What do you think of when you hear the word “Sabbath?”
If you’re like most people, your first thought is likely negative:
Not enough time
Outside of regular Bible reading/study and prayer, observing a Sabbath is the most transformational discipline you can undertake.
Sabbaths sound great. But we’re just too busy to take a whole day off… right?
An Atlantic article titled “The Myth that Americans Are Busier Than Ever” statistically demonstrated that Americans are working significantly fewer hours than we were in the 1950s and even fewer hours than when our economy was predominately agrarian. The problem is that we feel busier than ever.
The article lists 4 reasons why:
Irony of abundance— the fact that we have more free time means that we find more things with which to fill our time.
Fluidness of work and leisure— email, cell phones, the rise of working from home, and the gig economy have all blurred the lines between “work” time and “leisure” time.
Curse of wealth— we feel pressure to maximize our “free time.” Wasting time feels more wasteful than it used to, so we are less likely to prioritize leisure.
“Joy” of work— High pay is rewarding, so we try to find joy in working long hours.
For Christians, these realities press against our spiritual lives regardless of our life circumstances.
Even if we don’t feel like we have a lot of free time, by virtue of living in 2020 much of our life is automated. You have more free time just by living when you do than your parents did.
Even if the fluidness between work and leisure isn’t a huge problem for you, the reality that you carry around a cell phone connected to the internet, social media, email, and a million other things represents a challenge to your ability to be in the moment. FOMO might actually be leading you to miss out on what’s immediately in front of you.
Even if you don’t feel wealthy, consider the reality that you’re likely reading this on a phone or computer that you own that, at a minimum, costs several hundred dollars. Then, remember that nearly half the world survives on less than $5.50/day. If you’re reading this, you’re likely considered wealthy in a historical and global setting.
Even if you don’t have a job that you love, you’re impacted by “hustle” culture and likely feel pressured to work hard at something. Drive is good, but our obsession with getting ahead has poisoned our spiritual lives.
In the middle of all of that, we want to grow spiritually. But we seem to think that spiritual growth is random. Maybe there are one or two practices around which we build our morning or evening routines, but those seem to be designed to keep us from falling away rather than drawing nearer. Best case scenario: these practices keep us from moving backwards long enough for the next mountaintop experience that drives away our doubt for a short time before the monotony of our routine creates new doubts for which we wait for another mountaintop experience… and ’round and ’round we go.
We want to follow Jesus, but we don’t want to miss out on anything. We certainly don’t want to fall behind and miss our opportunity to get ahead.
This means we often also don’t make time for things that are important.
Biblically, we can make a strong case for the benefits of observing a Sabbath.
For one, God rested. Genesis 2:2-3 notes:
“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.”
God didn’t rest because creating the world really wore Him out. His rest was an intentional action He desired the beings whom He would make in His image to follow.
After being delivered from slavery in Egypt, God led the Israelites to Mount Sinai where He spelled out what it would means for them to live as His people. Included in that covenant was the idea of observing a Sabbath.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” Exodus 20:8-11
The Law outlined two reasons why the Israelites were to observe a Sabbath. First, Sabbaths demonstrated trust in God’s provision:
“‘Today is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till morning’” Exodus 16:23
The Israelites were living as itinerant people in the desert sustained by the daily appearance of manna when this command was given. The only day that the manna didn’t appear was on the Sabbath. This presented a problem, because the manna generally lasted only one day. On any other day, if someone were to attempt to keep extra manna they would discover that it had rotted after 24 hours. And since gathering was considered work, this presented a problem. How were the Israelites supposed to eat if there was no manna to be gathered and storing the manna was fruitless? God made an allowance for the Sabbath. The people were to collect double the normal amount on the 6th day, prepare it however they liked, and set it aside. Unlike any other day, the manna would not rot overnight and the people could eat it on the Sabbath.
The Israelites’ Sabbath actively demonstrated their trust in God. That trust in God actually began the day before the Sabbath, when they did all they could do to be prepared to rest. Their level of trust involved what they would eat. Our level of trust falls on our desire to be productive.
Second, Sabbaths allowed space to remember God’s past action:
“‘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)
The Exodus was the highmark point of deliverance for the Israelites. No matter how far removed from the actual event they became, God wanted them to have active reminders of his action on their behalf. If we do not actively remember, we will often forget. Sabbaths allow us space to reflect on and give thanks for the many ways that God has acted on how behalf in the past. This action of active reflection and thanksgiving builds our faith for the challenges we will face in the week ahead. As God’s people drifted away from faithfulness to the covenant, it is no surprise that one of the repeated critiques of the prophet was the people’s failure to observe a Sabbath. They had not built in space to remember, so they had forgotten.
Beneficial, Not Obligatory
Every conversation I have about the Sabbath boils down to one question: do Christians have to observe a Sabbath? Essentially, is it sinful for a Christian to not observe a Sabbath?
No, I don’t think so. But something doesn’t have to be obligatory to be beneficial.
The New Testament contains no explicit command to observe the Sabbath. Neither does it contain instruction to abandon the Sabbath.
Consider how Jesus treated and spoke of the Sabbath. In one instance, Jesus and disciples pick from grain in field on Sabbath. Religious leaders accused them of breaking Sabbath. Jesus pointed out that David and his men did the same thing they did, saying:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath.” Mrk 2:28
Jesus regularly healed on the Sabbath, a violation of how the religious leaders understood the Sabbath, but not a violation of the Sabbath itself.
Jesus never denounced Sabbath observance in and of itself. Jesus elevated the Sabbath by pointing out that “The Sabbath was made for man.” Jesus didn’t say that the Sabbath was unnecessary, not beneficial, an idol, or no longer relevant. He reminded people that the Sabbath was made for their benefit.
The problem wasn’t the actual Sabbath, but all the rules that had been put in place around the Sabbath that left people so afraid of violating the Sabbath that they couldn’t observe the Sabbath as the Lord intended. They were more fearful of incurring the wrath of their leaders than they were of actively trusting in God’s provision and remembering how He had acted on their behalf in the past.
Our situation is almost the opposite. In a culture in which being productive and busy are values, we can’t fathom taking an entire day to rest. There’s simply too much to do!
Which is exactly why we need to reclaim the Sabbath. In our busyness, we have abandoned trust. In our hurry, we too often forget. In idolizing productivity, we diminish Jesus.
The Romans found much to be curious of Israel when they first interacted. But above all else, the Romans were dumbstruck to learn that many of these agrarian people left behind their work for an entire day every week. What could motivate a people to do such a seemingly ludicrous thing?
Here, our opportunity is similar. It is a people whose faith and trust is entirely in God that can forsake the cult of productivity, embrace their status as beloved, limited creatures, and walk away from it all for 24 hours because their trust is not in what they are able to accomplish. Their trust is in the Lord their God and His provision and care for them above all else.
Sabbaths are good for our souls. They give us an opportunity to remember what God has done on our behalf in the past, which we sorely need. They also give us a living testimony of our trust in God. They help us demonstrate a better way of life through Jesus that will speak volumes to the world around us.
Sabbath is a gracious gift God designed for you to give yourself to create space in your life for rest, renewal, recreation, and relationships. We miss the entire point in a discussion over whether or not we have to observe a Sabbath.
You don’t have to observe a Sabbath. You get to observe a Sabbath.