Working on a Good Rest Ethic

blog practice rest rest ethic work ethic Nov 15, 2023

Blog by Alan Fadling

One of the great challenges in leadership culture today is the failure to rest well. That idea has been percolating in my thinking and in my rhythm of life for a while now. What might it look like to cultivate a good rest ethic? We are much less familiar with this value as a culture than we are with having a good “work ethic,” but it’s just as important.


I don’t think what we mean by a “work ethic” today is quite the same as what the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers modeled in what we often refer to as the Protestant work ethic, which was rooted in a vision of our everyday work being a gift and calling from God. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the religious work of priests, pastors, or monks was often regarded as qualitatively better or more holy before God than the work of common laborers.


Martin Luther and John Calvin saw this differently. They believed that whatever work a person does is a gift from God and that a person’s everyday labor is a divine calling. Whatever good work a person does can be seen as faithful service to God, perhaps even as a ministry. This was a gift of great encouragement to people who once thought that they could not serve God outside of religious occupations.


Our Modern Work Ethic

 Fast-forward from those days of the Reformation, and today’s Protestant work ethic has largely left that gracious vision behind. Instead of work being a gift and a calling of God, work itself is now the main focus. Whether our work is religious or not, it is frequently aimed at earning more money, acquiring more accolades, or achieving more personal goals rather than at honoring and serving God.


At the time of the Reformation, along with a sense of work being a gift from God, a weekly Sabbath day of rest was seen as an equally important gift. Sabbath days are designed more for rest than for work. That was even a normal pattern in the United States until the last few decades. For example, when I was a child in the 1960s, I can remember all the stores in my town being closed on Sundays.


I see signs today that many are hungry to recover what I’m calling a rest ethic, a vision that says life is more than what we can achieve or produce or accomplish. Our lives are more than our work. As Luther and Calvin suggested, our work is indeed a gift and a calling from God. Through our work, we can do good that blesses other people. But rest is equally necessary and important. Without good rest, our work can become idolatry.


An Ethic?

 In talking about a rest ethic, it helps to clarify the meaning of the word “ethic.” An ethic is a way of establishing what is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. An ethic is our way of saying, “This is important. That is good. This is necessary. That is what matters.” So a work ethic says that good work is right and noble for us and for our world. And it is.


A rest ethic, then, says that rest itself is something good and right. It is not just a utilitarian strategy for getting even more work done. After all, we are human beings, not human doings. Life consists of more than the money we earn and spend. We are more than mere consumers of goods and services. We are beloved sons and daughters of a very good heavenly Father.


God entrusts work to you and me. Good work. Meaningful work. Work that enables us to join God in the good work he is doing every day in the world he has made. But God also gives us the gift of rest.


In two weeks, I’ll share more about this idea of a good rest ethic, focusing on how much God values rest.


For Reflection:

  • How do you feel about the idea of a rest ethic? Does it ring true?
  • In what ways have you come to value and practice rest?
  • In what ways do you feel invited by God further into good rhythms of rest?


Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash