Here’s an observation: many, and possibly most, of the Christians I know are significantly sabbath-challenged. That includes me. And it’s more of a problem for the health and vitality of the body of Christ than we might be willing to admit.
There’s no question that we need rest, to restore us physically and mentally. I taught for eight hours yesterday, and didn’t sleep as well as I had hoped last night, before getting up to teach Sunday School this morning. Today, I’m beat. Others I know are equally tired, albeit for different reasons.
Overwork, stress, a chronic lack of sleep: these do no one any good. But the point isn’t simply that without sufficient rest we’ll all be too tired to do God’s work. The deeper truth is that without imaginations that have been formed by sabbath practices, there’s a good chance we won’t even understand that work rightly.
This isn’t about legalism, though it’s worth noting a curious inconsistency here. As Christians, we easily take it for granted that the commands against murder and adultery are absolute. Though we may still be working on honoring our parents, we’re not about to set that commandment aside either. We don’t question the prohibitions against idolatry, lying, or covetous greed. But somehow, the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, the longest and most detailed injunction of the lot, is frequently treated as optional, or else reduced to something on the order of “Thou shalt show up in church on Sunday every once in a while when it suits your schedule.”
If that’s any part of our way of thinking, we may be shocked to read God’s last words to Moses, before he sent him back down Mount Sinai holding the stone tablets:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exod 31:12-17, NIV)
Put to death for mowing the lawn on Sunday? Surely that’s a little extreme.
The fact that this would make so little sense to us is a fair indicator of how far we have strayed from our identity as a holy people with a holy vocation. God set apart a people to be his own; their vocation was to be a blessing to the nations on his behalf. Sabbath observance was a sign of this unique and covenantal relationship. The people who belonged to this God were to rest from their labors because he rested from his (Exod 20:8-11); moreover, they were to keep the Sabbath to remember how he had so strikingly rescued them from slavery (Deut 5:12-15).
As Paul would insist, we are now that people; their story has become our story. But living in a culture that defines identity by productive work, we’re unaccustomed to the idea that we might find our true identity in sabbath rest. We remember Jesus for his miraculous works and astonishing teaching, but scarcely notice the times of quiet solitude and prayer he regularly sought. We remember how he gave his disciples the Great Commission, but forget that he pulled them away from the crowds when they needed rest.
This quarter, I’m on sabbatical leave from my academic responsibilities. The word “sabbatical,” of course, derives from “sabbath,” and it’s expected that when the quarter is over, I’ll be able to return to those responsibilities refreshed. But it’s also expected that the time will be “productive,” which usually means accomplishing professional goals I’d otherwise be too busy to complete.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the time, and understand how graciously it is given. The problem is with me. I’ve already internalized the values of the professional world all too well. Don’t waste valuable time! There’s always another project that needs attention. I often carry a book with me when I run errands and anticipate having to wait for someone or something; heaven forbid that I have 10 minutes without something productive to do.
That way of being comes with its own kind of anxiety, the endless chore of propping up one’s sense of worth through busyness. But harder to notice is its peculiar arrogance. There is no greater work than that of creatio ex nihilo: God fashioning an entire universe out of nothing. But even the Creator ceased from his labors, and so commands his people. Do we disobey out of the vague sense that somehow the world will stop spinning if we rest? If so, we have taken the place of God himself.
There must be another commandment about that somewhere.
In his book, Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson reminds us that the Hebrew conception of day, grounded in the creation story, is that evening comes first, then morning. We’re used to thinking that the day begins when we get up and get cracking at our jobs. Not so; the day begins with God’s work, which was already in motion as we slept. We wake up to what he has already begun, and have the privilege of getting in on the act.
If we cannot receive the gift of sabbath rest, something is probably wrong with our theology of work. God may call us to do any number of things for his name’s sake. But those things will eventually rob us of life and joy if we forget that it is always God’s work first before it is ours. It is in that knowledge that we can rest; in turn, we rest to renew ourselves in that knowledge.
We have important work to do in this world. But the world won’t come unhinged because we’ve taken a day to rest in the presence of God. May we learn to appreciate the beauty of that gift.