Work, Rest and Burnt-out Christians

Yesterday I spoke to a very active member of our small church; I’ll call her Tanya. She told me that she was burnt out and was taking an indefinite break from the Church, maybe for good. She said, “I don’t just want to be a pew-warmer.” That she certainly was not. Pew-warmers don’t burn themselves out serving others, especially other pew-warmers. It seems that Tanya has burnt herself out serving.

Besides the many church activities in which she took a leadership role, she had a busy professional and personal life. I regard her as one of those whom J.C. Ryle describes in the following piece. I’ve changed Ryle’s generic pronouns “he/his” to “she/her” and the corresponding nouns. I have put Ryle’s “rest” in bold, for reasons that will soon become clear.

Here is Ryle:

The Regenerate person values grace. The people who have most grace, and are most like Christ, are those she loves most. She feels that they are members of the same family with herself, her brethren, children of the same Father. She feels that they are fellow-workers fighting under the same captain, warring against the same enemy. She feels that they are her fellow-travellers, journeying along the same road, tried by the same difficulties, and soon about to rest with her in the same eternal home.

I wonder whether Tanya’s problem has something to do with an improper Christian understanding of rest. Ryle, in his last sentence above, refers to eternal rest. I don’t think that eternal rest, the heavenly rest, is Tanya’s problem. The problem seems to lie in the relationship between work and rest.

The commandment in the Tenach “Six days may work be done; but in the seventh [is] the sabbath of rest [shabbat shabbaton], holy to the LORD” (Exodus 31:15)” was designed by God to compel stubborn man to rest from work, more accurately to cease doing the work he did on the other six days. Shabbat derives from the verbs shabat “to cease” and shev “sit”. So, on shabbat, a Jew sits. Not sits and sleeps – although, there’s nothing wrong with a nice nap on the Sabbath. There are two kinds of rest: 1. sleep and 2. doing something that reduces anxiety, that produces calm. “Rest” in the Bible refers to the second. In the Tenach, the word noach is often used to refer to rest. Noach isrelated to ruach “breath,” so noach can be defined as a “breather.” “And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein [is] the breath of life” (Genesis 7:15).

וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל־נֹחַ אֶל־הַתֵּבָה שְׁנַיִם שְׁנַיִם מִכָּל־הַבָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר־בֹּו רוּחַ חַיִּֽים׃

נֹחַ NoaCH (Noah) “rest”

רוּחַ RuaCh “spirit”

And he said, My presence shall go [with thee], and I will give thee rest (Exodus 33;14) – a breather.

וַיֹּאמַר פָּנַי יֵלֵכוּ וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָֽךְ “Vayomar panai yaylaychu vahaNiCHoti [NoaCH – REST] lach.

vahaNiCHoti [NoaCH] lach“I will give you a breather.”

Most of us don’t breathe properly, which, like many other kinds of bodily neglect, is the cause of many pains – physical, mental AND spiritual. When a person is approaching burn-out, he doesn’t even – as he might say himself -have time to breathe. (Confess; you took a few deep breaths while reading this!). Let us assume that the Tanya’s burnout is not physical but mental/spiritual.

Earlier I quoted J.C. Ryle, whose” rest” referred to eternal rest. I don’t think that eternal rest, the heavenly rest, is Tanya’s problem. The problem seems to lie in the relationship between work and rest.

Here is Andrew Murray on “Rest from works” (his commentary on the letter to the Hebrews, “Holiest of all” (Oliphants, London, 1960, Chapter 31, p. 151) (The ebook can be found here).

(I emphasise relevant sections).

Murray’s Chapter 31. Rest From Works.

Hebrews 4:9. There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. 10. For he that is entered Into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from his.

Murrray deals with the first part of the verse: “There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God.”

Taken in connection with what precedes about the seventh day or Sabbath, the rest is here called a sabbatism or sabbath rest. It is spoken of as remaining, with reference to the rest in Canaan. That was but a shadow and symbol: the real sabbath rest remained, waiting its time, till Christ the true Joshua should come, and open it to us by Himself entering it.1 In verse 10 we have here another proof that the rest does not refer to heaven. How needless it would be in that case to say of those who have died, For he that hath entered into his rest, hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. The remark would have no point. But what force it has in connection with the rest of faith in this life, pointing us to what is the great secret of this entrance into rest-the ceasing from works, as God did from His.”

In God we see, as it were, two distinct stages in His relation to His work. The first was that of creation-until He had finished all His work which He created and made. The second, His rest when creation was finished, and He rejoiced in what He had made, now to begin the higher work of watching the development of the life He had entrusted the creature with, and securing its sanctification and perfection. It is a rest from work which is now finished, for higher work now to be carried on. Even so there are the two stages in the Christian life. The one in which, after conversion, a believer seeks to work what God would have him do. The second, in which, after many a painful failure, he ceases from his works, and enters the rest of God, there to find the power for work in allowing God to work in him.”

It is this resting from their own work which many Christians cannot understand. They think of it as a state of passive and selfish enjoyment, of still contemplation which leads to the neglect of the duties of life, and unfits for that watchfulness and warfare to which Scripture calls. What an entire misunderstanding of God’s call to rest. As the Almighty, God is the only source of power. In nature He works all. In grace He waits to work all too, if man will but consent and allow. Truly to rest in God is to yield oneself up to the highest activity. We work, because He worketh in us to will and to do. As Paul says of himself, “I labour, striving according to His working who worketh in me with might” (lit. “agonising according to His energy who energises in me with might”). [AND HERE’S THE CRUNCH] Entering the rest of God is the ceasing from self-effort, and the yielding up oneself in the full surrender of faith to God’s working.”

I think the root cause of the problem of “works and rest” as with many other problems in the Christian life is not understanding what it means to be IN CHRIST. Now, I’m not saying that suffering is a result of not being in Christ. Not at all. Exactly the opposite is true; if you are in Christ (which of course means that He is also in you), you will certainly suffer; that’s a promise, Christ’s promise. I never cease to be struck by what Jesus said, not only to his disciples but also to the crowds, after Peter’s “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

[Peter Confesses Jesus as the Christ]

[27] And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” [28] And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”

[29] And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” [30] And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

[Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection]

[31] And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. [32] And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. [33] But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

[34] And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. [35] For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. [36] For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? [37] For what can a man give in return for his soul? [38] For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

(Mark 8:27-38).

Who can understand it unless the Spirit of God breathe on him?

1The Jew, of course, will certainly not agree that the Sabbath of the Torah can be tampered with. If you’re a (Messianic) Jew reading this, please understand that my brief here is not to deal with this issue.

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