My family just returned from a couple weeks of vacation. It was a glorious opportunity to play, to sleep, to relax, to read good books, to spend time together — in short, to rest. What a blessing to be able to experience something of the balance that God intended when he established the rhythm of the universe in creation: day and night, work and rest.

It is one thing to preach about this harmony in Genesis 1 (as I did a few months ago) and another thing completely to experience it. God ordered his creation in this way, work and rest, and it continues to function in the same way through all the generations of humanity.

I’ve been thinking, however, about the need for continuing this balance on a micro scale (day & night, week & weekend), as well as on a macro scale (work 49 weeks & get three off). It seems to me that failure to attain true and meaningful rest in the midst of labour is one of the main reasons why pastors burn out so frequently.

It’s not hard to see why. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the pastor’s work is never really finished. There is always more to study, more people to meet with, more to pray about. Things are never organized enough and long-term vision has never been developed enough. That’s to say nothing of the constant, urgent demands on a pastor’s time because of genuine problems in people’s lives.

So pastors often do what the world does. We read time management books and strategize. We come up with systems to ‘get things done.’ We work harder and harder to be more productive in the hopes that we’ll somehow attain that ever-elusive moment of rest when everything is finally done.

But it’s never done. And that’s the thing. If we wait for things to be finished before we rest, we’ll never rest. And we simply can’t sustain that. And that’s not the way we’ve been designed to live.

There’s more than just initial design at play here, too. At root in a scenario like this (which I have seen time and again in my own life) is unbelief — or, at the very least, wrong belief. When we get caught in a rest-less routine like this, we are acting like the growth of the kingdom depends on us and on our labour. But that’s not what Jesus himself taught.

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29 ESV)

In other words, we are as powerless to advance the kingdom by our labour as a farmer is powerless to actually make his field of crops grow. It is God who ultimately must give the growth. Paul understood this:

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. … You are God’s field…. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9 ESV)

But here’s what that doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard and it doesn’t mean that our labour is meaningless. We know we should work hard because Jesus was in the middle of preaching all day long when he spoke the parable of the field. And when Paul thought about the fact that God is the one who gives the growth, he concluded, ‘According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation’ (1 Cor 3:10). And he knew his work was meaningful since ‘each will receive his wages according to his labour’ (1 Cor 3.8).

So what does it mean, then, that ‘God gives the growth’? It means that we must labour hard to please our master and rest well because we trust our master. And in this way both our work and our rest function to magnify our God rather than ourselves.

So, brother pastor, let’s aim not to be productive, but to be faithful. Let’s work for a reward and rest in him through faith, knowing that even while we sleep, he is growing his kingdom.