Amber Rae loves to work. It’s how she accomplishes so much, from her world-renowned art installation “The World We Want” to her critically acclaimed book Choose Wonder Over Worry. Rae has found a lot of success in doing what she loves.
So it may come as a surprise how she found a job she loves: by quitting her old, promising job in Silicon Valley, selling everything she had and moving to New York City.
“There was a time when I was trying to do it all and wasn’t very fulfilled, actually,” she says. “I was balancing so many projects and relationships that I couldn’t do any of them particularly well, and I had this constant fear of never having enough time.”
She wanted to take some time away from what she was obligated to do and see what time away from work would do for her. Essentially, her work didn’t take off until she learned to rest.
“I’m a high achiever, so there’s always this inclination to do more or go faster,” she says. “Slowing down, even if for a few minutes, helps me re-anchor into my truest calls and desires, so that I remain focused.”
People often talk about how much they love vacations, naps and thanking God it’s Friday, but let’s be real: Work is our true obsession.
In 2016, more than half of American workers left vacation days unused. In America, this fear of real leisure goes to the heart of our national perspective and the way we tend to view ourselves and the world around us. The truth is, many of us have been raised with an insidious fear of rest. And that fear runs contrary not just to reality but to biblical teaching.
The protestant work ethic
Though few may be truly cognizant of it, the deep belief in the dignity of work is uniquely American, hailing all the way back to those industrious Puritans. John Smith famously told the colonizers of Jamestown, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat,” quoting a part of a verse in 2 Thessalonians.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” became a sort of manifesto, by propagating the idea that destinies are achieved through hard work and leaning on your own ability to get things done. He wrote, “It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.”
Research does show work can have a positive overall effect on people’s sense of well-being. But America has tended to lean so much into the value and dignity of work that it has neglected—and in many cases even disparaged— the value of rest.
God’s vacation day
“Hebrews 4 develops this idea of rest eschatologically,” says Dr. Andrew Abernethy, associate professor of the Old Testament at Wheaton College. “As believers head toward God’s rest that is found in Christ, Jesus invites the weary to find rest by taking His yoke on, by living according to His vision for life instead of the burdensome types of living.”
It is probably notable that the very first thing the Bible describes God doing is is creating—an activity you can probably describe as “work,” however loosely. But it’s also notable that the second activity the Bible ascribes to God is rest. His only work on that day, according to Genesis 2, was to “bless the Sabbath and make it holy.”
It was this action, and not the six days of work that preceded it, that would make an appearance in the Ten Commandments. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” the fourth commandment says.
Whatever spiritual good there may be to work, God was determined to stress the spiritual importance of taking a Sabbath.
“Although unique to Israel, other societies [can] learn the value of rest in these commands to align with the rhythms of creation,” Abernethy says. “Particularly in Deuteronomy 5, societies see the need to provide rest for slaves, workers and even animals.”
Exactly what “honoring the Sabbath” looks like has been a matter of debate over the millennia.
The Israelites themselves observed very strict laws. The Jewish Talmud explicitly forbids 39 specific activities on the Sabbath, running the gamut from baking bread to extinguishing a fire, even to save your house (exceptions can be made if someone’s life is being threatened). One of the rules, which forbids harvesting, got Jesus’ disciples in trouble when Pharisees caught them plucking heads of grain. Jesus defended His disciples with this intriguing phrase from Mark 2: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
In early American history, resting on the Sabbath became its own kind of industry. Not only were Puritans forbidden from working on the Sabbath, but they were forbidden from playing, too. It was not to be a day of rest so much as one of not doing much of anything.
The Sabbath Was Made for Man
Research indicates there is no clear cut line between having a job and a personal sense of well-being. It’s true that being unemployed makes people less happy, according to a Gallup Poll, but those in blue-collar jobs aren’t much happier. According to the study, the best professional predictor of real happiness wasn’t work, but work-life balance. It seems that in order for the intangible benefits of work to truly take root, they must be wedded to the benefits of rest.
In America, there is no guarantee of this. New parents are not guaranteed time off from work to care for a new baby, and the elderly in the U.S. are being forced to push back their retirement for lack of funds. This is to say nothing of those who work two jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.
The research suggests that these are the signs of a culture that has elevated the virtues of work at the expense of the virtues of rest, a culture that has become so fixated on the idea that jobs are an inherently good thing that we don’t believe there’s anything valuable about the alternative.
As a result, Americans are overstressed and literally working themselves into an early grave. A nine-year study found skipping vacation days raises your chances of a heart attack by 30 to 50 percent. Working long hours can boost your mortality rate by 20 percent. Working more than 40 hours a week increases your risk of a stroke by 10 percent.
Abernethy suggests that when God instructed people to observe the Sabbath, He did so not as a favor, but because it was good for them to have one. It’s a necessity.
“In some contexts, keeping the Sabbath may look a lot like the Jewish practice of observing Sabbath from Friday evening until sundown on Saturday,” Abernethy says. “For others, akin to Isaiah 58, it might look like ensuring that laborers receive fair treatment and rest. For others … it looks like setting one day apart each week to refrain from working in order to reorient around God as creator and redeemer and to take time to recreate within my family.”
This may seem obvious. Most people in salaried positions are already afforded a weekend, and despite the lack of federal regulation, plenty of companies do offer benefits like maternity leave and vacation pay. Does the United States really need extra encouragement to rest?
The research suggests the answer is yes. You can’t really make the case that attending an hour of church on Sunday is what God meant by “keep the Sabbath holy.” We know the difference between working hard and being lazy at our jobs. But there’s such a thing as being lazy at our rest, too.
The Sabbath was set aside for worship, and worship can look like many things. Good conversations with friends, pursuing new interests, exploring creative outlets or visiting with family members all bring honor to God in a distinctly worshipful way. But they all take intention, too.
“When I was in pastoral ministry, [Sabbath] was on Thursday; now, it is Sunday for me,” Abernethy says. “We should not be dogmatic about what honoring Sabbath looks like today, but church communities, families and individuals should allow this part of God’s Word to address them as Scripture and wrestle with what it would look like to respond faithfully.”
And this is what it means to rest well. Not to be dogmatic about a day of the week but to be disciplined about building a rhythm of rest into your life.
That’s what Rae learned to do. By leaving a job that gave her no margin for a life with more built-in ways to step back from work and observe a Sabbath, she was able to find even more reward not just in the rest but in the work, too. A healthy balance between rest and work ends up benefiting both aspects.
So, take a vacation. Set up some strict boundaries around your job and stick to them. If your career doesn’t give you margin to rest, then consider making some tough decisions. The Sabbath was made for you.
“We live in a culture of do more, better, and faster,” Rae says. “The emphasis is on speed and outcomes versus the journey there. ‘Success stories’ tell the overnight wins people created, but not the messy middle of getting there, [but] I see this shifting slowly as more people vulnerably share the highs and lows of the journey.”
And for Rae, and for a lot more of us, that journey starts to sound a lot better once you realize that it includes margin for rest.
Rachel is a writer and editor living in Portland.