One of the first things we learn about work is that we are to regularly stop doing it (Gen. 2:1–3).
The creation account of Genesis 1 culminates in the Lord’s setting aside His creative labors in order to rest. That divine rest becomes a model for those made in the image of this working-and-resting God, which means that all humanity is likewise called to regularly rest from daily labor (Ex. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15). Human rest is first presented to us as God’s rest. He completes His creative work, sits back, looks at it, declares that it is good, and then He rests. Even for the Lord, rest springs naturally out of work.
God calls humans to work and rest not merely because these are helpful suggestions for a good life but because they mark what it means to be human, because they emanate together out of the divine character in whose image we have been made. We work and rest because God does, and we are crafted in His image. This is true for all human beings, whether they realize it or not. Work is the means by which we carry out our calling as God’s image-bearers in the world, and rest is the means by which we reflect the lordship of the Creator who made us in His image.
In theory, most people understand that work and rest go together. Due to the fall, however, we tend to emphasize one over the other, forgetting that we are called to pursue both in concert. We err when we privilege one over the other because we break apart this structure for life that the Lord has ordained. In our rebellion, we take a good created thing and we turn it into an idol.
Work idolatry is work without rest, or what is sometimes called “workaholism.” We fall into work idolatry when we engage in work without preparing for it with rest. Such work is ultimately meaningless and unsatisfying for people made in the image of God.
I live in Washington, D.C., a city whose citizens take much pride in their propensity to work hard. Our roads and transit system teem with laborers during rush hours that begin early in the morning and end late in the evening, and this is a point of gritty pride for us. I suspect most people living and working in America’s urban centers would consider sloth to be a sort of obvious sin, a glaring vice that should be avoided. If sloth is not a deadly sin for them, it is surely an embarrassing one.
Work idolatry, however, does not seem to be such an obvious wrong. We have been taught by television shows, movies, spiritual retreats, and even articles like this one that workaholism can be a deeply besetting sin, but I suspect that many perceive it as a sort of honorable sin. We readily confess our overworking, our need to spend more time with the family, our guilt over not resting, but there is little effort to actually change. In other words, we confess to being workaholics publicly, but few lose sleep at night in repentance for their work idolatry.
This is why we are so struck by the Genesis account depicting our Lord at rest. This passage gives us a precious insight into both the character of God and the proper response of His image-bearers. The creation account asks us, “What makes you think you are above rest when even the creator Lord makes time for it?” If an infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God is pleased to rest from His cosmic labors, it is an absurd presumption to think that we can ignore such rest in our own lives. Everyone has experienced seasons of life when rest is earnestly needed but not found, but such seasons should be just that—temporary seasons of extended labor. They should not be the norm. As a matter of fact, if such seasons have become the norm for you, perhaps you ought to reconsider the values that inform your decisions in life.
The life that is marked by extended restlessness does not merely indicate a lack of wisdom; it indicates rebellion. We can see the weight of Sabbath-keeping in the way that humanity is called to care for the land throughout the Old Testament. In the Genesis account, God forms the man adam from the ground adamah (Gen. 2:7), closely connecting the two. He charges man to care for and rule over the ground, a charge that is often referred to as the “cultural mandate” (Gen. 1:28). Moses taught that such a charge over the land in Israel included the responsibility to set aside certain seasons of rest when the land ceased from the difficult work of producing food for God’s people (Lev. 25:1–7). Rest for the land was so significant that the failure of the Israelites in this regard is the trigger that Moses (Lev. 26:34) and the Chronicler (2 Chron. 36:20–21) give for the exile—the land had not been allowed its proper Sabbaths. Such passages should sober us since they indicate that a personal rejection of rest may result in a divine imposition of it.
We resist rest to our own detriment because it is through rest that we find rejuvenation and renewal for the work to come. More primarily, it is through rest that we acknowledge the Lord who calls us to this life of work and rest. Therefore, we ought to work and rest to His glory (1 Cor. 10:31).
Rest idolatry presents a threat as well. Rest idolatry is rest without work, or what is sometimes called sloth or laziness. Unworked-for, unearned rest is by itself ultimately meaningless and unsatisfying for people made in the image of God.
As I have mentioned, there is likely a societal tendency toward workaholism in many urban environments, but life experience indicates that certain groups of people might be more susceptible to rest idolatry. For instance, rest idolatry may be a greater temptation for those who are young, who do not yet have bills to pay, a family to support, or mouths to feed. The demanding life of work and career lies ahead of them, and such a future can be truly intimidating. The prospect of a demanding career can inversely push someone to embrace a leisurely, restful life that rejects the burden of work. A deep tragedy occurs when a young person becomes trapped in the lifestyle of rest idolatry and never experiences the fulfillment that comes from good, satisfying work.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find that rest idolatry is also a temptation of those living on the other side of the age spectrum. Many people work their whole lives with the earnest expectation that one day they will retire from their careers and spend their days in prolonged rest. Therefore, when they reach a certain arbitrary age, they believe that they have earned a life of undisturbed and unadulterated leisure and rest. This is an idolatry our culture has codified in labor laws, as if at a certain age in the human life, a person stops being a human made in the image of God and should therefore stop working.
To be sure, our day-to-day work can and should evolve as we grow older, but that does not mean that we lose our call to participate in the cultural mandate as God’s image-bearers. Our elders have a storehouse of relationships, wisdom, and experience that they have accrued over the course of their lives. This is why it is so valuable for them to take the opportunity in their latter years of life to be good stewards of God’s provision in this regard.
The cultural expectation of a retirement age may, in fact, derive from a misguided perception of the cosmic rest that will be fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth (Heb. 4:8–11; see also Rom. 8:18–25). The creation week is remarkable in that it does not merely establish the structure of the human workweek; it provides an outline of human history, a season of labor that culminates in eschatological rest. By living out the biblical workweek, we act out world history every seven days. The Christian shift from Sabbath observance to Lord’s Day observance indicates a shift in eschatological orientation. The final rest for believers has begun in Jesus Christ (Matt. 11:28–30), the Lord of the Sabbath who will bring it to fulfillment when He returns (Matt. 12:8).
Christians united to Christ can rest assured that His perfect embodiment of the image of God secures their place in His final, eternal rest (Col. 1:15–20). Because of His atoning work and indwelling Spirit, we are now free to celebrate our identities as redeemed image-bearers of God by pursuing a healthy balance between work and rest.