Sabbath: Resting in Jesus

by Pastor Brian

In 2012, Tim Kreider wrote an article in The New York Times entitled, “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” When a friend sent it to me and I read it for the first time, I remember feeling like Kreider was reading my mail. Of the many insights in his article, there were two in particular that resonated with me: One was that most of our busyness is self-imposed. The great majority of what fills our time are obligations that we’ve taken on voluntarily. To a large degree, we are busy by choice. It’s not inevitable. As much as I hate to admit it, I do this to myself. 

The second was his explanation as to why we do this to ourselves. Kreider writes, “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” He continues, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Yikes. Part of why the past two months have been difficult for so many of us is that our normal (but unhealthy!) patterns (addictions?) of busyness have been interrupted. We haven’t been able to fill our time in the same ways we could previously. We’ve been forced to stop and wait, and neither of those things come naturally to us.  

And, yet, to return to a quote from Dallas Willard that I mentioned a few weeks ago, “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.(1) I think that deep down inside of us, we know that to be true. We know we need to slow down. We know we need to cease our compulsive doing. We know we need to rest in and enjoy Jesus. We’re just not sure how. This is exactly why God has given us the gift of Sabbath rest.

What is Sabbath rest?

Biblically, the Sabbath day was a twenty-four-hour period beginning at sundown on Friday and lasting through sundown on Saturday. The two specific Old Testament commandments regarding the Sabbath are found in Exod 20:8-11 and Deut 5:12-15. Both passages are similar in what they command, but they differ in the reason given for the command. In the Exodus account, Sabbath observance is rooted in creation: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exod 20:11). In Deuteronomy, it’s rooted in the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut 5:15). So Sabbath observance in the Old Testament was a way for Israel to both image their Creator and remember their salvation

But by the time of the New Testament, the religious leaders had begun to misunderstand and misuse the gift of Sabbath by making it a day of burden rather than a day of blessing. Jesus regularly challenged this teaching, and in one such instance, he concludes by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). He reiterates that the Sabbath was to be a day of healing and restoration (cf. Mk 3:4-5), not one of burden and bane.

There are various perspectives as to how the Fourth Commandment still applies to New Testament Christians, but what is clear is that the initial Sabbath command is rooted in creation. The creation narrative in Genesis 1-2 concludes this way: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:2-3). 

Pause for a moment to consider that: God rested. He worked six days and then He rested. He stopped. He ceased His work. In other words, God is not a workaholic! And then he blessed that day of rest and made it holy. It is a holy, blessed, God-like thing to rest, and so part of the way we bear His image in the world is by resting.

The Characteristics of Sabbath Rest

Pete Scazzero identifies four foundational characteristics of Sabbath rest: we stop work, we enjoy rest, we practice delight, and we worship God.”(2) 

1. We STOP work.

Sabbath is most basically a day when we stop working. We step away from both our paid and unpaid(3) work for a full day. This might be the hardest of the four, but it’s at the heart of Sabbath rest. In fact, the Hebrew word for “Sabbath” means “to cease.” 

Ceasing from our work is both incredibly difficult and vitally important for a number of reasons: 

  • Ceasing from our work reminds us that the Lord is God, and we are not. 

You were not created for non-stop work. You were created with limits. You must sleep. You must rest. You are dependent. If we choose to ignore those limits, then eventually our bodies will take over and impose a forced Sabbath upon us–usually through some sort of illness or breakdown.

But the reality is that most of the time we despise our limits. They keep us from maximizing efficiency and doing all that we want to do, and so we view our limits as weaknesses to be overcome. We compensate for them or try to lifehack our way around them. And yet, despite our best efforts, we continue to bump up against them. Our to-do lists are never completely done. We can’t do all that we wish we could. We’re not in control in the ways that we wish we were. And that exposes the problem: much of our busyness is an attempt not to be like God, but to be God. 

Sabbath is God’s way of reminding us that He is God, and we are not. Stepping away from our work for one day a week is an embodied way for us to trust God with our lives. It’s a day where we’re reminded that He is in control. That He does care for us. And that we can trust Him. 

Part of God’s gift of Sabbath is to not only remind us that we have limits, but to recognize them as a gift. The world is not on our shoulders–and that’s a good thing.  

  • Ceasing from our work reminds us that our identity is in Jesus and not in what we do.

Our extreme busyness is often a veiled attempt at proving our worth and justifying our existence. If all you have is your resume, then non-stop work will be the norm. 

But the truth of the gospel is that our identity is a gift. Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, you are fully forgiven, accepted, and loved. There’s nothing more you could do to garner the Father’s favor, because you already have it in and through Jesus. In His grace, God reminds us that’s true as we step away from our work. Sabbath works the reality of God’s love for and acceptance of us into our bodies and souls.

Some questions to consider: What about my regular routine would I need to stop in order to experience and enjoy Sabbath? How might I need to re-order the other days of my week in order to stop working on the Sabbath?

2. We enjoy REST. 

If someone offered you a full day to rest your mind, your body, and your soul, your only question would be where to sign up! That is exactly what God has given us every single week. It’s a day to slow down and experience the rest that you’re (sometimes literally) aching for.

