By Amber Riggs
I’ll never forget my family’s first Sabbath gathering back with our church after thirteen weeks of covid-related cancellations. My four daughters could barely contain their excitement. They had dressed and prepared breakfast for themselves before I even crawled out of bed. At their young ages, my daughters have fallen in love with the church and the vision it represents.
Likewise, when the first representatives of humanity spent that first day delighting in the Garden, God was giving them an opportunity to fall in love with His vision. Could they imagine replacing the Wilderness around the Garden with this lush peace of beauty? Then, every seven days, they were sacramentally reminded of the end-goal. A sacrament is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality. While the Sabbath was a day of delight in and of itself, it was a sacrament in that it pointed to an even greater reality that wasn’t yet concrete.
The rest was a sacred rest.
But did that make their work secular?
WE WEREN’T MADE FOR THIS
Christians have a long-standing tradition of meeting once a week to worship God together. Up through the middle of the 20th century, this tradition was largely coupled with the notion of the “Christian Sabbath.”
The presence of blue laws belied strong-held convictions of a communal rest that was associated with weekly worship.
Communal worship has long been recognized as a fitting activity for a day of rest. After all, rest is rooted in delighting in God’s creation and presence. And worship is our appropriate response to who God has revealed Himself to be. Communal rest paves the way for communal response.
But through a series of historical shifts, the marriage of rest and worship is now separated. Attending a church gathering on a specified day is now often interpreted as “observed the Sabbath.”
Git yourself to Sunday meeting. This is how the “Cowboy 10 Commandments” interprets the fourth commandment. It’s not an uncommon application.
With this mindset, as soon as worship service is over, the pressure is on to finish all the work you didn’t get to the rest of the week. Mow the lawn, plan meals, clean the house, run errands. Then, fall into bed exhausted that night.
ENTERTAINMENT OR REST?
We need look no further than how much we spend on entertainment to recognize our bodies – and psyches – were not made for relentless work.
In 2018, entertainment made up over 10% of our household budgets. 1 And this 10% is part of an upward trend. Even in years when average adjusted household income decreased, we continued to increase our investment in entertainment and other categories of expenditure that claim to lighten our loads. Anyone else ever want to “get out of the house” to eat? That expenditure increased by 6.7%. Another popular de-stressor – “personal care products and services” – increased by 7.8%.
According to these numbers, these services are easy to attain. But could it be that leisure isn’t providing us with the type of rest our minds and bodies so desperately need?
TECHNOLOGY AND LEISURE
Andy Crouch observes,
If technology has failed to deliver us from toil, it has done a great deal to replace rest with leisure— at least for those who can afford it.
If toil is fruitless labor, you could think of leisure as fruitless escape from labor. It’s a kind of rest that doesn’t really restore our souls, doesn’t restore our relationships with others or God. And crucially, it is the kind of rest that doesn’t give others the chance to rest. Leisure is purchased from other people who have to work to provide us our experiences of entertainment and rejuvenation.
A game of pickup football in the backyard can be real rest (as long as the competitive spirit doesn’t get out of hand!). But watching football on TV is leisure, and not just because we’re not burning many calories. It is leisure because we are watching others work, or indeed toil, for our enjoyment. 2
A CALL TO COMMUNAL REST
There are, indeed, times for leisure. Musicians, athletes, and other professional entertainers, work hard to provide us with enjoyment. They enrich our lives. Sabbath, however, is a call to a communal rest – a deeper rest that is grounded in simplicity.
Despite signs that give continual evidence of our exhaustion, only 14% of Americans set aside one day per week for rest. However, a mere 19% of that 14% say they are free from work on that day of rest. In other words, only about 3% of Americans actually practice an extended period of rest each week. 3 I like to think I’m among this 3%, but all too often, this sense of deep rest is disrupted. We have great intentions, but the cultural pressure to earn our keep is stronger. So is the psychological pressure to prove our own value and live up to false expectations. When we add the ease of exchanging rest for leisure, we often find our best intentions for rest haven’t born the fruit of restoration.
Jesus’ contemporaries needed to hear that man wasn’t made for the Sabbath. Our culture, however, needs to pay closer attention to his counterbalance to that statement: the Sabbath was, indeed, made for man. 4
UNFLIPPING THE SCRIPT
I first began appreciating the gift of a full day of rest when I was in elementary school. That’s when I started having to make my own bed in the morning. I absolutely hated making my bed.
But on Sabbath morning, I didn’t have to make my bed. Or clean my room. (Yes, elementary kids think with a lot of italics.)
Instead, I looked forward to seeing my friends at our church gathering and then spending an afternoon at my grandparents’ house. My grandma spent Friday afternoon planning Sabbath lunch and baking mouth-watering desserts. I have fond memories of Sabbath afternoons.
When I got to middle school, I discovered I didn’t have to do homework on Sabbath. By the time I was in high school and college, the thought of studying on Sabbath rarely crossed my mind. When it did, or I felt pressure to work on a research paper, my mom was able to reassure me that she had rested from schoolwork on Sabbath all through high school and college and still graduated with stellar GPAs. So instead of studying, I learned to embrace one of my most treasured Sabbath traditions of all: the Sabbath afternoon nap.
