“Arbeit macht frei” (work makes free) says the gate to Dachau concentration camp above. Does it? These words greeted millions of Jews on their way to brutality and death. What a parody of human efforts.
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” mother taught us, but are they always? John Cleese, as hotel manager Basil Faulty, in an episode of “Faulty Towers”, received a blow to the head that threw his thinking off, but not his physical ability. The more diligently he managed his hotel the worse things got. “Idle hands cannot do the devil’s work,” he mused as the physician and orderlies restrained him for his own good.
God is not impressed by our great deeds because he can do great things too. What God wants from us is obedience, and, at the root of obedience is stillness – rest from our own will and work. No act of obedience is more pleasing than expectant waiting. It can be hard to be still when trouble tempts us to panic, to overreact, to despair. However, God has founded our life upon rest. The Sabbath reminds us that God’s provision secures us rather than our own restless efforts to secure ourselves.
The memory of our fallenness causes us to assume that we must be our own father. We aspire to be substitutes for God. If we are to fill God’s shoes, then we assume we must be busy even as we fight our physician. When our efforts seem to succeed, we grow proud. When they seem to fail, we despair. Scripture calls us to something different. God is our rest. We have only to be still.
This stillness is not idleness, it can be active, but its activity arises from faith rather than unbelief and self-idolatry. “The Lord himself will fight for you, you have only to be still,” Moses told the Israelites as they stood trembling at the prospect of death by land or by sea. (Exodus 14:14) This stillness feels like weakness. We want power and we think we know the kind of power that we need. Karl Barth observes that sometimes our power is, “… to be still, to wait, to keep silence, to suffer… It may be that the real quality of the power given to a man can only emerge and be seriously attained in this realm where it seems to be impotence.”
Reality resists our best efforts, but futility remains the only door to faith. The Lord delivered Israel by an unknown way. He promises to do the same for us. We hunger for the way we cannot know. No one likes to be led where he cannot see, but our certainties pale before God’s true uncertainties. We wait.