Good Rest and Good Work: God’s Shaping of Christian Life Through the Gift of Sabbath

(written by Brendan McClenahan)

Teach me work that honors Thy work,
the true economies of goods and words,
to make my arts compatible
with the songs of the local birds.

Teach me patience beyond work
and, beyond patience, the blest
Sabbath of Thy unresting love
Which lights all things and gives rest.

Wendell Berry, Given


In 1967, futurists testifying before a senate subcommittee predicted the rise of technology in the 21st century would cause a problem: too much spare time. According to their calculations, the average American workweek would be reduced from 40 hours to 22 hours by 1985.  It doesn’t take much research to discover that they were wrong. As American culture became increasingly global, connected, technological, and consumer-driven, busyness of Americans rose through the roof. In 2004, studies showed that Americans worked 2 more hours per day than Italians and Germans. 

Not only are we working harder, we are resting less. Americans are sleeping an average of 2.5 hours less than we did 100 years ago. Our busyness and lack of rest is taking a toll on us. We battle stress-related illnesses, we fight to manage our children’s schedules, and we let our vacation days pile up unused. We are incessantly active, consuming and producing our lives away. 

Is there a better way to live? This question is especially important for Christians, called to live the abundant life of blessing offered in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Do our busy schedules reflect the mind of Christ? Do our hectic rhythms produce the fruit of the Spirit? Are we as communities of faith pointing to our Creator by the way we order our lives? 

The Hebrew scriptures tell of a God who created a good world in six days, who made humans in love, and who, when he was done creating, “rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” The seventh and last day of creation was therefore the first and most important day for humankind, as later emphasized in the law given by God to his people. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” This command is the third of ten, preceded only by the command not to worship any idols and not to murder. The Israelites took this command so seriously that “violations of the Sabbath were associated with those who did not belong to the Jewish lineage.”

By obeying the Sabbath, the Jewish people fulfilled their identity as a people blessed to be a blessing for the world. This essay will briefly demonstrate how today, as heirs of the same identity through Christ, Christian communities who embrace the Sabbath rhythm of rest and restful work as an ongoing practice will not only bear greater fruit in life and ministry, but will enjoy a more abundant life in relation to their Creator God. 

If the command was intended for the Jewish people, why ought Christians obey the Sabbath as well? A common misconception, perpetuated by some scholars, is that “the Sabbath was a part of the law, and, because that law has been taken away, the Sabbath command now stands repealed.” But Jesus did not come to abolish the Jewish law, but to fulfill it. The writer of Hebrews concludes, “A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God.” Although at one point it was grounds for condemnation, through Christ the Sabbath is offered to us once again as a good gift intended to bless God’s people. 

The essence of Sabbath is that God’s people cease all work. But what is work? Through many generations of debate, Jewish rabbis have extrapolated exactly what this command looks like for the people of God. Their extensive lists of Sabbath commands are basically summarized as ceasing “any activity that ‘uses’ nature.” During the holy day of Sabbath, we practice seeing creation and resources not primarily as something we use to achieve an end, but as gifts to be enjoyed. “All week long, human beings wrestle with the natural world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning. On the Sabbath, however, observant Jews let it be … they learn to remember that it is not, finally, human effort that grows the grain and forges steel.” When we celebrate the Sabbath, we are reminded that God is our good Creator and that we are his good creation. We are graciously given “time and rest to enjoy the creation.” We cease from all our work in order to joyfully celebrate our Creator through song, scripture and play.  

But Sabbath is not just fun and games. As Christians practice the Sabbath regularly, the Spirit forms them into fruitful disciples. This goes against common sense; it seems that the more one works, the more one produces. Imagine a grapevine that is pruned for three years before allowed to bear fruit. During those three fruitless years, the vine is allowed to develop an extensive and robust root system that will support greater yields of fruit in the coming season. The same is true of Jesus’ disciples, whom Jesus teaches, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Disciples who fulfill the Sabbath by abiding in Christ are equipped to bear much fruit. Therefore, “If fruit bearing is not coming naturally in our lives, could it be that we have not spent the proper season abiding?” Indeed, Sabbath is an integral component of discipleship, both as a community and as individuals. 

First, God has chosen to shape his people as a community of freedom through the gift of the Sabbath. In fact, Sabbath is arguably the primary purpose for God’s deliverance of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. When Moses and Aaron pleaded Pharaoh to let God’s people go, Pharaoh responded, “’Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work?’ Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!’” To work for Pharoah is to work without Sabbath (the Hebrew word for “stop working” in this verse can also be translated as Sabbath). But just after God frees his people from Pharoah’s shackles, assigns them the arduous task of building the tabernacle. How is this different than Pharaoh’s oppression? God’s work is restful work, firmly framed by a day of blessed rest. Therefore, “Whether you have a Sabbath is the difference between slavery and freedom.” Both for the Israelites and for Christians today, God uses the Sabbath to re-identify his people as a free people called to godly work. 

