In 2014, Cadillac aired a commercial in which a wealthy man standing in front of his swimming pool asks, "Why do we [Americans] work so hard?" Here's his answer, slightly abbreviated:
For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy-driven hard-workin' believers, that's why...It's pretty simple: you work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N'est-ce pas?
While jabbing at the French work ethic, the commercial encapsulates a certain American one: work hard, work long, rest little. Upper-middle-class Americans, or those aspiring to it, typically view this work ethic—or perhaps an adjacent one, slightly less bombastic—as a character virtue, a sign that someone is responsible, ambitious, not a freeloader, even a good person.
Such behavior is rewarded in our culture, but I don't think it's healthy. We generally overdo work. To put it in religious terms, work is a kind of idol for us. Americans give too much time and energy to it, and we expect inordinate satisfaction in return.
These days, I'm more skeptical than impressed by this kind of work ethic (even if my own work practice sometimes suggests otherwise). While hard work has its place, if it's not circumscribed by sufficient genuine rest, it just seems like culturally-approved dysfunction. A healthy work ethic requires a healthy rest ethic.
Genesis 1:1-2:3: God's Rest Ethic
But what good is rest? What I'll call "the business case" for rest claims it's good because it allows us to work better. This is the reason employers grant paid time off; without rest, workers become less productive. On this picture, we rest in order to work. Rest is a means to better work.
In this kind of means-end relationship, the end is usually better than the means: we value the means only because it gets us to the end. For example, we value being cured far more than the medicine that cures us.
But the business case for rest is not the picture we get in the opening verses of Genesis (vv. 1:1-2:3). That passage famously describes how, in six days, God created the world and everything in it—oceans, land, sky, fish, birds, cattle, and, of course, human beings—and on the seventh day, the account tells us, God rested.
According to these verses, all of creation is good. After each stage of creation, we get the refrain, "God saw that it was good" (vv. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). When creation is complete, the passage declares the sum of God's work"very good" (1:31).
However, the account singles out two things as especially good: human beings (who bear the "image" of God) and the seventh day. God blesses both of these—human beings in 1:28 and the seventh day in the concluding verse of the passage: "God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it" (Gen. 2:3).
When God blesses something, it means God favors or values it in a way distinct from other things. If we think God's judgments are correct, then it seems we're left with the conclusion the seventh day is better than the other days. The "hallowing" of the seventh day suggests much the same thing: to hallow something is to make it holy, to set it apart, to mark it as different in a positive sense.
Moreover, we're told the blessing and hallowing of the seventh day come "because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation." It's the rest that makes the seventh day better than all the others (good as they may be!). Rest, it seems, is better than work.
(Philosophical bonus: Nevertheless, I think it also won't do to say that work is merely a means to rest, as if Loverboy's 1981 lyric, "Everybody's working for the weekend!" were true. We shouldn't just tolerate work because it gets us rest. Both work and rest are valuable for their own sakes, because of what they are, even if they both can also serve as a means to other things from time to time.)
What Counts as Rest?
Jewish rabbis teach that to work is to try to change the world in some way, to interfere with creation. Thus, to rest or abstain from work is to cease doing so. It is to imitate the God who does not change (Malachi 3:6) and who ceased from changing creation on the seventh day. When we rest, we simply accept and enjoy the world as it is.
The word "shabbos"—which is the root of "shabbat," indicating the weekly Jewish celebration—is related to the word "sheves," which means "to dwell." Thus, you might say the sabbath, the day of rest, is a day simply to dwell in creation as it is, achieving a kind of peace or harmony with creation. Hence the Jewish sabbath greeting, "Shabbat shalom,"—Sabbath peace.
Genuine rest is restorative. Because the things that restore us are mostly particular to us as individuals, what counts as rest is diverse. For example, spending time with a group of people could restore an extrovert; that same activity might well drain an introvert (it drains this one...).
One guidepost to restful activity is whether it feels like play. My job required me to be in Jackson, Wyoming for a few days this past week. The sun didn't set until 9 p.m., so after work one day I took a long hike in the mountains (I snapped the photo above on the hike). Since I work mostly with my mind, the hike was play for me, even though it exhausted my body.
Given the Jewish account of rest as simply dwelling in creation instead of trying to change it, I wonder whether time in nature—in the mountains, at the beach, in a forest—is one of the few forms of rest universal to humans. Sabbath rest seems especially designed for time spent admiring nature.
Other activities can go either way, for me. Reading, for example: if the literature is something I feel obligated to read, such as a book filled with things I should learn, or an article someone sent me that isn't my cup of tea, then reading is not restful. On the other hand, if it's one of the many novels I'm dying to get to, reading is one of my favorite ways to rest.
Rest is Difficult
A healthy rest ethic is difficult to achieve. At a retreat several weeks ago, one of the pastors in my church pointed out that rest requires us to trust that life won't fall apart if we disconnect from work. Fear, therefore, can stand in the way of rest.
Rest can also require sacrifice: sometimes resting means making do with less, missing out on what the extra work would have produced. Greed, therefore, can also block rest. (I suspect this is what troubles our friend in the Cadillac commercial.)
And making do with less often requires humility. Perhaps a job that allows for sufficient rest pays less. Perhaps you'll need to ride the bus instead of drive a car, or eat at home rather than a restaurant. If others are driving cars or eating at restaurants, the choice for rest will require humility. Pride, therefore, can also stand in the way of rest.
In our work-crazy culture, rest will, perhaps paradoxically, also require discipline. For those of us who struggle with a compulsion to work, it will take commitment and self-control to put down our labor and play. I often stumble at this hurdle. To most, I appear very disciplined: I eat well, I exercise regularly, I consistently hack through my task list.
But the truth is, these practices have become habits, some of which border on compulsions. It doesn't take much will-power for me to do them. What does take will-power is not hacking through my task list. My goal is for Sunday—the Lord's Day—to be a day of rest. Confession: I've not spent a whole Sunday (or any other day!) resting in a long time. Until resting itself becomes a habit for me, I'll need to work at it (oh, the irony).
But it's worth the work. Rest, of course, does help us be productive. But if trust, willingness to sacrifice, humility, and discipline are character virtues—as I take them to be—then a solid rest ethic is both a sign of good character (since it requires all those virtues) and also something that makes human life good and beautiful in its own right. And that's the kind of life I want to live.