Way back in 2002, my husband and I happily went to see the first of The Lord of the Rings movies. Aside from all of the swashbuckle and magic, the moment in the movie that struck me most forcibly was when old Bilbo, the hobbit, says that he is spread too thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. Maybe you can relate.
Maybe you’ve been overwhelmed or anxious, easily angered or chronically late. Maybe you teeter on the edge of burnout, exhausted and discouraged. Or maybe you just wish you weren’t so busy.
All of these — overwork, fear, feeling like you’re just ready to snap — are symptoms of the same condition: humanity. They aren’t new to our generation, they are the perennial problems of all people everywhere. In fact, they are so pervasive, that sometimes we believe they aren’t really problems at all.
Maybe weariness is just life on Earth. Maybe worry and hurry aren’t things to even try to eliminate from our lives — maybe we’re supposed to feel this way. And if that’s the case, the best we can do is suck it up and power through. Work harder.
But contrary to what we often accept as normal and even good, the Bible is clear that God offers a different way. A more excellent way.
In Deuteronomy 28, God paints a startling contrast between His people, who worship Him alone, and those who stray away. In verse 64, He warns the Israelites,
There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening, “If only it were morning!”—because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.
Other gods offer us weariness, dread, and despair. Our God, on the other hand, offers us rest. And in the beautiful wisdom of our good Father, He offered us rest from the very, very beginning. Before we ever worked a day, He set aside the Sabbath.
The practice of weekly rest goes all the way back to Genesis 2. God, who clearly has greater capacity for getting a job done than we do, rested. For a whole day in the first week of the world, He rested. And then He blessed that day and set it apart. He called it holy, and commanded us to do the same.
It’s not some offhand comment that’s spoken just the once. In fact, the word “sabbath” appears 96 times in the Old Testament alone, mostly in passages that restate the commandment, “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” in one way or another. In Exodus 31:12-13, the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.’” Above all. Throughout all generations. We sanctify the day, because God sanctified us.
(And by the by, Sabbath-keeping does appear in the New Testament. I know there are pastors who dismiss it as an Old Covenant concept, but if you pay attention to the way Jesus talks about Sabbath, He never abolishes it, He affirms it. Now, He clearly doesn’t like all of the added regulations and rigamarole that the scribes and Pharisees have attached to it, but the way He deals with that is to say, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, “hey, people, this day of rest is meant to serve you, it’s not meant to master you.”)
I believe that Sabbath-keeping is important both for how we worship and for how we love our neighbor. If we choose to neglect Sabbath, we are in fact putting other gods before the Lord. Those gods may not be stone and wood, they may be our employer, our housekeeping, our important, busy lives. If we neglect it, no matter if we tithe our money, we aren’t tithing our time. And on the other hand, if we neglect it, we often force our neighbors to do the same. Hobby Lobby and Chic-Fil-A are unique even among Christian stores for shutting down on Sunday. Our entire culture has forgotten the Lord’s Day, and along with it, we’ve perpetuated an injustice: the poorest among us never get a break.
You may recall that the Ten Commandments are listed out twice in the Bible, and the way the two lists treat #4 is slightly different. The first time we’re introduced to them is in Exodus 20. There, we’re told that we are meant to practice Sabbath because God Himself rested on the seventh day of creation. That goes along with the Sabbath-as-worship idea.
But the second time they’re listed, in Deuteronomy 5, we get an additional insight. We remember the Sabbath because we remember that God delivered us from slavery. In this sense, Sabbath is an act of “holy defiance.” By putting down our tools for a day, we declare that we will not be slaves again, that we are incredibly, gloriously free. This is a freedom that we can extend to others, so Sabbath leads into loving our neighbor, too.
We tend to think of Sabbath as some kind of weird Plymouth colony thing that, if we really practiced it, would involve hour after hour on hard benches, absolutely no laughing, and all kinds of scheduling gymnastics revolving around being miserable all day on Sunday. Ironically, though, Sabbath was given to us as a gift, not as a burden.
Imagine your car had broken down. You’re pacing around wondering how you’re going to pay for a new car when you get a mysterious phone call from your Dad instructing you to meet him in a parking lot across town. When you get there, you see an absolutely giant box with a bow on top and your name on it. There’s your Dad, grinning. “It’s for you,” he says. “But Dad,” you say with a whine, “How am I supposed to get this thing home? I don’t even have a car! Whatever’s in there is bigger than a refrigerator — I can’t carry that!” You walk away, without even peeking inside the present, which of course, is a brand new car.
