Restful Exertion to Counteract Self-Help

Embrace a Life of Restful Exertion to Counteract a Self-Help Culture

I’ve noticed myself becoming impatient with some of this year’s newly published books, which seem to be running toward Christianity as a self-improvement project. Scanning the lists from publishers, it dawned on me that there’s no way I can be or do or fix all the unspoken broken that populates our world, the church, or even my own heart. It’s exhausting!

Psychologist Svend Brinkmann calls this “self-optimization fatigue.” When we latch onto our faith as a self-improvement plan, there’s no end to all the work that needs to be done.

And worst of all, there’s that temporary feeling of having “arrived.”
“Just look at me, working on my marriage!”
“I’m sure tearing it up with my self-care routines this week!”

And it’s not long before we fall into the satisfied rut that follows a season of concerted exertion.

A Theology of Restful Exertion

Nearly one hundred years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church about “cheap grace,” and we’ve lined up in droves to get our theology straight on this point, which Bonhoeffer has masterfully defined:

Grace is costly because it calls us to follow;
it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
It is costly because it cost a man his life,
and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

God’s grace is muscular and abundant. It will support me even if I were unable to lift a finger to advance the Kingdom of God. (This is good news to me in absorbing the realities of Parkinson’s disease.)

But there is a call to follow, which I am prone to turn into a do-list. I’m supported in this by a culture that deifies organization and full schedules–but we don’t call it idolatry. We call it “efficiency,” and then write a blog post or even a book about how to do it well.

What, then, is our right response to God’s lavish grace?

Rest is Our Right Response to Grace

Psalm 116 records the psalmist’s response to deliverance. God had delivered his eyes from tears, his feet from stumbling. He owed his precious life to God’s great intervention, and this was his response to God’s bounty:

Return, O my soul, to your rest.”

Psalm 116:7

He probes this conclusion again in verses 12 and 13:

What shall I render to the LORD
for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the LORD.”

Psalm 116:12, 13

God does not work on a barter system where I take grace and then render to him my service as a Sunday school teacher. He does not require three casseroles per month for the needy.

God is self-sufficient. He needs nothing, so the only acceptable response to his “benefits to me” is humble acceptance. Lifting up “the cup of salvation” to him implies that I know he is the only one capable of filling it. When I “call on the name of the LORD,” I admit that all my own efforts, my self-improvement projects, amount to ashes.

Am I making this sound “simple” or “easy”? On the contrary, we have been enculturated to the practices and values of a self-help culture. Rest is not our default and it’s not an easy posture. I appreciated the work of my friend Lauren Sparks in THIS POST in which she asks, “Can you relate to rest being hard???   Maybe the word “rest” conjures up images of lounging in a recliner or laying out by the pool.  But if you are anything like me, rest equals struggle.”

God’s valuable and expensive grace invites us to a life of restful exertion. Let’s admit to each other (and to ourselves) that striving is useless and leads to exhaustion. Rest brings nothing to the equation and relies entirely on God’s power and grace.

Will you join me in this path of restful exertion?

What is our right response to God’s lavish #grace? God does not work on a barter system where I take grace and then render to him my service. God’s valuable and expensive grace invites us to a life of restful exertion. #rest

Now, Let’s Talk Books!

I took a couple of weeks off from talking books here. Of course, I’ve still been reading, but at a more leisurely pace, and much of it strictly for personal growth or enjoyment. But I’m back on track again, and I know you’ll be challenged by Lore Wilbert’s new book:

A Curious Faith

Rainer Maria Rilke famously urges readers to “live the questions” and to “love the questions.” That’s a tall order for our answer-worshiping culture, but I want to keep asking questions and, in particular, to leave space for God (and others) to ask me questions. Lore Wilbert invites her readers into A Curious Faith by examining the biblical questions God has asked, the questions biblical characters have asked of God, and the questions we wish someone would ask us.

