Eric Liddell has a lot to answer for. Back in 1924, he was the athlete that refused to race in the 100 metres at the Paris Olympics, because the heats were on a Sunday. He went on to compete in the 400 metres and won Olympic Gold. Many of my forebears used this as Exhibit A in the argument that Sundays should be kept sacred from the rest of the week: no shopping, no sport, and instead a disciplined commitment to church and faith. As a kid I was always curious why setting a day aside to rest was so important to any divine being. Any loving deity would surely want his creatures to take a day off now and then, but to include a day of rest in His Big Ten – alongside not murdering, not stealing and not committing adultery – seemed a little excessive.
It took two decades of going to church and some brilliant insights by American Professor, John Walton, before it all finally clicked. In the ancient world, the idea of God ‘resting’ had nothing to do with him or her sitting back in a lazy-boy, soaking up the sun. The notion was more like the end of a gruelling election campaign, when the prime minister finally enters Number 10, or the moment a regent is crowned and sits on the throne. The ceremonies are over; ruling and reigning begins.
That’s what is going on at the start of Genesis two. Six days of creation are done; time to get to work. God doesn’t take a day off, nor does He sleep, slumber or lose concentration. “The Father is always working.” John 5:17. Hence why rest was such a big deal for the Israelites in the Old Testament. In an agricultural economy – where not working meant you might not eat – resting was a profound act of faith. It meant when they stopped, God didn’t. The same is true for us today. Taking a day off, having a break, even sleep itself, can be a powerful declaration of trust in God – as I put my head on the pillow, someone greater than I keeps the world spinning.
But there’s another reason rest is so important. If you compare the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, there’s a teeny, tiny difference. In Exodus, we’re instructed to rest because “God rested” in verse 11 – i.e. we stop, because God doesn’t. In Deuteronomy however, there’s an addition: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” in verse 15. For 400 years the Israelites never rested, never took a day off. Why? They were slaves. I think there’s a lesson there. If we find ourselves so driven, so focussed, that we can never take a break, chances are that something has mastered us and we’re unable to break free. Put simply: we’re slaves.
Perhaps that’s why Eric Liddell found it so easy to say no to competing in the hundred metres: there were more important things to him in life than winning. He was truly free from the pressure to succeed.
In a nation where over 100,000,000 sick days are lost to stress each year, where over 26,000,000 hours of overtime are worked by UK employees every single day, and where, on average, we can’t go more than six minutes without checking, and updating, our social media profile, perhaps we’re not as free as we think we are.
The act of stopping, taking a break and even sleep, is about much, much more than simple physical replenishment. It’s a humble and appropriate reminder that I’m not God, that I can’t do life all by myself. More than that, it liberates me from having to win. Losing has never felt so good.