On the way home from her oncology visits, my daughter Clara and I typically rode in silence with Audrey Assad or Sara Groves playing. Sometimes, I would reach my hand back to hers as she sat in her booster chair. In that year of cancer, in an act of sheer grace, both artists put out albums that applied ice to our swollen hearts.
On one particularly long day of appointments, we were both tired. Clara was bald and nauseous from the chemo. I was exhausted from playing medical quarterback and keeping an upbeat demeanor, smiling reassuringly to my little girl as nurses administered poison.
As we traveled the highway, Assad’s song “Restless” came on, the chorus repeating a line from Augustine’s Confessions,
I am restless, I’m restless
’Til I rest in You, ’til I rest in You
Oh God, I wanna rest in You
I heard a quiet six-year-old voice from the back seat. “Hey, Mom?”
She took a deep breath. “Is it a sin to feel restless?”
I paused. Was it? I didn’t know. My mom instincts kicked in, and I realized that she needed to know that it was okay to feel our season’s storm.
“No, honey. God knows that sometimes it’s hard.” She sighed and stared out the window, singing softly with the tune.
It’s been 11 years since that day, yet her question still haunts me. Is it a sin to feel restless?
A restless heart can plague any situation, even those far less extreme than childhood cancer. Our emotional equilibrium is fragile. We slip quickly into frustration and restlessness with a child’s shriek, a car breakdown, a work crisis, or an argument with a loved one.
In the Bible, rest (shabbat; to cease, rest), first appears on the seventh day of Creation. But it’s not just in Genesis that rest appears as the culmination of a creation story. Mythical texts from places surrounding Israel (such as Sumer, the Levant, Babylon, and Egypt) used rest this way as well.
For example, the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish depicts the god Marduk killing other gods and then creating the earth, heavens, and humanity from their remains. After Marduk completes his creation, the other gods tell him, “Let us erect a shrine to house a pedestal / Wherein we may repose when we finish [the work].”
I’m not comparing these myths to Genesis to undermine its divine inspiration; I believe its truth. But we can look at its literary context for a richer understanding of what it would have meant when first recorded. The beautiful stylings of Genesis 1 were written using a now out-of-print genre the average ancient Near East person could process theologically. Rest in these accounts is like the “In conclusion” at the end of a term paper. If the story announces that God is at rest, it signals that the story is closing. There has been a resolution.
So what did it mean when God rested in Genesis? I used to imagine a long nap or a whew as God collapsed into a recliner. I was more than a little off. It actually means—as its first readers would have understood—that God ceased creating and began his reign.
In creation accounts, rest is best understood as an enthronement. It’s like the king sitting down to rule his country or a Star Trek captain sitting in the command chair saying, “Engage.” In the ancient Near East creation stories, labor was stopped so that the god could take up his reign as king.
Within creation literature, enthronement only happens after the world has achieved complete homeostasis and order. We have a similar concept when making significant transitions. For instance, what needs to be done before a substantial job change? Do you need your desk set up? Are your financials in order and your health care plan in place? Did you finish up those online training modules? Once the essential tasks are completed, when you finally sit at your desk ready to take on your new role and rock it—that’s the rest at the beginning of Genesis 2.
Or how about after a move? The signed purchase or rental agreement doesn’t mean it’s time to rest. It’s still necessary to get the furniture in place, find the elusive forks, set beds up, locate the box labeled “sheets,” and so forth. When all those things are in order, when you can take a breath and start running your home—that’s rest.
Now apply that concept to God in Creation. In six days, he set everything up just right, and it was running well. He rested. When God is at rest, people can trust that everything is in order and God is reigning. God is at his desk; he has the home in order.
How did God provide for cosmic and earthly homeostasis? This is the question creation literature seeks to answer. To learn about how the world worked and who their gods were, the ancient Near East people paid attention to the things necessary for rest (enthronement and reign) to take place.
If you’ve read a few of these creation accounts, you’ve seen that humanity typically had one of two roles. Either they were tasked with the honor of serving and providing for the gods’ houses, or they were given the responsibility of keeping order (the status quo) among humans.
In Genesis, however, God sets up a unique relationship between humankind and himself. First, humanity is given high value. Man and woman were created together, in God’s image (a phrase typically reserved for gods making other gods), and were declared “very good.”
Not only that, but humankind was also made after their provisions were already in place. They arrived on the scene to a fully formed, developed, beautiful ecosystem. Like setting a table for guests, God created humanity after everything necessary for life was in place.
God doesn’t obligate humanity to provide for him. In fact, he doesn’t need anything from us at all. His rest occurs on day seven after he has explicitly and actively created everything people need, a heady contrast to other stories where gods rested once man had been tasked with the role of providing for them. Genesis inverts the ancient Near East expectation of the relationship between God and man. It likely blew the minds of Israel’s neighbors to hear the created order in Genesis, and it still takes my breath away after four years of study.
Augustine’s famous quote, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” takes on a new dimension in light of this. For a Christian, rest must go deeper than acknowledging God is seated on his throne. Rest is found when we align our restless hearts with who God is as he reigns.
Jesus alludes to a daily rest mindset when he talks of lilies and birds as examples of God’s value and provision for people in Matthew 6. He reminds his disciples to look at the lilies’ beauty and note his attention to birds. If God cares deeply for his “good” creation, how much more will he care for his “very good” creation—people?
But one visit with a doctor can send us to our knees, and not just in prayer. How can we find rest then? What about when our feeds are filled with news of terrifying school shootings, politics fraying our nerves, and widespread abuse in churches? How can we tap into that rest when our bosses make unreasonable demands and our kids lose their minds over sandwiches cut incorrectly?
