I’m writing this at my kitchen table. I have a cup of steaming coffee besides me, my bible is open for reference on the side. It’s Sunday (a week or so before you read this). It’s still dark outside because the sun isn’t rising until at least 06:44 these days.
I want to talk to you about rest. Specifically, a day of rest, and why it’s important. I am going to use the word “rest,” as much as I can, because you probably already know another word people use for “day of rest”: Sabbath (or Shabbat, which is waaayyy more fun to say). The reason I will use rest, is because I don’t want you to conclude that I’m Jewish or 7th Day Adventist, or anything. I’m not. I’m just a regular person who doesn’t like labels.
I bet I can guess what you’re thinking already. The moment I mention Sabbath, you are going to ask me one of two questions
a). “Well, aren’t you, like, living in legalism?”
b). “Well, didn’t God do away with Sabbaths/resting and all that?”
I get those questions a lot. And I do have answers, but the answers are complex and would take a while (certainly longer than this blog post). My point here is not to debate or prove that Christians should keep Sabbath. I don’t think Sabbath can be proven intellectually – at least, not entirely. Instead I’m going to talk about heart, because I believe that’s where it’s at. I do love the intellectual side of things, but I don’t quite have space to explain it all to you and still feel like I did the topic justice. So we’ll leave intellectual arguments aside for a moment, and instead talk about purpose and intent.
But back to me, sitting at the kitchen table, writing this with a cup of coffee…
An Introduction to Rest, as Rhythm
How many of you have a morning routine? That series of things that you do every morning before you head out the door to work, or school?
You know the importance of routine because it does wonderful things for you. It gives you consistency, and predictability, a general rhythm to things. Even if you’re the kind of person who hates routines and checklists, I guarantee there are a few things in you life that you do on a daily basis.
You know there is a time for everything. Mornings are for getting ready, evenings are for getting ready for morning again. Weekdays are for working, and weekends are for resting. The world would be a crazy place if we didn’t have a process for how we do things, even certain times to do them.
I’m reminded of a verse that says, “To everything – a season, and a time to every delight under the heavens.”
There is rhythm built into creation.
In this culture of fast-paced, 24 / 7 accessibility, we have forgotten rhythm. We’ve forgotten the ebb and flow of time, as if we think the ocean could survive without the moon. We tend to view rest as a side-note, something we can skip because we don’t have time, or because it’s for lazy people. Humans are chronically aware of the ticking clock, and we smother that awareness with work. With work, we can forget our troubles, and since we hate being reminded of our troubles, the solution is…say it with me: more work.
Americans specifically, are addicted to the hustle. Even if we understand that rest is important, we get caught up in the lie that says, your worth is in what your get done, and if you are not getting things done all the time, you are lazy and wasting your life.
Rest is a rebellion against the work-cycle because it reminds you that your worth is not in your work. You are more than the bricks and buildings you make. Human being, not human doing, right? Rest is a tangible sign that you recognize your work doesn’t define you.
God wired humans for productivity, sure. But if all God cared about was our productivity, He would have made us into super humans that didn’t need sunlight or food or sitting down on the couch because our legs are tired. He would have made us with the ability to function without sleep (wouldn’t that be nice?).
No. Instead He gives us a gift. Something built into the fabric of creation, our bodies, everything. A gift out of kindness and benevolence. Because He loves us. He knows that given the chance, we will work ourselves to death in the name of productivity. But He loves us too much to let us break ourselves down on the hamster-wheel trap of work. He reaches down and tells us: I want you to take one day out of that crazy week of yours. Just one day to be with Me, and rest. You are more than what you do. I made you to be…
Rest forces you to pay attention to your life. It’s a weekly check in, how are you doing, and how can you do better? For crying out loud. REST IS BEAUTIFUL.
– but it could be, depending on your perspective
I am going to address this concept of legalism, because it’s one of the first things I hear when I tell people I keep Sabbath. People get really worried about me, as if I’m committing an unknowable crime, or putting myself under bondage (it makes me laugh to think that rest – not work – is bondage, but whatever).
Our first thought about anything related to the Old Testament seems to be: none of those laws are relevant because we are saved by grace. And so, by extension, keeping Sabbath can’t be done because it’s part of the OT and we are now saved by grace and grace alone.
The reason why we tend to associate rest with legalism, I think, stems from the parts in the NT where Jesus is confronting the religious leaders about the law of Moses. It can appear that Jesus taught legalism and “‘the Law” as brothers. We see this most clearly in Scriptures where the Pharisees accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath. But first, some context…
In the first century, keeping the Sabbath was taken very seriously. Religious leaders debated long about exactly which was the “right way” to keep it, even going to far as to “define what counts as work, and what doesn’t.” We know about a some of these boundaries from the text. They had what was called “a sabbath day’s journey” – or, the maximum distance anyone was allowed to walk on the Sabbath. A sabbath day’s journey was 2000 cubits or.57 miles. They also believed that carrying your bed, or threshing grain with your hands was work if it was done on the Sabbath. And because Jesus was caught breaking all of these “laws”, it’s easy to think that He was actually against the Sabbath.
