The first 35 years of my life I honored God by doing. My plan for the next 35 years is also to honor him by not doing. Exodus 34:21 helped bring me to this turning point. It says: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”
Around my 35th year I found I had worked myself out and had nothing more to give. My plan to single-handedly save the world was failing miserably since I could barely manage the grocery shopping. So I went to bed, at first because I could do nothing else. And then, the more I rested, the more the rest taught me. I learned that doing nothing is doing something.
A Surprising Idea
Why would God command his people to rest? Why was he outraged when they desecrated his Sabbath? Is it just because he knows our bodies will be able to accomplish more if we rest and he wants us to be efficient worker bees for his kingdom? Or is it something more? Why does he decree that even in the plowing and harvest seasons we must rest? Why not say, “When your work is all done, make sure you take a break”?
There are many truths we can know only by doing. We might say “I trust God” and “I’m only human,” but when we have to stop saving the world by our own wondrous works, right in the middle of them, our trust will find new depths. I had always believed all God’s commands were very active—to speak, to do, to work—and suddenly I realized he was commanding me to do nothing! My initial reaction was an intellectual fascination with this surprising concept, but I soon realized it was so much more than an interesting idea. Doing nothing was a challenge to every bone in my body.
Resting is harder than you might think. I got fidgety. I wondered if my in-box was piling up with e-mails. I worried I was letting someone down, that some crisis needed my attention. So I asked myself, What are my plowing season and harvest—the busiest times, the times I’m afraid if I stop the fruit will rot on the trees? And out of those answers I set myself two challenges to learn lessons that could be learned only by doing nothing.
Two Challenging Attempts
Once a quarter I would do the unthinkable for a planner of worship services. I would take a Sunday off. Could the church continue without me? On my first Sunday off I fretted, but somehow God was able to work without me. So by taking an occasional day off I now communicate to myself, and to God, I need to rest because I am not God. He can continue to work in my absence. Even in the plowing season and the harvest.
And I set an alarm for noon every day. It chimes to remind me to consider what physical needs I’m ignoring to continue with my important work; it reminds me to take a minute to breathe, to go to the bathroom, get a drink, or have lunch.
The first weeks of this practice I was astounded to notice how many times, when the alarm rang, I was overriding two or three basic bodily needs in order to do my work, to write the e-mail that would solve everyone’s problems, to complete the article that would answer everyone’s questions.
By overriding my needs for my wondrous works, I was communicating to myself I am a “superbeing.” Where would the world be without me? So in the simple act of stopping to get lunch and go to the bathroom every day at noon I now communicate, I need to rest because I am not God. Unlike him, my body is finite. Even in the plowing season and the harvest.
Rediscovering a Partnership
Doing nothing teaches me how much God is doing, that somehow the world will be waiting there for me when I’m rested and ready to return to it. Not only am I happier and healthier, I give God more credit. When I return to work, I remember that this is good and important work we’re doing together, but I am the finite one, and the more I act like the finite one, the more I see his infinity.
Mandy Smith serves with University Christian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. She lives with her professor husband and two children in a little house where the teapot is always warm. Her book Making a Mess and Meeting God: Unruly Ideas and Everyday Experiments for Worship is published by Standard Publishing (www.standardpub.com/makingamess).