That’s kind of what we do with Sabbath. “But Dad,” we say, “I can’t even deal with that right now. It’s too heavy. I can’t carry it. Don’t you know how much I have to do this week?”
The beauty of Sabbath is that it offers us help in carrying our burdens. It gives us exactly what our hearts need to not break down in the first place.
In some primitive corner of our minds, we buy into the lie that we are too important to ever need rest. Sabbath forces us to stop working, cease striving, and be still. When we do, we realize that somehow the world goes on without us. It is humbling, and it keeps our hearts soft.
When we slow down, we’re able to see God. You can’t really see Him if you can’t be still. But this sacred pause in the middle of the week offers you an opportunity to worship, to gaze in wonder, and to reorient your life around the One who makes it matter. Obviously, going to church is part of that. We set aside all of our busyness and gather together to remember what Christ has done.
But allowing your soul to linger in that place long after the church service is over allows God to speak to you individually, in that quiet whisper He uses that’s so easy to miss. Setting aside not just a couple hours but a whole day to listen allows God to fill up what has been emptied in us over the course of a grueling week. As Psalm 46:10 puts it, “Be still, and know that I am God.” One day of rest is enough to remind us that God is our refuge and strength, no matter what we have to confront the other six days.
Practicing Sabbath provides much-needed rest for our body and soul. Without rest, we will most assuredly burn out. Any doctor can tell you what wonders stress works on the body. Rest is physically and mentally necessary if you want to flourish. Building a rhythm of rest into your family gives your children a lifelong gift as well: teach them by example that God never expected them to toil without ceasing.
Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Give your children the gift of learning that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light. Receive for yourselves the gift of Jesus’ sweet rest.
So what does it mean? Consistency is key, the setting aside of one repeating day each week. Sunday (unless you’re married to the pastor) works well, because you already have Sunday set aside for church, for worship. At our house, we try to give the kids a happy, restful Sunday, but Michael and I celebrate our day of rest on Fridays most weeks, when the kids are at school.
Does it mean we sit in solemn contemplation all day? I hope not! Do what is worshipful and restful for you. Go outside. Sit by a lake. Take a walk. Tickle your children. Laugh a lot. Enjoy a feast. Play! Read a book. Take a swim. Take a nap.
You might be like me. You really want to practice Sabbath. You want — no, you long for — that day of rest. But you’re busy. You scramble and hustle all week long, and when Sunday rolls around, you realize that you haven’t planned ahead at all. You children, for some reason, expect you to feed them. The things you procrastinated on all week are clamoring for your attention. It won’t just happen, this Sabbath thing, unless you are intentional about it.
So today the gals from church got together and did a little work to make Sundays a little easier. We’re prepped five meals that we can pull out five weeks in a row, so that for one month at least, we can gather our favorite people around a table, laugh a little, and pass the yumminess. Or if we want, we can save aside one of these meals to share with someone who’s hurting — a neighbor, a family member who’s been in the hospital, somebody who’s had a baby. It might mean that we show up at church one week with dinner waiting in the crock pot, and we’re able to invite a lonely person to come home with us for lunch, without even stressing us out a tiny bit.
It’s really not that hard to plan ahead in such a way that rest becomes possible, it’s just remembering to do it. Having a go-to meal on hand won’t solve all our problems with slowing down, but hopefully it will be a tangible step in the right direction.
My prayer for all of us is that we can in some way recover the lost art of Sabbath, the unopened gift of rest that God offers us.
I pray that our church can slow down, that God can unwind the kinks of stress and worry that knot our muscles, that we can be known as a people who play, a people who laugh easily.
I pray that we can recapture our awe of this Creator, who made a beautiful, over-the-top world for us and then set aside one day a week for us to enjoy it, to enjoy Him.
I pray that our hearts never stray after other gods that mercilessly drive us past the breaking point, but that instead we would remember our first love, and freely give Him our hearts in worship.
- If your children (or friends) were to closely watch the way you live for many years and then set about to imitate your life, would you anticipate that they would live in a way that is joyfully refreshed or in a way that leads to exhaustion?
- What do you think would be the impact on your life of stepping up Sabbath? What would be the result at Wellspring if, as a church, we began to incorporate more healthy Sabbath practices in our families?
- What are some practical steps you could take to intentionally carve out a “sacred pause” in your week?
- One reason for practicing Sabbath is as an act of “holy defiance,” a refusal to be enslaved again. What are ways we can slip back into a life of slavery if we aren’t careful?