“We keep the sabbath not because it makes us more productive at work. We keep it to resist the idol of productivity … It is one of clearest signs of the gospel. You accomplish nothing and God still loves you.” – Rich Villodas
Many of us are caught in a culture of harried exhaustion. We are over-scheduled, over-committed, and pre-occupied with the work we think *needs* to be done. If any free-time should fall to us, it either gets swallowed up by the tasks we’d been putting off, or becomes the scene of our inevitable crash. It leads to fatigue in our bodies, clutter in our minds, anxiety in our souls, and distance (and sometimes conflict) in our relationships. Then, to top it off, we feel guilty for not being able to do it all. We read books on how to be more productive and go to seminars on how to be more efficient. We listen to sermons about creating more margin. But we stay on the treadmill.
Perhaps we’ve never lifted our eyes long enough to consider that there might be another way. Or maybe we’ve come to believe that we’re not allowed to stop, that our value is determined by our business, by how many spinning plates we can expertly manage. Perhaps we’ve come to believe that stopping short of exhaustion makes us lazy and un-disciplined (or at least perceived as such). Perhaps we fear falling behind, while those who really “want it” put in the hours. Perhaps we’re afraid to stop because busyness keeps us distracted from a reality we’d rather not come to terms with. Perhaps we want to stop but genuinely don’t know how.
The truth is, we weren’t designed to live that way. We were not created to be machines of production and consumption, stuck in the “on” position. One of the ways we know this is true is that God, our creator, told his people to stop and rest. In Exodus 20:8-11, the fourth commandments is to “not do any work” for one day a week. They were to “remember the sabbath” and “keep it holy”, which is to say “set apart for God”. The command isn’t just an arbitrary hoop for the Jews to jump through. It was meant to properly orient them to God, partly by reminding them that they are not God themselves.
In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, author Adele Ahlberg Calhoun explains it this way:
“The Jewish understanding of Sabbath embraced a special twenty-four hour rest time that was different from every other day. God’s stop day reminded them that they were no longer slaves that could never stop. They had been freed from Pharaoh’s rule, and the God that ruled them was a restful God— a God who designed all creation for work and rest. Sabbath reminded people that they were finite. They could not constantly be on the go. There were limits to their energy. And to honor these limitations was to honor the infinite God, who himself worked and rested. Jewish sabbath began in the evening when the family set aside all the to-dos of the work week. As the lamps were lit, everyone settled into the evening calm of Shabbat. Candles, prayers, blessings, food— it all represented delight and refreshment in the presence of God and each other. When bedtime came, the family rested in God’s covenant protection. They woke on sabbath morning to a world they didn’t make and a friendship with God they didn’t earn.”
We are finite. We have limitations. We can’t be everywhere. We can’t do everything. We weren’t meant to and God’s not asking us to. We’re not the ones who “hold all things together”, he is. Stopping once a week gives us a tangible practice to keep reminding ourselves of these truths. It helps us learn to trust God and lay down the idols of busyness, success, and productivity. It helps us learn who we are apart from our task lists. And in that rhythm we find we are more aligned with how we were created to function.
Author Ruth Haley Barton puts it this way in Sacred Rhythms:
“The point of the sabbath is to honor our need for a sane rhythm of work and rest. It is to honor the body’s need for rest, the spirit’s need for replenishment and the soul’s need to delight itself in God for God’s own sake. It begins with a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our humanness and take steps to live more graciously within the order of things. And the first order of things is that we are creatures and God is the Creator. God is the only One who is infinite. I am finite, which means that I live within physical limits of time and space and bodily limits of strength and energy. There are limits to my capacities relationally, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I am not God. God is the One who can be all things to all people. God is the One who can be two places at once. God is the One who never sleeps. I am not.”
In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, author Peter Scazzero equates the practice of weekly sabbath rest to a rope we can hold onto and follow out of the disorienting blizzard of our harried lives. It is a tangible thing, something we can do, beyond just wishing we weren’t so frazzled. After all, if we know that our pace is not sustainable and want things to actually be different, we have to figure out what needs to change. We need to find actual practices that lead us to health and then prioritize them. We believe sabbath rest, as commanded by God, is precisely one of those practices.
I used to view sabbath observance as a legalistic, Old-Testament-y thing that was no longer relevant. It seemed to me that Jesus himself downplayed its importance in the gospels (Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-11, etc.). But I’ve come to realize that Jesus wasn’t casting the practice aside, he was condemning those who distorted it into something it was never meant to be. Over time, sabbath observance became overwhelmed by regulations and rules for exactly how one was supposed to rest. That twisted the day set aside for God-honoring rest into a day of credential-building work. And that distortion betrays our natural tendency to turn things into a set of tasks we can conquer, points we can earn. We just can’t stop!
So even as we rediscover the value of sabbath in our time, we must be careful to guard against our tendency to make our rest yet another achievement. Many of us (myself included) are going to have to learn, or re-learn, how to actually rest (as odd as that sounds). And we must always remember that it’s not about a rigid application of rules. It’s about living in a sane, creator-prescribed rhythm that helps us step off the treadmill of accomplishment in order to be personally restored and re-oriented to God.
In the next post (coming later this week), we’ll explore what this looks like in real life. How is this type of rest different from flat out laziness? Are we really supposed to do nothing? We’ll discuss.