Busyness, Rest, and the Gospel

“Stillness is not something that comes easy to most of us.  Most of us don’t live lives of serene Wyoming-wilderness stillness; rather we live lives of extreme busyness—of frenetic motion, frenzy and distress. We run shuttle services for our children; and we network; we email; we multi-task; we manage; we orchestrate.  We keep at it furiously even though we have long forgotten what “it” is beyond some vague notion of winning the prize, though we have also long forgotten what the prize is, and in fact, many of us have realized that there is no end to all our activity.” Charles Marsh. Learning to Be Still in a Nation of Busy Believers.

If that quote describes you, perhaps there is at least consolation in the fact that at least you are not alone. So many of us often feel what Judith Shulevitz called, “the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.” That phrase strikes me as an elegant, insightful way to speak of the voice which often drives us to stay busy that tells us to doubt our worth unless we can prove that we’ve worked for it.

When driven by that inner murmur work becomes only a means to prove that we are not worthless, and rest becomes only exhaustion. The murmur calls to be satisfied, but it will never be stilled through the work of trying to satisfy it. If the murmur ever ends, it is through satisfying it at the root. It requires a quiet of soul in which activity can cease because all the work that needed to be done is already completed. This is exactly the kind of quiet the gospel leads us into.

As Marsh said, “stillness is not something that comes easy for us.” At the outset entering that quiet can feel like a kind of dying. It feels like putting our very worth at stake because worth so often hangs on work and activity. But the bottom line is this: to be driven by that murmur of self-reproach flies in the face of a basic truth of the gospel – I don’t mean basic in the sense of elementary, but basic in the sense that if you do not understand it you may not truly understand the gospel – that is, you cannot save yourself.

At the heart of the gospel lies the staggering idea that all the work that ever needed to be done has been done. If this is true, then all the work we do is free to just become work again, not currency with which we try to buy our worth. And rest just becomes rest, not a sign of weakness, but a sign of humanness and dependence. Ceasing ceases to feel like death but becomes an act of obedience, a discipline of faithfulness for hearts driven mad by the gospel of work.

As Wendell Berry wrote in A Timbered Choir:

“The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways it cannot intend
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended,
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.”

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