A Theology of Vacations

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In the near future my wife and kids and I will join the other members of our family at a cabin on a clear Minnesota lake for a week of fun, rest, and relaxation. I can’t wait.

A yearly week at a cabin is a tradition our family has held for about a decade now, and it is always one of the best weeks of the year. It’s one that we look forward to with longing and anticipation, and one that we look back on with fond memories and laughter.

But sometimes vacations are hard to take. The stress of preparing for the trip, or the extra work you have to do before the vacation, and the catch-up you have to play when you get back can sometimes seem to drain away the rejuvenation you received on vacation. But we should not let these things hinder us from taking time to enjoy our families and the earth God has created. In fact, I believe the Bible teaches that it’s a good, godly, and wise thing to take a vacation!

Created to need rest
God created us to need rest. He designed our bodies to need a recharge every 16 hours or so. And so, every night we go to sleep to rejuvenate our bodies for the coming day’s work. In fact, a full one-third of our lives (give or take) is spent resting. This is by God’s design. God knows that if left to ourselves, we would work ourselves to death, trying to get ahead, “eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127.2). It is not good for us to be at work all the time, so God ordained sleep, and he commanded us to take a regular time of rest for our own good.

But there’s more to just maintaining our health that makes resting a good idea. There’s also a spiritual reality at work. By taking the time to rest we remind ourselves that we are not God, that our work is not ultimate, and that we need him. It is not good for me to work, and work, and work, constantly trying to get ahead, because I never will. By resting, I acknowledge God’s sovereignty over my work and my dependence on him to accomplish the things that my own efforts at work can’t. If you struggle to go on vacation because you keep thinking about all the work that’s not getting done while you’re away, you need to remember that you are not God, and the world will go on without you because God is God. In fact, if you struggle to go on vacation because you are vexed by work left undone, that’s a sign that you need to go on vacation! Reorient yourself to the reality of God’s sovereign control with a week of vacation.

Jesus rested, and so should we
In Mark 6 we read about Jesus’ disciples going out on a mission trip and returning exhausted. When they get back, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Jesus, perhaps more than anyone, knew what hard work was all about, and he knew the value of rest. Jesus himself would often retreat to get away from the crowds and craziness of his work, and he also invited his disciples to take time to relax and recharge. In doing so, they would be better equipped to fulfill the work that God had given them to do.

The same is true for us. We are to do all things for the glory of God, and we are to work as unto the Lord, not men. If Jesus knew the value of taking time to rest, we should learn from his example and not shun times where we can enjoy rest and relaxation, and times that will re-energize us for carrying out the work that God has given us to do.

Vacation Salvation
Rest and relaxation in this life is a fuzzy shadow of the rest that we have in Christ. This is the purpose of God’s commanding a Sabbath day of rest. It operates as a foreshadowing of the rest that we will have in Christ at our ultimate salvation. We do not have to work to please God, because Christ has pleased him on our behalf; we no longer work to offer sacrifices and atone for sin, because Christ became the perfect sacrifice and, once offered, he rested from his work. Now those in Christ rest in the security of their salvation.

This, the Bible teaches, is the spiritual lesson that we are to learn by observing a Sabbath day in our regular work-week. By resting from our labors, we are reminded that Christ’s work is finished and complete. It cannot be added to, nor should we try to do so. Jesus’ last words on the cross were “It is finished,” referring to his work as a perfect sacrifice for all who would believe. Christians rest in that finished work, and a weekly Sabbath reminds us of that spiritual reality.

I believe that a good vacation can remind us of that same truth. We can relax and enjoy times of rest because our spiritual work has been completed. We need not spend our time obsessing over how we can please God and stave off his wrath, because that work is already done. Imagine if you had to work to maintain your standing in God’s good graces. I’m sure you wouldn’t be spending any of that time at the lake! But those in Christ do not work to maintain their standing with God, so we can rest. Let a good vacation remind you of the rest you have in Christ.

A little slice of Heaven
One of the reasons we so enjoy our yearly cabin retreat is not just that we get to enjoy one another as a family, but we also get to enjoy God’s creation in a unique way that is different from any other experience we have all year. Our week at the cabin is filled with swimming, fishing, cookouts, late nights outside around the campfire, tubing behind the boat, knee-boarding, failed attempts at water skiing, boating, kayaking, frog-catching, sitting under the sun, wildlife watching, and a whole host of other activities that are designed for us to delight in the things God has made.

As much as we enjoy God’s creation now, it will pale in comparison to how we enjoy the new heavens and new earth that God will one day create. When this world passes away, God will create a new one that will be unaffected by sin and death (an ever-present reality when playing on the water with little ones who still need life jackets to protect their safety). We cannot even conceive of the glories of this new world that God will create, let alone our delight in it.

While on vacation at the cabin, enjoying family and creation, we often ask, “Can it get any better than this?” The answer is, “Yes, it can. And it will!” As much as we delight in God’s creation now, we will delight in it all the more when it is remade. Allow the “little slice of heaven” of your vacation time to fill you with a longing for the consummation of God’s creation, and for the new heavens and the new earth that will soon be a reality.