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Rest Is a Weapon: How keeping the Sabbath saved my ministry—and my life

     There is so much pressure on people to succeed, pursue ambitions, do bigger things, do better things, make more money, use their gifts, have the right friends, get the promotions, and accomplish the next big “win.” I was no stranger to this. Reflecting on my life as a kid, I recognized the impulse to succeed so I could improve my circumstances. Mom and I were very poor, so at an early age I worked my way into the lifestyle and cash flow I wanted.

     When I was 12 years old, I already had two newspaper delivery routes. I got up by myself at 4 a.m. and rode my bike around delivering newspapers. At 13, I started working at a dude ranch cutting grass and cooking. By the time I was 15, I was working at numerous restaurants—McDonald’s, Bojangles Louisiana-style chicken restaurant, anywhere that took a worker’s permit. At 16, I worked at a gas station. At 18, I got a job at a bank. I have held jobs ever since.

     When I hear young adults these days say they want four-day workweeks, shorter workdays, family leave, plus four weeks of vacation per year, it’s a little hard for me to sympathize. I value hard work, and I think God does, too.

     My work ethic carried over into ministry. My wife, Penny, and I both are very driven. We pushed the church forward with all the enthusiasm and energy we had, and the growth and attention we received seemed to justify the work and sacrifice we poured in. The problem was with my motivation. Far too often I was pushing harder and climbing higher not because I wanted God to get the glory but because I wanted people to approve of me. It validated me and provided more “look what I’ve accomplished” moments.

     My inability to rest sprang from a struggle with my own identity. I lacked the confidence to rest and ended up doing stuff for the wrong reasons. Rest seemed a waste of time. When I tried to rest, I kept thinking, I should be working on something, writing a message, planning our next event. I was focused on justifying my existence, proving my success.

     It’s a terrible way to live. It can be productive in the short term, but it’s not fulfilling in any lasting way.

     When you’re tired and over-worked in ministry, you fall into the trap of what Craig Groeschel calls being a full-time minister and a part-time Christian. Instead of spending time with the Lord and enjoying His presence and Word for personal reflection, you tend to look at everything as fodder for your next message. Your whole life is built around performing well on the weekends (and any other time you speak to people) by giving a good sermon or talk. Someone said it’s like having a baby every Sunday and getting pregnant every Monday. You give birth every seven days to a new message and then have to come up with something fresh again the following week. It can be a grind. Your personal time with God—and with your wife and family—suffers as work and performance take center stage.

Discovering Rest

     The Bible clearly values rest more than a lot of us do.

     “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (Hebrews 4:1).

     This passage always intrigued me—and bothered me. What did it mean that a promise of rest remains? Why did God rest after six days of creation? I didn’t dig into these questions until panic attacks forced me to define my ideas about rest in a very practical way, and I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • Rest is not a weakness. Rest is a weapon.
  • Rest is a powerful force. It is something God Himself did. Who are we to think that we don’t need it?
  • Rest is productive. It refreshes the mind and percolates new ideas. Rest is also when our physical muscles grow and rebuild after working out or simply living.
  • Rest helps our brains recover and can save us from making bad decisions.
  • Rest provides the best recovery for our emotions and souls.
  • Rest happens when we are confident in our identity and purpose. When you are strong in who God says you are, you can take a break knowing that you will be better on the other side.

     You are no longer the slave of the approval addict inside of you.

     In my life, there had to come a point where the pain of what I was going through actually caused me to change. It was like God saying, “If you’re not going to take a rest, I’ll make you take one.” Learning how to turn off was a big learning curve for me.

     I remember seeing Andy Stanley’s book Choosing to Cheat, which is about letting things go that you are not responsible for. The title alone unlocked healthy behavior for me. I knew I had to invest in long-term values, prioritize things that were in my control and ability to do, and start saying no to everything else. One of the hardest lessons to learn was that for every “yes” there has to be a “no” somewhere.

     In practical terms, you have to set a day of rest and guard it like a pit bull. Resting is not something you accidentally do. It doesn’t happen on the run. It is a planned, intentional activity of the utmost importance. I am intentional and even strict with my staff about it. I told them, “This is my day off. I don’t want you to call me unless someone who is close to me is dying, or the building is burning down.”

     Then I had to guard my schedule from its worst enemy: me. I’m like every other person. It’s easy for my mind to start processing what happened on Sunday, or other ministry-related stuff, or what is ahead on my calendar. I had to train myself to say, “Nope, not gonna do that.” For me, that meant coming to a point where I just didn’t care. I think you know what I mean. To truly disconnect mentally and emotionally from my role as Pastor Troy, I had to make rest more important than anything else in that moment. It wasn’t (and isn’t) easy. It takes practice and discipline. But I like it.

