Americans are some of the most restless and least rested people in the world. They work more hours a week and more weeks a year than their European counterparts. The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 35 percent of Americans get less than the minimum hours of sleep required to reduce the risk of serious illness like diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. Just give it a rest, America.
In an interview with John Pattison, Columbia Theological Seminary Professor Walter Bruggemann, claims Americans “are caught up in a culture of restlessness, a market ideology in which the goal of life is to produce more and consume more … The market ideology is a rat-race that has infected us all.”
It could be reasonably argued that this state of affairs is nothing new; that it is, rather, intrinsic to our cultural identity. Professor James Jasper has written that the Puritan communities in 17th century America were “dashed by transiency.” According to Jasper, “In late-seventeenth-century Virginia, fewer than half of those appearing on county tax lists in one decade were living in the same county ten years later.” Those early Americans just couldn’t give it a rest.
Things haven’t changed much either. According to Jasper, at the end of a typical five-year period, nearly half the U.S. population (47 percent) is living in different place. When compared to other societies – the Dutch, 4 percent; the Germans, 4 percent; the English 8 percent, and the French and Japanese 10 percent – it is clear that Americans are still “dashed by transience.”
Even when Americans aren’t on the job or on the go, they would rather be distracted than rested. According to a recent Nielsen company study, the average American spends nearly 11 hours a day on their smartphones, tablets, TVs, or computers. According to a study by dscout Enterprise, the average cell phone user touches his or her phone over 2,000 times a day.
What we need is rest and relaxation. What we get is visual stimulation from almost 11 hours of screen use a day and a compulsive need to touch our phones. People who are not sufficiently rested have lower impulse control, often feel “foggy” and irritable, and miss work more often. They struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. They have trouble remembering things. Rest will help with these symptoms, but distractions – smart phone apps, video games and television – will not. No one gets up from watching four hours of television and says, “I feel rested.”
Restlessness is not merely a sociological issue. It is a theological one. Augustine was right when he acknowledged to God: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
R. Paul Stevens claims that “our rest patterns express our real beliefs about God. Restless people have not found peace with God or with themselves. Restless societies are out of sync with God’s purposes.”
An inability to rest sometimes betrays a lack of confidence in God. We may profess faith, but our hurried and harried lives proclaim a deep mistrust in God’s care. Overwork and lack of sleep suggest a person is trusting himself or herself to make things come out right, rather than God. It is precisely these people the biblical songwriter challenges when he writes, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” Commenting on this verse, Stevens writes, “The gospel of Jesus literally puts people to sleep,” since it replaces angst-ridden toil with quiet confidence in God.
Jesus promised his students rest, if they would learn from him. That promise has never been more relevant than it is now, in twenty-first century American life: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
This rest only comes from learning a different kind of life, one that Jesus – more than anyone else – knows how to teach.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/5/2017