Second, although Sabbath is primarily intended for the entire community, blessings of the Sabbath have significant implications for the individual. The Sabbath invites each of us to dwell intimately with Christ and remember our identity. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In Christ we find the fullness of rest intended in the Sabbath. Can we find rest in Christ outside of the Sabbath day? Of course – we are given unlimited access to Christ through the Spirit. But the Sabbath is a designated day of celebration of this rest during which we are re-united with Christ, and from which we scatter out as individuals marked by freedom and joy. Operating out of true Sabbath rest, we become the one-of-a-kind masterpieces we were created to be.

Despite its overwhelming benefits for those that keep it, the Sabbath is not a device initiated by human will. Sabbath (and our linked identity as Sabbath people) is a gift of God, one that we often resist. On Sabbath day, we stop working so we can listen to the Spirit who reminds us that it is not by our work that we are included but by God’s grace in Christ. The Sabbath is the crown of creation, a day God, by his own initiative, uniquely created for one exclusive purpose: to enjoy time with his beloved people. 

Despite our history of resisting the invitation of Sabbath, God in his compassion sent his Son to free us from the oppression of sin and give us total rest in Him. Now, by the Holy Spirit, we bear fruit, make disciples, love our neighbor, pray, worship and work out of that rest, out of the freedom that comes with knowing that God is working in us by his grace. Each Sabbath is an exclusively divine initiative, wholly orchestrated and conducted by the Holy Trinity. When the community of faith Sabbaths, the Spirit draws them to gather and fills them with love for one another and for God. Together, the Sabbath-gathered people are re-membered into Christ’s body and proclaim his work on the cross, his death and his resurrection. As we are reminded of our baptismal identity in Christ, we give gratitude to our Father, the Creator of the Sabbath who created us to dwell in peace. 

As extravagant as this invitation to the Sabbath is, our collective response is ignorant at best. The inductive conclusion of the church today is that we have no idea how to Sabbath. “We need a biblical framework for a rhythm of life that allows us to be fruitful in balance with being at rest.” Weekly, we are told to set aside at least one day to stop our work and worry to freely enter into worship, gathering, play, and enjoying creation. “When Sabbath comes, commerce halts, feasts are served, and all God’s children play. The equal reliance of all people on the bounty and grace of God is gratefully acknowledged, and the goodness of weekday work is affirmed.” How might God reorder our weekday work in light of the Sabbath? In the same way our week is ordered with a day of rest, perhaps each day could be ordered by hours of rest. For example, we might practice “Eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, four hours engaging, and four hours disengaging.” This daily framework could allow the blessing of Sabbath to seep into our everyday lives, affording time and space to enjoy our families and neighbors as well as our Maker. 

Similarly, our church communities could benefit not only from a weekly Sabbath day, but also from yearly Sabbath-oriented seasons. What could it look like for our churches to have seasons of Sabbath rest during which they pause or significantly scale back programming and services? “It looks to many like nothing is happening. But in this time of abiding, great strength is given to those who do the teaching, singing, and serving throughout the rest of the year.” Instead of battling low summer attendance, churches may embrace this season as a God-ordained Sabbath for the community. This is only a starting point; individuals, families, and churches alike are invited by the Spirit to ask how the good gift of Sabbath could inform all of life, from the rhythms of breathing to fluctuating stages of life.

The Sabbath not only informs when we work, but how we work. According to Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, there are three types of good work by which we wisely keep the Sabbath. The first type of Sabbath-keeping work is work that is restful. Good work is done in remembrance of God’s work in creation. We do not rest from our work so much as we work from our rest. If we are to faithfully keep the Sabbath, we need to be rested before we work. What stressors and other obstacles to healthy rest need to be managed in order to begin the day and week rested? 

Secondly, Sabbath work is sustainable work. Good work honors God and creation by rejecting the expense of excess time and material. How could we limit workplace inefficiencies to save time? What distractions are wasting our time at work? How can we limit the waste of materials and resources, accounting for the damage it causes harm to God’s creation? How can we recycle or repurpose our excess material? Finally, Sabbath work is Eucharistic work. As we are rested on the Sabbath, we enter the week not as slaves but as joyful bearers of God’s unique gifts to the world: ourselves. Through God’s work on the Sabbath, our weekly work is infused with God’s abundant life and offered freely to bless the world. 

As we learn to keep the Sabbath, may our communities of faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, fulfill the words of Christ: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

Bibliography

Bass, Dorothy C. Practicing Our Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-bass, 2010).

Bechtel, Dr. Carol M. “The Structures of Covenant Life.” Lecture, Old Testament Foundations from Western Theological Seminary, Holland, MI, October 3, 2013.

Bechtel, Dr. Carol M. “Genesis 1-11.” Lecture, Old Testament Foundations from Western Theological Seminary, Holland, MI, September 10, 2013.

Bernstein, Ellen. “Celebrating God, Celebrating Earth: Psalms, Sabbath, and Holy Days.” Currents In Theology And Mission 37, no. 5 (October 1, 2010): 377-388. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 21, 2013).

Berry, Wendell. Given (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2006).

Birch, Bruce C., Walter Bruggemann, Terence E. Fretheim and David L. Petersen, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).

Breen, Mike. Building a Discipling Culture (Pawleys Island: 3 Dimension Ministries, 2011).

Hicks, Olan L. “The Hebrew Sabbath,” Restoration Quarterly 3, no. 1: 23-35. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 21, 2013).

Swenson, Richard A. Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004).

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