Compared to people in other industrialized nations, Americans work longer hours, take fewer vacation days, and retire later in life. Busyness, once seen as the curse of the disadvantaged, has become equated with status and importance. Our work increasingly defines who we are.
On the surface, John Koessler’s The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap (InterVarsity Press) seems ideally suited to this particular moment in cultural history. Interestingly, though, one of the first things Koessler does is decouple the concept of rest from work. “Rest is an end in itself,” he writes in the introduction. “We do not work in order to justify the fact that we rest. We do not rest in order to work. Rest as the Bible describes it is our destiny. It is what we were made to do.”
According to Koessler, this type of godly rest (distinct from play, relaxation, or sleep) is inextricably tied to our identity as children of God. Jesus is our ultimate rest, which we can only find when we release the worldly anxieties, ambitions, and expectations that pull us toward greater productivity. For an overachieving people-pleaser like me, thinking of rest as an innate part of who we were created to be—not as a discipline or something to be earned—is compelling. It is yet another form of God’s infinite grace, one that’s needed today more than ever.
Early in the book, Koessler enters this caveat: “This is not really a ‘how-to’ book. The secret to rest is not in what we do so much as in how we see.” His desire to focus on the theology of rest and the spiritual barriers to finding that rest is commendable. After all, our inability to find God’s rest is rooted in something deeper than demanding jobs or pinging smartphones, and prioritizing godly rest requires more than discipline.
Still, the many metaphors Koessler uses to describe godly rest stoke more confusion than clarity. He calls rest a destination, a location, a gift, a practice, a condition, a state of being, an identity, an act of faith, a way of life, a relationship with Christ, and Jesus himself. These word-images would mean more if they were fleshed out with modern, real-world examples—or even snapshots—of what lives infused with godly rest look like. Instead, the book relies exclusively on vignettes from Koessler’s own life and biblical passages describing how figures like King David and the apostles understood rest and work. The stories help, but even though he admits this isn’t a how-to book, I was left wondering what the life of someone mindful of godly rest would look like in today’s culture.
I also wondered how relevant this book would be for those constrained by taxing circumstances. What does pursuing godly rest look like for the person who works multiple jobs to make ends meet? For those with supervisors who do not permit shorter hours or respites from email? For full-time caregivers of young children or aging relatives? Unfortunately, Koessler doesn’t address such contexts. His few concrete suggestions—limit your work hours, turn off your smartphone, take time in solitude away from family and friends—will not address the challenges of many readers.
Koessler’s most clearly articulated calls to action are directed to the broader American church, which he diagnoses as trapped in a consumerist mentality. A longtime pastor himself, he returns again and again to sharp critiques of the leaders and laypeople who care more about the work, success, or image of the church than about nurturing a place for its attendees to find rest in Jesus. He affirms the desire of churchgoers to simply be in the presence of God without having to earn their place through service.
The call to better facilitate godly rest within houses of worship is, of course, only one part of the solution. Surrounded by voices telling us to prove our worth through productivity, any of us would be hard-pressed to find true rest unless we regularly offered one another encouragement, accountability, and practical assistance. Koessler explains this relational interplay in his exploration of the Old Testament Sabbath, one of the book’s richest sections: “By keeping the Sabbath in all its forms, the people of Israel were reminded that they were dependent on God and interconnected with each other.” But the modern-day pursuit of rest he presents seems more a solitary, introspective quest to correct our misperceptions and tear down our strongholds.
If one is looking for concrete guidance on how this God-given grace can transform every major area of our lives—from our careers and relationships to our personal habits and faith—this is not the book. But The Radical Pursuit of Rest is chiefly about making sure we begin with the right frame of mind.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and Her.meneutics contributor.