Speeding through life at what I believed was a healthy pace, I ran out of gas without as much as a flicker from the fuel warning light. I completed projects and checked off to-do lists without hesitation until I woke up one Monday feeling like a ghost of my former self, hollow and faintly present.
A quick self-inventory suggested something deep down inside was broken. It wasn't that I couldn't stomach another deadline, though I sat before a stack of projects. Or that I wasn't sleeping well, though I tried everything I knew to sleep through the night. Or that I felt smothered by the onslaught of demands that popped into my inbox each day. Or that I sensed the shallowness of being consumed by a hundred meaningless activities. Or that I could no longer shove away the isolation that comes from being only partially present to everyone in my life — including God.
I disregarded the voices of disgrace. With the assistance of a friend, I found a Christian counseling center. Sitting in the counselor's office, my emotions felt like an oil fire with smoke billowing everywhere. My red-hot reaction was to smash what had driven me into a thousand pieces, but I knew that sooner or later I'd find a replacement. Freedom wasn't found in tossing the treadmill, but in discovering a maintainable pace.
Though God had been echoing the invitation to enter His rest, I hesitated to respond because somewhere along the journey of life, I had developed a mangled perspective. For me, downtime felt like detention: a forced confinement in which I was restrained against my will. I viewed respite like a tether holding me back rather than a resilient spring propelling me into the fullness of life God intended. As a result, I spent a lifetime outrunning downtime and missing out on one of the greatest wonders of all: rest.
The counselor challenged my distorted view. Through our discussions I came to see rest as a divine invitation to make the physical, emotional, and spiritual confession that God is Lord of all. If I affirm that God holds everything together, then I'm free to establish a sustainable rhythm as I entrust everything and everyone to God. When I enter into God's rest, I crawl into bed knowing the world lounges safely in His hands.
But the biggest epiphany came when I realized that apart from the divine gift of downtime I cannot fully awaken to the presence of God. Rest refreshes our physical bodies, expands our mental capacities, and increases our spiritual awareness. Yet I had slept through some of God's most spectacular displays because I had failed to rest.
With this wondrous discovery beating in my heart — a lack of rest makes me drowsy to God's presence — I desperately wanted to awake. Staring at the counselor, I begged him to tell me what to do. He advised me to take responsibility. The pace of my life was my making, and only I could undo it. The grassy meadows and still waters described in the 23rd Psalm awaited, but I had to choose to answer the invitation of the Good Shepherd.
Entering God's rest required more than taking a catnap or pressing the snooze button but also becoming deliberate and intentional about the way I lived. That evening my husband, Leif, and I discussed what it meant, not just for me, but for us, to unwrap the gift of rest in our lives. We needed to develop life-giving rhythms, a sustainable pace. Our approach to everyday life required a change.
We committed to realigning our lives. We woke up earlier, added exercise to our regimen, and reset our mealtimes. The tipping point — when we both committed to finish work by 6 p.m. and established a reasonable bedtime. Adjusting to the fledgling schedule, we found ourselves becoming more rested and fully present.
Secretly, I hoped to be as productive working nine hours as 14 and struggled to accept smaller yields of accomplishment at the end of each day. Limiting my time at work meant reducing the number of projects I took on. For the first few months, I swung like a broken sprinkler head toward excessive extremes. I said no to everything — including some things I should have said yes to — but slowly discovered a more balanced approach. I gauged potential participation in everyday activities with the knowledge that every yes costs me three nos. My daily decisions soon became more thoughtful, intentional, and prayerful. I wasn't just giving myself; I was giving my best self to my relationships and work.
With rest, I noticed God-moments I might have missed before. My prayers grew clearer. Studying the Scriptures became more meaningful.
When life was rushed, I felt like I was reading a cookbook backward — nothing connected or made sense. Now I felt more attuned to God's voice in the Bible. Sometimes you have to slow to a stop and reset before you can experience divine presence. My hunger to know God increased as I learned to develop a healthy rhythm in life and rediscovered the wonder of rest.
