by Tricia McCary Rhodes
Swaddling babies, I’ve discovered, is an art form. My friend Jerry lays the blanket out like a diamond, folds the top corner down, and puts baby in the center, and the tucking begins: left corner, right corner, over, under, flip and tuck, and voilà—the little package is wrapped. The first time I saw him do it, I wondered how that poor child could breathe, much less sleep, tied up so tight. But Jerry and Angela are on baby #3 now, and they’ve convinced me that newborns love swaddling, that wrapping them snug as a bug in a rug makes them happy and helps them soon settle right down to sleep.
More about that later, but first, the backstory. Every January I pray for a word or phrase God might want to be my focus for the year. Last year I was pretty sure I knew the answer without asking—transition. So many pieces of my life were in upheaval, not the least of which was that my husband and I let go of our shepherding role for the church we planted more than thirty-six years ago.
But as I prayed, I heard a different word—rest. I resisted, reminding God that this transition was front and center for me every single day, along with all the other changes in my life. Still, I heard rest, so I tried to imagine what that might mean for me in the coming year.
There are so many great truths about rest in Scripture, but the one that has always intrigued me is the instruction in Hebrews to strive to experience rest (4:11, esv). The word strive in that verse means to diligently exert yourself. This oxymoronic admonition—striving to rest—is where I have lived for the past eleven months.
We have been on a lengthy sabbatical, and though our goal from the start has been to prayerfully discern next steps, our first agenda is rest. I had no idea how difficult that would be, how much striving it would entail. I am a doer, a planner, a big-picture visionary, and letting all that go for a season was painful. I persistently asked God for new marching orders, but all I heard was rest.
One morning that image of swaddling babies came to mind—of how they often resist at first, but once they give in to the constriction, they rest. I began to grasp that for me, rest and transition were synonymous; that this upending of my life was God’s way of wrapping me so tight I had no other choice but to rest.
Indeed, God was swaddling me with circumstances I could not control, with a future afloat with uncertainty, with days and weeks and months of ambiguity, and with a sense of loss so profoundly unfamiliar that I could never seem to find the edges.
Everything in me wanted to resist—to throw off those constricting circumstances and return to the kind of doing that energized me and made me feel useful. But because God called me to rest, I had to invest all my energy into giving up and giving in until, weary of the fight, I could finally just be with Him. Wrapped ever so tight in His embrace, I began to rest in a way I never had before.
I wish I could say it got easier as the year went by, but it really didn’t. Though I experienced some beautiful moments of clarity and trust, for the most part, the only way I could find rest was to go to the mat and wrestle with God, pressing into His heart again and again. In the process, I gained some incredibly precious insights.
We live in a day where rest—physical, emotional, and spiritual—may be harder to come by than ever before. Not only do our digital devices demand our attention endlessly, but our hearts are raw from the thousands of messages that advertisers send us daily, telling us we are not enough. We look hopefully to social media but end up comparing our worst selves with all the shiny stories there, until a nagging sense of inadequacy settles in our very bones. We are weary and heavy laden, but it’s hard to see a way out of the morass. Yet God calls us to strive for rest in a holy way, one that won’t leave us spent with exhaustion, one that is the sure antidote to the angst of daily life. What does this look like? Let me share two things.
We must strive to let God show us who we are. When the Israelites first left Egypt for the land of rest God had for them, they had forgotten their identity as the people of God. Having worked as servants to the needs of others for so long, they really had no idea how to live as God’s chosen people. For forty years God tenderly cared for them, reminding them daily that they belonged to Him and no one else, that their lives were a part of His glorious purpose, one with breathtaking implications. Only when they returned to their roots, learning to live in the covenant God had made with them, were they truly ready to enter His rest.
Over the past year I have seen how deeply rooted my own identity has been in ministry roles—in the things I’ve done, the people I’ve served, the accomplishments I’ve achieved, and the impact I’ve hoped I was making. This sabbatical season has stripped me of it all. Daily I’ve had to come to God to find out who I am, to hear Him call me His beloved and remind me that He has glorious purposes for me. Embracing that sense of belongingness has brought me into a profound kind of rest.
We must strive to let God love us as we are. Once we grasp our identity as God’s beloved, we must learn how to live in it. As much as I have known and even experienced the wonder of redeeming love, I can still get caught up in trying to make myself worthy of it. But this season, when I couldn’t do anything to prove my devotion to God, I had to learn to simply be, and let God love me exactly as I was—nothing to impress Him with, nothing to make myself more spiritual. Instead, I came empty-handed, waiting in his presence until I heard His gentle voice say, “I love you.” I have come to depend on this like the very air I breathe.
The experience of rest God offers does not come naturally and can seem almost impossible to find in the chaotic rhythm and hum of life. We need stillness, those quiet pauses of complete inactivity to press into His presence and let everything else go. Whether God is seeking to swaddle you through life-altering transitions like me, or through the wearying dailiness of life, I hope you will strive for the rest you need, for the rest God cannot wait to give you. Let Him show you who you are, and then take the time to let Him love you. This ineffable treasure is at your fingertips—the beautiful rest of God.
Tricia McCary Rhodes is the author of several books, including The Wired Soul and Sacred Chaos. She and her husband founded New Hope Church in San Diego. She is currently an adjunct professor of practical theology at Fuller Seminary. Order Tricia’s new book The Soul at Rest (NavPress, 2018) here. Follow her on Facebook and/or Twitter.