SABBATH, A DELIGHT
As a child, I had the advantage of seeing my mom set the example of preparing in advance so that when the sun went down on Friday night, work wasn’t hanging over our heads. The house was clean. The car was gassed. The pantry and refrigerator were full. On Friday night, I had the special treat of mixing the blueberry muffins so my mom could pop them in the oven on Sabbath morning. This wasn’t work. This was fun. It was delight. And it made for an easy breakfast before we headed to our worship gathering.
But as an adult, the idea that doing all the work God intended for us to do in a mere six days each week has been hard for me to wrap my mind around. Much less that those six days of work are not full 12-hour workdays.
SACRED WORK VS. SECULAR WORK
This is only compounded by the cultural dichotomy of “sacred work” and “secular work.” Over time, activities recognized as overtly naming Jesus became known as sacred work.
Meanwhile, gardening – and the cultivation of earth in its countless other forms – became regarded as secular. Even if a person was intent on reflecting God’s character and ways into the world as they did it.
Work-week vocations are opportunities to reflect God’s image into every corner of civilization as we continue cultivating the earth after His design. Instead, we often view them as the result of “the curse.”
Because of characterizations of secular work, we find it challenging to categorize sacred work as work at all. However, Jesus’ first disciples had no problem recognizing their ongoing announcements of Jesus’ kingship as work, even work deserving of pay. 5
Am I saying it is “breaking the Sabbath” to expend ourselves to expand the Kingdom of God on Sabbath? Of course not! Even under the Mosaic law, Jesus declared it was “lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 6
But instead of this exertion taking place as spontaneous opportunities arise, it has become the rule. The vice of workaholism is masquerading as a virtue. 7 We have come a long way from first-century Christian Sabbaths marked by rest and the easy familiarity of communal Scripture-readings, prayer, and communion. 8
PARTNERING WITH GOD
Our understanding of work and rest has become so flipped and skewed that it falls short of reflecting God’s intentions for humanity. We’ve lost our place in the narrative and become disoriented from overwork. The way to get our bearings is to get back on the same page as God. And His script calls for a lot more rest than ours does.
The result of this flip is that, instead of recognizing our work-week as a means of partnering with God, we too often see it as something that keeps us from partnering with Him. Stressed from our need of deep restoration in His Presence, we lash out and burn bridges. Then, during our opportunities for rest, we work to restore the world around us. That is, we work to repair what our own broken hands and lips have sabotaged in our failure to rest.
MAKE SPACE FOR CUSHIONS OF REST
There is wisdom in reorienting our minds and lives around God’s patterns of work and rest. Work time is for partnering with Him to reflect His character and ways into whatever corner of creation we find ourselves in. Work time is for cultivating the earth into communities that operate in His wisdom. We need to explore how to make better use of this time.
Rest time is first and foremost for restoration – for embracing the space God provided for our renewal. Not restoration at the expense of others’ rest – but a restoration steeped in simplicity and the sufficiency of His Presence.
Our own sanctification needs much more rest time than we are prone to admit. If we don’t embrace the gift of these times, how can we gift it to a weary world? How can we help them conceive of the rest that Christ will eventually bring to the whole of a renewed creation?
My pride fights against it. Am I really so frail that God intends me to spend so much time in a state of restorative rest? In the lyrics of Rich Mullins, “We must be awfully small/ And not as strong as we think we are.” 9
ACCEPT GOD’S GIFTS OF REST
But that’s only part of it. When I don’t accept His gifts of rest, I am also missing opportunities to delight in the fruit of God’s work and fall in love with His vision for the future – a vision that will carry me through the most challenging parts of my work. Marveling at nature is one way we delight in the fruit of God’s work. So is finding pleasure in healthy relationships. After all, they certainly didn’t become healthy on their own. God is at work all around us, as well as in and through us. Yet we often speed through life so fast, we barely recognize His fingerprints.
The invitation to sabbath with Jesus is the invitation to deep rest. It’s an invitation to a rest that is free of the demands and diversions that fail to restore our souls. It’s an invitation to simplicity.
Rest time is a cushion. Not a cushion for overflow work, but a cushion of space to keep that work in its purposeful place. Like bookends. Even in a time that was not marked by sin and death, God created these cushions of rest for our benefit. Each day starts with a cushion. Each week ends with one — a cadence of rest-work regularly interrupted by a rest-rest. By the wisdom of this pattern, each week begins fresh on the healing of deep rest.
But operating in the rhythms of God’s wisdom has never been an easy decision for humanity. To find rest in these rhythms is to wrestle in the dirt with our desire to do things our own way.
This article is an excerpt of Start With Rest. Download the entire book for free at https://dl.bookfunnel.com/osjyr1a519.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Expenditures – 2018. Accessed 1 June 2020. <https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cesan.nr0.htm>
- Andy Crouch, The Tech-wise Family (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017), 87.
- Crouch, The Tech-wise Family, 109.
- See Mark 2:27
- See 1 Corinthians 9:3-14
- Matthew 12:12
- This raises significant questions regarding the contemporary American church’s relationship with spiritual leisure, particularly as it relates to communal rest.
- See Robert Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 51-63.
- Rich Mullins and Beaker, “We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are” (Universal Publishing Group, 1996).