Sabbath Rest

Spiritual capacity is in short supply these days. Few of us have time and energy to attend to the life of our soul or tune in the heartfelt needs of others. More and more people find their inner resources drained. We are running on dry, and fast running out of breath.

Without looking to others to fill our tank, or to systems and resources we used to rely on, we are left looking up, to God, asking for help in our quiet moments of inner desperation. We seek peace in the most plaintive way, knowing God is faithful—and He has promised us rest.

We are created to enjoy and participate in a spiritual, physical, emotional and mental rest. It is called the Sabbath.

Personally, I’ve observed a type of Sabbath day of rest for about 25 years, after hearing a sermon preached by my dear friend Sherry Waugh that it was not only a good idea, but a command, a promise.

One day a week I don’t answer the phone, check email, drive, buy things, make plans or refer to my to-do list. It is a day to rest, walk, talk, read, eat, pray, journal and rest some more. The day starts with a devotional reading, prayer and candle lighting and ends the same way. The Jewish Sabbath practices are undoubtedly richer and more complex than mine, but I’m not Jewish. I only seek to follow this restorative, celebratory pattern the best I can within my own context and community—and can vouch for the many life-giving benefits of keeping the Sabbath in some form.

As a single working adult, it took about 2 years to firm up this now-established practice. It wasn’t easy to explain why I wasn’t available one day a week to friends, family and even employers asking for overtime. It took about 2 more years for me to realize I was the only person I knew who was trying to keep a Sabbath day, set apart from the rest of the week, ideally as a holy space in time to participate in God’s best for me and mine.

None of the church staff, or ministry-minded friends or even authors I was reading practiced Sabbath. I realized this ancient practice was a bit of gold-mine discovery, but longed to share the wealth, not hoard it. So, I encouraged people to consider setting aside one whole day for them and God, to focus on timeless essentials. After I married and started working from home, mostly it was my children who followed my lead as I made it a regular and non-negotiable part of our weekly routine. I’m so glad I did! Now, our family follows it together, and my hubby also gets a bit of a break in his week.

Lately, however, I have met several people talking about Sabbath, learning and observing in their own way. With authors like Mark Buchanan and Ann Voskamp at the forefront of the movement, the Sabbath has made a comeback in evangelical circles! Praise the Lord.

I’m excited about this, in part, because Bishop Trevor tells me the retreats he’s been leading for 20 years for burned-out pastors—and others serving to the best of their ability and coming up short—have this in common: no regular day off, no Sabbath rest.

They are missing more than a day for their body to recoup and their physical stores to replenish. They are missing the experience of a guilt-free, do-very-little day. Usually when people “book time off” it’s a hassle to plan, prepare and debrief. Vacations and even retreats can take more than they give. The Sabbath is different. You know it’s coming, so getting prepared (e.g. all appointments made beforehand, food bought, etc.) is easy. It has its own forward momentum. Having one day off a week as a regular routine means you don’t have to work to take time off. You fall into grace. Literally.

The Sabbath is one whole day to experience weightlessness—free from responsibilities, especially the responsibility of holding up the weight of the world. You learn, deep in your weary bones that you are not responsible.

The earth will continue to rotate, without your added effort.

You can rest. It’s okay.

This is a counter-culture message. Only God cares more about the state of our souls than about the state of the world.

This is a day to shed another counter-culture message from deep within: you are approved, loved and appreciated. This is one whole day to negate the messages in your life that say, “You must perform to achieve heart-level acceptance, even by God.” This is a day to add nothing to anyone’s bottom line. This is a day to turn your back on whatever drives you past the point of no return. The Sabbath is a time set apart to say to yourself and your soul, “All is well.” It is time to rest.

This is a day to say, “I have all I need.” To rest in God’s provision for your material needs, but also your emotional and psychological ones. It’s a time to learn to hear the voice of God that speaks to your inner turmoil, stress, fears and anxieties. These things can drive us into over-performance mode, in a fruitless effort to A) get done what we need to get done so we don’t fail and realize our worst fears of rejection, destitution or humiliation and B) move fast enough so these fearsome voices never really become clear. We keep these things at bay either by defeating them through success or delaying their arrival.

It is counter-culture to rest and let these voices be heard, confronted, and spoken to in the name of One with more authority, knowledge and influence in our lives than they’ll ever have.

To hear—and speak—the word of God to the voices in our lives that would drive us without mercy to an early grave is a powerful experience, and one best found when our bodies and minds and spirits are truly seeking rest, along the pattern God laid out in the book of Genesis, and so we can trust the process that is Sabbath – and do not need to fear what we come to face in the early days of establishing this holy laden, counter-culture, life-giving, fear-defeating routine.

The Sabbath is when we experience physical contentment as well as spiritual authority and mental equilibrium. It all comes together in this one day—of rest.

