Our rest lies in looking to the Lord, not to ourselves.– Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng)
Having grown up in the church, I’ve been familiar most of my life with the concept of “resting in God.” One of my favorite passages is Psalm 46, which includes the words “Be still, and know that I am God.” Recently, however, I’ve been struck by just how many Christians (including myself) live lives that really don’t look much different than anyone else. In this case, I’m not referring to the things we normally suspect (such as entertainment choices), but rather the very essence of our lives. Few of us have the kind of joy, peace, and assurance experienced by some of the Biblical saints or very rare people you might know personally.
Since about the time of my first blog post on this site several years ago, I’ve been on a quest to get out of my comfort zone and really change my life in a big way. It’s been a painful road that has taken longer than I anticipated, and has been both harder and easier than I expected. Throughout the process I’ve become more and more unsatisfied with the lack of peace and joy in my own life; it’s nothing new but I’m much more aware of it now.
Recently I began a workbook/video study series called “Freedom in Christ.” It was intended to help people experience the true joy and freedom that comes from being a Christian and resting in Him. The culmination of the series is a one-on-one prayer time with a leader, where you confront and root out lies that you’ve been believing, as well as many other things. One of the most important for me was dealing with unforgiveness and bitterness I’ve been harboring toward others, God, and myself. This entire process took nearly 6 hours, with only a brief break. At the end I expected to feel exuberance, overwhelming joy, and a true sense of freedom, but instead I was just exhausted. Ironically, over the next several days I had fairly severe depression, anger, and frustration.
“Six hours, with over a dozen people praying for me, and it didn’t work.” That’s what I told myself. “Obviously, I must have missed something or not done it right.” The perfectionism that I’ve struggled with all my life was rearing its ugly head again. During the prayer time my leader said that he thought one thing I really needed to focus on in my life was entering into Christ’s rest. “Yeah, right!” I thought. “I spend so much of my free time just ‘resting,’ watching TV or listening to music or not doing much of anything.” How could God want me to “rest” more? That just didn’t add up at all. The interesting thing is that after several days I realized my concept of rest was very different from the Biblical kind of rest.
As a perfectionist, I’ve bounced back and forth between extreme effort to fix myself and my life, to exhaustion, to apathy, and back again. When I felt energetic I’d try to strong-arm my habits, thoughts, and emotions to the way I thought they should be. When that didn’t work out the way I wanted, I’d get burned out and finally reach the point where I’d throw up my hands in frustration and think, “Fine! If I can’t force myself to be perfect, why even try? Even my strenuous efforts fall far short of my expectations.” I knew that salvation itself was not my own effort, but for some reason I never translated this beyond salvation into daily life as a Christian. I would imagine many of us may fall into that same camp.
My thoughts and frustrations after this “freedom appointment” betrayed my attitudes. When I thought it hadn’t worked, immediately I jumped on the “What did I do wrong?” bandwagon. In my mind, there were only two options: either I had messed something up, or God really wasn’t interested in giving peace and freedom. Given those two choices, I focused on the former, without stopping to think that there may be a third option: maybe I was looking for the wrong thing.
I shared some of this with my church small group, and one of our members said that often we look for the dramatic, emotional “mountaintop” experiences as evidence of God working, but those types of experiences often fade quickly. Sometimes, God is working in subtle, mundane, long-term ways, just as much as in the thrilling moments. Several days later I met with someone who took that idea further. What if the third option was for me to simply learn to release my expectations and efforts and fall into faith? That’s when I came smack against my own pride. “But really, I wanted to fix this on my own! I wanted to figure this all out!” The protestations of my soul gave evidence that we were getting close to something sensitive and hurting.
To me, “Rest” had always meant “not working,” or doing something for pleasure or entertainment rather than with a specific goal in mind. I couldn’t help but compare my life with its abundant free time with the lives of great Christians of the past, or even friends who spend more time working or caring for families. In that sense, it seemed like I was getting far MORE rest than I should. But over the space of several weeks, I began to realize that I was missing the point. I was confusing spiritual rest with physical rest. The idea that I could surrender to God and let HIM work on changing my heart, my thoughts, my attitudes, instead of trying to change them myself, was a novel one. Yes, I do have a role to play: I must actively submit to His work and allow Him to renew my mind through application of Biblical truth, but overall He takes the responsibility for sanctification, just as he took the responsibility for salvation.
It still feels like a bit of a balancing act, from my perspective: finding a way to harmonize both my own responsibility and God’s sovereignty. Perhaps the concept itself is misguided, and it looks far more like a partnership than a balance; moving together in one direction rather than pulling in two opposite directions, but that is certainly what it feels like sometimes.
This new concept of God’s rest, letting Him take responsibility for changing and healing my heart, is still novel enough that I don’t have a lot of answers yet. For now, it consists of me consciously giving up to God all my own strivings and simply submitting to His work. Instead of trying to force my way into life change on my own, I’m beginning to daily review Scripture that confronts my old beliefs and trusting in God to do that work Himself.
Your story might look different, but I think all of us have things that we like to think we control on our own. Maybe you’re trying to force yourself to change, like I have been, and have found it leads to either frustration and despair (when you don’t succeed) or arrogance (if you do).
You may find that you’re the one getting in the way of your own freedom. Most of us (hopefully) wouldn’t barge into an operating room and try to assist the trained professionals doing heart surgery, and yet that’s often what we do with our own spiritual lives. God is the master of healing hearts and souls: it may be time to trust Him to complete the work that He’s doing.
If God is spending work upon a Christian, let him be still and know that it is God. And if he wants work, he will find it there—in the being still.Henry Drummond
Even to your old age I will be the same,Isaiah 46:4
And even to your graying years I will bear you!
I have done it,
And I will carry you;
I will bear you,
And I will deliver you.
Great blog Michael!! I love your vulnerability and openness to share what God is teaching you! I’m always amazed how a Bible verse I studied years ago means something very different today. God’s word is powerful today, yesterday and tomorrow. Keep moving forward! 🙂