The Bread of Idleness vs. the Haven of Rest

In recent years a trend has emerged, emphasizing the need for rest in a believer’s life and the biblical concept of Sabbath-taking. Undoubtedly this movement has been a response to the all-too-common pitfalls of burnout and self-sufficiency. We see in Scripture that God prescribed rest for the nation of Israel, and it’s good that we explore how that concept affects us as members of the new covenant. However, amid all this talk about rest, we must also balance our discussions with a biblical understanding of idleness. It’s far too easy, particularly in our digital age, to conflate the two and believe that we’re engaging in Sabbath rest when we’re actually indulging in idleness. 

So how do we know the difference? Where does work stop and rest begin? And how do we avoid the ditch of idleness? As usual, a short article like this one will only begin a conversation; it’s not likely to end it. But here are a few thoughts to get the ball rolling. 

Idleness Is Passive; Rest Is Intentional 

God set the rhythm for working and resting as He created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. He did this not because He was exhausted but because He intended to provide a pattern for His creatures. He took the idea so seriously that He included a command to rest in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8–11). God also prescribed rest for the fields every seventh year (Ex. 23:10–11) and for the people to observe special feasts several times throughout the year, each including a reprieve from normal work (see Lev. 23). 

In each of these cases, the people of Israel were commanded to rest and had to choose to obey or disobey. Rest requires a certain level of intentionality, though we need not be legalistic about it. Choosing to set aside one day a week or one weekend a quarter or one hour a day to truly rest demands intention, foresight, and dependence on God. 

Idleness, on the other hand, often takes us by surprise. Sitting down to enjoy a glass of lemonade after mowing the lawn is probably a necessary break from the heat. But add a phone to the mix and suddenly our five-minute break has expanded to half an hour gone without notice. We didn’t intend to take so long, and we may not even really know what we did during the time. 

Entertainment today does nothing to help us with this battle. Endless scrolling, autoplay features, and personalized algorithms make it easy to remain passively idle. For this reason, we must be intentional both in how we work and in how we rest. 

Idleness Accomplishes Nothing; Rest Provides Benefits

Another key difference between idleness and rest is the result each yields. Idleness accomplishes nothing, while rest begets profit. The Greek word for idle (argos) shows up eight times in the New Testament. About half of the uses are synonymous with the more familiar word lazy. For instance, consider Matthew 20:3, in Jesus’ parable about workers in a vineyard: “When he went out about nine in the morning, he saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing” (emphasis added)

The workers observed by the landowner were doing nothing. They were idle. 

However, three of the eight uses of argos carry the idea of futility as well, as in this familiar verse from James: “Senseless person! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20, emphasis added).

The point is that idleness (laziness) profits nothing. Along with being passive, an idle person is no better off for having been idle. 

Rest, though it seems paradoxical, gets things done. One of the accomplishments of true rest is that it fosters humility. In short, we are forced to recognize that the universe doesn’t really need us after all because we’re not God. This is actually a stated purpose of the Hebrew Day of Atonement (see Lev. 23:26–32). However, any time we go for a walk and leave our phone at home or take a weekend getaway and respond to no emails or texts or even play a game of Monopoly without any digital distractions, we admit that the world will keep turning on its axis without us.

Rest not only reminds us that we’re not God but it reminds us of the true God and what He has done. God gave this purpose explicitly to the children of Israel in the instructions for the Feast of the Trumpets (Num. 29:1). They were to commemorate the faithfulness of God to His people. When we take a break from the busyness of our schedules to meaningfully reflect on the goodness of God, we allow rest to do its work in us.

Finally, rest refreshes us and gets us ready for the next leg of our journey. Paul desired to see the believers in Rome to find “refreshing rest” with them (Rom. 15:32, NASB1995). Sometimes this refreshment happens with other believers who “strengthen our hands in the Lord” as Jonathan did for David (1 Sam. 23:16). Other times, this happens alone, as God did for Elijah beside the Cherith brook (1 Kings 19). God promises to “restore our soul” (Psalm 23:3), but we must allow Him to do this work by engaging in true biblical rest, not worldly idleness. 

Idleness Feeds Escapism; Rest Leads to God

We live in a world tailor-made for escapism. From social media and streaming services to around-the-clock news, YouTube rabbit holes, video games, and more books than anyone could read in a hundred lifetimes, we can easily escape into alternate realities and never come up for air. While none of these things are necessarily sinful, they all can easily feed our idols rather than help put them to death. We try to hide in a novel, the latest headlines, or a string of cat videos and never run to the One who truly provides rest. When we use our downtime to escape from reality, we’ve become idle. 

The woman in Proverbs 31 is said to never “eat the bread of idleness,” a snack that doesn’t satisfy or nourish. It tastes delicious at first but ends up leaving you feeling hungrier than before. It’s sort of like trying to get vitamins from a Twinkie. The bread of idleness will always let you down because it promises escape and delivers death. 

Rest, on the other hand, will push us toward God. After all, it was His idea. And it pictures a reality greater than anything we’ll find on earth, a concept the author of Hebrews dedicates more than a chapter to developing (see Heb. 3–4). 

Over and over in Scripture, God gives rest to His people, whether through provisions in the Law or through promises as their Shepherd (Psalm 23; Ex. 33:13–14; Ezek. 34:15), or in Jesus offering literal rest to His disciples after a wearying season of ministry (Mark 6:31). God also promises rest for the dead in Christ (Rev. 6:11), and Christ Himself promises to give it to those who come to Him (Matt. 11:28–29).

Rest is a gift from God leading to God. 

While not all rest will involve something overtly spiritual, like Bible reading, praying, or hymn-singing, true biblical rest will lead us back to our steadfast Refuge and Rock. It won’t offer the black hole of escapism but the life-giving refreshment that comes only from the Creator and Sustainer of life. 

What Now? 

One obvious question remains: So, what can I do without being idle? I don’t think this question has a simple answer. As is so often the case, you have to guard your own heart and avoid judging others. What’s restful for me may not be for you. Start by turning off your phone, opening your Bible, and seeking God through prayer. Ask the Giver of rest to reveal idle tendencies in your own heart, a prayer He will faithfully answer. 

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” —Matthew 11:28

What does it look like to rest in the Lord as you seek after Him with your whole heart? If you’ve ever longed for a deeper relationship with God but you’re not sure where to begin,A Place of Quiet Rest by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth will demystify the process of coming to know God intimately. In its pages, Nancy shares from her heart and life how a daily devotional time will forever change your relationship with Jesus. She offers practical advice to overcome pitfalls you may encounter and tools to enable you to seek after God for a lifetime. Order your copy today. 

About the Author

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson lives in a small Minnesota town with her husband, son and daughter, and ridiculous black dog. She enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and coaching basketball. You can read more of her musings about God's Word at

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