This is why the saints followed the Sabbath. It is a signal of solidarity with the plans of God in our lives. It’s a spiritual alignment, a homecoming, faithful to the footsteps laid out for us.

This is why the practice eventually loosens the bonds that would hold us back from knowing the full blessing of keeping Sabbath and finding God. The habit of cynicism falls away as we realize we are not bound by the world’s rules. We obey a higher order. We blame others far less, as we begin to see we are responsible before God and so must others be. It is not our’s to judge. We see this in Sabbath, where and when we lay down our weapons in order to make peace with our own thoughts, heart and intentions, as we make peace with God’s goodness and mercy towards us. We are his. This and this alone makes us truly free. Why would we burden others with anything less?

Freedom is not only contagious, it’s very, very generous.

The free man or woman does not wish his or her fellow creature to suffer bondage. Only captives turn others into captives. The Sabbath is a day when captives go free, one person at a time. In its physical simplicity and paring down, it is a day to celebrate a great spiritual truth: we have all we need in this world—and much to expect in the next. By looking in, we learn to look up. We cannot be downcast when we learn that death—in all its modes and operations—is defeated and that we have been set free to live an eternal life, starting right now, today. For this reason, the Sabbath is a day of wonder.

The Sabbath is a day also free of making choices, managing commitments or assessing opportunities. There are no appointments with the world or its ceaseless demands—even the demand to meet and maximize our own needs—only an appointment with God, and to rest.

To rest is the work of the Sabbath.

The body, mind and spirit may take months, or even years, to fully adjust. But God is patient with us. He allows time for us to learn to enter into timelessness, to experience eternity in the present moment. He does, however, root out distractions fairly ruthlessly. When we fail to give him this one full day, even then it is the Sabbath that teaches us the relief that comes with failure, the release from perfecting standards, the realization the spiritual life is not easy, the uncomfortable truth that the world’s offerings are not there to make us better people or lead us to better days.

Only God can satisfy our souls. The Sabbath is a wonderful way to no to anything less, anything that ultimately will fail us, even as we seek to remain faithful to it.

The Sabbath is a day to hear, “It is finished.” To experience the sense of completion, the rarity of a job well done; even with all its gaps and loose ends, the week is done. We have been found faithful and now we seek the reward that awaits: a holy day of rest. This is not given in response to a perfect grade, a successful project or even a ticked-off to-do list. The Sabbath is a reward for those who seek God day-in, day-out and are willing to give him one full day, to rest in him. The Sabbath is what we give God, but before that—long before—He is the one who gave it to us.

The Sabbath is a gift as much as it is a reward. It is not earned, or merited. But it must be entered into, experienced and embraced; in this way it’s a reward for those who try…. try to rest. Rest is its own reward. And there is a sense here too that it’s God who provides, and that we are participants in the holy rather than the initiators. We are the finders. The recipients. And yet, God calls us to give our all, starting with one full day a week set aside. It only sounds easy. It’s not easy, possibly because the rewards are so very, very great. I’m not sure… all I know is God is no one’s debtor and if he asks me to give him one day off a week, he will have a reward in store I can hardly imagine.

In this way, Sabbath is an opportunity to abide in the unfolding revelation of God’s unending goodness.

Does the Sabbath redeem time? If one day set aside can align me spiritually with the living God and make me holy as he is holy, extending a foretaste of timelessness and the goodness of eternity, then can many Sabbaths add up to life redeemed and set free from less worthy pursuits and consuming passions? Does God redeem my soul once and for all on the cross through the blood of the innocent Christ, but then work it out in my heart and mind and body through a participation in that Rest Christ won on the cross and confirmed in the resurrection, where and when “he sat down at the right hand of God.”

The Sabbath is a day to dwell on such possibilities as this, to play with things too profound for the commerce and converse of daily life unbroken by the holy. God asks us, through the Sabbath, to break our patterns, to open up a space where anything can happen, to come away from all that wearies, to abide with him.

The Sabbath is an invitation to let in the light little by little, until the effect of the Sabbath is that we begin to dwell in him day-in, day-out, experiencing a sense of detachment from the fears and uncertainties of the rotating world, as we find ourselves increasingly attached to God, who is eternal and wholly worthy of not only our adoration and obedience, but our trust and understanding. We understand he has all things in hand, as we take time to place ourselves—beginning with our time— in his hands. We also learn to “work out our salvation” from this same position of restful, calm, strong trust and affirmation, instead of from a place of striving to attain the unattainable before events overtake and overwhelm us. The Sabbath literally places us on top of our lives, allowing us to fully inhabit them and exalt our Maker in the process, rather than keeping us always running to win an unwinnable race.

The Sabbath is an invitation extended to anyone, anywhere at all times and in all places. It is a day open to all, to rest.