A Day Without a ‘Do’ List
By Lynne M. Baab
Busy, exhausted, empty.
If you ask people how they are doing, the most common answer is “busy.” If you ask another question or two about their lives, they will often mention exhaustion. If you keep listening, you may very well hear about a deep emptiness. Our frantic activity and continual acquisition of more possessions do not fill the hollow spaces in our inner beings.
Many Christians have found that the sabbath can slow us down enough to help us receive grace and peace from God to counter the exhaustion and emptiness. The sabbath is an ancient practice that helps meet an enduring human need. In the midst of our incredibly fast-paced world, we need the sabbath now more than ever.
The Sabbath in the Bible
In the beautiful and poetic language of the creation story, we read that God rested on the seventh day from all his work. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:3 NIV).
“Why did God need to rest?” a friend asked. “Does God get tired?”
God was able to rest on the seventh day because the creation is so abundant, so full of life, and so perfectly ordered. We are invited to rest on the sabbath as a sign that God rules the universe so well. God tells us not to work on the sabbath so that we “may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12 NIV). One scholar translates those words as “catch our breath.”
Because Jesus conflicted with the religious leaders of his day six times about the sabbath, some Christians believe we are no longer commanded to keep the sabbath. Jesus himself kept the sabbath (Luke 4:16), and his conflicts with the religious leaders centered around appropriate behavior on the sabbath. Jesus performed healings on the sabbath, because part of the purpose of the sabbath is for us to experience the joy of creation abundance. In the first version of the ten commandments, the reason given for sabbath observance is that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Ex. 20:8-11). Jesus restored sick people to the life they were created for.
Another idea central to the sabbath is release from slavery, and on the sabbath day Jesus freed some of God’s sons and daughters from the slavery of illness. Jesus has freed us all from slavery to sin, and the sabbath invites us to rejoice in that freedom. In the second version of the ten commandments, the people of Israel are encouraged to “remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15, NIV). Whenever we step into sabbath time and leave behind our work responsibilities, we are opening ourselves up the possibility of experiencing joy in the freedom Christ gives us.
The sabbath invites us to rest in God’s abundance and rejoice in our freedom from slavery, and in our time this invitation is just what the doctor ordered. Many people are discovering that the sabbath enables them to “catch their breath” each week and experience good gifts from God.
What Does the Sabbath Look Like?
My husband and I have been observing a sabbath ever since we returned from 18 months in Tel Aviv, Israel more than 20 years ago. In our Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv, everything shut down for the 24 hours of the sabbath. We experienced amazing quiet and many fewer options on that day. The sabbath in Israel felt like a wonderful gift, and we wanted to continue to experience that gift after we moved back home to Seattle.
During the years when we had small children, we kept Sundays as our sabbath, and we didn’t engage in paid work, housework, or home repairs on Sundays. I went to school part time for many of those years, and I didn’t study on Sundays. I can remember long hours of reading out loud to our boys after church, leisurely outings to parks and the zoo, and bike rides with our sons strapped on the back of our bikes or riding their own adorable tiny bikes. We could enjoy our children one day each week without feeling we should be getting something else done.
When I finished my studies, I spent seven years working as a freelance writer and editor. I added a new sabbath discipline. I didn’t go into my home office on Sundays, didn’t turn on the computer. Later I was ordained as an associate pastor in a congregation, and my husband was able to take Mondays off. For several years we had a sabbath together on Mondays. By that time our sons were out of the house, and our sabbath had evolved into a time for nurturing our marriage, spiced with some time alone.
The meaning of the Hebrew word “sabbath” is “stop, cease, pause, rest, desist.” The first step in observing a sabbath is deciding what to stop doing. Certainly ceasing from paid work fits the biblical pattern. Over the years during my sabbath, I have also ceased from housework, home repairs, shopping, and managing money.
One woman told me that on her sabbath she ceases from “anything that can appear on a to-do list.” A youth pastor says he doesn’t do anything that he might later judge by standards of productivity. A couple in their thirties say they refrain from doing things that aren’t “peaceful.”
After we decide what to cease from, we can then consider what we might do on the sabbath do draw near to God. Sabbath activities from the Jewish tradition involve a festive meal with candles and prayers, walks together as a family, and a short celebration at the end of the sabbath to indicate our intention to take the fragrance of the sabbath into the week.
People who keep a sabbath have adopted many habits to help them feel close to God. Getting outside in nature is the most common sabbath habit. The creation speaks to us of God’s creativity and power, and being outside slows us down in a lovely way. One man saves up any prayer requests that come in by email during the week, and spends some time on Sunday afternoon praying for people Another man saves up the assignments for his Bible study class. He loves to spend a couple hours on Sunday afternoon focusing on scripture. Many people enjoy journaling on the sabbath.
A significant danger lies in lots of great plans and high expectations for doing spiritual things on the sabbath day. The sabbath is, first and foremost, all about stopping our activity and making room for God. If we immediately fill up all the time with activites, even very good activities, we miss something about the freedom and abundance we are invited to experience on the sabbath. We don’t have to work hard at making the sabbath holy! We need to stop what we habitually do, and enjoy the fact that God is working in the creation and in us. God is already present in our lives, and on the sabbath we are invited to notice that presence.
The Sabbath and the Myth of Scarcity
Throughout the Bible we are invited and commanded by God to be thankful. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord or fully declare his praise?” (Psalm 106:1, 2 NIV). In the Old Testament, thankfulness comes from remembering what God has done.
