Life tends toward business. Have you noticed? Clutter and frantic are effortless. Clean and calm tend to slip away while we’re not looking.

Over the last several years I’ve been through busier seasons, and now God has kindly provided more of a sabbatical kind of season. I’ve noticed several things about the idea of Sabbath rest:

  • Busy seasons are often when I’ve learned how to do Sabbath well.
  • Not being busy is never a guarantee that I’m actually resting my soul.
  • Paradoxically, drawing from both of these points, rest is hard work.

Here are some specific lessons I’ve learned along the way. Maybe they’ll help you to endure amid busyness and fatigue.

1. Rest Before You Get Tired

Working until you crash is an easy default. When there’s a lot to do, it’s easy to keep going as long as you have the energy. But I’ve found that effective Sabbath rest requires paying greater attention to patterns of behavior over the long haul than bursts of energy in the short term.

It can be difficult to wrench yourself away from the computer when you still feel like working. But it’s healthy to have defined limits determined by objective plans more than by moment-by-moments feelings. If I go home at 5 p.m. even when I feel like I could keep working, for instance, I almost inevitably have more energy the next day. Taking Sabbath rest well requires discipline and intentionality. Again, paradoxically, rest is hard work.

2. Have a Rhythm to Your Rest

Christians interpret the fourth commandment variously. But whatever your view of the old covenant regulations, we can all recognize a more abiding significance to the Sabbath. After all, Sabbath is not merely a commandment to Israel (Ex. 20), but a part of creation (Gen. 1), and a picture of the gospel (Heb. 4). So whatever our Sunday schedule looks like, none of us can avoid wrestling with the larger principle.

In my own life, I have carved out particular portions of my week for particular kinds of rest. When I don’t have structured times of work and rest, my times of work are less productive, less enjoyable, and accompanied by a nagging feeling of guilt that I’m overworking. By contrast, if I know I have a time for rest with my family coming up, I can work with greater productivity and with a sense of freedom, knowing that God’s pleasure is in my work insofar as I do it unto him. It’s a great feeling to come home exhausted, feeling like I’ve given it my best, and then genuinely leave my work behind me.

3. When You Are Resting, Rest

It’s easy to think during our day off, “I’ll just respond to this one email; it’ll only take 30 seconds.” But there is something healthy about having space that is truly blocked out for rest, space that nothing that can invade. An email may take 30 seconds to write, but it will probably take more psychological and mental energy, especially if it’s something important you will keep thinking about. There’s also wisdom in setting good boundaries and helping people not expect immediate email responses all the time. (If you answer once, will they keep emailing?)

4. Rest from Social Media and Other Electronics

Social media speed up and often clutter life. They are great resources but can also be incredibly destructive if we abuse them. I try most weeks to take Sabbath rest from my phone and computer from noon Saturday to noon Sunday. It’s a way to declutter my mind before church. I’ve found I really need that space, and I didn’t know how much I needed it until I started doing it.

I wonder if sometimes our minds and habits are so enmeshed with social media that we aren’t even aware of the effect they’re having upon us. It’s healthy to take small steps and see what effect it has: even turning off our phone for one hour in the middle of every day can start to show us just how addicted we’ve become.

5. Find a Hobby

I think one of the reasons people don’t rest well is they don’t have hobbies. Hobbies are helpful because they occupy our minds and energies during Sabbath rest. That’s often more balancing and more restorative than simply sitting on the couch and watching TV. Sabbath rest is not just about ceasing activity, but redirecting activity into alternative, life-giving channels. Once again, Sabbath rest takes work.

Often it’s good, I think, for our hobbies to be different from our profession. For instance, if you have a desk job, join an intramural sports team. Or if your job is highly relational and fast-paced, find a hobby that is leisurely and provides solitude. Pastors and others who work in a Christian environment can often benefit from having hobbies that put them into close contact with non-Christians and/or in a non-leadership role.

When your identity six days a week is “pastor,” there’s something healthy about your identity switching on the seventh day to “the guy in right field.” It’s healthy and normalizing. I know one pastor in the UK who joined a boxing league. He said he loved it, and also got to share the gospel with Muslims regularly. What a good idea: for the exercise, for the gospel opportunity, and also for the personal rejuvenation.

6. Find Ways to Rest with Your Family

Sometimes being a father or mother is exhausting, and sometimes marriage takes a lot of work. But for the most part, family can also be a healthy distraction from busyness. I’ve heard it said you can often measure how healthy a family is by how much they play together and have fun and laugh together. I think there’s truth to that. The overworked dad may find nothing better for his own soul than to come home and play with his kids at the park. Rather than see it as another thing to do, see it as a divinely appointed distraction and Sabbath opportunity.

For me, this means going to the park with my son between 5 to 5:45 p.m. every day. I started doing this to serve my wife and get more time with Isaiah, but now I look forward to it daily. It’s relaxing at the end of the day to be outside and to slow down a bit before I come home for dinner.

7. Where You Struggle with Sabbath, Remember the Gospel

If you struggle to take Sabbath rest, it may be a gospel issue—finding your identity in your work, or being a people-pleaser, or using busyness to distract you from unhappiness. So much overwork is driven by self-justification efforts: we need to accomplish more and more because we’re failing to apply to our hearts what Christ has already accomplished for us. So the most important thing to do during Sabbath rest is to refresh your heart with fellowship with God, and to enjoy your status as his beloved child because of what Jesus has done.

A great irony is that if my day off is going poorly and is not fun or restful, I can start to get a little agitated or stressed at how poorly I am “doing” Sabbath. In those moments I need to remember that Jesus himself is my truest Sabbath rest. Ultimately, my rest is not in a Sabbath day but in the One who has promised: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).