When Can I Work? When Can I Rest?

bird's-eye-view of dock worker pulling rope


Are you tempted to do too much work, or too little?


An honest answer to that question will vary from person to person. Some people are disengaged at work—they’re giving less than their all to work, even during work hours. Others are workaholics—they can’t disengage from work, even during “time off.”


Between these two dysfunctions lies the elusive experience of being highly engaged at work, but free to rest when not working. You’re present at work and work hard, and you’re present to a life outside of work and rest well. 


For followers of Jesus, an honest self-assessment about our relationship with work is a vital element of our relationship with God. In his teachings and life, Jesus explains and models what working and resting with God can look like. When we see both work and rest as aspects of our union with God, it transforms both.

[Today we continue our series Work: Who, What, When, Where, Why. We’ll be looking at these questions:

  • Who am I working for? (Service and Motivation)
  • What work can I do best? (Callings and Fit)
  • When can I work? / When can I rest? (Setting Boundaries)
  • Where does my work make a difference? (Proximity and Community)
  • Why work? (Purpose and Meaning)

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Our Work Makes God’s Character Visible

Before looking at how work and rest fit together, let’s take a moment to consider the basics of work and why it matters. Even apart from distinctly Christian convictions, our moral intuitions help us discern what good work is. All good work serves either the good of the natural world or the good of people and human society. We’re intuitively grateful for the work of forest rangers who care for Yosemite and Yellowstone and the HVAC technicians who fix Midwestern furnaces all winter. The same intuition tells us that gang members running protection rackets and unscrupulous industrial polluters are not going about work in the right way, no matter how profitable their efforts are.


The biblical narrative fits this intuition and gives a reason for it: All good work is derived from God’s own good work. Humanity receives a job assignment in the early pages of Scripture: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15 NIV). God created the garden, and humanity cares for it. Our work follows his.


Our work also reflects God’s character. When we step back from a job well done with a proper sense of satisfaction, we know that we’ve brought something good to the world. In our best moments, our efforts can rightly be called beautiful work. But of course, God is the original source of beauty in the world. Our capacity for beauty comes from his original creativity: he has supplied both the raw materials and the intellectual and physical capacities that we use to bring further beauty into the world.


That means that, at its best, our work makes God’s beauty and goodness visible in the world. God’s character is revealed in good work well done, regardless of what type of work it is.


Jesus, the Ultimate Worker

If good work makes God’s character visible, then Jesus was the best worker who ever lived. Everywhere he went, he revealed what God was like. His way of interacting with people showed God’s unfathomable love for human beings, even those least loved by others. His healings manifested the power and intention of God to bring life. The moral beauty of his teachings formed the high-water mark of human thinking about what matters most. His work was the most beautiful work ever done.


Jesus himself described his ministry as work. In the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly talks about how he is working and what it means. In one key passage he says this:

My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working . . . . Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.

John 5:17, 19 NIV

Here, Jesus takes the idea of work even further. He does not just say that his work is derived from God’s work. He does not just say that his work reflects the character of God. He says that he and his Father are at work together. The Father is working, and Jesus is working. The only thing that Jesus does is what he sees the Father doing. In another passage, he calls his efforts, “the works of my Father” (John 10:37 NIV). The relationship between Jesus and the Father is so close that whatever Jesus does can be called the work of the Father.


God’s Life in Our Daily Work

Jesus’ life in God was unique. He is, as the Nicene Creed says, “of one being with the Father.” But Jesus himself draws a straight line from his own unique connection to God and the work of his followers. In his final discourse with his disciples in the Gospel of John, he says:

The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. . . .  Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 14:10, 12 NIV

Jesus’ statement that his disciples will do “greater things” because he is going to the Father is connected with his teaching about the coming of the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Spirit is tied to Jesus’ return to the Father (see John 16:17). In other words, we will do “greater things” by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

If we take Jesus at his word, then that means that our work can be considered the work of God, like Jesus’ was, because of the Holy Spirit with us. Just like Jesus and his Father were at work together all throughout his life, we and God can be at work together all throughout our life.

