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For years, this passage from Mark has boggled my mind:
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:35–39)
Jesus amazes me. His incarnation, His resurrection, His ascension, His exaltation—these defy description. But I’m also amazed by the more mundane things about Jesus’ life, like the fact that He never uttered a thoughtless word, never spent a wasted day, never strayed from His Father’s plan. I have often marveled to think that Jesus was so terrifically busy, but only with the things He was supposed to be doing.
Many of us are so familiar with the Gospels that we fail to see the obvious: Jesus was a very busy man. One of Mark’s favorite words is “immediately.” For three years, Jesus and His band of disciples were a whirlwind of activity. One event immediately follows another. In Mark 1, Jesus begins His public ministry by teaching in the synagogue, rebuking an unclean spirit, caring for Simon’s mother-in-law, and then staying up late into the night healing many who were sick with various diseases and casting out many demons (1:14–34). At one point, Jesus is too busy even to eat, and His family thinks He is losing His mind (3:20–21). Jesus has crowds coming to Him all the time. He has people looking for Him, demanding His time and attention. The impression we get from the Gospels is that almost every day for three years, He was preaching, healing, and casting out demons.
Don’t think Jesus is some kind of esoteric teacher who spent His life solely in contemplation. If Jesus ministered in the flesh today, He’d get more emails than any of us. He would have people and the media clamoring for His attention. Jesus did not float above the fray, untouched by the pressures of normal human existence. Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). And that includes the temptation to be sinfully busy.
But He wasn’t. Sinful, that is. He was busy, but never in a way that made Him frantic, anxious, irritable, proud, envious, or distracted by lesser things. When all Capernaum waited for His healing touch, He left for a desolate place to pray. And when the disciples urged Him to get back to work, He left for another town to preach. Jesus knew the difference between urgent and important. He understood that all the good things He could do were not necessarily the things He ought to do.
If Jesus had to be deliberate with His priorities, so will we. We will have to make it our mission to stay on mission. We will have to say no to good things. And we will have to work hard to rest.
About five years ago, I rediscovered the importance of regular exercise. I’ve enjoyed running since I was a kid, and it’s something I did throughout high school and college. But as the years added up (and a few pounds too), exercise became something I did less and less frequently. But then a friend and I decided to sign up for a triathlon, something neither of us had ever done before. So I started swimming, biking, and running—pretty much every day of the week, except for Sunday.
And you know what? I really liked it. Still do. It’s been one of the best things I’ve done in the last five years. I’m sure that I get more done each week by stepping away from my to-do list and making time to exercise.
But I’ve learned that even though exercise is a kind of “rest,” you won’t benefit from exercise if you don’t actually rest. Since I’m a better student than I am an athlete, I’ve supplemented my new exercise routine with lots of reading about exercise. I’ve read more than two dozen books on swimming, biking, and running over the past few years. And they all say the same thing. The biggest inhibitor for people who are serious about exercise (and serious enough to read books about exercise) is not willpower or hard work. It’s rest. When you work out, your hearts and lungs are stressed; your muscles are put under strain and undergo microscopic tears. The exercise itself doesn’t make you stronger. It’s only when you rest that your body is strengthened. “Well, that was kind of hard,” your body says to itself. “We should build some more muscles there, burn some extra fat next time, send some more blood flowing, and make the lungs expand so they can get more oxygen.”
One magazine article I read had six training laws from professional athletes. Rules 1, 2, and 3: You are going way too hard. And rule 6: You need to sleep more. Just as it is with your physical body, so it is with your spiritual body: the capacity of your body, mind, and heart to face greater and bigger challenges will not be maximized when you push yourself to the max every single day. In exercise as in life, we will never grow if we never rest.
There is always the danger of falling into legalism when we talk about rest in general or Sabbath rest in particular. But surely, undue scrupulosity is not the danger for most of us. Neglecting God’s gift is the far greater danger. The first thing we have to remember about the Sabbath is what Jesus said: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Rest—on any day—is God’s gift to us, if only we trust Him enough to take it.