Restlessness is the state of being unable to rest, either physically or mentally. Restlessness can be caused by physical conditions such as too much caffeine or by emotional stressors such as anxiety, exhilaration, or apprehension. Synonyms like unease and discontent narrow the definition, so for the purposes of this article, we will focus on the mental, spiritual, and emotional causes of restlessness and discover what the Bible says about them.
Restlessness has been a part of human experience since civilization began. Part of God’s curse on Cain for murdering his brother Abel was this: “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Cain would never find rest and peace in any one place.
Forging our way in this sometimes hostile world can be cause for many sleepless nights. The psalmist describes his restlessness like this: “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?” (Psalm 42:11) David tells of a restless night in Psalm 6:6: “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” It can comfort us to know that men and women who were used mightily by God also struggled with bouts of restlessness, just as we do.
Mental restlessness can have several causes, and the Bible addresses them all. Let’s look at some of them:
1. Worry. Worry about what might happen is a greater problem for some than others, but we have all experienced it. Worry is simply previewing a future without God in it. Worry is the opposite of faith, so when we find ourselves worrying, we need to confront it with truth. Finding passages of Scripture that address God’s sovereignty over our problems gives us a solid foundation from which to battle worry. Jesus told us not to be surprised at the trials we go through, and He reminded us that He has overcome the world (John 16:33). When we choose to rest in His promises instead of our fears, restlessness is calmed.
2. Discontent. Sometimes restlessness is sparked when we compare our situation with that of someone else. The flaunting of celebrity lifestyles gives us constant exposure to a bigger-than-life reality we may wish was ours. After watching several episodes of Celebrity Homes, our own place looks like a shack. Watching makeovers, car commercials, and lottery winners on TV can breed a restless discontent with what God has given us. Paul challenged us in Philippians 4:11–13 with his decision to be content in whatever circumstances he found himself. His cure for restless discontent was that he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him (verse 13).
The cure for discontent is to refocus upon our high calling rather than the world’s low offerings. When we begin to view material things as more desirable than spiritual things, we have cultivated a garden of restlessness. God’s answer is thankfulness. When we choose to express gratitude to the Lord for all He has given us, our restless discontent eases.
3. Inactivity. We become restless when we have lolled about in apathy and insignificance for too long. On some level, the idle are aware that they were created for more than torpidity but for whatever reasons have refused to move ahead. It is easy for any of us to grow lazy and settled, unwilling to challenge ourselves in order to grow. Our comfort zone can narrow before we realize it, and we are reluctant to leave it. The price, however, is often restlessness.
In the case of inactivity, restlessness can be a good motivator. When we finally get sick and tired of feeling that way, we are ready to plunge into whatever God is calling us to do. When we’ve become spiritually restless, the cure is to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us (Ephesians 5:18; Acts 1:8). He then empowers us to step out in obedience. Paul wrote that the “love of Christ constrains me” (2 Corinthians 5:14). When we are filled with the power of Christ, we cannot be silent. We cannot be satisfied with complacency and lack of fruitfulness, because He isn’t (John 15:1–8). Restlessness due to apathy can be cured when we engage in the eternal work God has given us to do (Matthew 28:19).
4. A still, small voice. There are times when God gives us preemptory warnings so that we can make wiser choices, rather than suffer the consequences of wrong ones. Restlessness can be caused by uneasy feelings within our spirits that have spared many from catastrophe. For example, a college student senses she should not walk home a certain way, so she takes a different route only to read the next morning about a murder that happened at the time she would normally have been in that spot. A businessman cannot get peace about a pending merger, so he cancels his offer. The next year, the company with whom he almost did business goes bankrupt, and he is saved millions.
The Lord can use our spiritual sensitivity to warn us, prepare us, or otherwise inform us of what He wants us to know. When we live with sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, we learn to heed the still, small voice (Romans 8:14). A. W. Tozer, in his best-selling book The Pursuit of God, calls this discernment “spiritual receptivity.” When we fine-tune our spirits to walk in tune with God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:25), our receptivity to His voice grows stronger, and, when we sense His warning about a chosen activity, we welcome that restless caution.
Seasons of restlessness are part of being human, but, if the restlessness continues, we should examine the reasons for it. Discontent with a lukewarm state of Christianity, sorrow over our own lack of commitment, or a sense that God is preparing us for something else can all cause restlessness. But each of those causes has a solution. God does not want us to live in a continual state of restlessness when His answers are written down in His book.