Mundane Tasks, Divine Power

We might be tempted to limit this idea of being at work with God to a select set of activities, like praying with others or teaching Scripture. But I think Jesus intends for us to take his statement that “the Son can do nothing by himself” quite literally. It’s not just that Jesus couldn’t do miracles by himself. It was that his union with the Father permeated every aspect of his life. Jesus could do nothing by himself, because his union with God touched everything.


In the Holy Spirit, that can be true for us, too. We are not meant to do our work “by ourselves” any more than Jesus was. We are meant to draw on the very life and power of God to perform even the most mundane tasks of our life. The Apostle Paul described his ministry by saying, “I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29 NIV).


But this reality of Christ working his energy powerfully within us is not limited to explicit ministry activities. We can strenuously contend with the energy that Christ works within us in all of our work. Peter put it like this: “whoever serves” should do it “as one who serves by the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11 ESV).


What would it look like to take out the trash with the energy that Christ works within you? What would it look like to send your work emails in the power of the Holy Spirit? What would it look like to do the dishes as though you were doing the works of the Father?


When Can I Work?

This perspective on work helps us answer the question, “When can I work?” If a healthy relationship with work is about full engagement, what could help us engage more fully than seeing our work as an aspect of union with God himself?


If our primary concern about work is how to do less of it, it may be a sign that we’re thinking about work itself in the wrong way. Rather than viewing work as something to protect ourselves from, we can discover work as a good way to inhabit life with God himself. If we can encounter God and rely on his power even for the little, thankless tasks of our day, then we can greet those tasks with eagerness and verve.


With work, sometimes what might seem like a quantity issue is actually a quality issue. When we’re fully engaged in our work, we worry less about the exact number of hours that we are working. We are happy to give our full effort. We “strenuously contend” as God gives us strength!


That being said, sometimes a quantity issue is a quantity issue. We need to be able to set boundaries with work and disengage from it rather than working all the time. That brings us to the question, “When can I rest?”

When Can I Rest?

Paradoxically, the same conviction about God’s power and goodness that helps us work hard is what helps us rest well.


Jesus modeled this dynamic in his ministry, too. As Jesus became more well known and attracted more crowds, his custom was to “withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16 ESV). Jesus invited his followers into this same practice. After they returned from a mission he had assigned to them, Jesus told his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31 ESV).


Jesus was fully capable of disengaging from his work tasks—so much so that he even apparently took naps in the middle of the day on occasion (see Matthew 8:23-27). Yet in his withdrawal from work, he was still in union with his Father. He withdrew to desolate places in order to pray. He invited his disciples to rest—by spending time with him, away from work. Just as Jesus was united with his Father in his work, he could commune with his Father in his rest.


Jesus’ confidence in his Father gave him the peace to set work aside. On the occasion of that nap, an unexpected storm endangered the boat he and his disciples were traveling in. But when his disciples anxiously awakened him, he asked them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26 ESV). The one who had been sleeping in the care of his Father was not afraid, even though he woke up to a squall. He knew that all would be well, and proceeded to miraculously calm the storm.


Jesus’ question and example invites us to trust the Father like he does. We do not have to compulsively work, because God will be there to provide no matter what. We can rest easy in his care.


With rest, as with work, we can attend to quality, not just quantity. When we take time off from work, are we able to be present to God and to other people? Can we lay the burden of our responsibilities down for a time? Are we ready to trust that God will keep the universe running without us for a measure of hours?


If the answer is “yes,” then making time for the appropriate quantity of rest will become easy. What we need is not more time, but more faith.


And even if our faith is little, Jesus is right there with us, helping us to work and rest in the Father like he does.


Reflect and Practice

    • Are you tempted to work too much or too little?
    • Do you really think that your work can be “the work of the Father” like Jesus’ was?
    • What do you think about “strenuously contending” in your daily work?
    • Is it ever hard for you to disengage from work? Why is that?
    • Imagine what healthy work and rest would look like for you. Talk to God about what you long for.


Construction photo by Jeridan Villegas on Unsplash.
Dock photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash.

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