The Apostle Paul encourages his readers to have “gratitude in your hearts towards God” and to give thanks to God in the midst of “whatever you do” (Colossians 3:16, 17 NIV). In the New Testament, thankfulness to God is closely connected to our understanding of the great gift of Jesus Christ to us. In Christ we have forgiveness, freedom from the power of sin, and a reason and purpose for living.
The sabbath is a perfect time to practice thankfulness. In one Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are forbidden on the sabbath – they are too much work! – but prayers of thankfulness are encouraged. The sabbath is a day to focus on the abundance of what we have been given by God rather than think about what we don’t have.
Part of why we run so fast and hard, part of why we experience exhaustion and emptiness, is that we are so susceptible to the messages of our culture. “More is better!” we hear over and over, in advertisements and all kinds of media. “Focus on what you don’t have and do anything necessary to get it.”
Our culture promotes a myth of scarcity, that we don’t have enough, that only more possessions and more activities will satisfy us at a deep level. God has given us so much, and yet we find it so difficult to notice what we have been given. In order to pay attention to the good gifts we have already received from the hands of a generous Giver, we need to stop all our activity and our focus on possessions.
Stopping on the sabbath gives us the time and space to enjoy the exquisite shape and glowing color of a daffodil or a rose, the soft fur of a beloved pet, the inviting smell of soup or bread or a scented candle. God made everything that pleases us. Taking the time to notice and be thankful creates joy in us. Taking time to notice God’s gifts and choosing to thank God help us step aside from our culture’s myth of scarcity.
We have been given amazing spiritual blessings as well. Life is challenging and difficult, to be sure, but we have comfort in sorrow and strength in adversity through the Holy Spirit (II Corinthians 1:3, 4). We have been given spiritual gifts in order to serve God and others (Romans 12:6-8). Jesus has promised us a kind of peace the world simply cannot know (John 16:33).
On the sabbath day, perhaps during a walk or as we wake from a nap or as we just sit and look out the window, we can look back on the week and see the times we have received peace, been comforted or given strength. We can notice the ways we have used our gifts to serve. We may have prayed about something but then we forgot to look for the answer. The sabbath gives us space to observe the way prayers have been answered.
Our busy schedules keep us from noticing the good gifts of God in the creation and in our lives. The sabbath makes time for noticing, for reflecting, and then time to thank God for what we see.
The Gifts of the Sabbath
Surely one of the most challenging Bible verses for our time is Psalm 46:10 (NIV): “Be still, and know that I am God.” The sabbath provides a structure for being still. The sabbath invites us to lay aside our love of productivity, our desire for more, our “to-do” lists and chores. Just for one day out of seven! The sabbath invites us to do nothing for a while, so that we can remember God is the One who sustains the universe and we don’t. God is the One who is powerful and we are not.
As we stop on the sabbath, we are declaring our intent to embrace stillness in order to “know that I am God.” That knowledge might come through observing something beautiful in creation or eating something delicious and remembering that God make everything good. That knowledge might come as we reflect back on the week and notice an answered prayer or a way that God did something close to miraculous.
That certainty that “I am God” comes from sabbath observance over time, not just from one day of stopping. Over time, stopping our activity helps to put us in a receptive place, where we notice the abundance of what we have been given rather than what we don’t have. When we are busy and productive, it can be easy to believe that what we have comes from our own achievement. Stopping for one day each week helps us remember the Giver.
The gift of the sabbath is the gift of abundant time, and that kind of relaxed time can help us enjoy our friends and family members. The sabbath is a day to play board games with children without worrying about the things we need to get done. On the sabbath we can enjoy a relaxed meal with friends or family members, without feeling that driving pressure that we ought to stop relaxing and get back to work.
The sabbath also invites us to nurture our friendship with God. We can tell God anything, but sometimes we find it hard to be honest because we aren’t sure exactly what we’re feeling. On the sabbath we have enough time to think about our inner concerns so we can bring them honestly into God’s presence. On the sabbath, we can laugh with God at the wonder of life. We can marvel at the amazing way God created the universe. We can take time for relaxed friendship with God.
In our day, many people long for a renewed sense of purpose. Our busy lives can too easily feel like a treadmill. We wonder why we are here and for what purpose God created us. The sabbath day of stopping, over time, helps us stand aside from all our activity long enough to begin to think more clearly about who we are and what we are called to do. One man near retirement, who has just begun to embrace a sabbath pattern, says that the sabbath helps him distinguish between needs and callings.
The Sabbath and Grace
More than any other faith discipline of my life, the sabbath has helped me experience the grace of God. Grace teaches that nothing we do will make God love us more. When we engage in constant activity, we so easily fall into the myth that the good things in our life come from our own efforts. We begin to believe that God loves us because of what we do.
Stopping my productivity one day each week year after year has impressed deep on my heart the amazing truth of God’s unconditional love. God’s love comes to me as a gift, not because I’ve earned it. God sustains the universe and I don’t. God alone is the Lord, and I am his child, his servant, his friend, and his worshipper. I don’t have to be busy and productive every minute to prove something about myself. I can rest in God’s love and grace.
The sabbath invites us to stop and notice what God has done, what God has given us. The sabbath opens our hands so we can receive more of God’s love and grace. We are blessed beyond our comprehension, and each week the sabbath helps us rest in God’s abundant blessings.
(To access six other articles I've written about the sabbath, click here.)
Originally published in Discipleship Journal, July/Aug, 2005, Pages 28-31.