Life is full of ironies. Or God has a great sense of humour. Tomorrow (July 26) I am to run a workshop on sabbath-keeping at a small group conference. I have never been so tired and overworked in recent memory.
Perhaps I will present myself as a negative model, as one who is living with inadequate sabbath. We’ll see. However, in the course of my research for the workshop I came across this critical insight from Paul Stevens.
To show how fundamental sabbath is to the life of faith, Scripture describes the creation of Adam and Eve on the sixth day as the penultimate creation, the climax coming the next day, the sabbath … Adam woke up from his unconscious sleep not to start his work of caring for God’s world but to experience rest. Adam and Eve’s first vocational experience was to waste time for good and for God. (“Sabbath,” The Complete Book Of Everyday Christianity, Edited by Robert Banks & R. Paul Stevens, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997, 863)
I can imagine Adam and Eve waking up to their first full day on earth and coming to the Lord for their orders for the day, only to be told to relax, sit down for breakfast, and just commune with their Maker. The next day Adam and Eve would start the divine rhythm of six days meaningful work and one day rest. But their first full day of existence was devoted to rest and to communion. I can think of no better way for God to let us know that we are defined by our relationship with Him and not by our productivity. God values us for who we are and not what we do.
In case we miss the point, God structures our days as night/day (e.g. Genesis 1:5). Today we structure our days as day/night. Our days begin with our productivity and ends with our grasping the rest we think we deserve for our hard work. Life revolves around us and our activity. But the Old Testament structured the day in the opposite sequence, as night/day. Eugene Peterson draws out the significance of this sequence.
The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep he develops his covenant. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous. Grace is primary. We wake into a world we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn. (Working the Angles, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987, 68.)
Note also that the Christian week begins with Sunday (Acts 20:7). Sunday is the first day of the week. This is reflected in the older diaries and planners though many now start with Monday and have the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, tucked away at the end, days that don’t even deserve the same space as the “working” days. The New Testament weekly rhythm starts with the recollection and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New testament saint begins his week resting in the new creation effected by Jesus’ death and resurrection. The rest of the week flows out of this prior grace of God.
We are not saying that hard work is unimportant. Indeed in God’s prescribed pattern, it is six days of work and only one day of rest and communion. God’s people are not slackers. We are to apply ourselves to the work that God has given us. But we must be clear that our work is not a means to gain God’s love or to establish our significance. The first movement in life is the reception of God’s blessings. Having received we then proceed to bless others through our work. This is the Christian life — blessed to bless.
One of the consequences of sin is that we have completely lost the divine sequence of receiving and giving, and the priority of grace. We suffer the consequences at many levels. At the most fundamental level, our work-addicted, sabbath-denying culture seriously damages our bodies.
Of all the Ten Commandments, being negligent of this one (Fourth Commandment) has resulted in more deaths than even the prohibition against murder. Heart disease and other stress-related ailments have taken their toll … we are killing ourselves by neglecting sabbath. (Paul Stevens, “Sabbath,” 862.)
Beyond the damage to our bodies is the damage to our souls. In the ultra competitive nature of the new global economy, we are expected to find our salvation through our productivity. So more and more of us are working harder and harder yet find our lives empty and bereft of meaning. We may be achieving much more yet there is little joy as we flirt with burnout, loneliness, and meaninglessness.
Often, our churches are not much better. Too often we have also adopted a business model in how we do church, looking for ways to get our members to do more for Christ, implying that the Lord will love them more if they do more. And so our members run from one activity to another, reinforced in the message they hear from the world — that our self worth is rooted in what we do and not in who we are.
We are long overdue to return to a relational paradigm of life. Our first call is to receive the love that the Lord wants to pour into our lives (Romans 5:5), a love He wants to give just because He loves us and delights to do so. In turn we respond with the twin loves to love God and neighbour (Mark 12:29- 31). This is the divine pattern for our rest and our work. It is the pattern for life as it should be. And tomorrow I shall work hard to get this point across.