Years ago, I spent several weeks traveling in Japan. I vividly recall the polluted, cloudlike darkness hanging over the larger cities, and the constant struggle to breathe. Glass-sided booths, available to pedestrians feeling desperate for fresh air, lined the streets. I remember coming out of one, hoping I’d make it to the next booth without choking.
The memory of my ducking into those human-size fishbowls to escape toxic air is a fitting metaphor for the restless world we live in. The weapons of mass distraction and self-destruction are everywhere. Our lives are constantly besieged by busyness, hurry, and noise. Living full throttle is expected, while running on empty is the norm—sadly, even among followers of Christ.
Had I died 25 years ago, “running on empty” is how I most likely would have been remembered. Although I had made a name for myself within the ministry I served, I was physically exhausted and spiritually demoralized. Late at night, while my wife and our children slept, I would lie awake fearing that I had come to the end of my rope. And the following morning, it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed.
My emptiness had not appeared overnight. It was the by-product of years of relentless striving to make my mark as a leader within the church. While helping others encounter God, I had lost my own connection to Him. The lifestyle that should have enhanced my friendship with God had instead become a terrible threat, as I spoke more about Him than with Him.
Living full throttle is expected, while running on empty is the norm—sadly, even among followers of Christ.
It was in this season that I discovered the hymn “This Is My Father’s World,” and it has been a source of reassurance and encouragement ever since. More than anything, my heart yearns for the intimacy with God that is expressed in this song. But it has been equally life-altering for me to observe the dramatic shift that occurred in the life of its author, Maltbie Babcock.
The 16-stanza poem opens with these soothing lines:
This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought . . .
I can’t read those words without hearing their powerful, positive melody. A highly talented and successful athlete, musician, actor, and student, Babcock was also a deeply spiritual man. After graduating from seminary, he began his ministry in a beautiful small town on the banks of the Erie Canal.
During those early years, he would go out first thing in the morning or late at night to the brow of a hill to take in the beauty of nature and to commune with God. His experience inspired him to write:
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.
However, Babcock’s life soon took a different path. The intimate communion with God slowly diminished. When the invitation from a more prominent church came, this talented young servant, not yet 30, assumed new and more demanding responsibilities. And for the next 14 years Babcock offered effective (and no doubt tiring) service. Vast numbers of individuals were spiritually nurtured by his contagiously radiant personality.
This period in Babcock’s life reminds me of a similar season in my own. To the casual onlooker, my life appeared quite good. My work was highly praised. And it was clear that God was at work because people’s lives were being changed.
“God loves you too much for you to ever become necessary.”
At the age of 41, Babcock was asked to lead a still larger congregation. Sadly, in his new position, he found less time for nurturing his soul at the very point in his life when he needed it the most, and the demands and pressures continued to wear him down. While he did his best to seize every opportunity to get away, commune with God, and rest, those opportunities became fewer and farther between. Reflecting on his demanding life, he picked up the pen again and wrote a poem that reflects a shift in his focus—from living in the restful peace that comes with knowing God loves you, to something far less comforting. Here are his autobiographical lines:
We are not here to play, to dream, to drift;
We have hard work to do and loads to lift;
Shun not the struggle; face it, ’tis God’s gift.
Be strong, be strong, be strong!
What do you suppose happened to Babcock between “All nature sings, and round me rings / The music of the spheres” and “Be strong! / We are not here to play, to dream, to drift; / We have hard work to do and loads to lift”? How did he lose sight of the essential need to take time for both work and rest?
Perhaps he had become, like me, a compulsive overachiever, an out-of-control work addict, and what some call a “functional atheist.” Although I spoke of God as being powerful and in control, my actions suggested otherwise. God intervened when I met a man who began asking questions about a part of me I had not considered for quite some time. “Tell me about the condition of your soul,” he said. I was clueless. To squirm free from the silence, I began babbling about the frantic and frenzied pace of my life. After listening for a while, he made the statement that changed my life: “Fil, you seem dreadfully close to losing touch with the Jesus you desperately want others to know.”
To learn how to rest in a restless world, we must listen when Jesus says, “Come to Me.”
Never had words pierced my heart as these did. For quite some time, I’d known that my life was at risk. But there had been no time to analyze the problem, its cause, or what might result if I couldn’t rein in the chaos. In the process of going four directions at the same time, I had lost my soul. Before our visit ended, he delivered my “emancipation proclamation”: “Fil,” he said, “God loves you too much for you to ever become necessary.”
I still revel in the liberation that began that day. God was freeing me to see I am here to play, to dream, and to drift as much as I am to do the work He gives me to do. What a wonderful thing—not being in charge! God doesn’t need us to work for Him, but He does want us to work with Him.
There is a time for everything, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes assures us (3:1-8). There is a time to work, yes, but there is also a time to rest. And if we don’t make time for the latter, sooner or later we discover what the writer of Ecclesiastes knew: Our work, no matter how important, becomes a bitter and burdensome task.
To learn how to rest in a restless world, we must listen when Jesus says, “Come to Me.” Each time I’m tempted to forget or ignore His invitation, I read a simple paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30:
Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace . . . Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly (msg).
We are meant to cease from our strivings. We have limits on our time and energy. And to live as though we don’t is damaging and delusional. Although we’re made in God’s image, we’renot God. We can’t go everywhere, do everything, and see everyone. He created us in His image and then invited us to follow His example. “Stop, rest, and I will make you more like Me,” He says.
What incentive could be more compelling than that?