My friend Jeff, a writer in an advertising agency, oversees his company’s contract with a large relief organization. When an earthquake occurred in Bam, Iran, the relief organization wanted to get out a mailing as soon as possible. Jeff received the assignment on a Friday morning. He was given a deadline of Monday afternoon. He worked all day Friday and Saturday on the project, and by Saturday evening he could see he would likely need to put in two more full days of work in order to make the deadline.
When he went home from work that night, Jeff felt conflicted. For several years he had been observing a Sabbath almost every Sunday, with unexpected and profound blessings. He has discovered that he gets more done during the week if he observes a day of rest. In fact, on those occasions when he goes ahead and works on Sundays because he just can’t see how the work would get done otherwise, he feels off balance, scattered, and perpetually behind all week. This odd arithmetic speaks to Jeff of the way God honors even our small acts of obedience.
On that Saturday evening after the Bam earthquake, Jeff decided to keep a Sabbath the next day, despite all the evidence indicating he needed to work on Sunday. He returned to work on Monday wondering what would happen. All day long he found things falling into place in an amazing way. He met the deadline comfortably, and he went away from work marveling again at the mysterious ways in which God acts.
Growing Observance of the Sabbath
More and more people of all ages are finding joy and fruitfulness in observing a Sabbath. One of my friends, who is nearing retirement after a lifelong career in campus ministry, has just begun to do so. He used to believe people could rest after the work was done. He has finally realized the work is never done. “The Sabbath is God’s gracious five p.m. whistle, allowing us to put down our tools even though the work isn’t finished,” he says.
In my own experience, a surprising number of people in their twenties also observe the Sabbath. Many of them say things like, “The Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. We keep the other nine. Why wouldn’t we keep this one?” At Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where I recently served as associate pastor, a group of 20-somethings has gathered informally after worship every Sunday for several years, spending long hours just being together. As some of them have gotten married and started families, the group has changed shape, but the commitment to a day of rest from work has remained.
The timing for this increase in Sabbath observance couldn’t be better. As our culture spins faster and faster, as a frantic pace becomes the norm, the need for down time is ever more apparent. We are a tired people. Researchers tell us that, on the average, Americans sleep two hours less each night than we did a hundred years ago. Researchers also note that during our waking hours, multi-tasking takes a significant toll, contributing to our stress levels and thus to our exhaustion.
For those of us who tend toward perfectionism or workaholism, fatigue is a dangerous condition. We tend to cope with uneasy feelings by working harder—our “drug of choice.” And, of course, fatigue causes a good number of uneasy feelings. We are lured into a spiral. Working to the point of exhaustion, we feel off balance because of our fatigue, and our knee-jerk coping strategy is to work harder, causing deeper exhaustion. People who study burnout call this pattern “overfunctioning,” and anyone who looks closely can see it all around us in workplaces, in churches, and even in homes.
Overfunctioning has dangerous implications for people of faith. We believe in God’s grace. We believe, as author Philip Yancey says, that nothing we can do will make God love us less, and nothing we can do will make God love us more. Unfortunately, overfunctioning undercuts grace in an experiential way that impacts our hearts. When we overfunction, our conscious minds continue to affirm that living by grace is important, but we are acting as if our actions are utterly significant and vitally important. In many ways, our actions shape our hearts more than our conscious thoughts do, and our hearts begin to creep toward the unhealthy belief that we can earn God’s approval by what we do.
At the end of his space novel Perelandra, C. S. Lewis creates a long ceremony where the angels who rule the various planets give speeches about the paradoxes of the world God has made. One angel reflects on the fact that each of us is truly necessary because God’s love is like a great river, which needs a riverbed to flow in. Another adds that each of us is truly superfluous because God “has no need at all of anything that is made.” God’s love comes to us as “plain bounty.”1
A weekly rhythm of six days of work and one day of rest affirms this paradox that Lewis describes. During the six days of work, we acknowledge by our actions that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world, that God’s love does need a riverbed to flow in, and that our work is indeed vitally important and significant. On the one day of rest, we live out the equally important reality that we are superfluous. God has no need at all of anything we can do or say or create or imagine. On that day, we live in the joy of knowing we are beloved because God’s love comes to us as plain bounty.
