Redeeming Rest

Examining how time can free us from the false rivalry of work and rest 

If you stop and ask Cornell students about their day, you will often receive responses that evaluate the current situation in terms of time management and productivity, peppered with words like “busy”, “tired”, or “stressed”. Variants of this type of response may be phrased as “I have three prelims, a lab report, and a paper due this week” or “I’ve averaged four hours of sleep for the last six days.” Cornell small talk is permeated with conversations bemoaning how many weeks remain before spring break or calculating the hours until the next weekend while comparing the glories of the previous weekend, be it parties or hours of relaxing with Netflix. These conversations reek of dissatisfaction with the current state of life, a sort of longing, whether explicitly expressed or subconsciously felt, for a change in the current pattern of life. They cry out for a need to shift away from work and towards rest. This longing calls attention to the fact that people do not have enough time in the day to do all of their work and satisfy their desire for leisure, thus highlighting the finitude of our time.

The extent of this dissatisfaction is so extreme that the university itself also recognizes it and has taken action. While sitting in Mann Library one afternoon, I heard a loudspeaker announcement directing students to a meditation session. I receive emails every week reminding me of dorm events such as a “whine and cheese” study break or coloring book therapy sessions. In a culture so driven by success, Dean’s list, the perfect internship, or a scholarship to graduate school, there appears to be a cry for something more than simply trying to optimize time in order to maximize returns. Our unease from our unfulfilled desire for proper rest is due in part from an insufficient understanding of time that reduces it to mere minutes and seconds. However, time can be viewed through a more complex lens which values the opportunities time presents. These opportunities add a qualitative aspect to time. With a more robust view of time, we can rest as well as work because both add qualitative value to our lives. Not only is rest necessary for human thriving, but it also is innately good.

To understand this rest, we will first examine two notions of time and then will examine how these perceptions allow us to appreciate rest. In the Greek language, two different words, chronos and kairos, are used for our English word ‘time’ and stress separate aspects of time. Chronos, the understanding most often associated with time, embodies its quantitative aspect, stressing the uniformity of time and answering the questions of speed, frequency, length, and age. It accounts for the seconds, minutes, and years that pass, and it can be seen in the ticking of a clock. In addition, it accounts for the notion of time with regard to change. In his Physics, Aristotle discusses the chronos notion of time, defining it as the “number of motion in respect to ‘before’ and ‘after’.”[1] This definition expands an understanding of time to include direction or a serial order. For example, one could say, “this morning, I woke up, and then brushed my teeth after eating breakfast,” showing the progression of these events. Aristotle differentiates time from movement but acknowledges an undeniable connection between the two.

Similarly, in his article, Time, Times and ‘The Right Time,’ twentieth-century scholar John E. Smith describes chronos as “allowing for temporal location and the relations between the distinguishable items of experience.”[2] Implicit in his definition is the natural consequence of change. Movement accompanies time, and time always implies change. As time “marches on,” certain changes such as aging, are inevitable, however undesirable they may be. Such a view of time inspires the perception that we are running out of time, that we must achieve as much as we can before our “time is up.” In other words, time is scarce. Our use of “time” in modern English best resembles this chronos definition, and this notion stimulates our apparent need to work instead of rest, accelerating our dissatisfaction with life.

In contrast to chronos, the ancient Greek language also has a notion of time as kairos, defining this qualitative measurement of time as the “special position an event or action occupies in a series.”[2] This definition no longer equates every minute to every other minute. Rather, it sees different moments in time as more valuable or appropriate for an action than others. Notions of kairos often arise during crises, when an opportunity arises for an important decision to be made. In his Seventh Letter, Plato responds to requests for him to support Dion. He asks for Dion’s policies, saying that he would only support Dion if it were the “opportune” time.[3] In doing so, he makes his choice based on the quality of the moment; that is, whether is it the “right time.”

Kairos can be seen as indicating turning points, most clearly seen in political tension that evolves into revolution, the actual turning point. One prime example of such a turning point can be seen in the 1832 French revolt. Political tensions and economic woes had primed the people for action, and the turning point, the peak of kairos time, arrived on June 5th with the death of General Jean Maximillien Lamarque, a principal advocate of the working class. His death and funeral triggered the Paris revolts and barricade; his death is seen as creating the proper conditions for revolution. The lyrics from Les Miserables’ song, ‘ABC Café,’ point to this proper time, when the leader of the revolt, Enjolras, sings, “The time is near, so near, it’s stirring the blood in their veins.”[4] Proper time follows the notion of the ripeness of time, that certain events can only occur at certain moments, primed by other events. This concept of a ripeness of time may also be seen in Ecclesiastes, where the author writes about having a time for everything: to be born, to die, to weep, to laugh, for war, for peace.[5] He does not suggest that certain activities are always good while others are always bad but acknowledges that the world functions with a variety of events that each have their appropriate time to transpire.

Although we can talk about chronos and kairos separately, they do not exist independently of one another. Often, we construct our chronos understanding around kairos events. The timeline of history, a very quantitative measurement, is organized around qualitative events. We discuss the history of the West as before or after the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution, or the Enlightenment, all major turning points in the development of much of western culture. In fact, these events are so interconnected that we say that the Scientific Revolution primed the western world for the Industrial Revolution as well as for the Age of Enlightenment.

