The Elusive Art of Sabbath Rest in the Missionary’s Life

As a missionary, I found the concept of rest hard to grasp. When we were on the mission field, I wore seven hats: wife, missionary, pastor’s wife, mother, school teacher, National Honor Society leader, and Bible study teacher. During this time, I also began to deal with hurts of my past that I had buried for more than fifty years. I recognized that I had covered my pain with busyness. As I dealt with these hurts, I began to wear thin. I was overwhelmed with all that was on my plate.

One summer at a regional meeting of missionary teams from our area, my husband Benny and I met with an IMB counselor and his wife. The counselor noticed how hard I was working and asked me about my schedule. Upon hearing my answer, the counselor instructed me to empty my plate of everything but the tasks that the Holy Spirit led me to do. I was to leave space for rest, stop seeking perfectionism, and cease doing everything that others asked of me. I agreed, but as I contemplated change, I wondered how I could be content with doing less.

When considering Sabbath rest, people may wonder with all there is to accomplish, how they’ll ever find time to rest. The pace of life constantly and consistently increases, driving us to accomplish more and to connect further with the world. Therefore, for many of us, sleep or relaxation is hard work. Time to rest and recharge is elusive, at best.

Spiritually speaking, Sabbath rest is a discipline, though we may not like the word. It echoes the idea of “hard work.” However, God commanded rest and created regular rhythms for its practice. The most regular of the practices, or spiritual disciplines, involves the weekly observance of a day of rest (Ex. 20:8–11).

“Rest refreshes and rejuvenates our relationship with God and reenergizes our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies.”

Sabbath Rest in the Bible

The discipline of Shabbat—or Sabbath—rest occurs in both the Old and the New Testaments. The Lord desires that we actively make time to refresh and rejuvenate our relationship with him and to reenergize our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies. The action of rest may seem very difficult in the midst of the mission. However, rest is pivotal.

The combination of “action” with “rest” sounds like an oxymoron. The question arises: how do we act if we purposely rest from activity, particularly when we wear several hats—missionary, teacher, church planter, spouse, etc. To address the issue of purposeful Sabbath rest, I would like to consider the point from two perspectives: the importance of the discipline to the missionaries’ physical and spiritual health and to the discipling of people cross-culturally.

Leviticus 25 speaks about setting aside an entire year of rest. Every seventh year, the Israelites were to rest from sowing and harvesting the land. Then, the fiftieth year was a year of Jubilee when the Israelites returned to their property and clans, enjoying the produce of the fields harvested in the year before. The Lord made the harvests of previous years sufficient for these Sabbath years. And if God could make the harvest plentiful on the years prior, during, and after Jubilee, then he can certainly facilitate our contentment in rest.

“If God could make the harvest plentiful on the years prior, during, and after Jubilee, then he can certainly facilitate our contentment in rest.”

Learning to Say No

The discipline of Sabbath involves realizing that we tend to put too much on our plates, and it helps us say no. As a mathematics and English teacher, for years I had a neon poster in my room. It said, “What problem do you have with the word, ‘No!’: the N, the O, or the fact that I said it?” My students and I would laugh about it. Yet, while I understood the need to use the word no in the classroom, I had not considered the right and responsibility to say no in other aspects of my life. The word no is both spiritual and biblical.

In John 6:26–51, 7:3–8, and Matt. 16:21–23, the Lord said no to requests that did not serve the kingdom. I had to strip my plate of what did not serve his purpose. I had to learn that God does not always say, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Instead, he says, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Psalm 46:10 even says, “Cease striving and know that I am God” (NASB). We should withdraw, relax, and learn from him. This helps us keep our minds focused on his will. Additionally, rest preserves physical health through releasing stress and letting our bodies rejuvenate. In this light, I try to stay conscious of becoming too busy.

Setting an Example in Discipleship

Second, this discipline works in the lives of the precious people whom we disciple. We present an example either for good or ill when we rest or keep busy. In teaching them, we need to emulate our Father-Creator when he rested on the seventh day after creation (Gen. 2:1–3). Jesus paused and spent time with the Father regularly when he needed to make decisions or was tired. As these examples have taught us, we can teach others what busyness causes and how to avoid it.

We can share that busyness can lead to burn out, bringing an emptiness to lives and ministries. Emptiness comes when we do not enjoy God’s presence and try to work within our own strength. In his might, the Lord empowers us to do what brings him glory. He blesses us by allowing us to serve him and by giving us other believers to share in the task at hand.

In this, we embody teamwork as the body of Christ works together to accomplish the Lord’s purposes. We do not have to pursue unnecessary busyness but can demonstrate the steps of emptying our plates, listening to what the Lord desires, and leaving spaces for rest. We show that sitting and hearing the Lord can order our lives, homes, churches, and mission fields.

Sharon L. Gresham is the mother of two married adults and grandmother of six. She and her husband have ministered in the United States, Guam, and South Korea. She has written youth material for LifeWay and adult material for Life Bible Studies. Sharon has a master of arts in theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a PhD from B. H. Carroll Theological Institute.