The Rhythms of the Lord

My Problem

     I'm not sure why I have such a hard time resting and heeding the fourth commandment. Maybe I'm still trying to silence my grade school teachers, who constantly berated me for laziness (Actually, I was lazy). Or maybe I just follow the American way.

     Last summer, I decided I needed a mentor if I hoped to change and selected Estelle, my four-year-old grand-daughter as my guide. On Fridays, Estelle arrives at my house at 7 a.m., accompanied by her mother and little brother. After a few minutes, we sit down for breakfast. Afterward, I turn off my phone, hoping to silence the ticking in my mind, and we head for a nearby park featuring cascading streams, bridges, interactive sculptures, boulders that are perfect for little climbers, and a lake stocked with hungry fish. After we arrive, we hop down a flight of steps that take us to a gurgling, insect-laden stream. Soon, we reach a sculpture of a girl running and she sprints ahead, heels flying. After we feed the fish, we head for a course of rocks, which she climbs because their crevices shelter flowers, bees, and dragonflies. On higher rocks, she reaches for my hand, but she holds on after the danger has passed. We may name flowers or launch a tiny raft on the water, but by 9:00, I began itching to get to work, because decades of devotion to goals and efficiency have shaped me.


     Estelle is teaching me that relationships need timelessness, not efficiency. That makes me wonder about time in the New Creation. Will it cease? Become a quiet friend, a term that merely labels sequences – this happened, then that. Whatever else happens to time, it will surely cease to be a foe that marches us toward decrepitude and death and presses us to accomplish more.

     My struggle is common in a culture dominated by clocks and efficiency. As we race to complete self-assigned tasks, time tracks our success. Other cultures construe time differently. Before people measured time with clocks, they rose with the sun, marked morning, mid-day, afternoon, sunset, and stopped working around dusk. People thought of time as a river; people sailed on time and it swept us where we needed to go.

     Today, clocks let us think about time in units, packets, or slivers – seconds, minutes, and hours. Clocks make it seem like a quantity of something, like coins. We limited minutes and hours, so we need to manage it, measure it, save it (In fact, we say we save time and make time, but we do neither.) The focus on efficiency may move us get more done, but it drives and harries us. Leisure seems like a waste. Relaxation doesn't put money in our wallets or add to the gross national product. Efficiency becomes a demigod. If someone asks, "How was your day?" we reply, "Great! I got a lot done."  

     That view of time hides something essential. Judged by the clock, every minute is identical, but God says some moments are more important than others and we should make "the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:16).

     If time is a demigod, it feels like a hostile deity. We want to savor joyful moments and slow time down. We want the last ski run or the last laugh over dessert to continue forever, but they slip away. And we grow old.

     In fact, the Lord God is Master of time and seasons (Gen. 8:22), of calendars and everyone's time on earth: "The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength… Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:10, 12).

God's pattern

     Many resist the whip of efficiency, the pressure for ceaseless productivity. Some seek jobs that bring fewer demands and more leisure. Believers should attend to the God-given rhythm of life since it both corrects laziness and offers relief to those who feel pressure to be industrious at all times. He teaches us to work, then pause to sleep, eat, pray, and rest each week.

     In the beginning, there was work, then rest, for God created, then paused to review what he had done (Gen. 1:1-2:3) Since God created us in his image, that's our pattern, too. We should work, then reflect; ideally, we call it "good." Sadly, Americans are prone to work, then work more. Others work too little. Perhaps they can't find a good job; perhaps they are slugs. As fallen creatures, we typically work too much or too little. But God's pattern, joined to his law, points us the right way.

     When the Lord created the universe, he lavished "boundless skill, energy, and inventiveness" on it. Yet he did not wholly immerse himself in his work, he held something back. He detached himself from creation, so that we can distinguish God's work from God himself. There is more to God than what he does. At the end of each day of creation, he "pauses, stands back, and collects himself" (Ronald Wallace, The Ten Commandments, 65-66). The labor of creation did not exhaust God or bind him to this world. After creating all things, God chose to rest and assess his accomplishment. We should rest and evaluate too, for we are more than our work, just as he is.

    Astronomers estimate that there are 2 x 10 to the 23rd power stars in the universe. To get a sense of that, imagine that every person who ever lived - roughly one hundred billion people, according to demographic estimates - named stars for sixty hours a week, for sixty years, at a rate of five stars per minute. At that rate, everyone would still need one thousand lifetimes to name all the stars. But even in that incandescent act, the Lord remained distinct from his work.

    Similarly, Jesus loved his work and gave tireless, concentrated energy to it. Once, when he was tired and hungry, his disciples urged him to eat. He replied, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34). He loves his work and it nourished his spirit (Eccles. 2:24-25). Similarly, before he gave up his spirit on the cross, he exulted "It is finished," for he was satisfied with his work (John 19:30, Is. 53:11).

    Nonetheless, Jesus also stopped to pray, sleep, share a meal, strike up conversations, and worship, and so should we. Jesus didn't decide he had to heal every sick person in Israel and we are not obligated to solve every problem we see. No matter how fulfilling our labor, God designed us for more than work.

    Specifically, we refrain from work on the Sabbath because the Lord "rested on the seventh day" (Ex. 20:10-11). Like the Lord, we should work enthusiastically, but we should also know when to stop.

     Productivity is good. Professionals, business leaders, engineers, and craftsmen rightly consider the efficient use of time, space, and capital. To waste time and talent is to squander God's gifts. Time, skill, and materials are scarce. Farmers must work when it is time to plant and harvest (Prov. 10:4-5, 20:4). Wealth should be preserved. Still, we must be not read our passion for efficiency into Scripture. After all, when God created humans, he gave us a need for sleep and rest. We are not sharks who keep moving or die. We sleep daily and God ordains a day of rest. That creates about seventy "non-productive" hours per week, if anyone is counting. And God doesn't seem to hurry as we do. His covenants unfold over centuries; he certainly doesn't accomplish everything at once. And neither should we.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

Dan Doriani