We live in strange and unprecedented times where most of us are forced to work from home and the already blurred lines between work and leisure are almost no longer visible. When weekdays and weekends are both spent in the “comfort” of the home, the “sacredness” of Sundays also seems to be diminished. Is this necessarily a bad thing? For such a long time, the sacred-secular divide has plagued and crippled the church. Maybe we are finally at the point of convergence where God is allowed to be Lord of all of our lives. Yet, the Sabbath commandment still holds us to the commitment to set aside one day a week to be holy and different from the others. Does this seemingly arcane practice still have any significance now?
Work and rest are part of God’s natural rhythm
We first encounter the Sabbath in Genesis, where after six days of creation, God ordains that the seventh will be for rest. Interestingly, Adam was created on the sixth day and we are not told of any activity on his part until Genesis 2:15. So it would seem that the first full day which Adam experienced in his existence was the Sabbath and the rest that God ordained for this holy day. Could it be that God’s plan was for man to experience and understand the rest that He gives before man learns to work for God?
So often, we see the value of rest only in relation to the work we do. For some, it is a reward for our efforts; for others, it may be a necessary evil to be tolerated so that we can continue to strive. However, if Adam experienced rest before knowing what work was, then surely rest has intrinsic value of its own in the eyes of God? Yet, it is not always easy to stop our work, isn’t it? There’s always something else that needs to be done, something important that requires our attention. Maybe there is something to be learnt from the wisdom of the traditional Jewish Sabbath, that it begins precisely at sundown on Friday evenings, even if that is 4:30 pm in some countries during winter. Sabbath is not dependent upon our readiness to stop; it is dependent on our willingness to surrender to God’s timing (Wayne Muller, Sabbath [New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2013], 82). When we learn to surrender, we may realise that the world continues to function without our striving, and we are not that indispensable after all.
The “Jesus” attitude
If we were to benchmark Jesus’ earthly work against the requirements of our modern jobs, I wonder if He would be considered busy. Did He take God’s opinion on rest to heart? While we do not have a daily timetable of Jesus’ schedule, what we see in the gospels is Him constantly moving from place to place; teaching, healing, and ministering to the poor and vulnerable. In fact, He was so tired that He somehow managed to sleep through a storm! Yet, we also see Jesus withdrawing from the clamour of the crowds and retreating to a place of rest (Matt. 14:23; Luke 5:15–16; Mark 1:32–33), not after He had finished His “work” but clearly when there was still much left to be done. This we know because His disciples could not comprehend His leaving and ran about in search for him (Mark 1:35–36)—there were still lepers to be healed, the blind that needed to see, and the hungry to be fed. Did Jesus not care about the needs of these people? He must have cared, for His entire ministry was built around serving those in need.
I believe that the principle to which Jesus held was this: whatever we hope to achieve in life, no matter how noble or important, it must always include time and attention for God. Our reluctance to rest—our belief that our joy and delight may somehow steal from the poor, or add to the sorrows of those who suffer—is a dangerous and corrosive myth. This belief creates the illusion that service to others is a painful and dreary thing and reeks of a saviour mentality which ironically, the true Saviour did not have. Jesus says there will always be opportunities to be kind and generous. Just as there is a time for every purpose under heaven, so is there a time for nourishment and joy, especially among those who would serve (Wayne Muller, Sabbath [New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2013], 49).
A “different” day
If we feel that God’s natural rhythms are worth keeping, that we need to build trust in God’s provision, and that God is worth our time and attention—then maybe the concept of Sabbath and rest is not so outdated after all. So, how can we make our Sabbath times “different” from the other days now that we are always at home?
Here are some suggestions that I have found helpful:
- Take our attention off the things we feel we lack but rather, focus on thanksgiving for what we have already been blessed with. In the Hebrew tradition, petitionary prayer is discouraged during Sabbath time. A day where we list down or review our blessings helps to build gratitude and still our constant strivings.
- Take some Sabbath time to be alone, for contemplation and reflection, in order to build humility. It is much easier to feel a genuine sense of humility when we are alone. The instant others arrive, we naturally feel the need to compare and judge. It is also much easier to be content with what we have when we don’t focus on what others have.
- Don’t think about what we need to “achieve” on Sabbath; there are no KPIs for spiritual formation. Constantly checking if we benefit from our Sabbath-keeping is like planting a seed in good soil and pulling it up daily to check the roots—it will die from over-examination.
So while it may be challenging to observe Sabbath in the present situation, we may need to do it more than ever.