One of my colleagues, who has observed a Sabbath for more than 30 years, says that on the Sabbath she is no longer identified with any of the roles she fulfills in her working life. On the Sabbath, she is simply a beloved child of God. She reflects that it was only after several years of Sabbath observance that she learned how to step aside from those roles as she began her Sabbath, but now it is like changing into comfortable clothes.
When we overfunction, when we work continuously without a rhythm of work and rest, we are acting as if only half of C. S. Lewis’s paradox is true. We take ourselves too seriously. We move dangerously close to idolatry.
What Does the Sabbath Look Like?
The Sabbath has impressed grace on my heart more than anything else in my life. I have observed a Sabbath for 25 years, ever since my husband Dave and I spent 18 months living in Tel Aviv, Israel. Our experience of the Sabbath there involved a day with many fewer options: no shopping, no movies, no meals in restaurants. We didn’t have a car, so the absence of buses had a significant impact on us and slowed us down incredibly.
We returned to the U.S. determined to bring some of the slow pace of the Sabbath into our lives here. The specifics of what a Sabbath looks like have changed with each life stage, but the common, overarching principle is to cease working. Of course, work includes far more than just paid work. Balancing the checkbook, mowing the lawn, doing laundry, and shopping for groceries also feel like work to me. The Hebrew word for Sabbath simply means “stop, cease, desist.” We need to ask ourselves what we need to cease from in order to make some space for God.
The many excellent books on Sabbath-keeping suggest a variety of possible ways to draw near to God on one’s day of rest. I have heard people talk about their joy on the Sabbath as they walk in nature, pray thankfulness prayers, practice mindfulness, or spend time with children.
It’s important to recognize that setting high goals for drawing near to God on the Sabbath has an inherent danger of continuing a pattern of overfunctioning. What we need most in our frantic culture is to stop our activity. As we learn to stop in a weekly rhythm, over and over, week after week, and year after year, our hearts will absorb something about God’s grace that cannot be learned from careful Bible studies, excellent sermons, or insightful discussions.
The Benefits of Stopping
centered around stopping gives us time and space to see our lives more clearly, to notice where God has been present in the previous week, to pay attention to where we have resisted God’s hand in our lives. On every single Sabbath, we might not have profound insights about God’s presence in our lives, but without taking time to stop and notice where God is working, we will see a whole lot fewer of the miracles that surround us.
Sometimes on my Sabbath I sit in our living room and look at the trees through the window. They are amazingly beautiful in their different seasons. As I sit there, I realize that all week long I have rushed in and out of the room without noticing any of those trees.
The trees speak to me of a deep truth. It is right and good that I work hard six days of the week, striving toward the goals that God has laid on my heart. As I work hard, I miss some of the beauty that surrounds me, so it is also right and good that I spend one day each week resting with joy in the goodness of God, my creator and redeemer. On that day I can enjoy the miraculous beauty of the world and I can cultivate thankfulness.
In one Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are forbidden on the Sabbath because even intercession is too much work for the Sabbath day. Because the Sabbath encourages us to cease striving, to let go of the tasks and goals that fill our minds six days of the week, we have the space to look around us at the beauty of the world God made. We have the space to notice the things we want to be thankful for.
My heart grieves when people tell me why they cannot possibly keep a Sabbath. I long to help people understand the theological danger of continuous productivity. When we are constantly working at something, our hearts begin to believe we are too significant. God is no longer at the center of human life. Our own activities move into center place, and we become idolaters.
Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, begins with the profound truth that life is simply not about us. The bookfs popularity attests to a deep ache for purpose and meaning in the midst of the frantic pace of our lives today. We long to understand our place in the universe, to know who we are in the light of God’s love. Over time, the Sabbath helps us live in the truth of who God is and who we are. The Sabbath teaches us grace. It helps us stop racing around as if we are the center of the universe.
NOTES1. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 217.