was my first sabbatical. I didn’t know what to expect, and much of my research revealed a focus on the idea of an academic sabbatical, where you work on writing or furthering education. But that is not a true sabbatical. The concept of sabbatical is deeply rooted in Scripture. The term is derived from the Old Testament idea of the Sabbath. The Hebrew word means “rest.” God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:1-3). During the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, God directed them (Exodus 16:26) to gather the manna daily but to rest on the seventh day (Sabbath). In numerous Old Testament passages, God admonished his people to work six days but to devote the seventh day to God as a day of rest (Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12, 31:15, 34:21, 35:2; Leviticus 23:3 and Deuteronomy 5:13). Among the Israelites, God instituted the Sabbath year (Leviticus 25:1-5). In every seventh year, the children of Israel were to refrain from farming the land and let the earth rest. Both the Israelites and the land benefited from the Sabbath rest.
For the purposes of contemporary ministry, a sabbatical is an extended time away from routine ministry for refreshment, renewal, and receiving a fresh vision. Both the minister and the ministry benefit from a sabbath.
Multiple things happened during, and as a result of, taking time to rest. First among them was relief. The simple act of stepping away meant I could no longer have a hand in things, forcing my perspective to change to what it should have been all along: that all the items I was juggling, and all the concerns I had allowed to pile up, were always in God’s hands. The intentional act of resting from my work reminded me of my lack of control and God’s sovereignty.
That immediate relief led to a cascade of other benefits.
Almost in tandem with relief was an awareness of my pride. I was taking on too much responsibility for the success or failure of ministry. I had made it all about me. I was too concerned with what others thought of my ministry. Again, I made it all about me. I had not taken time in way too long, to slow down enough to ask God what He wanted to do, much less hear Him speak after the asking. I kept telling God what I wanted to accomplish and then proceeded to do my best to make it happen. I had to confess and repent of my pride.
Once I had unburdened both practically and spiritually, I was able to receive what God had wanted to give me, and I began to hear His voice again. We pick up unnecessary burdens. When we choose things God did not give, we run out of room to receive His blessings. Rest is the place and the pace where we are able to receive those heavenly blessings. Suddenly I had renewed vision for ministry. I could see areas that were not helpful and let them go and see new directions that I had missed before. Students started taking on more responsibility as well. We often take on tasks that others can do, but don’t, because they lack the opportunity. All of this inevitably led to a renewed passion and excitement for what God has called me to do. God confirmed His plans for my life, at least for the foreseeable future.
I have intentionally avoided specifics of what I learned and how God spoke to me because He speaks to each of us uniquely. But the circumstances in which He speaks are consistent. We need to pull away from our work to engage in His rest if we want to hear His voice and follow His lead. Had Moses not been in the secluded and quiet desert, he would have missed God’s presence in the burning bush. If Elijah had chased after the wind, fire, or earthquake, he would have missed the still small voice of God. And Jesus, we are told, often went away to quiet places to pray in solitude.
Since my sabbatical, I have incorporated regular times of rest, like taking one day a week as a proper sabbath day. As we move into the summer, I am planning times to be with my family, whether taking a vacation or just going on some local adventures. I have taken to daily prayer walks where it is just me and my Father in heaven, having a conversation. This means I am both speaking AND listening.
Rest is important to your health. Rest is important to your state of mind. Rest is important to your family. Rest is important to your ministry. It is important to take extended times of rest, like a sabbatical every several years, and it is important to have regular shorter times of rest every week and every day. There are always going to be more things to do, always more lost to reach. But we can’t tell people that Jesus came to give rest if we aren’t living from that same place of rest. The writer of Hebrews puts great emphasis on the importance of rest, telling us to “BEWARE that none of us fall short.” Don’t knock it till you try it.
So, take a break, and say hi to Abba for me while you do!
Shaun Stotyn is the Director of The Vine Campus Ministry in Vermont on the campuses of the University of Vermont and Saint Michael’s College. He is also Worship Pastor at Daybreak Community Church where he attends with his wife, Monica, and two wonderful children, Cadence and Ransom.