When I stepped out of the taxi into the English rain, I took a deep breath to calm my nerves before walking through the front door of the manor house labeled with a small sign that said “Welcome, L’Abri Fellowship, Please Enter.” I was exhausted from so much more than jetlag. 15 years of working in industries that care for and help others, often in the hardest circumstances of life, had worn me down so much more than the jetlag ever could, and I was seeking rest. Leaving my bags in the front hall, I did as I was told on the phone and headed toward the voices I could hear floating from the dining room. I walked into the wood paneled room, shaking with nerves as my social awkwardness hit its peak (no matter how many times I enter a room all on my own, it still freaks me out), to see smiling faces look up at me, and multiple voices in accents from all over the world offer me a seat, a cuppa tea, and a bowl of warm homemade soup. This was to be the beginning of my self-funded sabbatical, a time for God to teach me how to accept help from others, how to rest, slow down, and how to find the beauty in being human.
Growing up in the church, we often look at our humanity with all its limitations as fallen, broken, messed up. We can spend our lives trying to overcome it, trying to be better than human. When we have the perfect God-Man as our example, asking questions of ourselves like “What would Jesus do?” can become more than inspiring, it can become a obsessive search for perfection. Verses like Matthew 5:48, “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” weigh heavily. Even when we’ve had it explained in a complete biblical context, it can be the refrain in the back of our heads, impossible and crushing.
We are taught that God came for the broken, that he loves the lost, that we can never be perfect, we will always fall short, which is why we need God in the first place. Yet, this is often not the way the church actually lives. There can be an unspoken pressure placed upon each Christian to somehow be more than human. The “Puritan work ethic” comes to mind, as we learn from youth that “all hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23). We’re taught the Proverb of the sluggard and the ant, which ends with “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:10-11). We are told by parents, teachers, and pastors alike “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Even in the best of circumstances, when we are taught these things in balance with the rest of scripture, it can be hard to not focus mostly on this part. The work hard part. The never rest part. The give 110% to everything you do part.
As a single person at work and in ministry, I expected to be able to work and serve non-stop. I remembered hearing “if you work in your own strength you’ll get tired, but if you work in God’s strength, you won’t ever get weary!” I remembered Ephesians 6:7-8, saying “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does.” Paul, one of our examples of those in ministry, made sure to point out that he worked a day job while he preached, saying “we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8).
I don’t know about you, but after reading all of these verses, I almost despair because it seems impossible. I’m exhausted just thinking about them.
I think every Christian deals with this at some point, but the single Christian has a particular expectation. We are meant to minister. This is why Paul says, after all, that singleness is better, “to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). I sometimes felt I was expected to work longer hours at my jobs, show up to more things, always be on time, never leave early while my married coworkers had to race off to pick up sick kids, or come in later because their spouse had their car, or drop out of a weekend event because of family priorities. Instead, I had “free” time and everyone knew it. If we aren’t using every moment of our “time off” for work or ministry, we can feel judged, guilty.
So what happens when you already work with kids all day and just don’t have it in you to work with more of them on the weekend by helping in the church nursery? What happens when you are just exhausted? What happens when you really need time with friends or family or just to rest?
I realized during my time at L’Abri that a lot of these expectations were actually placed there by me. Somehow, after years of hearing in church and in staff meetings that we needed to work harder, this became the Main Thing in my brain. I don’t think my pastors and bosses meant for this to be the Main Thing. But I’m like the stressed out straight A student in a class of non-motivated underachievers, when the teacher chews out the whole class, it’s kids like me who will get anxious and feel they have to work even harder, even if that isn’t the teacher’s intention.
Some of us need to hear the “work harder” message repeatedly, but some of us need to hear the “rest in his grace and mercy and love” message every day. Every moment.
Last winter, I set out to study rest and discovered, to my surprise, that humans, limitations and all, were created that way Before The Fall. It seems that needing to sleep and eat, only having a certain number of hours in the day, and needing rest, are NOT actually the result of sin and death entering the world. We were, in perfection, created to need rest and community. We were created to be limited. We were not created to be little gods, but to be echoes of His image. We were created human, and it was good. Then, if we add all the new limitations to our humanity after sin and death entered the world – health issues like illness and injury, more laborious work, mental and emotional health struggles – we need to remember grace all the more.
