It’s often pointed out that, in contrast to a majority of other religions and faith systems, the emphasis of the New Testament is what God has done for Humanity, instead of what Humanity needs to do for God.
With rare exception, the idea of “striving” is basically not present in the exhortations of the Christian scriptures. Instead, the emphasis is on receiving the gift God has given, which no effort on our part could have accomplished.
But, there are a few exceptions. And, when those rare exceptions are present — where striving towards something is admonished — I think it is especially worthy of note.
One of those few instances is the counter intuitive invitation of Hebrews 4:11
Therefore, let us make every effort to enter that rest.
In the midst of a season of my life that has been my most overwhelming so far, I find this entreaty towards cessation of work (instead of towards further exertion) to be so life-giving.
And… sometimes, almost a little guilt-giving…
“Who am I to have the luxury of a break? So many people need to work much longer hours, and have much harder lives than me. What have I done that would deserve letting me stop?”
Resting sometimes almost feels wrong. Like we need to keep producing to justify our existence.
When confronting my resistance to rest, I’ve been finding myself challenged by two themes.
The first theme is the well-documented fact that good rest actually enables much greater productivity.
Early in the days of Apple Computers, as the world-changing Macintosh was being developed, many of Apple’s engineers were forced to work 90+ hour work-weeks in order to get the first Mac shipped sooner. However, those ultra-long hours actually ended up delaying the final shipping date of the Macintosh. Later studies that looked at the productivity of those overworked engineers showed that their exhaustion actually decreased their productivity significantly, to the point where the Macintosh would have shipped significantly earlier if the engineers had worked much fewer hours.
We live in an age where mental clarity and insightful creativity are much more important and valuable than the capacity exert ourselves 16-hours a day for weeks on end without a break.
Yet, one of the first things that gets lost in seasons of overwhelm and overwork is mental clarity and insightful creativity.
James Clear recently shared an insight that I think has an applicable parallel:
“You’re more likely to unlock a big leap in performance by trying differently than by trying harder. You might be able to work 10% harder, but a different approach might work 10x better. Remain focused on the core problem, but explore a new line of attack. Persistence is not just about effort, but also strategy. Don’t merely try harder, try differently.”
It reminded me of when I was doing some contracting work for an app development company last year. On one of my rest days, I was reading and journalling, when an idea popped into my head for improving the efficiency of one of the company’s workflows. I pitched the idea to the CEO and we implemented it. The result was that we ended taking a process that would normally take between 1-2 months of work to complete, and we transformed it into a process that now only takes about 2 days of work.
That transformative idea came about largely because I had decided to rest well that day I had the idea.
And this connection between rest and productivity shows up all over the place, from poor coffee farmers making better coffee when they’re allowed vacation time and sick days, all the way up to the most elite athletes.
One of the things that sticks out when you study high-functioning athletes is how aggressive they are with recovery. The hard workout is important, but recovering well and resting well between workouts is vital, and ends up being a huge emphasis for achieving highest performance.
So, it seems like resting really well (aggressively, even), balanced with working hard and passionately, can be a huge boon to creativity and productivity.
Just based on the raw economics, fighting for rest makes a ton of sense.
But… I also promised a second theme… And that’s this:
While productivity is important, life is more than our productivity.
Our social order might not show it right now, but all human lives are precious and priceless. The life of the richest billionaire is no more valuable than the life of a child dying from drought, famine, and war in Yemen.
Sure, Bezos, Zuck, and Musk are all exponentially more “productive” than that Yemeni kid.
But that child’s life is still priceless, regardless of that fact she hasn’t been been an economic and productivity powerhouse. (And, regardless of the fact the world generally doesn’t treat her life as valuable.)
And, I think those thousands of years of wisdom have something to teach us today.
Oliver Burkeman, in his book Four Thousand Weeks, puts it in a way that has stuck with me:
… while capitalism gets its energy from the permanent anxiety of striving for more, the sabbath embodies the thought that whatever work you’ve completed by the time that Friday (or Saturday) night rolls around might be enough — that there might be no sense, for now, in trying to get any more done. … the sabbath [is described] as an invitation to spend one day per week “in the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God."
One need not be a religious believer to feel some of the deep relief in that idea of being “on the receiving end” — in the possibility that today, at least, there might be nothing more you need to do in order to justify your existence."