Labor Day is upon us, the long weekend that puts an exclamation point on summer’s end. I’m planning, if that’s the right word, to do nothing in particular.
Rest, however, is never simple and often ambiguous. We sometimes speak of those who have died as finally at rest, or as resting in peace. It’s not a negative image, but then again it’s not positive either. Most of us would rather keep at the work of life than enter the rest of death. So, yes, we cherish days off, but we are also capable of a paradoxical disposition: we get tired of rest.
Aristotle can help us understand the ambiguous meaning of rest. By his account, our fullest happiness comes from unimpeded activity, which means doing well what we are best fit to do. In its deepest sense, rest involves attaining this happiness. We rest when we can repose in our work, so to speak, when what we do is both our own and effortless.
The Scottish track star Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire exemplifies Aristotle’s definition of happiness. He justifies his seemingly frivolous devotion to running: “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Even as Liddell exhausts himself in a race, he is a man at rest. He is not anxiously thrusting this way or that, not restlessly trying to acquire or achieve or overcome. Instead, he is at peace with himself, unimpeded in fulfilling what he sees as his purpose.
Yes, the strains of life often wear us down, and we need a break. But we were made for a purpose. Sooner or later we begin to hanker for the activity that most suits us. We want the lasting rest—the peace of mind and happiness of the heart—that comes from doing well what we were meant to do.
Aristotle’s view also sheds light on a paradox that the Bible seems to pose. God creates over six days and then rests on the seventh. Yet in the Gospel of John Jesus says, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (5:17). What are we to think? Is there a contradiction in the Bible?
If we keep in mind that unimpeded activity provides the deepest and most profound rest, then we can see the answer. As we read in 1 John 4:8, God is love, and therefore most fully himself—most at peace or in harmony with himself—when doing the works of love.
That’s one of the crucial reasons why Christianity puts forward a view of the unity of God in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity, as a community of love. God is always doing the works of love, always resting in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, on the seventh day, God’s rest is precisely to concern himself with the task closest to his heart, so to speak, which is the work of drawing all creation into his love.
As creatures, we are made for God’s love, and therefore we are most fully and profoundly at rest when we worship him without the impediments of sin and death—which, not surprisingly, is how the story of Scripture ends in the Book of Revelation. God wipes away every tear, destroying the final hold of suffering and death over human life, restoring the heavens and the earth, and preparing a new Jerusalem fit to for a restored humanity devoted to eternal worship.
The eternal rest of heavenly worship so vividly depicted in the book of Revelation, remains elusive for those of us living in a fallen world. Even our best endeavors to give ourselves to God in prayer are impeded by anxious thoughts about our families, perhaps, or our careers, or the future, or just by distracting day dreams. What should be rest in prayer, work in the deepest sense, becomes work in the negative sense, a struggle against impediments that exhausts and demoralizes us.
Like Eric Liddell when running, we may have moments in which we can rest in our deepest purposes, but most of the time the power of sin over us ensures that we are unable to truly and fully do what we made to do, which is to give ourselves to God and to others in God. We rarely truly rest.
At odds with ourselves and unable to do the work for which we were created, we need times to rest, like Labor Day and Sundays, in order to restore and regroup. So take the break, enjoy the holiday weekend, but keep in mind that true and lasting rest does not involve an extended vacation from everyday life, but rather its fulfillment.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis.