A little over a month ago, I did something that felt unusual and unnerving, especially for a workaholic like myself. I took a Sabbath. No, not one of those yearlong ones during which I’d don a robe and check into a monastery. Just a half-day one. Having recently wrapped up a tiring year teaching English at a university in China, and anticipating a hectic few months ahead, I took the liberty of camping out at a nearby Starbucks one afternoon with my Bible, journal, and a seasonal beverage in hand, and occupied the most remote table for some much-needed one-on-one time with God. My soul had become dry, my body worn out, and my energy meter on empty. I had mastered the art of staying busy while neglecting my soul.
As a cross-cultural worker involved with a church in a fast-paced metropolis in China, I have been blessed with bountiful opportunities to serve, but at times I overlook my need for physical and spiritual rest. As I looked ahead to my upcoming commitments, I knew I would be stretched thin and very much needed to refocus and refuel.
During this Sabbath, the fifth chapter of the gospel of John came into focus. The scene takes place in Jerusalem during a feast of the Jews. Jesus passes by a lame man who has lain by a healing pool for thirty-eight years, waiting for his opportunity to get into the water and be healed. When Jesus sees him, He asks, “Do you want to be healed?”
In our contemporary context, I think the question could have been any of the following: Do you want to follow me in your workplace or school place? Do you want to surrender your anxieties and follow me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? or Do you want to stop being constantly busy and instead find rest for your body and soul? It was a direct yes-no question seeking a direct answer.
Instead, the invalid man replies, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”
I am amused by his reply because it’s how I often reply when Jesus asks something of me. Instead of answering Jesus’ question, the lame man offers an excuse to validate his state of being. His reply underestimates Jesus’s power to change his circumstance. Jesus did not ask for an excuse! He simply asked for the man’s willingness to surrender his own efforts to allow Jesus to work. “Do you want to be healed?”
“Sir…I’ve no one to put me into the pool!”
“Sir…I’m so busy these days, serving in so many ways!”
“Sir…I’m so exhausted, but I don’t know why!”
Jesus instructs the man, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” At once, the man is healed, and he takes up his bed and walks.
I’m thankful that Jesus knows our needs better than we know our own and is ready to heal and restore even when we are too busy wallowing in our own circumstances. For me, at Starbucks that afternoon, I realized that Jesus was ready to help me find rest when I was ready to let go of my constant need to be occupied.
In Soul Keeping, John Ortberg shares the wisdom of Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life” (20). These words convicted me of my tendency to hurry through my day, going from one activity to another, rarely stopping for breath, let alone extended time with Jesus. In reflecting on the passage in John 5, I have been encouraged by the realization that Jesus doesn’t ask me to try harder. He asks simply for a willingness to allow Him to work.
These days, I feel that Jesus is asking me if I will let go of my preoccupation so He can heal my soul’s empty drive for productivity. “Bruce, will you love me and allow me to bring contentment without your being constantly on the go?”
My actions used to communicate, “Yes, Jesus, but don’t you see? I don’t have time to sit down with you! I’m so busy serving at this event, hosting that group, teaching this class, involved in that ministry…” But, now, I’m realizing that Jesus called me to China not to be a busybody laboring out of exhaustion, but to love Him first and foremost, and, as an outpouring of my love for Christ, to love and serve those around me too.
Do you find yourself staying busy while neglecting your soul? Are you willing to let go of your busyness and allow God to work in your life? What has been your experience of Sabbath rest?
Previously a high school science teacher in Cupertino, California, Bruce Cheung relocated in 2013 to a megacity in South-central China along the Yangtze River, where he teaches English to university students. Outside the classroom, he’s part of an intentional church community whose aim is to reach out to young urban professionals and families in the city. He enjoys building community and hearing the stories of everyday people and how those stories intersect with their faith journeys.