As for me, I met my emotional and spiritual limit in a hospital hallway on a snowy night. In the middle of my worst night during Clara’s hospitalization, a code was called in a room down the hall. Nurses and doctors quietly ran to the room and, with professional calm, saved a child’s life. I walked down the hall carrying a deep sadness for the affliction thrust on sweet children fighting cancer.
I looked out the big window at the end of the oncology ward and watched the wheels of a bus spin uselessly in a snowbank. Passengers came out to push the rear bumper as the bus rocked in its ruts, then flinched as the tires spit muddy snow in their faces. Their endeavors looked hopeless.
The past few months of trauma had thickened my heart, but that series of events made it raw again. I took all my mama bear rage and railed against the omniscient God. With fists clenched, I hurled accusations through my tears. Had he given cancer cells free rein to destroy the children’s bodies on that oncology floor? Instead of God’s boots on the ground, I only saw humans in orthopedic footwear carrying IV bags of imperfect cures. I felt we were on our own, and I was desperate.
In that moment of fury, my heart was restless. I was on the verge of declaring that my purposes for my child were better than God’s, all but asking him to abdicate. I thought all the facts pointed to a God who did not have my daughter’s best interests at heart. I was Eve in the garden staring at a fruit tree: My determination of right and wrong was best. Had I been able to, I would have gone over God’s head and taken things into my own hands. But instead, that night, watching the snow fall and the wheels spin, I let broken cells in a child’s body, part of a groaning creation, give me theology lessons.
In God’s mercy, he met me in that hallway before I grabbed the fruit of mistrust. It wasn’t really information I needed; it was to rest in God’s sovereignty. As the snow piled high, a divine presence stood next to me and agreed with my pain and anger, if not my assessment. His fellowship in my despair surprised me enough to shift my fury back to deep grief.
That dark night I found myself in the company of Jeremiah, of the psalmists, of Hagar and Hannah and the woman of Shunem. My ancient companions and I couldn’t deny the terrors and wrongs that had invaded our lives. We were overwhelmed with grief. But because we acknowledged it to God, we were able to feel the miracle of comfort.
Slowly, I was able to loosen my clenched fists and lean against God’s enthroned knees. Together, we grieved for the families in oncology wards and the detonated peace in my own home. I made the painful decision to let God be God.
If I could go back to that car ride home and talk to my daughter, sick in her booster seat and wondering in her tender heart if restlessness was sin, I would tell her that troubled is different than restless.
The distinction helps me, and I know it would have helped her too. A restless heart fights God, ignores God, or denies God. A troubled heart agrees with God that his created world has been broken. The mortality we are clothed in (1 Cor. 15:53) wants to grab the fruit of self-sufficiency, thinking it will bring order. In contrast to our instincts, our restlessness is only relieved in submission to—and hope in—God’s reign.
On day seven, when God stopped creating, sat on the throne, and began his reign, Proverbs says that wisdom, personified as a woman, was delighted (Prov. 8:22–31). She rejoiced with Adam and Eve at the ecosystem, the animals roaming, the seas roaring, and the dirt ready for seeds.
Day seven of creation is the only day that doesn’t end in the Biblical account. The first six days have a morning and an evening, but day seven doesn’t get those bookends. We remain in God’s established world with the earth circling the sun and the stars directing navigation.
Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind. (vv. 30–31)
In Proverbs 8, Wisdom describes the blessings of living in the rhythms of God’s created order, which is acting with wisdom. But (perhaps a nod to Adam and Eve) to ignore wisdom is to love death. Simple enough? If only it were easy to bear trouble with a trusting heart!
My grandmother was a woman marked by joy, delight, and humility in her old age. She giggled with amusement at the antics of her great-grandbabies and didn’t keep track of wrongs. One of her favorite pastimes was to look out the window and observe the squirrels and birds in her yard. If you gave her an opening, she’d regale you with backyard stories, always concluding the tale with how wonderful God’s creation was.
To watch her, you would think she had led a charmed life. But she had not. Tragedy was her close companion. A cousin of mine once asked her how she was able to keep a sweet spirit when so many of her peers were unhappy. “One day at a time. One day at a time,” was her answer.
Christians commemorate rest on Sundays as a way to honor God’s reign—not to mimic his ceasing—but it’s meant to be our daily posture. Day seven persists—the household in place, the job active, the world running, and God reigning. The first six days of Creation assure us that God will provide. Rest will evade us when we brace our security by stockpiling shoes, gadgets, and cash.
It will never be natural to walk away from the desire for control. It’s tempting to act as if any provision beyond fulfilling our responsibilities is ours to worry about. When the bills pile up, our first instinct is rarely to remember our dependence on God’s grace and to submit to God’s reign. Troubled can become restless if we aren’t wisely practicing daily submission, with prayer and action laying down our insistence for our way in our time.
Biblical rest allows our troubled hearts to propel us on behalf of God’s kingdom, even when our hands aren’t steady and our tears overflow.
Because of what happened after Creation in Genesis, we live in a foggy day seven that is full of people insisting on their own order. But we weren’t thrown back into the chaos of day one by our sin. God’s order remained, though our relationships were broken and our lives are now full of pain and frustration (Gen. 3:16, 18–19).
I wish I would have had the words to tell Clara what I tell myself now: Watch the birds we drive past, and remember that God cares. One day at a time, rest is found with Wisdom—in knowing the God of creation, the God who set up a beautiful world and put us in it, who loves to be in a relationship with us. This assurance, dear one, is how we can keep our troubled hearts soft when, inevitably, trouble and troubledness come.
It’s not Eden, but it’s still a foggy day seven. Our souls can rest assured in the wise, generous, powerful God seated on the throne and bear trouble alongside him.
Rachel Booth Smith wrties, teaches, and produces study tools. She lives with her family in Minnesota and is completing her Master of Divinity degree at Pillar Seminary.
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