A minister sat in the meeting of the board of his congregation. “I have something important to say. I have become convicted about violating one of God’s commandments.” People in the room gasped in unison, then a stunned silence. “Yes,” the minister continued, “I have consistently violated the Fourth Commandment.” More silence as people tried to remember which commandment that was. The minister opened his Bible to Exodus 20:8 and read, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” People in the room breathed together a sigh of relief. Someone said, “Oh, you had us worried. We thought it was something serious, like adultery or stealing.” “But it is serious,” replied the minister. “All God’s commands were given for our good and we violate them at our peril. I’ve realized that my 24/7 schedule of non-stop work, even if it is the Lord’s work, is not what the Lord desires for me. And I am experiencing the consequences of not having Sabbath time in my life. I’m exhausted most of the time, I have high blood pressure, I’m not really present to my family, and I’m out of touch with God. Spiritually, I’m running on fumes.”
I listened to this story with intense interest. “So what did the board do in response to your confession?” I asked. My minister friend answered, “I told them I wanted to take Monday as a Sabbath day. I explained this was not just a ‘day off’, but time for prayer and worship, a time for ‘just being’ in God’s presence and resting. My Sabbath day would be a time of receiving from God instead of producing anything for God. I asked for their help in keeping Monday ‘holy’ by not expecting me to show up at the office or for meetings or to answer the phone. On my Sabbath day I need to be free of other expectations so I can show up for God. I asked for their prayers. I explained that since I am a workaholic, this would be a very difficult discipline for me to practice.
“Has it worked?” I asked, with some doubt that such an arrangement was possible. “Mostly it has,” replied my friend. “The congregation doesn’t schedule meetings or call me on Mondays. They may not notice the difference in how I go about ministry when I receive the gift of a Sabbath day, but I do. I am more deeply connected with God, and I have more joy. But the most interesting thing is how my claiming Sabbath time in my schedule has encouraged others in the congregation to claim some time in their week for rest and renewal in God.”
That conversation took place several years ago. I was intrigued. As a workaholic in ministry, I saw a new possibility for more freedom and joy in my life. I studied scripture about God’s intention for Sabbath. In previous readings of the first two chapters of Genesis, I had assumed that the creation of human beings was the glorious culmination of creation. But on closer reading, Genesis 2:2 describes the crowning glory when God “rested from all his work and blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” God’s grand finale was creation of Sabbath time! Exodus 20:11 links the commandment to observe the Sabbath day with God’s resting on the seventh day. We reflect that we are made “in the image of God” when we adopt in our own lives the pattern of God’s life. There will be times of producing, but there must also be times of rest and enjoying God’s creation.
I hadn’t previously realized that the Ten Commandments passage in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 includes a different reason for observing the Sabbath day. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Sabbath is not only about rest, it’s about freedom! I reflected on how we can become slaves to the demands of other people, to our culture and all the things it says we need to buy and consume to have “the good life”. We can be driven by our desires for success or recognition. Even the pursuit of entertainment can become an obsession.
Once I dared claim some Sabbath time in my life, I tasted a new freedom. I discovered how satisfying it is to be more intentionally and fully in God’s presence. When I stop my usual daily pursuits and simply seek to receive from God’s loving goodness, I discover spiritual abundance. I wake up to the beauty of God’s creation; I more fully enjoy the companionship of my husband and friends. My spirit is nourished as I read a good book or see a worthwhile movie; my body benefits from the exercise of a hike. I realize I don’t really need to acquire anything; our loving creator has already provided all we truly need. I experience the joy of loving God back in worship.
How do we start making some Sabbath time in our busy lives? I suggest that we listen for God’s invitation. God will show us a window in our weekly schedule. It may not be a whole day that we can claim every week, but there is certainly a morning, an afternoon, or an evening we can claim as Sabbath time. We need to guard that time on the calendar. We can say “no” to people’s requests for that time by saying, “I have an appointment.” And truly we do have a vitally important appointment - with the God of the universe!
What do we do during Sabbath time? Again, I suggest we listen for God’s invitation to what God will enjoy doing with us. Consider these suggestions:
Rest from working
Work comes in many varieties and can take on many guises. Each of us must determine, in conversation with those who are close to us, what work needs
to be relinquished. A general guideline is we stop trying to produce anything or make anything happen; simply receive from God during Sabbath time.
Rest from shopping
Resisting the impulse to go to the mall or buy something helps us discover how little we really need. Resisting consumerism awakens the parts of ourselves that cannot be nourished by possessions.
Rest from worrying
We can refrain from activities that we know will produce anxiety, like paying bills and making lists of things to do.
Engage in prayer and worship
The gift of Sabbath involves spending intentional, unhurried time in God’s presence, treasuring God and communicating with God.
Engage in soul-nurturing activities
Do what is deeply satisfying, but what we usually “don’t have time to do.”
Engage in relationships
Sabbath time can be enhanced when we enjoy time together with spouse or family members. But everyone needs to have an understanding of the purpose of Sabbath time.
The purpose of Sabbath is violated if people start applying rules for how other people should observe Sabbath time. Jesus kept all the commandments of God, yet violated the religious rules of His time. (Mark 2:23-3:5) Jesus made it clear that Sabbath-keeping is not to be oppressive. By His actions Jesus demonstrated that if we encounter someone in need during our Sabbath time, Sabbath practice includes doing what we can to help that person.
If we become convinced that God was serious about all the Ten Commandments, including the Fourth Commandment, we may start the practice of Sabbath with the idea that we are sacrificing, giving some of “our time” to God. We discover as we are consistent in the practice that Sabbath time is God’s gift to us. Sabbath has been described as “stopping long enough to receive blessing.”