Wilbert celebrates the vulnerability of waiting for clarity or receiving an answer we don’t want– and she laments the fact that Christ-followers may have a reputation for being suspicious of questioners. It is a gift to remember that the God of the Bible is curious, and we have been created in his image. In fact, “the Bible is a permission slip for those with questions” since Jesus peppered the Gospels with “Who told you?” and “What do you want?” and “Why are you afraid?”

Perhaps the book’s most stunning description centers on God’s use of questions to comfort Job with images of his own timelessness and mighty power. Job needed a God who was more sovereign than he was–and so do I.

In all our wonderings, we can be certain that God has plans and hopes and good intentions for us. He is committed to living the questions alongside us until we see his face and then discover that he was what we were looking for all along.

Holding You in the Light,

#ACuriousFaith by @lorewilbert celebrates the vulnerability of waiting for clarity and laments the fact that Christ-followers may have a reputation for being suspicious of questioners. @BrazosPress

A FREE Resource for You!

What is your concept of God?

I’ve created a new resource for you, a guided meditation based on Isaiah 43 and the truth that we live and work according to our concept of God. What if you began every day with the conviction that God, YOUR God identifies himself as the God who does a new thing, who makes a path through the wilderness, who blots out your transgressions and says, “Fear not!”

I’m committed to the truth that women can become confident followers of God and students of his word, and it’s my goal to provide resources to help you along that path. Subscribers receive them automatically, and you can receive your copy by simply entering your email and then clicking on the button below…

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I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and an affiliate of The Joyful Life Magazine, two advertising programs designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees. If you should decide to purchase any of the books or products I’ve shared, simply click on the image, and you’ll be taken directly to the seller. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Many thanks to Brazos Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which is, of course, offered freely and with honesty.

67 thoughts on “Embrace a Life of Restful Exertion to Counteract a Self-Help Culture”

  1. I soaked in these words today, sweet friend. It’s always a blessing to drop by this sacred space. I’m thankful for you!


  2. Hi friend, It’s been a while since I dropped by to really connect.  Somehow, I’ve been so distracted that I didn’t even know about the Parkinson’s diagnosis until this morning.  I just wanted you to know that I am praying over you and will continue.   I was very close with my maternal grandpa, and he navigated Parkinson’s throughout the last 20 years of his life.  At any rate, I’m praying for you as you press into the Lord and keep walking this journey one day at a time.  Reading your words was like balm to my soul this morning.  You are such a gift to me……. I pray you are enjoying your family on the country hill this summer….. Hugs, Love and Prayers,Stacey


    1. You’re so kind to take time to read and interact with my work, Stacey. Whenever I see pictures of your sweet family on SM, I get AMAZED at how everyone is growing up. Your prayers are a true gift to me, and I appreciate the encouragement of hearing about your grandfather. Navigating is truly the right verb to use!
      And I love that we can connect online with so much understanding. Blessings and love to you and yours!


  3. Hi Michele,

    Long time no connect. Just wanted to say thanks for this. I’m sorry to hear of your Parkinson’s diagnosis, but I’m so confident the Lord will meet you in it.

    I am, myself, in a season of reduced capacity. Your words are a balm.

    Much love,


    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Emily! It’s so wonderful to hear from you, and I have noticed that things have been quiet with you for a while. I’m grateful that we can still connect in the comments like “the good old days” of blogging.


  4. Hi Michelle. I was diagnosed with PD in December of 2018 so I understand trying to absorb the realities of being diagnosed. By the grace of God the realities of my disease have not been nearly as devastating as I was led to believe they would be. Since the doctor told me that no medications would help with the type of tremors that I was experiencing I began researching natural options. Today my condition is better than the day I was diagnosed in fact I wonder sometimes if the diagnoses is correct.