Like a great comet catapulted across a starry night, God's holy encore awed me. All the adjustments in daily life prepared me to rediscover one of the most beautiful gifts in life: Sabbath. This delightful treat of God isn't one He keeps to Himself but shares freely with humanity. God established the Sabbath from the beginning of time for all time. In a world marked by endless demands to work and produce, God issues an invitation to rest. Scholars debate which came first, the word Sabbath — or Shabbat, as it's known in Hebrew — or the word "ceasing," since Shabbat is derived from the Hebrew word sh-b-t, meaning "to cease." Regardless, the primary meaning of Sabbath reminds us that if we do not master the art of ceasing, we cannot master the art of rest.
Making time to pause isn't just a holy opportunity but a divine command. Despite studying one of the most important ritual observances in Judaism and listening to dozens of teachings on its importance, the Sabbath had remained negotiable in my life. I treated the Sabbath like a rainy day fund, convincing myself that a single cloud justified a withdrawal. The Sabbath became a time bank to purchase all kinds of things I couldn't afford the other six days of the week. I thought I could draw on the account as much as I needed, any time I needed, without consequence. Not until I woke up and confessed, I can't do this anymore, did I realize all of my withdrawals had left me bankrupt.
In the weeks following counseling, I restudied the Sabbath in Scripture. After an unforgettable encounter with God on Mount Sinai, Moses delivers the 10 Commandments to the Israelites. Of all the edicts, I chose to be the most deliberate in breaking the longest one. While many of the Commandments are short and direct, like "Don't murder" and "Don't steal," Moses spells out what it means to honor the Sabbath, highlights acceptable behavior, and even offers a brief history of the day's importance, alluding to God's affections for humanity.
The only other place where Moses becomes as long-winded is the second commandment, which forbids idolatry, maybe because failure to rest, like idolatry, supplants God with lesser affections. Moses pauses to emphasize the ease with which we can find ourselves ascribing value to anything and everything other than God. At times we'll be tempted to construct our own idols, but despite their appeal and allure, attributing worth to anything other than God comes at great cost. The forbidding of idols isn't meant to detain us from something good but to protect us from something destructive, spotlighting the breadth of God's love.
Though I had always seen these two commands as separate in the past, I now viewed them as walking hand in hand. Apart from developing a healthy rhythm of rest, we succumb to idols and their constant demands. The Sabbath provides the space we need to recognize the false gods that slip into our lives when we're distracted. This holy day gives us the opportunity to remove them and recalibrate our lives to God.
Moses notes that the Sabbath finds its roots in Genesis — the story of creation in which God is revealed as One who celebrates the good, the tov, of creation with a rhythm as natural as exhaling. With each passing day, the heavens and earth splash to life until the sixth day, when God declares the forming of humanity as tov me'od, or abundantly good. The work of creation is a good and purposeful work performed by a good and purposeful God. Of all the days, perhaps the seventh is the most eloquent and insightful as to the nature of God. From a literary perspective, the Sabbath forms the pinnacle of the story. Like the dramatic kiss of a soldier returning from war, this is the moment we're not meant to miss. In choosing rest as the grand finale, God reveals Himself as One neither driven by anxiety or fear but One who finds gladness in both the work of creation and the creation of work.
On the Sabbath, the world rests firmly in the palms of God. Neither the stars nor the birds fall from the sky. But unlike the other days of creation, the entry is missing the closing refrain, "Evening came, and then morning: the [insert the numeral] day." All other days close with the same chorus, except the seventh. Why? Maybe because God is inviting us to enter rest and reminding us that the invitation has no expiration date.
This scriptural detail is a source of great comfort because it means that no matter how many times we reduce the Sabbath to nothing more than an hour of church or five minutes of shut-eye or another long day of hard work or play, the invitation to enter the rest of God has no end. The Sabbath is a sanctuary in time with doors that remain wide open — even for the bankrupt like me.
Excerpted from Wonderstruck by Margaret Feinberg, © 2012. Published by Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., Brentwood, Tenn. worthypublishing.com. Used by permission. Tell us what you thought of this excerpt on Twitter: @WorthyPub, use hashtag #livewonderstruck.