“It is as if you were saying to a soldier you were sending to the front, ‘Do battle with the enemy. …No furloughs! We expect you to fall on the field.’”[i]
This quote was written by Lottie Moon, an amazing woman who served God in China from 1873 to 1912. Soon after arriving in China to assist her sister in the work, Lottie began to see a steady decline in her sister’s physical and mental health. This deterioration finally led to depression and the loss of touch with reality—“brain trouble” or “heart paralysis” was the diagnosis in the late 1800’s. Lottie took her sister home and attempted to nurse her back to health. Upon her return home, however, she was greatly criticized. Before leaving for China, Lottie had to sign a contract stating she would stay in China until a total breakdown of health or death. At that time, her leadership board did not permit furloughs for any reason!
Upon her return to China, Lottie observed her teammates deteriorating as they battled disease, exhaustion, mental breakdowns and burnout. Many died on the field. At one time in her career, Lottie noted that only one out of fourteen new workers survived the stresses of life in China. She felt that most of these tragedies were preventable.
Lottie wrote many articles and letters to her leaders explaining the need for breaks and furloughs that provided rest and refreshment to the workers. Finally, after fourteen years, approval for a one-year furlough came in 1887.
Thanks in part to Lottie Moon, breaks and furloughs are now acceptable and encouraged by mission leadership. Still, too many of our workers today are returning home suffering with extreme stress or burnout.
Let’s define “stress”:
1. Mental, emotional, or physical strain caused, for example, by anxiety or overwork. It may cause such symptoms as raised blood pressure or depression.
2. Something that causes mental or emotional strain.
Let’s define “burnout”:
Psychological exhaustion and diminished efficiency resulting from overwork or prolonged exposure to stress.[ii]
Having lived on the foreign field as a worker myself, I know something about the stresses faced on the field—foreign language, disease, uncleanliness, inconveniences, lack of medical care, the constant demands of human need, danger, a sense of vulnerability, spiritual warfare, and so much more. You can become “used up.”
The effects of stress and burnout are also happening here in the States. Last year, though I did not burn out clinically, due to over-commitment I did experience extreme stress, difficulty sleeping, irritability, discouragement, and anxiety. Discipline was all that kept me going. The hardest part was that everything I was doing was a really valuable, good work, and an incredible privilege. If my husband and a dear friend had not confronted me, I would not have realized what was happening. I did not even believe them at first, but when I finally finished my task and stopped, I began to experience the aftershock. I was so exhausted that I could not read, study, or write for six months. I did not see this coming!
So What Are We Missing?
God modeled the need for rest. Note that He called creation “work.” We know what God did not do on the Sabbath, but I have always wondered what He did do while resting. Perhaps He enjoyed the sunrise and the beauty of His handiwork, or walked in the garden allowing Adam and Eve to get to know Him.
By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done (Genesis 2:2-3).
We know that we are under God’s grace now and not under the law, but do we value the principle of Sabbath rest? Do we rest from our busyness, even our good busyness? Rest does not have to be inactivity, though inactivity may be needed. Leisure can be a long hike, watching ducks swim across a lake, time to reflect, or talking to a friend over tea.
Jesus also modeled the need of rest for Himself and His disciples. On one occasion, following a trip by the disciples in which they experienced the power of God to teach, deliver those in bondage, and heal the sick, the apostles met with Jesus (Mark 6:12-15). They gathered around Him and reported all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus suggested a getaway. He said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place (Mark 6:30-32).
How busy was Jesus? He did not even have time to eat! Jill Briscoe wrote, “Jesus was busy all of His life, but as the Father directed He took the Sabbath off to be busy worshipping His Father. The Sabbath is for busyness too, but a different kind: the work of the soul as it worships itself into rest!”[iii]
The book, The Hard Work of Rest, states that the Gospels mention ten periods of retirement during the three years of Jesus’ active service, not including nightly rest and Sabbath rest.
Charles Swindoll wrote in his book Leisure: Having Fun Is Serious Business that “[Jesus] accomplished everything the Father sent Him to do. Everything. And He did it without ignoring those essential times of leisure. If that is the way He lived, then it makes good sense that that is the way we, too, must learn to live.”
I must admit that I found it perplexing when I read Genesis 2:2a: By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested. My thought was, if I could ever finish my work, I would rest too! Yes, I know what the verse really says. God certainly was not through with His eternal work. (After all, He is still working in me, which is enough for Him to need a rest from!) As you know, God chose to rest from His work.
Practicing the “Rest” Principle
So how do we choose to rest from our work? First, I think we must acknowledge “rest” as a principle of Scripture that God has placed in the Old and New Testament in order to guard our physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as our spiritual health and productivity. When we neglect this principle there is a cost. In a way, we end up achieving the opposite of what we are working so hard to accomplish. I have read that rest will enhance productivity, not reduce it.
Second, give yourself permission to rest. For me, it is especially hard to rest when I am in a “list-completing mode.” My husband Howard is very hard working, but he has the type of personality that can flip a switch and be at rest. When we take a break, I begin to rest after the first week, and he has already experienced seven days of rest. The trouble is that we rarely go on a longer break, so when I return home, I just feel farther behind, and I have gained more stress! I have found that I have to give myself permission to rest, whether I take a five minute break, a short nap, or an extended amount of time. Sometimes I even set a timer so I can completely free my mind for the amount of time I have chosen. We are all different, and each of us has to discover how to rest.
Third and most importantly, we need to learn to practice the inner rest that can be ours when by faith we place our confidence in God. Rest is an act of faith. Jill Briscoe puts it so well:
To rest isn’t always to rest the body first, though it might be. For each, the inner rest that energizes us for the work He has called us to do is the Sabbath of the heart that should happen 24/7. It is the tranquility of order in the midst of chaos, the whispers of His grace heard by our soul above the cacophony of world-noise. It’s the surprises of love in the deep place where nobody goes, as we rest in faith and feel the weight of the world and its troubles, the church and its turmoil, and our personal inner foes flee. It is the “yes” of the soul to the call of Christ. “Yes Lord! Anytime, anyplace, anywhere!” That’s where the joy that is our strength lies. That’s where the rest is to be found.[iv]
Inner rest is a priority. Times of rest and reflection in God’s Word will encourage and strengthen your faith in your Father during any kind of circumstance.
Instead of placing rest on the bottom of your list, I recommend you write it near the top. This is especially important when planning a break and/or your home assignment. Like the concern of Lottie Moon, we who support and encourage you from home, suffer “great stress” when we see you go back to the field “used up.” Wouldn’t refreshing and renewing your passion for the work God has given you be a great way to return?
Yes, I know, I need to practice what I preach. I am thinking about it as I rest.
I’ve learned the necessity of stepping back, looking where I was going, and having a monthly quiet day to be drawn up into the mind of God. John Stott
[i] Lottie Moon: Giving Her All for China, Christian Heroes: Then & Now, Janet & Geoff Benge.
Available at www.deeperroots.com
[ii]Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation.
[iii] “Taming Busyness: Being about your Father’s business,” Jill Briscoe, Just Between Us, Fall 2006 www.justbetweenus.org