     I established Monday as my day off. I spend time with Penny. We have breakfast together, go to lunch together, watch our shows together, or just sit and be together. We enjoy our home as a place of peace and rest.

The Value of Fun

     I also had to find out what activities helped me rest and recover and find hobbies that energized me mentally and physically. I had downplayed these aspects of life for too long. I met the Lord in a movement in which everything is dealt with spiritually. Every solution is to read the Bible every day and pray. But God has a broader approach: He wants us physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy, and those areas of life require our attention, too.

     Not everything is strictly spiritual. It’s like the person who is 75 pounds overweight and has bad knees and diabetes. Can God heal that person instantly? Of course. But does He want that person to develop discipline, gain victory and treat his body like a temple, so that other problems go away? Absolutely, He does.

     For me, “fun” looked like playing golf, spending time with close friends, watching movies, and working out. I remember getting the Groupon for CrossFit and falling in love with it. I liked the competition, the community, and the opportunity to connect with non-believers in a safe environment. I have been able to minister to people who don’t even think about church and show them that Christians can be normal, competitive, fun, active people. I happen to think that the church can learn a lot from how CrossFit builds successful, close communities.

     Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?"

     I have really taken that to heart and continue to reap the benefits. We also have a small home gym (and just added an assault bike, a crazy piece of equipment). If I can’t go to the gym one day, I wake up and work out for twenty or thirty minutes. There’s no excuse.

     All of this qualifies as rest, as I get my mind outside the routine of normal responsibility.

His Bride, Not Mine

     On the spiritual side, I had to learn to distinguish between studying for a message and getting to know God simply for my own good. I am still learning. I read my Bible daily and am careful not to let it become a mindless habit. I’m naturally a morning guy, and having devotions is the first thing I do. Within that time, I change things up to keep it new and interesting.

     There are seasons when I pray more, and some when I study Scripture more. I like to read through and spend time in the New Testament and other books. Sometimes I read off my iPad. Sometimes I switch to a paper Bible to make things different. I will change the translation for a season to mix it up a little bit. It’s like applying the exercise principle of muscle confusion to keep my spirit and soul engaged and strong.

     I also try to read a chapter a day in a spiritual book. I listen to messages from other preachers on podcasts and seek out new voices. In all of this, I’m spending time listening to God’s voice, being cognizant of His conviction. Discipleship is not four classes and a certificate; it’s a lifelong journey.

     The Bible says, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).

     That’s what I want—to have good success, on God’s terms.

     One of the phrases I heard that helped me most was spoken by T. D. Jakes: “It’s not my job to love God’s bride. It’s my job to feed God’s bride and love mine.” I had been taking responsibility for the church that wasn’t my responsibility. I treated it like it was my deal, and it wasn’t my deal. I took credit or blame for its growth or level of engagement.

     I think it was Rick Warren who said, “It’s not our job to build the church; it’s our job to build people.” To be a ministry leader means maintaining a level of trust in God that it is not my church or Penny’s church or our church—it is God’s church. Sometimes we think our mistakes or failures can mess the whole thing up. But as I heard one man say, “The anointing is not that fragile.” If we make ourselves too big in the equation, then we are basically saying we are God. We have mentally taken ownership of His bride, which is a scary and overwhelming proposition.

     I have concluded that we may at times disappoint the Holy Spirit and disappoint people, but we can’t stop His work as much as we think we can. The Holy Spirit is not like a glass jar you drop off the table, and it shatters. His work is durable and outlasts our failures. It is His church, not ours. It’s okay with me if “my” church is not growing as fast as every other church around. Growth is His concern. Mine is staying healthy and growing healthy people.

     What surprised me was that while we were walking through my panic attacks and learning to live healthier, Freedom House continued growing, maturing, and gaining as much ground as ever. It was almost like my overwork had nothing to do with it. I wish I’d known that when I started the thing! But, better late than never. I had to mature to a place of appreciating that Freedom House’s health and growth were always more about God than my efforts. After all, Jesus said, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). That’s exactly what He was doing, maybe even in spite of what I was going through.

     Valuing rest was so healthy for me and Penny personally that we implemented plans for our staff to prioritize rest, too. We encourage our leaders to take time off and disconnect from responsibilities. We live by, “Every seven days a Sabbath. Every seven weeks a Sunday off. Every seven months a vacation.” We instituted a policy with our staff pastors that every seven years they receive a four-week paid sabbatical.

     There are still seasons when we have to push hard, but they are within a larger context that values rest and the faith it requires to say, “I’m taking a day off every week, and I know God will continue to accomplish what He wants in my job and through my ministry.”

 

This article was extracted from Issue 3 (Fall 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

 

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