Tired, overworked, distressed, hungry, and overwhelmed are a few words you could use to describe my mental and emotional state in December during exams three years ago. I’m sure it isn’t entirely hard to picture: colour-coded Psychology notes sprawled all over the table at “my spot” on the second floor of the library, with 2 empty Starbucks cups, and a backpack full of everything I might possibly need, to avoid any reason to take a break from studying.
It’s not that being prepared, or even spending hours studying, is “bad” in and of itself. At that time, I truly believed that this was the way to success, and the way to God’s heart. But you see, God had a lot of things to teach me about the gospel, through my thwarted attempts to earn his love through my studying for exams.
In the fall semester of my third year of university (that I described above), I was working through a recent breakup, and a shift in my church community. I found myself in a place of brokenness, and vulnerability. I was going about my studying ways as usual… which for me, meant spending 8-10 hours a day during exam season, handwriting and re-writing all lecture notes, textbook notes, and making myself practice exams until I had everything as memorized as humanly possible.
This has always been my predisposition when it comes to school. I think we all fall somewhere along the spectrum from being a keener (me), to struggling at the opposite end with procrastination and apathy. Anyways, this strategy of working extremely hard to do everything within my human ability to get 90s or better on exams was working for me just fine… or so I thought.
As I struggled to maintain my own mental and physical health, cope with life’s challenges, whilst studying with this kind of intensity, God’s hand patiently showed me that something had to change.
My lifestyle of skipping meals, or eating cliff bars everyday for dinner, was not what he intended for his blood-bought, redeemed, and beloved child. I prayed, asking God to show me what his heart was for me while I was in school. I began to study the Scriptures and listen to sermons and biblical teaching on rest. As I spent time doing these things, it became blatantly obvious to me that taking rest was biblical and essential to my health and flourishing as a student, and child of God.
The biblical idea of rest goes all the way back to Genesis, when God rests on the seventh day from creating. Genesis 2:2-3 says:
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so, on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
Throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 20:8-11), God commands his people to keep the Sabbath as a holy (or “set-apart”) day for rest for the Lord. In Isaiah 58, God describes what heart posture behind fasting and sabbath rest is actually pleasing to him. It is not self-centred denial, that aims to impress others (verse 4-5), but rather, it is taking the step of obedience to trust that we can rest, knowing that God is faithful.
In verses 13-14 God says: “If you call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable… then you shall delight yourself in the Lord.” Therefore, Sabbath is actually a gift, given to us by God that we might grow to delight in him more, but it is also a command, given by our loving Heavenly Father for our good.
The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament also shed light on what the Sabbath means for us now, under the new covenant. The Pharisees call out Jesus on numerous occasions, for doing things that they (wrongly) believed violated and made a mockery of the Sabbath. In the second chapter of the gospel of Mark, the Pharisees pick a fight with Jesus because he and his disciples went out to pick some grain to eat. Jesus responds with this wonderful truth: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus’ point is that the Sabbath is not supposed to be something that we shame one another for keeping or not, or a day that he chose to set apart to frustrate us. But rather, God, in his mercy and grace, commands us to seek the rest that he knows we need.
Now you may be thinking, “Wow, that’s great, but I don’t have time to rest during exams!” And to that I would say to you: yes. It may seem illogical to intentionally take time to rest, during the most demanding seasons of school. But while illogical, in human terms, it is perfectly logical in the currency of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus commands his disciples to do things that may seem weird or upside down all the time. From “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) to “deny yourself and pick up your cross” (Matthew 16:24). I have learned that following Jesus is not just a one-time decision to receive his work on my behalf by faith, but a continual process of, in faith, handing over one area after another of my life to him.
For me, from out of the overflow of my own study of Scripture, in January I somewhat spontaneously decided that I would start taking each Sunday off all school work, and studying–even if I had an exam the next day! I thought when I made this decision that it would be difficult (which it was!) but that I would receive overwhelming support from my faith community. It turns out, most Christians I told this resolution to were either surprised, laughed, or said, “That’s great for you, but I definitely don’t have time for that!”
Following Jesus is not just a one-time decision to receive his work on my behalf by faith, but a continual process of in faith, handing over one area after another of my life to him.
Before I took the step of faith to trust God with resting completely on Sunday, I also believed that not working was “crazy.” But now, I can honestly say that starting to take the Sabbath seriously in January three years ago was one of the best decisions and steps of faith that I have ever taken in my walk with Jesus.
Sundays quickly became my favourite day of the week.
I was able to work more efficiently throughout the week, planning my studying to enable me to have Sunday off. Sunday became my day to go on long walks after church, cook meals for the week, and spend extended time in prayer. Ironically, my grades actually went up as I started taking this intentional time to rest. I can’t promise your grades will go up too, but I can promise that God will see, and be glorified through the steps of faith we take to grow closer to him, in one way or another.
This step of faith not only deepened my trust in the Lord, but also brought much needed peace to my mind, heart, and soul. I began to learn that God will never love me any more, nor any less, than he already does. It actually saddens the Father’s heart when we work ourselves to the bone, neglecting the gift of rest that he holds out to us. Ephesians 2:8-9 says:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that none can boast.”
Recently, I reached out to a friend for prayer, as I was struggling with performing for God, or trying to win his approval. Something she said to me really stuck with me: “You will never perform at a level that does not require grace.” This is humbling, sound advice for all areas of our life, whether it is studying, working at our job, or reading our Bible. There is no area of our life that is not sustained and strengthened by God’s sustaining Spirit of all grace.
I share this testimony of God’s grace to urge you to seriously consider taking God at his word, when he commands us to rest. What that looks like will likely differ for each one of us. The most important thing is not how we take Sabbath (e.g. what day of the week) but that we do take it. The presence of Jesus is ultimately the rest we must pursue:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
The most important thing is not how we take Sabbath, but that we do take it.
I would encourage you to begin to pray, to ask God what step of faith he would invite you, and equip you, to take this exam season.
It may include: setting a time to stop studying in the evening, taking frequent breaks to listen to worship music, opening up God’s Word before opening your textbooks, intentionally serving others around you with study snacks, or it may be taking a day off to rest.
Above all, I pray that this exam season, you would take time to seek the One who can give you the rest you so deeply crave.
This article was written as part of the Writing Mentorship with our P2C-Students Editorial team.
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