May 16, 2019
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
How often do you rest? If you’re anything like me, your answer is, “Not often enough!” Most of us are overwhelmed with things that can be outside of our direct control—a busy practice, a crashing patient, an EMR that requires 1,000 clicks per chart, a healthcare system that increases the RVU requirement every year or two, a prodigal child, a distant spouse. Of course, we have input into the things which we allow to fill our time. But very often, we don’t have control over them. Other people’s requirements and expectations place demands on us that are difficult to simply discard or ignore. And, as healthcare professionals, we are doing good. Our work benefits people. We minister to others in their times of greatest need. Good busyness is the hardest kind to fight because it’s easy to justify.
For some reason, the month of May seems to be a particularly rest-free month. Maybe that won’t be true when I no longer have school-age children, but it’s definitely true at this stage of my life. I hear myself saying things like, “If I can just get through this Tuesday, I’ll be OK.” I say these things to keep myself going, not because they are actually true. The busyness won’t really be that much better, and when my schedule improves in one area of my life, another part of my schedule seems to swell to fit the time available. Rest is not something that is going to present itself to me unbidden any time soon.
And, of course, the result of busyness is exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, and sometimes even burnout. Even Jesus, whose every interaction was for the good of others, took time away from His work and His calling to rest. For that matter, God rested after He spoke the world into being. In Psalm 127:2, God says: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves” (NIV 1984). “Rise early and stay up late”…I imagine I’m not the only guilty one! Rest is given to us as a gift from God’s hand, and we healthcare professionals arguably reject and refuse it more than any other group of people. I even used to resent the hours I had to spend sleeping because I thought about how much I could get done during that time were I able to stay awake. It’s a huge paradigm shift to appreciate rest and sleep as gifts from God to those He loves.
In fact, rest is not just a gift from God. In Isaiah 30:15, God actually tells the Israelites that rest is part of their salvation: “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it’” (NIV 1984).
The link between rest and repentance really convicts me. I’m very, very bad at rest—and when I read this passage, I have to ask myself whether I am equally as bad at repentance. Am I using my busy schedule as an excuse not to engage in repentance? Is the frantic pace simply a distraction from things of higher importance? Or a way to avoid having to face the wounds, sins and failings inside of me?
But wait! I started this reflection with the observation that most of us are overwhelmed by things that are, at least partially, outside of our control. And now I’m talking about our failure to rest as a failure of repentance. How do those things fit together? I think there are different types of rest, and it’s important to distinguish between them. Physical rest is crucial to health, and physical exhaustion is a huge factor in burnout. As healthcare professionals, we don’t tend to be very good at physical rest. But I think spiritual rest is even more important—and we can rest spiritually even in in the midst of the demands healthcare and family place on us. Spiritual rest is, as Isaiah 30:15 specifies, quietness and trust.
Can I quietly trust God even as I run down the hall to a crashing patient? Yes. Is that my natural response? Absolutely not.
Can I speak words of assurance to a distraught pre-teen while trusting that my quiet spirit will hear God’s words to my child? Yes. Is that my first thought? Nope.
Can I struggle in my marriage with quietness and trust? Definitely. Does it feel right to my human nature? Definitely not.
Spiritual rest is an attitude as much as an action. And as action-oriented people, that can be a huge challenge. By nature, most of us are “get her done” sort of people, and medical training only magnifies that trait. It’s easy not to feel like we are accomplishing anything when we sit, figuratively or literally, before God and wait. But, in fact, we are accomplishing the single greatest spiritual feat. We are acknowledging our own inability to control things and falling back into God’s sovereignty. We are repenting of the pride of accomplishment and trusting in God’s provision. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV 1984), a passage I love for its call to honesty. Jesus didn’t say, “Have a lot of faith and show us that smile and I will give you rest.” He asks us to acknowledge our weariness and the heaviness of our burdens and He will give us rest. Rest is a gift we can receive as we come honestly to Him.
I don’t want to imply that spiritual rest is something we can or should just add into our chaos as we keep on doing everything we are doing today. For some of us, we may be doing only and exactly what God has called us to do in our lives at this time. But for most of us, there are plenty of commitments we have made that are not responses to God’s calling. Maybe we like the validation we get from accomplishing a lot. Maybe we fear what will happen if we let something go undone. Maybe we believe that no one else in our community will step up if we don’t. Or maybe we are even trying to fill our time so completely that we don’t have to think or reflect on things that are uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, most of us could stand to reevaluate our commitments and find more time for physical rest and downtime. I have heard several times that if you want to know where your heart is, look at your calendar—and I fear what my calendar might say to me if I took this exhortation seriously.
As the month of May slowly makes it way along, filled with all the frenzy of activities of kids at the end of school, ill patients and all the usual relational challenges of life, spiritual rest is a daily priority and an attitude that I can and will adopt as I respond to the tasks before me. Physical rest, too, is a priority which I have begun to prioritize in my calendar. Join me in a renewed focus on rest, repentance, quietness and trust. It’s the biblically prescribed cure for weariness and burdens, those pesky illnesses that afflict every one of us!