When I was young, Sunday was the busiest day of the week for our family. We would usually pull out of our garage by 8:30 am, commuting 20-30 minutes to one of the few Chinese immigrant churches in our area. Sunday school came first, then worship service, which was usually followed by one or more of the following: fellowship lunch, choir practice, committee meeting, board meeting, or congregational meeting. On a less busy day, we might be home by 3 p.m. Often we weren’t home until 5 or even later.
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Ex 20:8). I knew the command by heart but easily reinterpreted it to fit what I experienced: keeping the Sabbath holy meant dedicating a full Sunday of work to the Lord. Sometimes Saturdays too. And the more, the better.
I wasn’t so naïve as to think I was earning my salvation, but I definitely felt the need to earn God’s approval, to show him that he hadn’t made a mistake when he chose to sacrifice his son for me. When I learned in college about God’s heart for justice and mercy, and how he wanted us to help bring his kingdom to earth, that only confirmed what I already knew. There was much to be done in God’s name, so I had better get on it.
Unlike my parents, I had the privilege of growing up in a generation in which jobs were seen as more than jobs. Our careers were our passions, our vocations. In kingdom terms, they were our callings. The work we did Monday through Friday, just as much as the work we did on the weekends, was for the Lord. And the more, the better.
I entered the nonprofit sector after college, measuring my success by hours worked, by output created, by number of people helped. The need, of course, was endless. So I worked, worked, worked — and told myself that it was good, good, good. I was taking up my cross to follow Jesus. I was forsaking all else for the sake of the gospel. I didn’t need a social life outside of work; I didn’t need to invest in my own health. When I got married, I barely saw my new husband — who worked even harder than I — for the first two years. I imagined God smiling down on me, nodding in approval at how fully and completely I had committed to his call on my life.
And then burnout hit — not once, but twice over three years. Both times I was so exhausted and deeply depressed that I couldn’t do anything, work especially. I cried, I slept, I dragged myself into therapy. But I could not work.
Even as I cursed my own limitations, I asked God why he had allowed this to happen when I had just wanted to serve him. To honor him. Only as I began to emerge from the soul-deep crater of burnout the second time did I realize that my inability to stop working wasn’t about God. It was about me and my desperate need to prove myself worthy of him.
Turns out, it is entirely possible to do the right thing — the vocation you were called to do — in the wrong way.
“Six days shall work be done, but the seventh is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord...” (Ex 31:15). I had always understood that my work could be holy. But God declares our intentional choice to rest holy as well. He is honored in our rest. We are called to rest as much as we are called to work.
Even though Scripture teaches us this clearly, it was only recently that I began to understand why. When we rest, we stop striving. We stop achieving. We stop trying to influence the world around us. In rest, we recognize our limitations, which helps us recognize how limitless God truly is. During all those years, I had tried to do God’s work in place of God, not alongside him. I had assumed that God needed me rather than embracing the truth that I needed him.
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). These days my weekends, and some of my weekdays, are full of a different kind of busyness: keeping up with a toddler who demands more attention than I sometimes feel able to give. Like nothing else, motherhood has shown me that rest is a gift. I should seize it with the same enthusiasm with which I would seize a vocation, receiving it as an opportunity to honor God and have my soul restored.
For when I rest, I create space for God to work.