The rest of the pattern: keeping Sabbath

Sabbath. God says, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy” (Ex 20.8, NIV), so it must be important. What is the Sabbath? When is it? Should we keep it? Maybe you have a moment to think about those questions. More than likely, though, you’re just too busy to even know or care. In a world of restless and relentless busyness—with more piling up as you read—what should we do about the Sabbath?

The word “Sabbath” is just an English version of a Hebrew word. It means “rest,” or “cessation.”

The Sabbath in the Bible

Before considering some of our own time and culture, let’s take a moment to consider a little of what the Bible tells us about Sabbath. In the Old Testament, Sabbath is incredibly important.

  • Sabbath is a weekly reminder that God completes his work, teaching the people to hope that God will do it again.
  • Sabbath is a holy time in the best interest of the people and the animals in God’s Kingdom.
  • Sabbath is a sign that God set Israel apart for a special relationship with him.
  • Sabbath is a reminder that Israel was slaves in Egypt but have been redeemed from servitude into life that involves rest.
  • Sabbath is a day to celebrate that there is rest and cessation within creation, not just endless stream of more; that while there is much still to be shaped and done, there is much that is done and requires no more work.[1]

For reasons that I don’t want to delve into here (too long of a discussion), I don’t believe that we as followers of Jesus today are mandated to keep the Sabbath in the sense it’s talked about in the Old Testament Law. However, that doesn’t free us from considering the centrality of the Sabbath within God’s revelation of himself in this world. The Sabbath was not an afterthought or an accident. Sabbath is part of the foundational pattern of creation and of the way that time is meant to be marked, measured, and experienced. Within the order of creation, within the order of the way that God marks time, rest has a central role.

The Sabbath and Us

While we may not be mandated to keep the Sabbath as an expression of keeping God’s Law, we’re also not free to ignore the Sabbath as part of the pattern of creation. It may be fine for us to mark a different day than Saturday as holy (the Old Testament Sabbath), or to set aside different times within the week rather than a whole day, but for us to reject God’s pattern of setting aside time from the normal rhythm of work is to suggest that God’s plans and intentions are wrong.

Instead of equating Sabbath to Sunday (which is not bad, but not entirely necessary, either), let’s think of Sabbath instead as a pattern of working God-honoring rest into our lives. In a lifestyle of constant busyness and achievement, this pattern is not just about getting us some time to breathe, but teaching us to realign our hearts towards God and towards others in the right way.

You see, our hearts are desperately prone to idolatry, to fooling ourselves, and to avoiding the work of maturing in Christlikeness. Sabbath fights against all three of these issues. Sabbath puts us at rest before God and with others. Sabbath guards us against many key idols of the current era.

What idols? Consider with me 1) demi-god syndrome, 2) busyness as a distraction, and 3) busyness as self-worth.

demi-god syndrome

Demi-god syndrome is the belief or lifestyle which states that God needs me to be busy all the time because he can’t quite handle it without me getting things done. Whether driven by anxieties and fears, or by an overinflated sense of self-worth, or by having many abilities and needing to make sure things work great in different areas, demi-god syndrome is second nature to so many in our time and place. Well not said in so many words, those living with demi-god syndrome are laboring under the conclusion that God can’t hold things together without their constant input.

busyness as distraction from significant problems

Another destructive way that busyness functions in our lives is as a distraction from significant issues. There is a time and place for being busy in helping us through challenging times. But when busyness becomes a habitual way to escape the gospel and heart work needed to grow us in Christ-like maturity, we’ve got a major problem. When we start looking to busyness to give us what our hearts crave instead of turning to God who gives us rest and teaches us the path to wisdom, we are rejecting God’s work in our lives. For many of us, through habituation or difficulties in life, busyness has transformed into the normal way in which we get what our hearts crave—release from various burdens in life. God calls us to a much more challenging task than being busy. He calls us to the task of surrender and grace.

busyness as self-worth

Busyness also is a convenient way to judge your self-worth: “I’m busy, so I must be valuable.”

  • I must be important because I have so many people with so many claims on our time.
  • I must be important because I have visited so many neat places and done so many neat things.
  • I must be important because I never have a moment to rest when there isn’t something else to think about.

And the logic of this delusion is so simple: people who are important have lots of demands on their time and have lots of people looking to them and often are busy doing many neat things in neat places. When our sense of self and value becomes tied up in being busy and in the many things that we do while we’re busy, though, we’re flirting with idolatry.

Sabbath as a trainer

In all honesty, our hearts are really deceitful. The old Greek dictum, “know thyself,” is easy to say but hard to do. Busyness is an easy pattern of life to fall into, because most everyone else around us is also busy. Whether you have already turned busyness into an idol like those above or not, the busy lifestyle we tend towards trains our hearts toward these types of idolatry. How do we counteract this idolatry-in-training? Sabbath comes to mind.

Sabbath is rest. It is meant to be a time of realigning our hearts toward God and toward others. In putting it in these terms, I want us to see that Sabbath is not meant as a personal spa day in which we get to take it easy and cater to our every whim. Sabbath is a gift and practice given to us from God to challenge the idolatrous tendencies of our hearts. It a time—whether a day or split up around the week—of worship and wonder, of celebration and joy. It should be a day to learn what is important, not just what is urgent and significant. Sabbath should rekindle our hearts with love towards God and love towards others.

How to Sabbath?

It probably won’t look like sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day long, trying not to talk to anybody or avoiding doing any sort of work at all. Here is one general principle:

If you work with your mind, Sabbath with your body; if you work with your body, Sabbath with your mind.

Do something which connects your heart back to God and others in a joyful way. This should involve Scripture, truth, and worship; this will probably involve some sort of Christian fellowship; and it can involve more than that as well.

But one thing Sabbath should not involve: being busy about things that you are normally busy doing. After all, Sabbath means cessation. It is hard to turn to the new possibilities of life with God in this world if you never stop trudging along, head down, endlessly focused on the next task in front of you. God invites us to take a break and find our bearings again. That is Sabbath.

[1] Summarized from Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredericks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 71–73.

Post Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash