A week after I heard the first reports of swine flu in April, I came down with influenza type A myself. While the specialists never confirmed I had swine because they stopped testing non-hospitalized type A cases, my doctor was pretty certain I had contracted the H1N1 virus.
It came at a rather inopportune time, at the end of my semester. My school required everyone who had symptoms or tested positive to “isolate” themselves, so the illness forced me to miss my last week of classes.
The timing of the flu felt severely ironic because my previous semester had ended with pneumonia. The schedule I was keeping was wearing me down. It was obvious that I literally couldn’t keep up with my calendar, that I was stretching myself beyond my limitations.
The Sky’s the Limit?
“You can be anything you want if you just apply yourself.” I grew up hearing that American slogan, and we relish it in part because, well, who doesn’t love an underdog attaining great things through hard work?
And how can you criticize hard work anyway? God surely wants us to be diligent, working to please the Lord and not people (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:58 and Col 3:23). And it’s clear he despises laziness (e.g., Prov. 19:15, Eccl. 10:18, Matt. 25:26).
But I’ve found that behind the maxim lurks a lie that we often miss: Limitations. The truth is, I can’t be anything I want. God created me as a finite human being, which means I may have strengths, but I also have weaknesses — and limits.
Of course, God often uses our weaknesses to display his power (2 Cor. 12:9). We’ve heard the testimonies of people like Moses, the bumbler who became the great leader of Israel, confronting the mighty Pharaoh and guiding the Israelites out of bondage through the Sinai desert. But while God stretches us and empowers us to do things we thought we could never do, he has also created us with limitations.
The reality of my limitations is complicated by the pressures I face in a competitive marketplace. It’s one thing to do my best and another to try to be better than everyone else.
Living in an economy where we can’t take jobs for granted encourages such comparison and competition. A limited number of professorships awaits me and the many other doctoral students around the country when we graduate. Competition can sharpen us, but it can also stir up worry and workaholism.
What I forget is that this competitive world rests in the palm of its Creator who exists outside of time, our sovereign Father who knows my fears and my future and watches over me.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:25–27:
… do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
Instead, Christ calls for orienting our lives around faithfulness to God, around right living, around the moral code Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount. And when we do this, when we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” we learn faith, to trust in the God who provides for our needs (Matt. 6:33).
Christ concludes, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34). In other words, a life driven by worry about the future, consumed by competition and fears and driving myself into the ground — that’s not a life of faith.
The life of faith recognizes that I have limits and am ultimately not in control. The life of faith works diligently but rests in the sovereign, limitless God.
Anxious Toil vs. Sleep
When I was recovering from my bout of pneumonia, I found a passage of Scripture that convicted me about my strenuous schedule and challenged me to shift my perspective on work.
Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Those who labor out of fear without trusting in Yahweh will never find the satisfaction they desire. If they don’t live their life with the solid foundation of God’s presence, their house will crumble.
And Psalm 127:2 really hits it home. It begins saying, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.”
I had been burning the midnight oil and getting up early, to the point it was damaging my health. And what is anxious toil but the competitive lifestyle that works me ragged out of fear that it won’t be enough, out of worry that someone else will get ahead? Yet such a haggard lifestyle ultimately amounts to naught.
Why is it in vain? Verse 2 explains, “for he gives to his beloved sleep.” And here we discover the beauty of a life lived with God at the foundation. It’s not vain to rise up early, but to both rise early and go late to bed. Why? Because it forsakes faith in God.
The one who works diligently and entrusts himself to the Lord is the one who receives sleep. He is the object of God’s love, and God grants him that sweet rest that fortifies and heals his body and soul. He can sleep at night without life’s worries consuming him because he trusts in the Lord’s faithfulness.
The subversive, freeing message of the gospel itself says we can’t do it — we need God. That reality doesn’t evaporate after salvation. As limited, finite beings, we will always need God’s grace and provision.
We see this truth in how God built into creation the need for rest. God gave us this model when he labored six days in creation, but “rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done,” making that day holy (Gen. 2:2–3). And thus the fourth commandment, based on the model of creation, 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 …” (Exo. 20:9–10a).
Here we see a model of faithful labor: six days of work with a full day set aside for rest. Constant work wears us down — it certainly wore me down at the end of my past two semesters. We are finite beings, and we need to remember that God calls us to be diligent, not divine.
Realizing That Sweet Rest
Though I had meditated on Psalm 127 after my pneumonia, my recent recurrence of an end-of-the-semester illness indicates I haven’t learned the lesson very well. It shows how much we are creatures of habit and how important it is to implement healthy disciplines in our lives.
How do we do that? Here are a few ways I’m trying to employ these principles from Scripture.
- Balance responsibility and health. My ability to perform well in my work depends largely on the health of my body. An attuned physique yields a sharp mind. It’s pertinent to discipline myself both to get sufficient sleep and to exercise regularly. That means cutting out time from work to go for a run and forcing myself to go to bed at a decent hour.
- Be more disciplined and diligent with the time I spend working. This may mean surfing the Web a bit less when I should concentrate on the tasks at hand, or setting a timer for an hour of focused efforts before letting myself check e-mail. And this makes my time away from work all the better because I’m satisfied with my hard labor and thus free to engage others.
- Develop greater dependence on God. I need to remember my mortality and throw myself on God’s incorruptibility. He is God, and I am not. A key way to nurture dependence is disciplining myself to rest. For example, setting Sundays apart as a day to put aside all work — even when everyone else I’m competing against is logging in time — teaches me to depend on God.
The Scriptures make it clear that God wants to free us from anxious toil and grant us rest. Anxious toil robs us of the peace that comes from depending on the Lord.
God instead commands us to work hard, but acknowledge our limits and ultimately trust him to bless our labor and provide for our needs. And out of that frame of mind comes the freedom from worry and competition that makes God’s rest so satisfying, so sweet.
Copyright 2009 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.