I'm burnt out.
I need to take a break.
These are common refrains I hear every week as I live and serve in a busy city amongst people with even busier lives. Few of us can remember the last time we felt fully ourselves, constantly moving on to the next thing on our to-do list, endlessly multitasking and never being whole — never fully present. Maybe we've even defined ourselves by busyness or achievement, or prided ourselves in being informed and active about the world. Certainly much can be said about the busy pattern of our lives and hearts, but I'll have to save that for another time.
Today I only want to address the specific concern of getting rest — real. deep. wholehearted. rest. Jesus promised such rest to his disciples in the presence of the Holy Spirit in John 14:27:
Peace [or wholehearted rest] I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Why is the rest that Jesus promises so elusive to people in the church — especially among those who serve in the church? I believe the core of the problem, especially when it comes to living and practicing our faith or leading others in the faith, is that we confuse the rest that Christ offers with the rest the world offers. They are not the same and we sometimes fool ourselves thinking we can be wholly and spiritually rested and restored merely by getting physical rest.
I'm certainly not discounting physical rest. Some of us at least need physical rest because… well… we're physically exhausted. I'm grateful that our church values rest enough to write it into the practices of our ministry philosophy, but sometimes we confuse sleep and not-having-anything-to-do with the wholehearted rest Jesus desires for us. If we are tired from serving in the church or find ourselves depleted from loving our friends and neighbors with the love of Christ, getting more sleep or freeing up our personal schedules and responsibilities will only get us part of the way toward restoration and renewal.
When I hear from tired people in the church, "I need a break," my first reaction sounds like, "Of course! Rest is good and very much needed! But what are you going to do during this break?" In other words, "You currently feel spiritually exhausted and depleted. What will you do and practice to restore your spiritual strength?" We were not meant to live our Christian lives on a constant roller coaster of spiritual fullness and spiritual emptiness. We are not meant to serve with all our might until we feel dead inside then "take a break" only to start the cycle all over again. Yet that is what we often see in our lives! How can we live in such a way that gives us the endurance to live the life that Jesus calls us to live — one that fully practices love, service, and sacrifice yet also cultivating the shalom wholehearted rest he promises us through the Holy Spirit?
We can only live as God's people if we remain tethered to the source of our spiritual strength. I know of two foundational practices that will root us in love: (1) being constant in prayer, and (2) meditating and engaging with scripture. Surely this is not everything; it seems so "basic". But I know of no spiritual life apart from these life-giving practices.
If you are feeling empty, exhausted, tired — if you are "taking a break" — perhaps you will want to consider what kind of rest you really need. Don't confuse the rest of this world for the rest that Christ gives us. Paul prayed for the church in the busy commercial center of Ephesus, saying,
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
I extend that prayer for us in the church that having been running on the fumes of our last "break" to move us to drink from the fountain of life that flows with the riches of his glory. May his strength given to us through his spirit enable us to live lives that give the love of Christ physical dimensions — breadth and length and height and depth — in the way we embody his love to others in our life and service.