Yes, we ought to implement the principles found in the verses above and work hard, but we must also embrace our limitations. Humans need moments of rest and relaxation, that ever-elusive “balance.” These are gifts to help us enjoy God and each other all the more.
Consider God’s institution of the Sabbath. I don’t think I really understood what a true Sabbath was until I spend some time in Israel with modern Jews who still honor this day wholeheartedly, preparing in the days before so they could do no work but spend time worshiping God and enjoying their families and friends. Exodus 10:9-10 says “six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.” and Mark 2:27 tells us “the Sabbath was made for man.” Hebrews 4:4, 9-10 claims “for he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’. . . So then there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”
The Sabbath was a gift to us, and though we no longer are under the Old Testament laws that require us to eat a certain way, celebrate a certain way on that day, the idea of one entire day of complete rest, without ANY work, is beautiful and good and meant for man’s good and God’s glory. True rest is necessary and good, not just a day we go to church, then race home to run errands, clean house, carpool the kids to 5 different activities, answer texts and emails, or in my case – blog or work from home, then end the day by plopping down on the couch to watch Netflix. I’m not saying doing these things is wrong, sin, but I am saying we need to reassess what is actually restful to us. And we need to realize it’s not just okay to rest, but it is good. We’re created for it. For lazy days of family conversations, reading books, watching TV with our roommates, taking walks, exploring the new eateries in town, and letting our minds wander to God.
I am a broken human. I am limited. I get tired, overwhelmed, and sometimes a bit lost. But I have a Father who says to me “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). I have a Savior who, in the midst of one of the busiest, most successful times of ministry, told his apostles to “come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). In fact, Christ himself frequently took times of rest alone, going to the mountains to talk with his Dad. And we often find him reclining at table with friends, eating, drinking, and discussing topics of the day. Much of his ministry seemed to be quite personal, just hanging out with people.
One of the best lessons we can learn by embracing our limitations as humans is that we need God. When we are busy every moment, it is tempting for us to think we have some kind of control over our lives, our futures. This can lead to arrogance and a ton of anxiety. Stepping back from it all to rest reminds us that we’re not actually the ones in charge, reintroducing humility and also the peace and joy that flows from allowing God to be in charge. Paul wrote of his limitations to the church in Corinth and, instead of talking about how awful they were or how he was trying hard to overcome them, he rejoiced. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 states “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
So, no, we don’t have to agree to do every single thing asked of us. We don’t need to add extra pressure onto ourselves, expecting to be able to work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week and not wear down. We don’t need to feel guilty when we are sick or tired or just want to relax for a few hours. Yes, this can be taken too far and there are indeed those who are sinfully lazy, but the single people I know who live in LA and the surrounding area tend to be the opposite. We tend to work and work hard, with our careers becoming our identities. We can put pressure on ourselves to do more, be more, and our bosses and friends and families and churches can often play into this by adding more demands, more expectations. Since we don’t have to leave work on time to get home to husbands and wives and kids, since we live alone or with roommates instead of people for whom we’re responsible, it’s easy to feel like taking time out to rest is bad. But that Wednesday happy hour or coffee break with the girls or guys during which we discuss how we’re doing, hold each other accountable to living godly lives, and encourage and lift each other up is just as important as the married couple’s family dinner. We should be using up all of our vacation days, not buying into the workaholic culture that so often prevails in America today. We need to stop bragging about how much overtime we work, how many jobs we have, how many hours a night/weekend we spend on jobs and start encouraging each other to rest. To heal. To recover. To focus on God’s grace and glory.
Stop expecting humans to be more than we can be. And stop expecting singles to give everything we are to our jobs and ministries. Allow for rest and joyful times with family and friends. Eat great meals together. Actually get enough sleep. Remember, God created us this way – limited and yet somehow still beautiful.