This is not a sabbatical. No planning was involved, no packing, no welcome relief sweeping over us as we stepped away from the world. It’s a quarantine, and with our limited vocabulary, we’re pulling out words that we usually reserve for punishment: lockdown, grounding, solitary confinement.
Could it be possible, even here, to cultivate a sabbatical heart?
Seven years ago, our family crashed into a sabbatical. Hearts bruised, legs aching, soul-weary and depleted, we were given a much-needed break. We’ve said ever since that God used it to save us, to restore what the locusts had stolen, to empower us to go the distance. We prayed a lot before it ever started, talked with the elders of our church, planned out our reading list, chose a remote cabin without wi-fi or cell phone service, and disconnected. The silence settled over our family like the ever-present snow, gently. After an exhausting and difficult season, sabbatical afforded us the chance to slow down for spiritual refreshment.
There in the quiet, God did a powerful work on our hearts. Perhaps he is doing a similar work even now.
In a culture where busyness is perceived as a virtue, the opportunity to rest is a treasure often overlooked. But rest is no optional add-on to the Christian life, it is life to us. Sabbath was God-ordained from the very beginning, a chance to imitate the Creator, who is never frantic. We remember, as we rest, that the world does not depend on us to keep spinning, that our worth is not determined by our productivity.
Social distancing feels less like rest and more like restriction, but it can have the same effect. A season of forced inactivity holds out this opportunity: we lay down things that formerly defined us, and learn simply to be a child of God.
Programs, events, attendance, all these have flown out the window. We live, more than ever, for an audience of One. We love and serve without expectation of return.
We’re no longer hostage to our kids’ spring sports season; our family time is uninterrupted. What joy, to sit down for proper meals, read that book together, learn to play Catan!
When was the last time we paused long enough to intercede, give thanks, or contemplate eternity? When was the last time we sat still in wonder? We tire of Netflix; we remember how to pray. Our homes may not be any quieter these days, but our days are less choppy. Certainly, our prayers are more urgent. We press in. Introverts and extroverts both can learn contentment in the rich company of God.
We take stock. We have always known our days are numbered (see Psalm 90), but these days the number looms large. Our days are a currency that we unwittingly spend. What have we purchased with all our busy hours?
Perhaps when this is over and we venture, blinking, out of the front door again, we will see our days as they are: a precious gift, slip-sliding away. Perhaps we will remember the supreme value of intangible things: spoken words that any day might be our last; simple, unseen acts of love; hours of reflection and prayer. Perhaps we will finally learn to say no to distractions and endless, unnecessary activity.
One of our favorite Psalms puts it this way: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), the perfect charge for an unexpected pseudo-sabbatical. The choirmaster sets the scene: “though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble” (Ps. 46: 2), we perch safely in a cleft of the rock.
To take advantage of this moment, we sit still. Turning our eyes away from the usual distractions, we fix our gaze on Christ. Desperation, thanksgiving, praise, and lament all take their turns, but we return to what we know: he is God.
And who is he? Our good Father, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Ex. 34:6). As Isaiah 42:3 reminds us, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” This is a tender God, who has suffered. When tempted to doubt his future deliverance, we remember his kindness in the past. When tempted to think that Christ is impassive, we remember his passion, that he gave everything for the sake of our redemption.
Our past sabbatical came in a dark season, when it was difficult to trust God on the evidence of what our eyes could see. He taught us, then, to trust him in the fog. We learned, when our hearts quailed, what Martyn Lloyd-Jones meant: “You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’—what business have you to be disquieted?’”
We have an opportunity to retrain our hearts during this season, to cultivate habits that redeem the days. Maybe it’s not the sabbatical we would have chosen, but it is the gift that God has given.