I tell people the most spiritual thing I do is keeping Sabbath – which is nothing. At least it is nothing the world considers successful. Everything I know about the Sabbath I learned from Eugene Peterson, and from reading authors like Marva Dawn and Abraham Heschel who have written on the topic. Credit for this article goes to them.
This article is a work in progress. Let me know what you think and I’ll keep rewriting as needed.
Sabbath: Making Space For God And Life
What would you do tomorrow if you found out today you won the lottery and you now have all the money you need to live? Since you don’t have to work for a living anymore, and since you can literally do only the things you choose to do, what are some things you would stop doing? What are some things you would start doing more of? What are some important things you can now do because you have all the time and energy in the world?
Well I have news for you: you have won just such a lottery. And instead of a monthly cheque for the rest of your life, you get something even better – a God who promises to take care of your needs for the rest of eternity.
You find it hard to believe? It’s too good to be true? Do you dare to find out?
When God rescues the ancient Israelites from Egyptian Slavery (The Exodus Story), he instructs the newly freed slaves to keep Sabbath – the Jewish practice of doing no work one day each week.
Sabbath literally means “stop”. It is a day each week to catch our breath so we don’t miss living life in the process of making life happen. The luxury of a day of rest must sound like winning to lottery to the Israelites who have known only forced physical hard labour – the kind done while someone stands over them with a whip. As good as rest sounds, it would also be a huge test of their faith. Like us, they need to know if God really can and will take care of them. And like us, it takes faith to leave work undone and trust our world will not stop spinning, the sky will not fall, and the bills will get paid.
The Sabbath is indeed a luxury, only afforded to those with a God who promises to love and care for them. For those whose life is entirely up to them, they cannot risk rest and play. For them, constant vigilance is demanded of them lest the sky falls in.
Having a loving God is precisely the difference between the Israelites and their Canaanite neighbours. So in two places in the Old Testament, God gives instruction for this practice of “stopping work”. “Do no work on the Sabbath,” Exodus says, because God rested on the seventh day of his creation week. In Deuteronomy, they are told to stop work because they are not slaves anymore.
Children in that ancient culture show love for their dads through imitation. The Sabbath is an opportunity to imitate God in the way he takes time to appreciate his own handiwork, just as we imitate his creativity and craft the rest of the week like good children. We are children with a heavenly father, creatures with a God. In a properly ordered world, children and creatures find their security and livelihood from someone else, not from their own industry and work-ethic. The Sabbath is an intentional re-calibration of our centre on God as our source of security and livelihood. And along the way, we also re-centre our souls on things that really matter – our faith, people we love, play and leisure that keep us creative and human. The Sabbath is the antidote to the pressures of a self-made world which compels us to empire-build, hoard and trample for our own survival.
The Sabbath is also the way to safeguard from the tyrannical nature of work. Ex-slaves may be lured into thinking that hard work is the way to keep from becoming slaves again, only to end up enslaving themselves. Ex-slaves, having escaped the structure provided by the one holding they whip, have a way of finding comfort in new slave-masters. The Sabbath is a weekly practice of personhood – we do not live for work as slaves do. And if we are prone to forget that on the weekdays, the Sabbath is a day to correct the slave mindset.
But the Sabbath is not to be confused with a day off. Rather, it is a day on. It is the day when we practice being fully alive in the life God created us to live, enjoying the things God gives us for pleasure. At the end of the Sabbath, we re-enter our work life allowing our Sabbatical mindset to overflow into the rest of our week. Our work may wear us down. But we know within six days, there will be the opportunity again to re-centre. So goes the rhythm of life as a creature loved by God, living outside of paradise. And the Sabbath is not so much taking time off, as it is honouring time. Everyone gets the same time in a day, and no one knows how much time they have left. On the Sabbath, we practice treating time as a gift we treasure, rather than a commodity we exploit.
Unlike the Jewish Sabbath which is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the Christian Sabbath can be any day that works for you. It begins at bedtime and ends at bedtime one day later – as a reminder that when wake up on Sabbath day, the day is already half over, that the world has gotten along just fine without us while we slept. Four things we need for a Sabbatical strategy: a plan and a place, for prayer and play.
Besides not working, the Sabbatical plan is your own personal declaration of independence. If you feel enslaved to something, the Sabbath is 24 hours where you are set free from your vices, with God’s help. For example, someone who watches a lot of TV can declare their independence by switching off. Someone who shops a lot can declare their independence by buying nothing on their Sabbath. Someone enslaved by schedule and clocks can declare their independence by not wearing a watch and making no appointments. Ask God to show you your slave masters, and you can declare your independence from them on your Sabbath by practicing to say no them.
The Sabbatical place is an environment where we feel free from work and vices, and clear a space for encountering God. Go to the place where you are most aware of God’s presence and your creatureliness. Go hiking if nature is your sanctuary. Go for a walk at night if the starry sky is where you fell closest to God. Get away from your desk, your unfinished homework or housework. It takes faith to do that, but it can all wait until tomorrow. Just because you can.
When we get to our Sabbatical place, we get all the time in the world to talk with God. Just as God takes in his creations on his first Sabbath, we get to kick back and talk to him about what we have done in our week. We get to celebrate the triumphs and make mental notes on things that need our attention. But this isn’t self-improvement. Working on us can wait until tomorrow. The Bible and other books can facilitate conversation with God. And don’t forget to make space to listen – because it is a conversation where God gets to talk as well.
Finally, the Sabbath is time to play - doing things with people we love for fun. On the Sabbath, we have all the time in the world to spend with people central to us, relationships that are our lifeline.
Many people tell me on their first Sabbath, they feel antsy or guilty for not working. This is almost the clearest indication of how far we have strayed from our Creator’s life rhythm, and how much we need re-centering. Some students tell me their grades improved when the learned to Sabbath. We may even live longer. But even if we don’t, at least we can say in our lives, God has given us all the time we needed for the most important things.
1. Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath (Canada: HarperCollins, 1951).
2. Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).
3. Guy Robbins Jr., And in the Seventh Day (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995).
Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker.” Christianity Today,
5. ----------------------, “The Pastor’s Sabbath.” Leadership, Spring 1985, P.55-56.
6. R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor (The Alban Institute, 1993).
7. Emilie Griffin, The Reflective Executive (New York: Crossroads, 1993).
8. J.I. Packer, Growing in Christ (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 1994).