We help you give and we strengthen the causes you give to

Generosity is our cause

Submenu title


bible with fruit in speech bubble

Working from rest: Being productive

peter heslam Peter Heslam
6 min

The Genesis of rest

The Bible’s first account of creation, told on its opening page, is very brief. Yet it is broken down into bite size pieces about what happens each day. Humans are made on the sixth day, and are immediately given a job description; they are to be fruitful, subdue the earth, and rule over all that God has made.

The reader might expect that the seventh day would depict humans embarking on this work. Instead, no tasks are undertaken, and even God takes a day off. Apparently, therefore, the first day of human existence was a day of rest! Perhaps the only activity humans got up to was walking with God ‘in the cool of the day’ (Gen 2.8).

It is customary in many countries, when chatting with friends and colleagues on Mondays, to ask ‘did you have a good weekend?’. It is a fine custom, but it reflects the assumption that the week starts with Monday and ends with Sunday. For centuries, however, Christians have regarded their day of rest - Sunday - as the first day of the week. At its best, it embodied the notion that, given the six days of demanding work that lie ahead, one full day of rest was required.  

Jesus and rest

We see this principle of working from rest in the life of Jesus. The gospel writers often show him withdrawing to find solitude before intense periods of ministry (eg Mk 1.35). He urges his disciples to do the same, on one occasion before they find themselves involved in a major food hub operation to feed five thousand people (Mk 6.31-32)!

All this could sound like the basis for some sage advice to 'come apart before you fall apart'. But the Bible goes much further; scripture puts rest at the centre of the gospel. In fact, it presents rest as one reason why the gospel is good news. At the very heart of God's offer of salvation in and through Jesus Christ, is the offer of rest.

bible love hearts

That offer, which comes directly from the lips of Jesus, is most elegantly rendered in the words of the Authorized Version (AV): ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Mt 11.28-30).

More recently, it has been imaginatively expressed in the Bible paraphrase The Message, as ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. 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. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’

Rest and fruitfulness

But what about the first part of our title’s theme, ‘being productive’? Surely rest is about being unproductive. And is productivity not in itself a problematic concept, as it implies that what matters about work is not its intrinsic value but its measurable outcomes?

It is important to note that the Bible favours the term 'fruitfulness' over 'productivity'; it frequently recurs in scripture, beginning with the commission given to Adam and Eve, alluded to above, to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1.28).

Of course, another way of referring to fruit, however, is ‘produce’. Whatever else a produce stall on a market might sell, it typically includes fruit. Accordingly, the words productivity and fruitfulness are often used interchangeably. But as the former is the term most often used in business and economics, it is the term Faith in Business is using, at least in its theme title.

Rest in the gospel

The idea that rest, rather than redemption, lies at the heart of the gospel may sound almost heretical. But what is redemption? It is a metaphor drawn from the world of finance that signifies the cancellation of a debt. According to the Hebrew Bible, debts were to be cancelled every seven years, during what came to be called the Shemitah – the Year of Release or Sabbath Year (Deut 15.1-3).

Against this background, the New Testament uses debt as a metaphor for sin against God (Lk 7.41-43; Mt 6.12, 18.21-35; Col 2.13-14). According to the last of these references, ‘God forgave us all our sins; he cancelled the unfavourable record of our debts with its binding rules and did away with it completely by nailing it to the cross’.

Here the Apostle Paul is using an additional metaphor to the debt metaphor. As reflected in John’s telling of the passion, Roman executioners generally nailed to the cross above the head of the condemned person a written statement of their guilt.

Paul is saying, accordingly, that our debt records have been included in the destruction and obliteration of the cross. Christ’s death cancels debt and thereby inaugurates a perpetual Sabbath Year in which the debt of sin is cancelled, and God’s people can enjoy rest, in their earthly lives and beyond (Hebrews 4). It is, then, for our rest that Christ died. In other words, rest is not a ‘nice to have’ for those who can afford luxury holidays and early retirements. Lying at the heart of the gospel, it is available to all.

Rest and productivity

The idea that productivity relies on rest may also sound like dodgy theology. After all, the Bible recommends the following masterclass in productivity: ‘Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest’ (Proverbs 6.6-8). The Apostle Paul may well have taken this masterclass, given his tireless labours (2 Corin 11.21-28), and his injunction ‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’ (2 Thess 3.10).

But the encounter Jesus had with the woman at the well in Samaria helps put the productivity value of hard work into perspective. Here we find Jesus taking a rest: ‘Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well’ (Jn 4.6).

But look what happens. He has one of the most amazing conversations in the Gospels. It is all the more amazing for being with a Samaritan (despised by Jews) but also with a woman. Indeed, it is with a woman so disreputable that she needs to draw water from the well at noon, when the need for shelter from the heat was so great she would be less likely to be spotted out in the open.

We have, as a result, one of the most beautiful, vivid, enlightening and convicting passages of scripture that has helped transform lives around the world, across two millennia.

But did the immediate results also reflect such productivity? According to John, the woman responds to Jesus offer of living water; she then goes to tell her fellow townspeople about Jesus; and then ‘many Samaritans became believers’ (Jn 4.28, 30, 39-41).

The story can function, therefore, as a paradoxical parable about the role of rest in productivity. It provides a model of ‘being productive – working from rest’.

Joint partnership with Faith in Business

This blog post also appears as two separate articles in Faith in Business Quarterly (22.4 2023 and 23.1 2024). Stewardship is proud to be a Faith in Business Theme Partner with Faith in Business at their 2024 Cambridge Leadership Retreat 26-27 April on the topic of 'Being Productive - Working from Rest'.

Faith in Business Cambridge Leadership Retreat 2024 26-27 April




Quarterly email for philanthropists. News, inspiration and guidance to support you on your giving journey. 

Profile image of Peter Heslam
Written by

Peter Heslam

Dr Peter S Heslam, FRSA is Director of Faith in Business; Cambridge; Fellow of the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology, Cambridge; Senior Research Associate of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide; and Visiting Fellow of the Mockler Center, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, USA. He has held various academic positions at his alma maters, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and has researched and lectured on Christianity and enterprise all over the world. He is also the editor of God on Monday, short weekly biblical reflections produced in partnership with the Church of England.