All my life I have had a love-hate relationship with the idea of rest. I usually fight the weariness with everything in me, determined to get just a little more work done before I can call it a day without guilt.
Key words there: “Without guilt.“
Ever since I was little, I’ve had a mortal terror of being thought lazy. In some ways, this is a good thing! In the style of Pa Ingalls, my mom always called me “her little French horse,” and my desire to do good work has served me well in school, music, writing, employment, and household responsibilities. The Word of God praises a diligent worker and even goes so far as to dedicate an entire chapter to the industrious woman. “She works with willing hands…She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong…Her lamp does not go out at night.” (Proverbs 31:13, 17, 18, ESV)
But threaded throughout the Bible is a concept that I’ve subconsciously despised all my life:
“Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” (Psalms 116:7, ESV)
“Return to your rest?” What does that even mean? I’ve been redeemed by the blood of Christ, and I know that because of Him I can rest from trying to earn God’s grace–but beyond that, how do I rest when I’m also supposed to be a productive member of society?
After probing my conscience a little bit, I think I’ve found the source of my resistance. I will rest when I’m exhausted–but I need to feel like I’m worthy of it. I need to know I’ve earned an episode of Doctor Who after a hard day’s work. And even if I’ve done all my chores, there’s always something that needs writing. A blog post, a newsletter, an email…or a new novel.
It’s easy to drive myself into the ground when I believe that my output determines my worthiness.
I’ve been writing since I was five years old. I don’t think I’ve ever really stopped–I don’t think I could if I tried–and yet 2019 was both a year of incredible triumph and frustration where my stories were concerned. On the one hand, after three long years of writing and editing, I finally finished my very first, truly publishable novel. On the other hand, I found myself unable to write anything else.
The ideas didn’t stop coming, but they all felt dull and clichéd. New characters popped into my head all the time and I outlined at least three new plots, but when I sat down to write the first few scenes…nothing. Oh, I’d write a scene, but I’d always go back and rearrange words, scrap a few sentences, find a more appropriate synonym for this word, read it three more times…and then delete everything.
The frantic drive to be productive–especially if you’ve tied your self-worth to your productivity–often has the opposite effect.
The week before Christmas, I won a 15-minute consultation with a well-respected Christian author. In his congratulatory email, he encouraged me to pepper him with questions. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask him: “How do I discern the difference between true burnout and a hyperactive Inner Editor?”
“Well, first,” he prodded, “tell me a little bit about what’s going on.”
So I explained it all: how I’d written a 150,000-word novel in one year, spent the next two years cutting out 40,000 of those words, and how I couldn’t get any new projects off the ground. When I came to the end he said in a tone of deep concern and kindness, “I know exactly what your problem is. You’ve forgotten how to play.”
Since I’d heard him say this at a writer’s conference a month before, I automatically agreed.
“No, no, you don’t understand,” he interrupted. “You’re exhausted. You spent three years on this novel, your brain is stuck in editing mode–and you’ve got to give it a rest!”
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15, ESV)
The more I ponder the words of this wise artist, the more I’ve been humbled. He was right: I’ve worn myself out. I’m tickled pink with the fruit of my labor, but because I haven’t counted on the Lord’s relentless faithfulness, I haven’t given myself the chance to recover. I’ve relied on my own strength. I’ve told myself that if I keep up the good work, I’ll be deemed worthy by God and man.
But the Lord already calls me precious and worthy, regardless of how many books I write–and He did deal bountifully with me. I see His hand all over the writing of my first novel. Why should I fear that he won’t do the same with a future story? Or with any dream He places in my heart, for that matter?
It’s hard to surrender the urge to produce, especially if you’ve drifted into a workaholic’s mindset. But as I step into the first days of 2020, I do so from a place of great hope. What I’m writing now is just for me. I’ll never be able to publish it because it’s based on someone else’s grand and epic tale. But I may look back one day on a certain new film about a villain who turned to the light and a girl who fought the darkness and won, and I’ll be able to say, “That story taught me how to play again.”
In the meantime, I don’t know how long my fallow season will last. It may be awhile before I write another novel of my own. Until then, I rest. I remind myself that the Lord will bless even this time of waiting. And I cling to this and this alone:
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food…yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18, ESV)
The featured image of frost trimmed rose leaves is (c) Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Maribeth Barber is a small-town Southern girl captivated by stories, the beauty and love of her Savior, and the power of the contemplative, Christ-centered life. During her years as a homeschool student, she developed a fierce love for history, literature, and film; these passions inspired her debut novel, Operation Lionhearted, as well as her blog, A Writer’s Tale, where she reviews books and movies from the angle of the Christian imagination. A hobbit at heart, she lives with her parents and six of her eight younger siblings on their hobby farm in Louisiana.