When time is viewed solely through a chronos lens, an “economy of time” influences our understanding of work and rest. This “economy of time” views rest and work in opposition. It views time towards one as time away from the other, usually implying positive value of time towards work and negative value of time towards rest. It stems from the inescapable finitude of time because we all have a limited number of hours to allocate to various activities. This concept of an economy of time is first discussed in Marx’s Das Kapital where he diagnoses how the allocation of time had functioned previously and proposes a new system. Both systems, however, are built on the basis that because time is finite, it must be allocated between different activities.[6] An economy of time paired with the contemporary obsession with worldly success fosters a workaholic culture. A workaholic culture organizes life around work and values only material achievement: a degree, research position, dream job, or desirable friends. This culture sees little value in rest. In fact, rest is cast as work’s antagonist: a necessary evil, a bitter pill that must be swallowed. In the hierarchy of human activity, rest is inherently subordinate to work, seen only as its negation, and is to be minimized at all cost. Rest can be seen only as sleep, a necessary activity to increase work productivity. Alternatively, if time is viewed through a kairos lens, life no longer needs to adopt an economy of time and the false dichotomy it implies but can be valued through the benefit of time represented in both work and rest.

Christianity values both work and rest and sees each as an opportunity to honor and enjoy God and thereby live a full life. One example of how Christians value rest is through the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a full day of rest from work originally commanded by God to his people, the Israelites. This day of rest is devoted to explicit worship and enjoyment of God rather than to normal work. We can best understand this commandment in its context. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments God gives to the Israelites after he delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Before giving the Israelites the Commandments, God first recalls to their memory how he saved them from the Egyptians. In so doing, God shows that his commandments give a means by which his people can respond to how he saved them; it outlines how people can worship God through obedience. Sabbath rest, as the Fourth Commandment, is one of the ways God has laid out for us to worship him, and it therefore should be taken seriously, not just as something that gets the scraps of our time or can be cut out of our daily routine when we have other pressures on our time. Such a view of rest implies that because rest is itself important, a kairos view of time should be adopted. Although chronos itself takes no stance on rest or work, it often leads to a view of time that devalues rest.

God himself set the precedent for us when he rested on the seventh day. After creating the world in six days, he rested and declared the seventh day holy.[7] When we see that God established rest when the world was still perfect, we see that rest is good in its own right and is not merely a necessary evil needed to increase productivity. Resting on the Sabbath should not burden us, but rather it should offer a more joyful life within the bounds of God’s vision for human flourishing. We see that we were made not only to work but also to rest. Therefore, using our time towards rest brings us to the way we were meant to live. It brings some of the true happiness we desire.

In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath starts Friday at sundown and continues until Saturday at sundown. In the Christian tradition, people celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday in memory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This tradition began in the first church and is recorded in the book of Acts.8 Aligning everyone’s day of rest on Sunday also allows for people to worship and enjoy God together as a corporate group rather than just individuals. The Sabbath in both the Jewish and Christian traditions affirms the goodness of rest while deepening its value through adding the corporate aspect to it.

Although defining this Sabbath rest may prove difficult because there is no precise formula for it, some habits definitely characterize it. Rest includes fellowship with other Christians to worship God, communion with God through prayer, reading the Bible and meditating on God’s word, and enjoying good gifts like meals and sports. These activities allot time for rest rather than working for something tangible.

The idea of setting aside a whole day to rest may seem far-fetched at Cornell, where we sometimes feel as if we live under the tyranny of “productivity.” When we adopt a fuller view of time in the kairos sense, however, and remember why we can and should take a significant amount of time to rest, it may seem more plausible. We can rest because we know that God does not judge us based on our achievements. True fulfillment lies in him and not in amassing accolades. We know that we cannot, by our own efforts, earn the love of God or live a truly meaningful life. Therefore, Christians need not worry about whether they will be accepted to the right graduate school, find the perfect job, or have the ideal group of friends. To do so would approach idolatry. At the same time, our work is also a means to use our gifts and talents to worship and enjoy God and we should therefore be dedicated to performing it well. The Christian rendering of work and rest turns the “work-life balance” upside down; it values both as complements rather than as rivals. Work and life are not weights on a scale but rather to live is to work and to rest. Both use time to honor and enjoy God.

We should rest principally because God has commanded it and he has done so with good reason. We were made to tire, to be finite, to need to stop and refuel every so often. Rest is good in and of itself and it requires neither justification nor excuse. It, too, is a valuable use of time, especially when a kairos view of time is used. God also built multiple seasons of rest into the Hebrew calendar. In the Old Testament, God commands multiple celebrations, which originally totaled about thirty days each year. Adding together Sabbath days and additional feasts, such as Purim and Hanukkah, and factoring in the inevitable wedding and birth celebrations, God set aside over a fourth of the year for rest and celebration.[9] These seemingly excessive periods of rest show that God finds rest an important foundation to a full life that honors him. God holds a full view of time, establishing in his created order both time for work and time for rest. He, too, can see the qualitative opportunities time presents.

The Cornell culture, ruled by the eternal tick, tick, tick of the clock, values only the efficiency of production and the maximization of time. With a fuller view of time, one that sees not only chronos seconds but kairos quality, we can look beyond the pressures on time and see the goodness and value of resting through the Sabbath.


1“Physics.” Translated by R.P. Hardie and R.K. Gaye. Book IV Part 12. 350 B.C.

2Smith, John E. 1969. “TIME, TIMES, AND THE ‘RIGHT TIME’; “CHRONOS” AND “KAIROS””. The Monist 53 (1). Oxford University Press: 1–13. stable/27902109.

3“The Seventh Letter.” Translated by J. Harward. 2009.

4Schönberg, Claude-Michel, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, Herbert Kretzmer, and Victor Hugo. 2003. Boublil and Schönberg’s legendary musical: Les misérables: the musical that swept the world: in concert. London: Alain Boublil Music.

5Ecclesiastes 3

6Marx, Karl. “Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.” In Capital A Critique of Political Economy, 280. Vol. 1. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1887.

7Genesis 3

8Acts 20:7

9 Alcorn, Randy. Happiness. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2015.


Elizabeth Schmucker ’19, a proud Philadelphian to the core, studies Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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