Hebrews and the Promise of Real Rest for Youth Ministers (Even In a Pandemic)
This past winter one of my students suggested that our D-group go through the book of Hebrews. I was happy to oblige, especially since he took the initiative to reach out and to offer such a suggestion. Hebrews is a wonderful exposition of the gospel that spells out in great detail how Christ atones for our sins and how he is sufficient in all things. But perhaps most importantly, Hebrews lays out how such a wonderful Savior meets and provides for us right where we are, even when we do not deserve it. We see this clearly in the way Christ promises true rest for his people, saying that we must “make every effort to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:10).
As I read and prepared for Hebrews 4 one week this spring, I thought to myself: “how in the world am I supposed to teach on God’s promise of rest to high school guys when I have felt so restless myself this past year?” Because leaning into the promise of Christ’s rest has been difficult for me personally, I felt completely inadequate to walk alongside students this past year as they dealt with their restlessness.
COVID-19 has exposed my restlessness in ways that I could not have imagined prior to the onset of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. The dreams of simply moving past the pandemic—that at some well-defined point, everything would be just fine again—never came. Restlessness simply compounded, leading to doubt, fear, anxiety, and worry. Like so many others, I grew impatient, tired, and frustrated at the major disruption COVID-19 was to me, my family, and even my vocation as a minister.
Similarly, many of the students in my ministry have experienced restlessness with school, as many have had a difficult time adjusting to online learning. They have experienced restlessness in their relationships, as their pre-pandemic friend groups have changed significantly or have dissipated altogether. Several students have not been able to shake the feelings of isolation and loneliness brought on at the outset of COVID-19. But perhaps the most common tendency I have seen with students in the past year is how they have generally felt distanced from the Lord. Like a lot of adults, students have reported their faith having atrophied due to not having in-person worship services or regular youth group events. Even with more free time, these students revealed that spiritual disciplines such as Bible-reading and prayer had fallen by the wayside.
Ultimately, restlessness has a crippling effect on all of our souls, detaching our hearts, minds, and our whole selves from the truth that not only are our identities secured in Christ (Gal. 2:20) but also from the truth that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
As we approached Hebrews, I needed to hear how restlessness leads to preoccupations that are ultimately outside of my control. My students needed to hear how biblical rest is not synonymous with laziness, apathy, or “throwing in the towel.” Each of us needed to understand how the Bible speaks into our restlessness and what true rest in Christ looks like.
The Story of Rest
Scripture catalogs restlessness from its opening pages. Adam and Eve were not content to rest in the promise of God’s goodness in creation, thereby forfeiting the privilege to abide perfectly and completely in his rest (Gen. 3:17-24). The Israelites were likewise stubborn to embrace the promise of rest the Lord provided. In their 40-year wandering following the Exodus, God’s people had the audacity to voice their complaints to their leader, Moses, telling him they wished they were back in Egypt because things seemed a little too tough in the wilderness (Ex. 16:2-3, Num. 11:1). God ultimately brought the Israelites into the Promised Land so that they would steward the land well, live in peace, and enjoy rest (Jos. 21:43-45).
We also know all too well how easy it is to refuse rest, even giving ourselves over to restlessness, thinking that our works, our plans, and our determination will get us to the place we want to be. This line of thinking contradicts the gospel because true rest is not a fleeting feeling but a promised reality in and through the finished work of Christ in the Cross and Resurrection. Scripture makes it clear that the promise of biblical rest is intricately linked to salvation. This is why the author of Hebrews exhorts us to “make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish…” (Heb. 4:11).
One of the core convictions of my church is “to let the Word do the work.” Indeed, the Word did the work among our guys’ group this semester. As we opened and studied Hebrews, particularly chapter 4, the Holy Spirit did an awesome work among us: Together, we shared our burden of restlessness, which allowed the Spirit to cast our burdens on Christ, our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14-15). My students and I needed to believe anew that Christ has freed us from the restlessness that debilitates us, that we can seek true rest in Christ, even in the midst of turbulent circumstances.
Both my students and I needed to believe that rest is not a return to the status quo but a renewal of God’s graciousness to his people through the fulfilling of all his promises. If we allow restlessness to have the final say, we will not experience the abundant life that Christ offers to us. In him, our provision in the present and the future are completely sure.
The impact of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come. We must remember that we will never experience total rest until the day Christ returns. Until then, let us remember the wise words of Saint Augustine: “you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”