The Skill of Rest

The Skill of Rest

In Japan, people are often workaholics. Much of this is cultural—they don’t want to appear lazy in comparison to the people around them. They want to be good citizens and make valuable contributions to their companies. Some people have taken this so much to the extreme that now the Japanese government is concerned, and is taking steps to reduce the number of cases of 過労死 (“kah-row-ooo-she”), or “death by overwork”. 

You can tell what a culture values by the number of words that it has to describe a certain concept or group of concepts. For instance, Eskimos and Inuit living in the Canadian North have dozens of words to describe different types of snow [1]. This makes sense because their lives are greatly impacted by snow and its various qualities. Indonesians are mostly Muslim and don’t eat pork. Their language has only one word for “pig”. There are no separate terms for pigs and pork; schnitzel, cultet, chops, loin, roast, bacon; and so on. [2] Why would they need anything so specific for an animal they don’t consume?

In English-speaking culture, we talk about rest, relaxation, leisure, vacation, taking a day off, taking a break, having downtime, going to bed, and sleeping. In Japanese, all of these things are covered by a single word: 休み (“yah-soo-mee”). Rest is not of cultural importance, so why would they need many words for it?

Living overseas is taxing—particularly when you’re learning a new language and trying to assimilate as much as possible into the culture. Because you’re surrounded by a foreign culture and language, constantly second-guessing yourself, and struggling to understand and communicate even the simplest phrases, feeling overwhelmed becomes a way of life. 

When we first came to Japan, we soon found that even the most inane tasks took more than 4x the energy those same tasks took in Canada [3]. Pair this with a variety of health problems that we’ve encountered since being here, and you have a recipe for stress-induced burnout. 

But this has not happened. Why? Because we soon realized that if living in Japan was going to be sustainable, we needed to prioritize rest. We designate one day a week to be our Sabbath rest. We make sure to take our allotment of vacation each year. We’ve collected information on how frequently we need to take vacation, and try to plan our times away so that they happen slightly before we start feeling irritable and unloving towards the people around us.

During our second-last monthly planning meeting with Pastor Higa and his wife, Tsuneko sensei, we worked through our vacation plans for next year. At the end, Tsuneko sensei said, “You’re so skilled at resting.” 

Uh-oh. Did she think that we were lazy? 

I looked at her sharply. All that was in her face was love and admiration.

Then I remembered her character. If she can't say something kind, she doesn't say anything. This wasn't a barb. It was a compliment.

With that, I realized: this skill of rest is something Peter and I can contribute to the body of Christ in Japan. [4]

You see, I don’t believe that taking proper rest is only for the purpose of personal refreshment. It has implications in our spiritual life as well. I tend to be a workaholic, but when I intentionally build rest into my working life, it serves as a reminder. Everything doesn’t depend on me. The world will keep spinning if I’m not working today. [5] God is the One whose work makes an impact on the lives of the people here. I’m just a tool in His kit. He has many others. 

My relationship with God is more important than my work in Japan. I need to take that time during my Sabbath to refocus on Him—because serving Him can become an idol. I can be a missionary and miss Jesus [6].

The week before Tsuneko sensei made her comment, an elderly lady from church (“Eleanor”) drove me home from prayer meeting. She is usually very active in volunteering at church, but on this night Eleanor shared with me about how guilty she was feeling. A church kids’ camp was coming up. She felt that she should help out, but she was feeling exhausted and wasn’t sure if she would be able to do so. 

“Sometimes we need to rest,” I said. “We are human beings. God created us. He knows our human frailty—what we can and cannot handle. When we rest, we remind ourselves that the work is God’s, not ours. This doesn’t mean that we’re lazy, but it does mean that we don’t have to feel as though everything depends on us. 

“When we rest, we give ourselves time to learn from His word, and to be filled with His Spirit. God doesn’t always answer our prayers right away. Sometimes we need to wait for Him. Sometimes He needs time to prepare our hearts. Serving God is not the most important thing. Loving Him, and being loved by Him is more important.”

I didn’t realize how relieved and encouraged Eleanor was until she shared a testimony about the things I said, in the following week’s prayer meeting!

The skill of rest lies not only in taking the rest that we need when we need it, but also in not taking so much that our Christian brothers and sisters feel left in the lurch. Rest is a limited commodity; if we hog more than our share, we rob it from our brothers and sisters. This does not demonstrate love to our neighbour, nor does it enable our brothers and sisters to thrive in the kingdom of God. The Bible tells us to spur one another on in our faith [7], and helping out in our churches is an important part of this process. 



[2] Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, p 117.

[3] Having acclimatized to living in Japan a little more, most tasks now take only 2.5 times the energy they would take in Canada.

[4] If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you will know that I firmly believe each culture around the world has a unique understanding of at least one spiritual topic that no other culture understands in quite the same way. When we open our hearts to learn from each other, our understanding of God and His kingdom is enhanced and enriched.

[5] Waye Cordeiro, Leading on Empty, pp 168-173.

[6] From a conversation with Manfred and Beth Koehler, 2008.

[7] Hebrews 10:24.


(Picture Source)

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