But it’s important to remember that nowhere in the OT does God command that you can’t walk more than .57 miles, or that you can’t make your bed. He doesn’t say that picking a few heads of grain is work (although threshing with a plow certainly is). The commands for Sabbath are really straight forward – don’t work and don’t make anyone else work.
As with most of His teachings, Jesus wasn’t addressing outward keeping of the law as much as He was addressing the heart. The heart was really the deeper problem, and correcting the heart would lead to a proper understanding of the external things. It didn’t matter how many commandments you kept, if your heart was far from God. If you forsook justice and mercy, but you tithed a tenth of all your spices – what worth is that?
Jesus was correcting a misapplication of Scripture – the idea that you can use God’s Law as a checklist to gain righteousness.
I hate when people use legalism to describe anything that God does, because legalism feels like scarcity, and scarcity is never God. Legalism is slavery: you work and work, hoping to earn something – like salvation – in exchange for your “goodness” as a person. You do this, God does that. And if you fail, you lose because your righteousness is bound up in perfection. It’s a constant cycle of never doing enough, never being enough. Think of the Hebrews in Egypt. They made bricks. If they didn’t make enough bricks, they were punished.
The only way that rest can be legalism is if you misdefine it as such. That’s what the Pharisees did, that’s what people do today. We get caught up in outward things, instead of looking at the heart.
You absolutely can attach legalism to anything God says. You can live as though everything God says comes with the condition, obey Me or else. But that isn’t the way God intended you to live.
There’s this verse in Jeremiah which says that God, in the new covenant, will write His law on His people’s hearts. His law will be in your heart. Do you know what that means?
It means that His law will no longer be something you read on paper or stone, and think, okay I better do this because God said so. No. It will flow naturally from you like a running stream. You’ll be walking side by side with Him without even trying to. You’ll want to do everything that He wants because your heart is intertwined with His.
We need to make a distinction between God’s Law as a gift, and His Law as a command. Sabbath is both, but Sabbath- at its highest point, is a gift. An invitation to leave material things behind.
Rest as a Joy, and not a Burden
I’m still at the kitchen table. My coffee cup is dry because I have taken so many breaks to sip from it and decide what I’m going to write next….
I have been doing Sabbath for close to four years now. And I would never go back to anything else.
Sabbath is hard to explain because it’s like trying to prove that God exists. I don’t have anything to compare it to because it’s not an intellectual thing. There is no physical blessing I can pinpoint and say: this happened, and God blessed me here, or here. If you asked me, I’d say that I feel more complete and my life is better in ways that words can’t explain. I feel so incredibly blessed by it, that I want to laugh when people tell me otherwise.
Sabbath becomes a totally wholesome addiction. I don’t feel bound to keep up with the world, because I’ve found freedom apart from it. I took myself out of the rat-race everyone else is running. But it wasn’t until I stepped out that I realized how much I depended on it. It’s like when I take a day off social media, I realize how many times I instinctively reach for my phone.
The dishes pile up.
The laundry sits.
The emails go unanswered.
The phone gets turned off.*
on that, actually.
“Sabbath is a day when you act like the work is done, even if it isn’t.”
the amazing Rob Bell
who understands rest
like no one else does
I have never regretted the decision to take a rest day. Sure, I miss out on things. And sometimes I am tempted to compromise (there’s this thing happening somewhere, and I can’t go). A lot of concerts and creative things (especially for photographers) are on Sabbath, but at some point I have to stop using what I’m going to miss out on as an excuse.
And I get it, rest can be hard. It feels like laziness to say, “No. I won’t go there or do that, or spend that.” And even crazier to think of an entire day of doing nothing. Don’t you see my to-do list? God, really? You can’t be serious.
But I promise you, there’s freedom in rest that can’t be found anywhere else. If you’re thinking, “Oh, rest is too scary for me,” remember: it all starts with realizing that it’s okay to let the world go on without you. You won’t miss out on anything you can’t live without. Instead you’ll be living a freer, more complete life.
postscript #1. Rob Bell is my favorite
resource for Sabbath because
he understands it so well.
I highly recommend his podcasts,
“The Cellular Exodus“, and
“Letting the Land Lie Fallow“.
His book, How to Be Here,
has a great chapter on rest.
But the same ideas can be
found in these podcasts (for free!).
postscript #2 I hear Heschel has
an incredible book on the subject –
Sabbath and it’s Meaning for Modern Man.
I have yet to read it,
but I’d still recommend it
because Heschel has great work.
postscript #3 For a theological-ish
approach to Sabbath, check
out this article.