The stories we hear when we’re young stay with us. They define us, tell us who we are. For good, and sometimes for ill, they inform the ways we live our lives. Sometimes we realize it. Sometimes we don’t.
When I was 16 years old, my youth group from First Mennonite Church of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, went on a service trip to Appalachia. (If the term “Mennonite” makes you think horses, buggies, and straw hats, then think again. Those are either Amish or a more conservative group of Mennonites than the ones I grew up with.)
We were a bunch of farm kids who knew our way around a hammer and a circular saw, and when we got to Harlan County in Kentucky, we did what we knew how to do best. We worked. We also knew how to eat.
At one point during the week, the people who ran the ministry had to make a choice. Our appetites were throwing off their budget. We were eating more than any other youth group they had seen. Should they try to make us eat less?
Ultimately, they decided not to attempt to curb our appetites. Why? As the story was told to me, the director of the whole ministry said something like, “I don’t care how much they eat. They’re getting more work done than any other group I’ve ever seen.”
We didn’t hear that story until after the fact, but when we did, we couldn’t have been prouder. You may have heard of the Protestant work ethic. I suppose it’s a thing, but I need to tell you a secret about Mennonites. Though most would never admit it, in their heart of hearts, many a Mennonite thinks the Mennonite work ethic puts the run-of-the-mill Protestant work ethic to shame.
This is a story I’ve been told. This is a story I’ve told. This is a story I’ve tried to live. This story shapes my deepest understanding of who I am. In other words, it shapes my identity. Who am I? I am a hard- working, Mennonite farm-kid from Kansas who knows how to get stuff done.
Most of the time, this sense of identity seems like a great gift. But not always.
Work, Reward, Repeat
Look again at the story of our trip to Appalachia. It follows the contours of countless stories that play out in the lives of countless young people in countless places for countless reasons. Youth work hard, they do something special, and then they receive encouragement and affirmation. They feel the love.
Work hard. Receive reward. Repeat. We love this story. It empowers us. It defines us.
But there’s a problem with this story. It begins with us, it depends on our effort, and it leaves virtually no room for failure. In other words, it is a story devoid of grace. It is also a story devoid of rest. Rest actually cuts against the cycle of work, reward, repeat.
If I think about all of this in relation to my children, it shakes me to the core. It disorients me completely. Sure, I want my children to grow up and know how to work hard. I also want them to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that grace is real.
I want my children to know that who they are cannot be reduced to any work they can or cannot do. I want them to know that they were loved before they existed. I want them to know they will always be loved, and I want them to know that love and grace are just part of who they are. I want them to know that love and grace are just part of who God is.
I need a different story, a story that plays out differently than work, reward, repeat. I need a story that makes room for work but insists that love and grace belong to me and my children no matter what work we can or cannot do.
In my work as a teacher, youth pastor, and parent, I’ve come to believe that I am not alone in my need for another story. Our world is short on grace. We’re also short on rest.
In the last decade or so, I’ve come to believe that the Sabbath provides us with just such a story. Through the Sabbath, God tells us another story. It’s a story that doesn’t do away with our work. It’s a story that puts our work in perspective. It’s a story of rest and grace, but it’s not always an easy story to hear.
Think about this. If you’ve been living your life by the work-reward-repeat cycle, and if that has gone relatively well for you, then rest and grace may upset the cart. Remember the story of the laborers that Jesus told (Matt. 20:1–16). The ones who started working at the end of the day received the same wages as the laborers who worked the entire day. Why? Because of grace. That’s not fair. And that’s the point.
Grace messes with us, especially if we’re hard-working types from anywhere who know how to get stuff done. Grace disorients us. But grace also provides us with an extraordinary promise: Before we existed, before we could do anything to earn it, we were loved.
Sabbath tells this story. Our young people desperately need to hear it.
A Gracious Beginning
Many of the young people I’ve talked to over the course of my research on Sabbath seek rest and refer to rest as an escape. It’s true that the Sabbath gives us a refuge from powers and forces that are too great for us. But the problem with rest as escape is that it views rest as marginal rather than central to our life of faith. Surely the way we enter Sabbath rest signals something about its place in our lives. When we consider Sabbath rest, do we imagine it as an escape from or an entry into life, as a resisted last resort or a gracious beginning, as a guilty concession or a regular celebration? Our response must emerge from our theology.
In other words, our Sabbath rest must emerge from the very life and being of God. If we recognize Sabbath as integral to the very being of God and to the very identity of the covenant relationship that God extends to humanity, then we will realize that our refusal of the Sabbath is not merely a failure of human development or human potential. It is more—it’s a deformation of what it means to be human in the first place, which is another way of saying that it’s a deformation of what it means to be a child of God.
If God created humanity in the image of God for the purpose of covenant relationship, and that covenant relationship has been marked by Sabbath rest from the dawn of time, and if that covenant relationship will come to completion in Sabbath rest, then our refusal of Sabbath rest does nothing less than deform our very identity as God’s children. Our refusal roots human identity in mere achievement, productivity, efficiency, and accomplishment even as it divorces the life of humankind from the life of God.
Our refusal to rest is killing us. It is killing our young. It’s leading to breakdowns in mental health, obesity, depression, broken relationships, broken families, and substance abuse. All of this is bad enough, yet the fullness of the mis-formation comes to light when we realize that those in ministry, those called to teach, train, pastor, and shepherd young people, engage equally in endless work and then point to God and say, “I’m doing this for God.”
It is true, as Bonhoeffer once wrote, that when Jesus calls us, he calls us to come and die. Yet if the death that we and our young people experience is in service to achievement, productivity, and ceaseless striving, then it isn’t Jesus’ call that we’re heeding. Jesus still calls his followers to come and rest and to lay down the unbearable burden of a life rooted solely in human effort and accomplishment. Let that false self die! And let us rise anew to life and rest grounded each day, and particularly on the Sabbath, in the grace, love, and faithfulness of God.
Dying to Ceaselessness
If we and our young people are going to embrace Sabbath rest for the gift that it is, we’ll first need to stop blaming God for our continuous work and reject endless labor as a form of obedience. Our existence doesn’t begin with what we can accomplish, and it won’t end by what we can achieve. We are here because God made us, because God loves us, and because God has called us his own. That simple and identity-transforming affirmation provides more than enough motivation and rationale for our working and striving, yes, but first for our resting and celebrating in the love, grace, and care of God. Anything less forfeits our full humanity and threatens the full humanity of the young people in our care. The invitation stands: Come and die. Die to ceaselessness. Die to gracelessness. Die to every definition of humanity that falls short of the one given to us by God—and rise to rest in the grace, power, and resurrection life of God.
Imagine. We are God’s beloved children—not because of what we’ve achieved or what we ever will achieve, not because we’ve earned it, not because we got enough work done, not because our ducks are in a row, but because God graciously called us, formed us, and named us his children. Because of this, we may actually lay down our burdens. We may set aside our work and the lesser gods that tempt us to look to them as the source of our identity. We may lay down even our Sabbath rules and regulations, and we may behold the work of God from creation to Exodus to Incarnation to Cross to Resurrection. And we may dare to hope that the rest we now enter is but a foretaste of the eternal rest, when we will all stand before God’s throne and never again question that we are God’s beloved children.
Our provisional rest here and now reminds us of the promised rest that is to come. How can we but stand up straight and praise God?
Nathan T. Stucky is director of the Farminary Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Wrestling with Rest: Inviting Youth to Discover the Gift of Sabbath (Eerdmans), from which this article was adapted.