Sleeping on the Job: Why Rest Isn’t Optional for Christians on Mission

I hate to rest. Rest is what lazy people do when they should be doing something productive. That was my perception, at least, when my wife and I prepared to go overseas as missionaries. I was very shocked, therefore, when we received instructions at our orientation for a spiritual retreat one afternoon.

The leader told our group, “Some of you need to go spend time in Scripture.” I was tracking with him on this point. He continued, “Some of you need to go spend time in prayer.” Again, that made sense. But then he said, “Some of you need to go spend time in your hammock.”

I was confused. What does lounging in a hammock have to do with spiritual health?

God’s World and the Rhythm of Rest

For some people the perfect day might involve laying in a hammock, feeling the breeze blow, and relaxing. But just thinking about that makes me anxious. There is simply too much I need to do. That’s why, in many cases, rest does not feel very relaxing. The problem is my failure to trust God’s wisdom in making rest a requirement for his people.

In other words, God does not want us to go nonstop. He made this clear by building a rhythm of rest into the order of creation: “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it he rested from all his work of creation” (Gen. 2:3 CSB). God also reaffirms the need for rest in the fourth commandment, which declared the Sabbath Day holy. It is a day dedicated to intentional rest from our labors (Ex. 20:8–11).

“Rest requires that we set the reigns down. It reminds us that God is God, and we are not.”

God is anything but casual about our need to rest. We do not need to fear that he will think us lazy for not working all the time. Quite the opposite, in fact: God disciplined the Israelites when they did not rest as he had intended (Ex. 16:27–30). Why, then, do we struggle to do what God commands?

Why We Ignore What God Commands

Most people understand well that laziness is a sin. After all, sloth is one of the seven deadlies, and the Bible is full of warnings against the sin of idleness and the sluggards who refuse to work. At the same time, the Bible also warns that working harder and doing better is not the ultimate solution to our problems (cf. Isa. 64:6; Rom. 4:4–5; 11:6; 1 Cor. 15:10; Eph. 2:8–9). And because we do not feel this sin with equal weight, we are prone to thinking of rest as laziness.

The trouble is that excessive work is a sin many cultures deem not only acceptable but even commendable. Someone who works eighty hours per week is considered “ambitious.” Someone who never takes a vacation is considered “reliable.” Someone who volunteers for every task on a mission trip or church planting team is “dedicated.” We need to be careful that we are looking at work and rest through a biblical lens, rather than our cultural lens.

Disciples and the Discipline of Rest

For most people, and especially for workaholics, rest is a habit that needs to be developed. It is a discipline. Discipline comes from the Latin word meaning “instruction” and “training.” It is also connected to the word disciple. In that sense, a spiritual discipline is training necessary to be a disciple. It is training because it requires practice. But it is necessary training because resting rightly does not come naturally to us.

My first mid-term mission trip was to the Philippines. After arriving, I found out that the hour following lunch was a designated time of rest. No work could be done during that time because the people in the villages all rested simultaneously. The first few days of laying on a shaded bench were miserable for me. It was the longest hour of every day. I frequently fretted the thought of how much my family, friends, and church had spent for me to “do nothing” for an hour.

“Some of you need to go spend time in your hammock.”

As the summer progressed, however, I gained an appreciation for that mandatory time of rest. For one thing, I soon discovered that a short time of rest made work later in the day both more fruitful and more enjoyable. More importantly, I came to see that I had been resting wrongly. At the start of the summer, I would spend the hour thinking about what I was going to do next. I wasn’t really resting; I was mentally working while sitting still.

Real rest as a spiritual discipline, however, requires that we set the reigns down. It reminds us that God is God, and we are not. And it forces us to depend on God and his provision.

How to Practice Rest

The need to rest is not up for debate. The physical sciences tell us that we need it. The Lord Jesus taught us to do it (Mark 6:30–31). And the Son of God himself even rested when he needed it (Mark 4:38). Because rest is a discipline, however, it can take practice. Here are a couple of suggestions from what I’ve learned along the way.

First, we must intentionally disconnect from sources of distraction. I remember meeting with a South Asian man when his phone started ringing. He continued chatting with me while he sipped his tea, and he never answered his phone. He valued our face-to-face conversation more than a phone call. Of course, if you lack the discipline to ignore a ringing phone or an email notification, then you may need to remove yourself from those objects by silencing them or physically distancing yourself from them completely for a time.

Second, those in ministry must learn to empower their teammates. Whether you are a pastor in the US or a church planter on the foreign mission field, you will find it impossible to rest if you do not trust those you work with. To get to that place of trust, you need to clearly communicate vision and strategy with your partners, and you need to empower them to make some decisions without you. Yes, they may sometimes make a decision that you would not make, but that is part of the discipleship process for both of you. You are modeling rest for them. They are learning to practice the discipline of rest for themselves. And above all, you are both learning to trust that God is at work even when you are not (Mark 4:26–28).

Matthew Hirt is a PhD student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in applied theology. He is interested in missions strategy and history, evangelism, and mobilizing people to missionary service. He is also the pastor of North Henderson Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina.