A wealthy man, a patron of the arts, called three artists to his side and gave each of them a simple commission: “I want you to paint a picture titled ‘Rest.’” Away went the three men, each to his own studio to ponder the assignment, to rough up some initial sketches, to plan and paint his finest work.
Months later the three returned to display their paintings. The first unveiled a landscape, a placid pool vividly reflecting the mountains that rose up behind it. The second unveiled an image of a farmer lying in the shadow of a great haystack, enjoying a well-earned break from hard labor. The third unveiled a scene of frenzy and fury, a great torrent passing over a waterfall and plunging to the ground far beneath. But leaning over the top of the cliff was a branch and on that branch a nest and in that nest a bird who was brooding over her chicks, attending to their every need. And this, the patron saw with delight, was the truest portrayal of rest.
The gospel of Jesus Christ promises peace and rest to those who embrace it. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Elsewhere the LORD says, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” In a world of such pain, such sorrow, such woe, God promises sweet rest.
But when we find that rest and claim it for our souls, we learn that it is not the rest of the wounded soldier who is extracted from the battlefield and sent to the rear, nor of the weary runner who can go no farther and is pulled from the race. Neither is it a rest that comes to us only in the future when we have laid our hands upon our chests and gone to our eternal home. No, the rest God promises and the rest we enjoy comes amid the battle, not outside of it, during the race, not only after we have resigned. It is a rest that comes amid the turmoil, that flows when circumstances are dire, that rises up when hearts sink low.
The rest Jesus promises us is the rest of those who have entrusted themselves to a faithful creator, who have bowed themselves before a merciful redeemer, who have surrendered themselves to a sovereign ruler. It is the rest of those who have an accurate assessment of themselves, an accurate assessment of God, and an accurate assessment of the vast gap between the two. It is the rest of those whose lives are no longer their own but have been given over to the purposes of God, the rest of those who no longer live for their own comfort but for God’s glory.
Such people can rest amid the storm, for they know that no wind blows and no wave rises apart from the will of the God who made it all. They can rest amid the crisis, for they know that all things must work for the good of those who are loved by God and called according to his purpose. They can rest amid the grief, for they know that it is God who ultimately gives life and who takes it away. They can rest amid the illness, for they know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. They can rest amid the temptation, for they know that God will always provide a way of escape. They can rest amid fierce waves of persecution, for they know that no man has the least authority or the least power beyond what has been given him by God. No matter the circumstance, they can claim that promise of rest. No matter the chaos, their hearts can be at peace.
The promise of the gospel is the promise of rest—rest when we finally rise beyond the sore trials of this broken world, but also rest that comes before then, rest that comes today. For even as our feet tread the Valley of the Shadow of Death, our hearts can lie down in green pastures; even as the floods of tribulation rise, our hearts can be lifted high upon the ark of mercy; even as we sojourn through the wilderness, our hearts can be full and content in the one who is himself our divine manna. In any moment and at any time we can say, with the psalmist, “Return, O my soul, to your rest,” for at every moment and at every time, we can have the highest confidence that God has dealt most bountifully with us.