The work of rest: Cultivating the art of Selah in a restless heart and a busy world
What if entering into rest has less to do with the circumstances we find ourselves in than it does the company we find ourselves in?
Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
He was, of course, speaking of God.
Since this time last year I’ve been grappling with what it means to rest. Ryan and I knew we needed to make some changes in our lives or else we’d be crashing into burn-out. Fast.
I talk about it candidly because it’s real, not be because I like to. Somehow I feel like we should have known better than to allow the busy to take over our lives to the extent where we weren’t catching things that had begun to veer off kilter.
But in reality, that’s exactly what happened.
Often we think of change as those drastic defining moments that threaten to derail us—the job transfer or termination, the cross-country move, the birth of a child or death of a loved one, the shift of a relationship status, the life-altering diagnosis—and yet change most often seeps slowly into the bedrock of our daily grind. It dribbles and percolates so subtly that we don’t recognize it until we’re saturated with a chill running right through our bones.
We’ve had a heaping dose of those changes—the drastic ones—happen in full force over the last year. But it’s the second category of change that’s perhaps been even more defining – the change that crept into our lives without us recognizing what was taking place. Change that managed to pry its way under the shell and find the tender, vulnerable places hidden underneath.
In Western culture (or at least, American culture) we look forward all week to the weekend. The weekend is our solace in the storm, the time we can let go of our responsibilities and enter into what we’ve come to think of as rest. Our “Sabbath” has become a day that we anticipate being refreshed and energized and prepared for the week of hard work ahead. Our calendar begins on a Sunday and, sure, historically this was because of Easter Sunday, but something else has happened, maybe even without our knowing: we came to recognize rest as a preparation for more work. Rest became our fuel to perform and our motivation and reward for succeeding.
It became the golden pot at the end of the rainbow, instead of a part of the rainbow itself.
In Genesis we see an entirely different model.
God entered into the work of creativity by being present over the space that he would speak into being. He formed the earth with his Word and formed us with his own hand. As his work of creation came to completion, on the seventh day he rested. His rest wasn’t purposed for refilling the energy tanks in preparation for more work to come. Nor was it to recover from all the hard work he had already done. His work was him being himself, doing as he was always meant to do. Just as the foreman grants time for his foundation to set within the process of building, so God’s rest was ordered to allow the creative process to set into being. But the setting—the resting—wasn’t a means to an end, nor was it a reward for what was accomplished. The rest itself was an integral part of the creative process of life and work the way it was designed to unfold.
In the Psalms we see selah repeated over and over. It’s a term used to describe a rest, a pause, a moment to let the music soak in. Selah is not a “break” or a ceasing to create or work, it’s an intrinsic part of the work; the music would make no sense without it.
Americans love to idealize that we want to “work to live, not live to work.” The sentiment of a statement like that isn’t a bad thing (surely there’s more to a meaningful life than the drive to perform and achieve “success”), and yet this same mindset perpetuates the idea that work is something we tolerate and endure in order to get to the weekend – that illusive place where we can check out and do nothing. The pseudo-nirvana of mindless entertainment.
There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: we were created to work.
God created man and woman and commissioned them to work in the Garden of Eden. It wasn’t a consequence of sin, it wasn’t a result of their bad choices. Work was gifted to them from their moment of existence. Created in the image of a creative God, man and woman were likewise bestowed with the ability, desire, and responsibility to contribute something meaningful to the world. They were designed for the work of serving and stewarding and loving all that was at their fingertips.
If creation introduced the concept of work, then the fall introduced the concept of work born out of restlessness – work doused in toil.
The first thing Adam and Eve did after the fall was to frantically grope for ways in which to hide their mistakes. There was nothing restful about this new type of work they pursued. It was manic, fear-driven, and marked by striving – a work derived from shame and nurtured with self-sufficient counterfeit righteousness. (The type of work, unfortunately, that I can easily identify with.)
My friend Jamin frames true rest as “attachment to God, rather than detachment.” It was detachment masked by the frenzied quest for covering up their sin that reinforced Adam and Eve’s separation from God, not the reverse.
As I’ve meditated on this concept I’ve begun to realize that far before they were banished from the Garden they were the ones who separated themselves from the creative work of rest and the presence of God. It began with sin, yes, but was nurtured simply by busying themselves with work they were never intended to do.
It’s not unlike us at all.
When we don’t attend to the presence of God, we become separated – not usually through abrupt change, but through slow change, through drift. It’s the separation itself that gives way to working outside of the context of his abiding presence. The work isn’t the problem; the problem stems from the struggle of work done outside of the presence of Grace.
This is where Ryan and I found ourselves last year. We had neglected the presence of God in small ways which fed into the drift. We had also enabled the drift by taking on more and more work that was busy and driven and performance-oriented without attending to the presence of God in the midst of it. The work itself wasn’t sin. We weren’t necessarily making bad decisions about what to say yes or no to. But we had let our good works overcome our capacity to lean in, listen, and dwell in the garden of his presence.
And that brings me to now – a confrontation with the work of rest that can’t be sidestepped.
No longer is it okay for me to work in order to rest (or to rest in order to work). Instead, I stand face-to-face with the dare to enter into the work of rest—the cultivation of the art of rest—recognizing it’s centrality to the melody of my life. I must do the hard work of writing selah into my song (without giving way to the grip of performance-driven determination) because without selah the music makes no sense.
It’s not complicated: the work of my life will never have order, grace, or cadence without the thread of selah weaving it all together, making it possible for creation to exhale and inhale and let the art of my life set into being.
Perhaps I start with how I relate to my kids, how I love my husband, and how I think of myself, and then move on to a place where I start looking to Jesus rather than Paul for my ministry model. Perhaps, like the Christ, I learn to pause and listen and abide—me in him, and him in me—so that my life will sing with depth and richness again.
Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.
The work of rest, the cultivation of selah, is labor I’ll gladly trade my restless heart for. And isn’t it just like Jesus to make our yoke easy and our burden light?
Oh friends. You and I? We aren’t alone in our work. He holds all things together and invites us to live with him there. Will you accept?