Beloved in Christ,
This month, as we continue to discuss the spiritual life, I want to turn our attention to an aspect of Christian spirituality which is one of God’s greatest gifts to us in this life: the gift of Sabbath rest. And yet, it is a gift that is often misunderstood and neglected. For some of us, the word “Sabbath” (which is simply Hebrew for “Rest”) may evoke past experiences with overly legalistic interpretations of the Fourth commandment—days free not only from labor but also deprived of innocent play or enjoyment of creation (for example, the description of Sabbath keeping in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood). For others, the idea of resting for an entire day each week may seem unrealistic and hopelessly out of touch with the requirements of our modern pace of life.
But, we must keep two things in mind. First, God does not intend our Sabbath rest to be a burden, but a gift (thus challenging legalistic rules). Second, God does not merely recommend Sabbath-keeping as a good idea for his people to consider, but he commands it (thus challenging the assumption that the Sabbath is like the modern idea of a vacation—something to squeeze into our schedule when we have time). So what do we mean by Sabbath-keeping? Simply put, to keep Sabbath is to set aside one day out of seven as not merely a “day off” but a day of rest, celebration and delight: in God, in one another, and in creation itself.
Ideally, we are able to keep Sabbath on the Lord’s Day, connecting our rest intimately with the worship of God in the gathered presence of his people. But, because we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture, some of us have employers who require us, at least at times, to work on Sunday. There is a sense in which this is a return to the world of the New Testament church, and special accommodations may be required (do we think the slaves and lower-class men and women who made up much of the early church were freely given the whole of the Lord’s Day, or any other day, to worship and rest?). And yet, many of us do have the freedom to keep Sabbath on Sundays, if only we would choose to set aside our busyness to do so. So what is so important about setting one day aside to rest? Is this really a part of the spiritual life? Here are three aspects of why Sabbath-keeping is indeed, a rich gift of God.
1. To keep Sabbath is to imitate God himself. Remember that first Sabbath-keeper, the first great Rester-from-his-labor was the God who made the heavens and earth: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested (i.e. sabbathed) on the seventh day from all that he had done” (Gen. 2:2). For God did not only create all things in heaven and earth, he also rested and enjoyed the fruit of his labors, even walking in the garden in the cool of day (Gen. 3:8). To work and work and work without resting and enjoying the fruit of our labor is to ignore God’s own example. Notice also that God sets aside the seventh day as a day of rest not after the fall, but before it. To keep Sabbath, to practice rest, celebration and delight, is something we are made for as human beings, something that is part of what it means to be made in God’s image, not merely an accommodation to our sinful rebellion. In other words, to work six days and rest for one is for us to live as the royal image-bearers God intended for us to be.
2. To keep Sabbath is to acknowledge our human limitations. One of the greatest lies of the modern world is that to live well is to account for every eventuality, to be the best at as many things as possible, to take responsibility for everything. But friends, this is not true, and it is a denial of our created finite nature, even apart from sin. You cannot do everything. You cannot practice ultimate control. You can only do some of the tasks before you, not all of them. And when you stop for one day a week and intentionally choose to accomplish less than you might otherwise, it is an acknowledgment that to be made human, to be made with limits on your life, is actually a good thing. To rest, celebrate and delight, to keep Sabbath, to simply stop, put down your work and experience this beautiful world as a gift to be enjoyed instead of a challenge to be mastered is one of the best ways human beings have to number their days and thus gain, in time, a heart of wisdom. It is telling that you never hear of men and women on their death bed wishing they had spent their life earning more money or gathering more possessions. Rather, when we come to our earthly end, human regret most often comes in missed opportunities for enjoyment: of God, of people, of creation. And for the Christian, Sabbath-keeping is a powerful way into the only kind of joy and celebration that lasts.
3. To keep Sabbath is to live by faith. To rest from our labors one day out of the week is not to say that this world does not matter, or that we should not do all we can to make it reflect the kingdom of God. It is to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, only God can make our labor effective, and we must trust in him, not ourselves, to establish the work of our hands. But to keep Sabbath is not only to trust that God will make up for whatever we are unable to do. It is also to proclaim by faith that he will make this small taste of rest, celebration, and delight that we experience on our little Sabbaths into something far more beautiful. Even as the writer of Hebrews tells us, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” For even Jesus is not fully yet at rest. He works, just as his Father has done since the beginning of creation, bringing his kingdom of peace to the world he has made, reigning until all of his enemies have been put under his feet. But when we keep Sabbath, we affirm by faith that that day will indeed come. We rest because we believe Jesus will deliver the kingdom to God the Father. We celebrate because Jesus will destroy every rule and every authority and power. We practice delight because Jesus will one day destroy even death itself, and then, in that place where death is no more, and there is no mourning nor crying nor pain, we will finally enter fully into our rest in the eternal Sabbath of God in the New Heavens and New Earth. But for now, we Sabbath one day a week, resting, celebrating, delighting in God and in all he has made, and trusting that he will not fully rest until he has indeed given us all things, even himself.
Let’s follow him together.