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  • Writer's pictureRobert Hasler

The Limits of Work

Made to work and made to rest

Washington, D.C. is a working city. Most of the television shows that are set in our nation’s capital feature characters who never seem to rest. They are always rolling up their sleeves, loosening their ties, and canceling afterwork plans so they can tackle the next project. 

The city attracts people who enjoy working. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Work is good. We were made to work, just as our Father in Heaven works. It is part of being made in his image. 

But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit we too often have an unhealthy relationship to our work. Because of our sin, we sometimes make work into a project of our own self-aggrandizement. We can start to obsess over our accomplishments, constantly doubting whether we have worked long enough or hard enough. In other words, sin morphs our good desire to work into a bad preoccupation with efficiency, time, and self-fulfillment.

To avoid giving ourselves totally over to our work, we must balance it against what God says about the limits of work. 

Remember that the God who works is also the God who rests. “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2). As creatures made in God’s image, we too were made to work and rest. 

Ideally, our relationship to our work should mirror God’s relationship to his work. God paused from his work, surveyed it, and judged it good. We should strive to do the same. In other words, there must be a differentiation between one’s work and one’s identity. Our work should reflect our character, but it can never be the sum of who we are. As the theologian, Dan Doriani, has written, “No matter how fulfilling our labor, God designed people for more than work.” When we follow God’s lead it allows us to rest as he rests, without guilt or shame or anxiety. 

In Genesis, God declared his rest day “holy.” Later, he commanded the Israelites to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath, or a mandatory day of rest: “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, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:13-14)

Scripture says that The New Testament church set aside the first day of the week as a day for worship and rest (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). Though Christians celebrate their Sabbath on a different day, the fourth commandment still applies to the church today. What can we learn from it about the limits of work?

First, notice that the fourth commandment is applied socially. Not only am I obligated to rest, but I must do everything in my power to make sure others rest as well. Generally speaking, we should respect our co-workers' rest time as we would like them to respect ours. Perhaps that means not sending emails on Sunday or setting key deadlines on Monday morning. Remember that resting reflects the image of God just as much as working. That means rest is not a privilege of being Christian but part of God’s design for all people. As Christians, we can invite every member of our office to partake in God’s good design by establishing good patterns of rest. 

Finally, Deuteronomy 5:15 sets the commandment to rest within the context of redemption: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD our God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. 

In other words, our day of rest is never to be a burdensome obligation but rather a grateful response to God’s grace. This was Jesus’s primary complaint with the Pharisees and their Sabbath-keeping. In response to the meticulous and oftentimes arbitrary rules the Pharisees imposed on the Sabbath, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). So keep the day to rest as God commands, but do so in a way that you find truly restful. 

Rest is a gift from God. The Christian tradition to keep the Sabbath on the first day is proof. We don’t work six days so we can earn a rest day. We begin with rest and work six days in grateful obedience to God for what he has done for us. Because it is a gift, we should steward it wisely. That means claiming the whole gift. God did not give us a Sabbath hour or a Sabbath morning. He gave us a Sabbath day. We should spend the whole day in worship and rest and helping others do the same. 

The temptation to turn our work into an idol is strong, especially in Washington, D.C. But we must never forget that work itself cannot save us. God made us to work, but he also made us to rest. So enjoy the limits of work and let them lead you to enjoy the good God who made them.

Robert Hasler is Project Leader of Ministry to State's Public Theology Project and cohost of The Statement.


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