Sabbath rest takes multiple forms: 

  • It’s physical rest: we sleep-in and take naps. We take walks. We let our bodies recover.
  • It’s mental and emotional rest: we calm and quiet ourselves. We deliberately turn our attention away from those anxiety-inducing situations that can so easily consume us. 
  • It’s spiritual rest: we rest in God’s love for us. We rest in Jesus’ finished work on our behalf. We’re reminded that the Lord is our shepherd and that He restores our souls.

In short, Sabbath is a day to engage in what restores and replenishes us.

Some questions to consider: What is restful to me? What restores and replenishes me? 

3. We practice DELIGHT. 

One of the most common misconceptions of Sabbath is that it’s fundamentally about what you can’t or ought not to do. We certainly do need to say “no” to certain things, but we say “no” to those things in order to say “yes” to others.

One of the consequences of our incessant busyness is that we unwittingly stop enjoying the people, the activities, the gifts, the God that we love. Sometimes it’s because we don’t have time to enjoy them, but often it’s because we can’t switch our focus away from our work, our tasks, or our devices long enough to actually pay attention to the person, the activity, the gift, or the God who is right in front of us.

Sabbath enables us to slow down enough to both see and enjoy God’s good gifts to us–things like friends, family, seasons, art, reading, meals–all good gifts of creation! This is what God did on that first Sabbath day. After completing His work of creation, God looks at all that He has made and recognizes it to be “very good” (Gen 1:31). A day of rest gives us the opportunity to see the goodness of God’s gifts in our lives. We practice gratitude, and over time, God makes us grateful people.

Sabbath also enables us to slow down in order to show compassion and mercy to those around us. One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ enjoyment of Sabbath was serving. But a word of caution to us achiever-types: This is not license to substitute one form of busyness for another! 

Some questions to consider: What brings me delight? What is life-giving to me? What do I love to do but don’t have time to do during the rest of the week?

4. We WORSHIP God. 

We could’ve easily put this first on the list, but the reality is that it’s difficult to worship and enjoy God if you haven’t stopped or rested. We all know what it’s like to be sitting in worship and be thinking through the work you’ll do later that day or that week. But when  we’ve set aside the day for rest and worship, we’re much more likely to engage with the Lord and experience His love for us in Jesus.

Some questions to consider: In addition to corporate worship, what are the ways that I can experience and enjoy abiding with Jesus? How can I enjoy God and his love for me? Journaling? Reading some devotional material? Slowly reading Scripture? 

Practice of the Week: Practice Sabbath Rest

Here are some tips in getting started:(4)

  • Pick a day and plan ahead for it.

For most, Sunday is the day to celebrate your Sabbath rest. If you’re one whose profession forces you to work on Sundays, (e.g. church staff, medical/hospital staff, police, etc.), then choose one of your days off as your Sabbath.

Some might choose to observe their Sabbath from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday. Others might prefer all day Sunday. Try each and see what works best for you.

One of the keys to actually being able to rest and worship is to plan ahead! Rest will not happen if it isn’t planned for. Take some time in the days before to accomplish the tasks that you need to. Run errands. Respond to emails. Go grocery shopping. Get schoolwork ready to go for Monday morning. You might even make a “to do before Sabbath” list.  

  • Incorporate a Digital Sabbath

This might sound terrifying to you, but there are incredible benefits to stepping away from our devices each week. If we don’t put some parameters on our digital life, then restful worship is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible.

You might decide to jump in the deep end and turn off all devices for a full day. If that’s not realistic for you, you might put your phone on Do Not Disturb and then check it at 2-3 set times during the day. It could mean taking a break from social media altogether or it might mean just limiting your use. At the very least, try to put your devices away for a time, and don’t check work email.

  • Discuss with your spouse, family members, or roommates how you can encourage and help one another to engage in Sabbath rest. 

Your Sabbath day will look different at different stages of life. Talk about what it could look like in your household.

  • Ease into this practice and give yourself tons of grace!

Sabbath is one of the most counter-cultural practices, so it’s going to take a while to find the rhythm that will work best for you. It might feel like you’re swimming upstream for a while, but stay with it! Start small and ease yourself in over the course of a month. Maybe you begin with a half day Sabbath. See what works and what doesn’t. 

Resist the urge to say, “I’m bad at this” or “This isn’t for me.” Likewise, avoid the legalism that loses sight of the gospel. Remember that you’re already fully accepted and beloved in Jesus, and that’s not based on how well you rest! So be patient with the practice and with yourself! 

FOR REFLECTION & DISCUSSION

  • What do your current practices of rest look like? 
  • What exhausts you or keeps you working past your limits?
  • Do you find it difficult to rest regularly? Why? 
  • How does the gospel address those particular issues?
  • What is appealing to you about the practice of rest?

FOR FURTHER STUDY:

LISTEN

  • LECTURE: “Rest” and the accompanying handout
    • This lecture is the final week of a six-week seminar on Spiritual Formation called “Formed in Christ” that I did at Trinity in the spring of 2016.

READ


(1) Quoted on p. 19 of John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry.
(2) Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader, 144.
(3) Parents of young children, you obviously can’t just stop parenting one day a week! So this, like all practices, requires some adapting to particular stages of life. In a two-parent home, consider carving some time for each of you individually to rest. If you’re a single parent, consider asking a friend or fellow community group member to give you a respite.
(4) Many of these come from Justin Earley’s chapter on Sabbath in The Common Rule and from Bridgetown Church’s “How to Un-Hurry” workbook.