I had a conversation with my dear and most excellent friend Jan recently about Sabbath keeping, and it has stayed with my pondering mind.
We all know some people who have difficulty with the discipline of work. They don’t like to work or have become discouraged enough to give up and let others take care of their needs. Those with some form of infirmity or incapacity must rely on the work of others to survive. But the bottom line is that work is a gift and a privilege. To refuse to work when we are able most of us consider an irresponsible and selfish choice.
What I’ve noticed is that most people I know, myself included, do not have trouble with the discipline of work. Most of us work very hard. What we struggle with is the discipline of rest.
Yes, rest is a spiritual discipline. Sabbath keeping is an ancient commandment, and most commandments in Scripture are given because they dictate something that does not happen when we live only to serve ourselves. When we come under the covering of a holy and loving God, we desire to keep his commandments. When we do what is pleasing to him, we receive his life and wholeness. One of his commands is to rest.
Why is a Sabbath rest so essential? For lots of reasons, but they might be summed up in the notion that we need a regular reminder that he is God and we are not. When we refuse to rest, we wind up striving to prove ourselves and our abilities. We overwork, and have trouble saying no to extra tasks when our regular work is done. We want to feel that we are in charge, in control of our circumstances and resources. This defines us and makes us feel worthwhile.
Tim Keller reminded me of the movie “Chariots of Fire,” in which two Olympian sprinters were competing for the medal. One refused to compete on the Sabbath, even if it cost him the prize. He was secure in his identity in Christ, and though he wanted to win the race, didn’t need the win to validate his worthiness. The other was relying on a ten-second sprint to tell him he was worthy of taking up space in the world.
Sabbath originates in the creation story. After each work of creation, God said it was good. When he was finished, he said it all was very good, and on the seventh day he rested. He didn’t rest because he was worn out. He rested because he was finished, and maybe he wanted to sit back and enjoy the very good things he had set in place.
Observant Jews understand that Sabbath is not only about rest, but about worship, beauty, fellowship, family, and rejoicing in God’s goodness. With the lighting of the Friday evening candles, they acknowledge that the God who gave them purpose throughout the work week now gives them rest, peace and enjoyment. They eat pretty food and perhaps drink some wine with friends and family. They attend synagogue and hear the spoken word of God. Husbands and wives make love, and they take time to play with their children. They sit back, as God did on the seventh day, and behold the wonder and glory of what God has done.
I love this idea and this discipline. I ask, Lord, that you would intervene in the lives of those of us who struggle with Sabbath keeping, and help us to find our rest in you.
“Our hearts are restless until we find rest in you.” –Augustine