Brittany Joy Cooper
The Truth About Rest
I used to lie to myself about rest.
Do you ever do that?
Sometimes I still do.
For so much of my life, I saw rest as a prize to be earned, a very last resort when every drop of my energy had been swallowed up. Rest was a marathon runner crossing the finish line and collapsing over shaky legs, sucking oxygen and dropping to the pavement in total release. Ahh rest.
The conversation with God in this heart posture goes something like this:
God, I’ve given everything I have. Aren’t you proud? When I saw the bottom of the barrel, I scratched and clawed at it for more and then ran on that. And also, did you notice how resourceful and low-maintenance I am?
I know, I know. It’s laughably flawed. But, at the same time, it lines up nicely with the American self-made spirit. How many times have you watched struggling entrepreneurs on “Shark Tank” run through a litany of insane sacrifices (“I only sleep three hours a night,” “I work 75 hours a week” …) only to be met with a string of praises from the Sharks?
“Impressive, Larry. I can tell you’re really serious about this idea.”
The point is, American culture will never stare you in the eyes and say, “Wow, you look exhausted. Must be rough. Here’s a pillow and a book.”
From a young age, I wrapped that American can-do spirit around my shoulders like a blanket (but not the kind of blanket that gives you the freedom to take a nap in the middle of the day ...) and ran with it.
When I came into my marriage almost 10 years ago, my distorted view of rest came too. My idea of the perfect married Saturday included words like “house projects,” “workout” and “self improvement.” And while these are wonderful and perfectly healthy elements of a weekend, I left zero room for any kind of reflection or recovery.
Needless to say, my sweet husband did not share my definition of rest. Our weekends became a dizzying version of The Tortoise and the Hare in which the race is a three-legged one and the exuberant (and highly extroverted) hare is dragging the miserable (and highly introverted) tortoise along by one leg shouting, “Let’s do all the things and see all the people and have all the fun and never, never, never stop!”
About five years into our marriage, Ben put a firm but gentle stake in the ground about Sabbath rest. The Bible commands it, he pointed out, and also, we needed it, whether I wanted to admit it or not. He was working multiple entrepreneurial ventures, I was trying to manage about 30 hours of freelance work a week with a baby in tow, we were overcommitted socially and in other ways, and we weren’t building in any intentional time to just be.
To top it all off, I often found myself wading through this thick guilt that I wasn’t doing enough, that somehow God wanted more from me and that I just needed to muster up the energy to get it done.
Still, Ben pursued the idea of Sabbath rest. We started picking one day each weekend and declaring it our Sabbath. And — oh my goodness — did it grate at my identity.
Because Ben likes to be physically still (and often alone) while resting and I like zero stillness and all the people, we rattled around on the Sabbath struggle bus for years. Sometimes I did fine all morning “resting” until 1 PM hit when I'd look up to find the curtains still closed and the TV on and suddenly feel like I was going to crawl out of my skin with pent-up energy and FOMO.
For a while, we gave a hearty and legalistic “no” to anything that could be described as “work.” We left dishes undone and beds unmade in the hope of not using our time to “try and get ahead.” But then Monday would roll around like an unexpected ocean wave and smack me in the face, leaving me feeling injured and indignant, like rest was always punishing me in the end. Ben and I used to joke that we valued the Sabbath so much we set aside an entire day every weekend just to fight about it.
In the past few years as we’ve stumbled awkwardly toward this idea of biblical rest, we’ve begun to taste its sweetness. I think it began when Ben's season in grad school moved our family to Austin for a time. Eleanor was three, Calvin was barely one and Ben's program was about 90 hours a week.
Even in that season, Ben somehow prayerfully set aside a whole weekend day each week just to be with our family. We started looking forward to these family days of exploring a new city together, and slowly, slowly our Sabbath took a new place as the highlight of our week. At the same time, we learned to expand our definition of rest to make room for adventure and some of the daily maintenance that family life requires.
Now we're in a season with three young kids, and I have the long-awaited gift of hindsight and a couple years of counseling to boot. Looking back over the past years, I see that my identity was so entangled in all the doing that I simply didn’t believe there was any freedom for the being.
I’ve also benefited greatly from some awesome resources (any Enneagram twos in the house?) that have taught me more about how my personality tends to want to do things for people in order to earn their love (ugh, I know). For so long I applied that concept to the Creator of the Universe, and it caused me to miss out on the God who himself rested after speaking the universe into existence ... just to enjoy his own creation.
When my identity was firmly planted in my ability to do stuff, I regularly oscillated between pride and shame, pride and shame, pride and shame. I could smugly praise myself for not needing rest like other people (pride). But then when I was trying to juggle a home and a business and tiny people and I wasn’t able to tie it all up in a clean bow, it felt like this giant finger was pressing right into the weakest part of my identity (shame).
But pride and shame aren’t from God. They’re actually the bitter fruit of hell. So when I gave ear to that smug voice of self-aggrandizement or swallowed the gnawing shame of never being enough, my whole being was fixed inward on a sinner trying to save herself.
And, friend, let me tell you this: It turned up void. It was totally empty. I could scrape the bottom of the proverbial barrel until my fingers bled, but I was never going to be enough. I never will. So where does that leave me? Where does that leave you?
It leaves us at the foot of the cross. I only began to experience peaceful rest as God changed my heart and helped me slowly pry my eyes off myself and fix them on him. When I’m scrambling around trying to prove my worth, I don’t believe I deserve rest. But when I think of the God who became a man, walked the earth and invited me to rest in him, it no longer matters what I deserve.
Jesus literally said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest … for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11).
I don’t know about you, but I need rest for my soul. I need a God who is big enough to take my pride and my shame, my checklists and hopes, my successes and defeats, and trade them for “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4). Only then can I begin to rest in the mess.
This may be one of the ongoing struggles of my life, if I’m honest. A part of my personality will always want to keep moving and keep trying to order the chaos and wrestle the mess into something tidy and manageable. And then I'll rest ...
But when I catch a glimpse of my true identity, of who Christ says I am — a daughter, beloved, accepted, forgiven — then I can work and rest with joy because I understand that both are forms of praise and thanksgiving to a God who gave everything he had so that I don’t have to.
Friends, let’s be truthful with ourselves about rest.
From the mess,