Article by: Kathryn Butler
At the low point, my husband crossed rapids to escape the clamor.
I stooped beside the kids to wrestle them apart as they bickered yet again over a rock dug from the muck. When I glanced up, he had left us. With his jaw set like stone, he navigated over slick rocks and swirling foam to reach the opposite bank. He perched on a moss-covered rock and stared down the stream. His eyes reflected thoughts as turbulent as the water.
Later, back at the cabin, when we had finally wrangled the kids into bed, I asked about that moment in the woods.
“Love, are you okay?”
He rubbed his forehead. His expression seemed forlorn, his eyes defeated.
“I just really need a rest,” he said.
When Vacation Isn’t Restful
Rest was precisely the reason we’d journeyed to the mountains. We hadn’t taken a vacation in three years, and when we put this trip on the calendar, its promise sustained us through the long winter months. During endless days stuffed with tight budgets, screaming kids, and disagreements with colleagues, we would cast each other knowing glances and dream of our cabin escape.
The getaway did proffer some magic. There was lightning flashing ghostly against the log walls, and thunder melding with the rumble of whitewater outside. There were oak and pine roots intertwining, reaching across the damp earth to knit a staircase for us through the misty wood. There were hot dogs and marshmallows roasted over a fire pit, and evenings of books, fleece, and bare toes as the kids piled into bed with us for stories.
Yet such moments struggled for air beneath the constant bickering of cranky kids and the deviations from meticulously crafted plans. It began with a late start, a speeding ticket, and a toddler screaming for two hours in the car. Then there were dirty diapers in the woods, a child stepping on a dead mole, and orange juice spilled over a hand-carved table.
Our need for rest is real and urgent. In our broken world, life drowns us in its depths.
There were children fighting over books and shrieking “Mine!” as they clutched pine cones to their chests, breaking them with the ferocity of their greed. As we paddled in a canoe alongside a mother duck and her brood, and set our eyes on mountains humped beneath a swath of mist, the steady mantra “Let’s go back; I don’t like this boat” fractured the tranquility. After four days, we staggered back home sleep-deprived, bedraggled, and more depleted than when we’d left.
Our fiasco mirrored scenes of a National Lampoon movie, where an overzealous Chevy Chase, in search of the perfect vacation, lures his family into one disaster after another. Such comedy derives from its universality. Who hasn’t yearned for a getaway only to stumble through a procession of disasters? Who hasn’t scripted moments of summer revelry, replete with barbecue sauce, watermelon, and sprinklers, only to have rain douse the charcoals?
Real Need for Rest
While such scenarios evoke disappointment (or laughter in the case of Chevy Chase), they also hint at a waywardness in our striving. Our need for rest is real and urgent. In our broken world, life drowns us in its depths. Beneath tides of grief, doubt, regret, sadness, fear, and even despair, we struggle, writhe for air, and ache for relief.
Our need for rest traces its origins to creation: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Gen. 2:2). We need rest because we’re image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:27). So important was this rest to God’s perfect order that he charged Israel with strict observance of the Sabbath through the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8–11; 31:16–18).
Yet too often, we conflate rest and amusement. When the toils of the world bear down on us, we chase after shiny moments worthy of selfies and Facebook updates. We seek poolside cocktails, or traipses through photogenic landscapes, all in the hope that such things can heal the aching in our bones and the fractures in our hearts.
That yearned-for vacations disappoint, and leave us still gasping, shouldn’t surprise us. Sabbath rest includes not only repose, but also worship (Lev. 23:1–3a). It requires not only resting from labor, but also reveling in God. The only psalm dedicated to the Sabbath exalts the Lord in praise: “You, O LORD, are on high forever” (Ps. 92:8). Psalm 92 concludes with an assurance of God’s character, a promise that remains steadfast through life’s trials: “The LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (Ps. 92:15).
Christ offers us a deep, penetrating rest that no sojourn to the mountains could ever approximate.
God has granted us popsicles, watermelon, and cabin getaways. Yet when we strive after these blessings without setting our minds and hearts on their Creator, we chase after wind (Eccl. 2:11). Rest derives not from a destination, but from a daily communion with the all-knowing and loving God, who offers us ultimate replenishment through his Son:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt. 11:28–29)
Through his sacrifice for us, Christ offers us a deep, penetrating rest that no sojourn to the mountains could ever approximate. As we strive and struggle through life, let us drink deeply of the living water he offers (John 4:13–14). Let his peace infuse our moments and sustain us through whatever travails seize us. When life is a deluge—and while we may dream of beaches and brooks—let us first yearn for him. May we turn to him in prayer, and from stream to ocean seek him and praise his name.
Kathryn Butler (MD, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons) is a trauma and critical care surgeon who recently left clinical practice to homeschool her children. She has written for Desiring God and Christianity Today, and her book on end-of-life care through a Christian lens is anticipated in 2019 (Crossway). She blogs at Oceans Rise.