    1. That’s amazing, Ruth! I have also been advised to focus on exercise and diet over the use of medication. I’d love to chat further. My email is Do you mind sharing some specifics?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not much of a reader of self help books but I do read a bit of psychology papers, just for interest because I find it fascinating how complex we are. I am not in whole agreement with you, in that yes, you shouldn’t view self help as a competition or some sort of badge of honour, but it is handy to know when you are rummaging through your baggage and what your triggers are so you can modify what causes issues in your life. (We often are the cause of our issues). That all said, I’m not really sure what you mean by rest in God’s terms, so we could be in agreement and I just don’t understand what you’ve said. #Dreamteam


    1. Thanks for bringing these thoughts to the table. Actually, my main complaint about our culture’s self-help mentality is that it sends us in 500 different directions with only ourself and some misplaced hope in an expert to keep us afloat. What we really need is a complete overhaul from the inside out– a new heart. We get this only from God, and our only certain hope is in his unfailing attention to our neediness and his promise of rest as we trust.


  6. Hi Michelle, I find the more self-improvement I try the more I fail. It is only in leaning on the Holy Spirit that ANY change occur in me. There is definitely a struggle in the resting and leaning. Thank you for this encouragement today!


  7. I share your feelings about recent books, Michele. So glad to see your review of “A Curious Faith” because I’m going to start reading it this week. I appreciate the mention of how God questioned Job … it makes sense that One who uses questions so purposefully would not be put off when we ask Him our own.


  8. I love your insight that the only acceptable response to God’s benefits is “humble acceptance.” It truly does take humility to allow ourselves to rest. I’m learning much from you through your word, Michele.


  9. This post really has me thinking, Michele. Thanks for that. I’m going to go back and re-read and ponder some more. I love the term “restful exertion.” It’s a really good way to think about rest.


  10. Interesting and thoughtful post. Living the questions is important for sure. My image of God has changed over the years. I am a Catholic and wowee, did they drum in an almighty authoritarian punitive God but well … thank goodness while I absorbed it as a child, life has shown me otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I agree with Kym above: your phrase, “restful exertion” is an insightful one. I wonder if, in God’s economy, Sabbath rest works like tithing. When we tithe, God makes the 90% go further than if we had kept the 100% to cover our expenses. Perhaps when we take a Sabbath rest, God enhances our efforts on the other six days. Then we get to see God at work in amazing ways, and have some terrific stories to tell of his miraculous provision!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is such a beautifully rich post. I too have noticed the self-help slant …but I appreciate you saying, “Rest is not an easy posture. God’s grace is muscular and abundant. It will support me even if I were unable to lift a finger…” What an extraordinary unearned gift!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. …I’ve always been an impatient guy and want things fixed NOW! This morning I cleaned out the garage and took a collection of bikes that don’t get ridden anymore. We have a group here that fixes bikes and gives them to children and adults in need. I did my small part to help.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Bonhoeffer’s words against cheap grace are so compelling, but like you I am often prone to turn “a call to follow . . . into a do-list” Thank you for your call to rest in God’s infinite grace!


  15. I like the concept of “restful exertion”. Culture definitely doesn’t make it easy to grasp the idea that there is nothing we need to do to add to God’s grace, but it is an important truth to recognise. I like the sound of the book you shared too.


  16. A song by Greater Vision includes these lyrics:
    It’s not about what He did
    It’s all about who He was
    ‘Cause even if He’d never come and done a single miracle
    Then Jesus woulda still been God
    Can’t seem to get it out of my thoughts – It’s all about who He was. We are called to be His. It’s not about what we do – our actions should flow out of who we are.


  17. Hi Michele,
    Your article is as amazing as the title. You’ve deposited a wealth of wisdom here and I want to absorb and mull it over. I’ll be sharing next week at Grace and Truth.

    Thank you for the guidance and for linking up.

    Peace and grace,


  18. Restful exertion is a great concept to wrestle with! I’ve always been wanting to get ahead, do more, go further, and yes, help myself, while I’m not realizing that slowing down, even stopping, and opening up to receive grace is the work i really need to do. True rest is hard work! Thanks for your thoughtful reflections as always.


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