The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” [Mark 6:30-31a (NLT)]
Whenever we were with my mother-in-law, she would say, “Come, sit down, and rest for a bit.” Since I usually was busy preparing a meal or doing some task for her, I’d say, “Not now, Grandma, maybe later!” Now that she’s gone, I wish I’d spent a few more minutes sitting and resting with her. I thought of her this morning when reading Jesus’ words urging the disciples to find a quiet place to rest awhile.
Having just returned from their first mission trip of preaching, healing the sick, and casting out demons, the disciples were tired and hungry. In an attempt to get away from the crowd gathered around them, Jesus and the men left by boat to find an out-of-the-way place where they could rest and talk. We know the rest of the story—the people followed on foot and were waiting for Jesus when He came ashore. Seeing the throng as “sheep without a shepherd,” Jesus had compassion and taught them throughout the day. When evening came, He ended up feeding over 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. The miraculous feeding of this multitude overshadows the way the story began—with Jesus’ suggestion that they find “a quiet place and rest awhile.” Nevertheless, it’s as important as the rest of the story.
My physical issues the last several months made it clear that not taking regular breaks from the computer and failing to get a decent night’s sleep take a toll on our bodies. I’ve also come to understand that it’s not just our bodies that suffer when life gets out of balance. Retreat and rest are as important spiritually as they are physically; that’s why, as busy as Jesus was, He often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.
According to the Talmud, Jews are supposed to pray three times a day and Scripture tells us that both David and Daniel did so. Muslims also take daily spiritual retreats in their obligatory five-times-a-day prayer ritual called salah. The Arabic word salah literally means “connection” and this practice is intended to link the one who prays with the creator. Other than Paul telling us to never cease praying, we Christians don’t have a similar “requirement.” If we did, I suspect some of us would try to lump together the five prayers into one or two so we wouldn’t have to interrupt our day (which would defeat its purpose). Muslims, however, have specific times (dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening) specified so that believers continue to maintain their connection with God throughout the day. Perhaps we should consider adopting their practice in some way.
In her book about discerning God’s will, author Ruth Haley Barton said, “Disciplines of rest and retreat teach us to live within our limits.” She pointed out that when we fail to do so, we compromise the quality of our relationships both with God and the people around us. My mother-in-law knew how to live within her limits. Granted, as a centenarian, she had fairly narrow limits and did a lot of resting, but she had a point! We need to find a balance between work and retreat, activity and rest, doing and being, in all areas of life.
Even though we know better, when it comes to spiritual matters, many of us emulate Martha by being busy doing for the Lord rather than model her sister Mary, who retreated from her activities to be with the Lord! When God instituted the work-free Sabbath, the Israelites had to trust God’s provision enough for tomorrow to retreat and rest on the Sabbath. Observing the Sabbath kept them from idolizing work. When we won’t stop working to be with the Lord, we’ve created a false idol. When we pause for Him, as did the Israelites on the Sabbath, we begin living within our limits by conceding that God is God and we are not! Only He can do it all.
Living within our limits doesn’t mean we have to go off on vacation or spend a week in a monastery and it shouldn’t be confined to just one day a week. Living within our limits could begin with our own Christian version of selah by taking regular mini-retreats from our daily activities to connect with God through prayer. Scripture tells us that Jesus frequently withdrew from the world to pray; let us not be afraid to do the same.