Al Mohler once preached a sermon titled, “Don’t just do Something, Stand There.” I am borrowing his title which plays on the common saying, “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” to describe an inability to remain still and commune with God.
In other words, sometimes in the hustle and bustle of life, we forget to, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). God made us to work and rest, to act and be still. The same God that told us to subdue the earth also told us to keep the Sabbath.
We should pursue justice and behold “the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18). We are made for work and rest, not either of them exclusively.
The problem is that many of us prioritize efficiency, success, and productive activity over non-productive activities like prayer, meditating on God’s word, long conversation, and more besides. As a consequence, we miss out on the riches that stillness rewards us with.
We see Ourselves as Doers
When we talk to our friends, we say, “What are you doing this weekend?” We expect them to list a set of activities. If they don’t, we might offer, “Why not come to the mall with us?” We feel obligated to do activities. We often assume that doing is superior to not doing.
We must do something, we think. Boredom must be avoided. Activity must be instagrammed. Fun matters. Doing fun things makes memories. If we have a moment to relax, someone (or even our own consciences) will tell us, you should do something more productive!
We are made for work and rest, not either of them exclusively.
We feel guilty when we lay down to rest. We think we are lazy if we have not been productive. Our lives are defined by what we do and produce. Productive activity marks our lives. We are not merely labouring creatures but are perpetual doers of something.
Nothing I have described so far signals anything nefarious. God created us, after all, to rule over the earth (Gen 1:28). And he has laid out good works for us in advance (Eph 2:10). And yet God made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
When David, a man of action, requested one thing of God, he asked to gaze at his beauty in the temple: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps 27:4).
Good works do not conflict with our task of intentional inactivity—in fact, both are good for us. Christianity avoids easy either-ors. We are made for good works, and we are made to behold the glory of God. Both activities—of doing and not doing—are good and wholesome and right. In a sense, we can call both good works.
But I perceive in our day a valorization of productive activity and a disdain for unproductive inactivity.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that the lack of boredom in our society makes us bad listeners since we need boredom, tranquility, to give attention to listening. We have too much stimuli. “The ‘gift of listening,’” he explains, “is based on the ability to grant deep, contemplative attention—which remains inaccessible to the hyperactive ego” (The Burnout Society, 13).
If that is true in our interactions with others, how much more true is it in our communion with God?
We Should Do and not do
Doing no specific productive activity is a good thing. Taking the time to think, to reflect, to pray, to be still, to behold glory, to gaze at the Lord’s beauty—these things are necessary. God made us for glory.
Rest acts. Rest is intentional inactivity. Rest is full of hope.
Christians hope for rest: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb 4:9–10). Yet Christians also must “strive to enter that rest” (Heb 4:11).
Inactivity is hard. To be bored today is nearly impossible. Emails, Social Media, video games, streaming, messaging—we have too much to do. Data overflows. Activities flourish everywhere.
Yet we must pursue and make time and space for doing nothing productive for the sake of our souls. Prayer is not an efficient exercise; conversing with God and others is not primarily for an economic purpose.
Christians have thought about our growth in godliness as, in Paul’s language, a movement from one level of glory to another. But this movement does occur when we do more and better things.
As Paul explains, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
Christians work and rest. Both buoy us through life. But if we make no space for boredom, for stillness, then we will miss the reward that stillness brings.
God beckons, “Come, behold the works of the Lord” and “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:8, 10). These are not polite suggestions. They beckon us to holy inactivity. They bring us to a divine river “whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (Ps 46:4).
We come to this holy city when we pray, one foot in heaven and one foot on earth. We go through stopping. We ascend by beholding. We arrive through stillness. And there we “shall see God” (Matt 5:8).