Our world runs at an unforgiving pace. To keep up, we use up ourselves, our loved ones, andour neighbors to achieve our tasks, but our tasks never end. Even our religious life and “churchsuccess” are so often measured in terms of our busyness.
Such is a life lived without limits, without boundaries, without rest. As a result, we live out of a divided self, left unable and unaware that we might be wholly present to any one thing or person. We easily lose sight of the fact that we are more than what we do or can accomplish.
An antidote to this problematic state of affairs is the ancient practice of Sabbath in which we choose to rest from work at a set time every week-not to escape work or to condemn work, but to restore the holy balance between work and rest.
What does Sabbath mean?
Sabbath means to stop or cease. Less a specific span of time or a specific kind of activity, sabbath means to produce an intentional kind of rhythm that restores value to both work and rest, doing and being.
We see in Genesis 1 God resting from his work of creating the universe. Rest here doesn’t mean taking a nap, so much as enjoying and taking delight in what God had just created.
In Exodus 20:8-11, when God was giving the Israelites the covenantal law at Mt. Sinai, we read that sabbath was to mark God’s people and not the anxiety and overwork that had marked them in their Egyptian slavery.
Centuries later, Jesus taught (e.g. Matt 12:1-14) that sabbath is not about observing astringent rules or keeping up pious appearances, but rather about love and extending grace. We need never rest from love. Indeed, true sabbath recognizes how much love we have already received. Sabbath celebrates a life forgiven.
Later in the New Testament, in the book of Hebrews, sabbath is expanded to include our eternal condition before God that we enter into through faith in Christ (Hebrews 4). By faith in him, Jesus ushers us into
all-sufficient wholeness, a complete rest in God that pervades our existence and embraces us with every step we take.
In light of these perspectives, the Christian practice of sabbath is an invitation to live out a lifeaffirming rhythm of days: to work well, to rest well, to love in work and to love in rest. Such a rhythm invites us to turn our attention to God in gratitude and enjoyment, and it will inevitably lead to selfless love of neighbor. It has been said that sabbath is a celebration of our limits because what really needs to get done has already been done. The practice of sabbath identifies us with the life made complete by Jesus himself.
Practicals for sabbath
Like fasting, the practice of sabbath needs some scheduling. It will rarely just
Traditionally, sabbath is a weekly 24-hour period. For some of us, that amount of
time is not possible. If that’s the case, mark out 12 or 6 or 3 hours. Whatever
you decide, stick to it and practice it consistently.
Consider how you might “mark” your sabbath with certain kinds of activities or with their absence.
For example, in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero
shares that he puts his sabbath activities into one of four categories: Stop, Rest,
Delight, and Contemplate. For him, sabbath is not synonymous with being a
couch potato or being in a religious prison, but is space set aside for life-enriching,
So, for yourself, experiment with what’s possible. Think about what rejuvenates and what doesn’t.
In our age, turning off screens and electronics sounds like a good
way to practice sabbath. For some, however, watching a good movie might be the
very thing that refreshes the soul. Or, many of us would think of sabbath as a way to
nap and physically rest, but others will see sabbath as the opportunity to exercise
or wake up early. “What refreshes my soul? What do I do that helps me pray,
that energizes me to want to pray, or that, when I do it, enjoying God gets easier.”
Sabbath invites us to discover the holiness of leisure and to take delight in small things.
Sabbath is time to reconnect with others, refreshing relationships and
intimacies with family and friends and with God. Sabbath is time to be creative,
to play, to replenish life, to laugh, to make love.
As part of your sabbath practice, take time to pray. Perhaps engage in other
types of spiritual discipline or other postures of prayer. Linger with God.
Enjoy God’s presence.
A few things to remember about sabbath
- The heart of sabbath is God’s good news to us, and in the practice of sabbath we are embracing that good news for ourselves.
- Sabbath is an oasis in a desert of doing, a refuge from activity for activity’s sake. Sabbath is a place to be, and to re-establish one’s being every week. With whatever you do, can you do it slowly,
- Remember that sabbath is more than a day off. On days off, we run errands, do chores, and get participate in all kinds of extracurricular stuff. Sabbath is when we purposefully slow down to catch up with ourselves and turn our attention to God because we freely can, not because we have to.
- It shouldn’t surprise us that embracing the practice of sabbath will mean letting go of otherthings. This will not always be comfortable or easy, but our sabbath is of soul-levelimportance.
- Whatever fits into your personal categories of work, mindless consumption, or customary worry, choose not to do those things when you practice sabbath.
- Don’t settle for fillers-challenge your own sense of habit and mediocrity.
- Avoid binging as a substitute for rest. Binging is a poor substitute for sabbath practice. It leaves us numb and used up-the exact opposite of sabbath.
- Sabbath is not about getting it right or getting anything done. Sabbath is a gift from God to help us live a full and undivided life in God.