Stopping: The Gift of the Sabbath

By Lynne M. Baab

Jeff, a writer in an advertising agency, oversees his company’s contract with a large relief organization. Right after the earthquake in Bam, Iran, that relief organization wanted to get out a mailing as soon as possible. Jeff received the assignment on a Friday morning, with the deadline of Monday afternoon.

He worked all day Friday and Saturday on the project, and by Saturday evening he could see he would need to put in two more full days of work in order to make the deadline. When he went home from work that Saturday, he felt conflicted. For three or four years he had been observing a sabbath almost every Sunday, with unexpected and profound blessings from that day of rest.

He finds he gets more done during the week if he observes a day of rest. In fact, on those occasions when he goes ahead and works on Sundays, because he just can’t see how the work would get done otherwise, he feels off balance, scattered and perpetually behind all week. This odd arithmetic, one more sign of God’s partnership with us in our everyday life, speaks to Jeff of the way God honors even our small acts of obedience.

On that stressful Saturday evening after the Bam earthquake, Jeff decided to keep a sabbath the next day, despite all the evidence indicating he needed to work on Sunday. He returned to work on Monday wondering what would happen. All day long he found things falling into place in an amazing way. He met the deadline comfortably. And he went away from work marveling again at the mysterious way God acts.

Growing Observance of the Sabbath
More and more people of all ages are finding joy and fruitfulness in observing a sabbath. One of my friends is nearing retirement after a lifelong career in campus ministry. He has just begun to observe a sabbath. He used to believe we can rest after the work is done. He has finally realized the work is never done. He reflects, “The sabbath is God’s gracious ‘five p.m. whistle,’ allowing us to put down our tools even though the work isn’t finished.”

A surprising number of people in their twenties observe the sabbath. Many of them say things like this: “The sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. We keep the other nine. Why wouldn’t we keep this one?” A group of twenty-somethings gathers informally after church every Sunday, rotating houses and apartments, spending long hours just being together. As some of them have gotten married and begun to have children, the group has changed shape, but the commitment to a day of rest from work has remained.

The timing for this increase in sabbath observance couldn’t be better. As our culture spins faster and faster, as a frantic pace becomes the norm, the need for down time is ever more apparent. We are a tired people. Researchers tell us that, on the average, Americans sleep two hours less each night than we did a hundred years ago. Researchers also note that during our waking hours, multi-tasking takes a significant toll, contributing to our stress levels and thus to our exhaustion.

For those of us who tend towards perfectionism or workaholism, fatigue is a dangerous condition. We perfectionists and workaholics tend to cope with uneasy feelings by working harder, our “drug of choice.” And, of course, fatigue causes a good number of uneasy feelings. We are lured into a spiral. Working to the point of exhaustion, we feel off balance because of our fatigue, and our knee-jerk coping strategy is to work harder, causing deeper exhaustion. People who study burnout call this pattern “over-functioning,” and anyone who looks closely can see it all around us in workplaces, in churches, and even in homes.

Over-functioning has dangerous implications for people of faith. We believe in God’s grace. We believe, as Philip Yancey says, that nothing we can do will make God love us less, and nothing we can do will make God love us more. Unfortunately, over-functioning undercuts grace in an experiential way that impacts our hearts. When we over-function, our conscious minds continue to affirm that living by grace is important, but we are acting as if our actions are utterly significant and vitally important. In many ways our actions shape our hearts more than our conscious thoughts do, and our hearts begin to creep towards the unhealthy belief that we can earn God’s approval by what we do.

At the end of his space novel Perelandra, C. S. Lewis creates a long ceremony where the angels who rule the various planets give speeches about the paradoxes of the world God has made. One of these angels reflects on the fact that each of us is truly necessary because God’s love is like a great river, which needs a riverbed to flow in. Another angel chimes in, adding that each of us is truly superfluous, because God “has no need at all of anything that is made.” God’s love comes to us “plain bounty.”

A weekly rhythm of six days of work and one day of rest affirms this paradox that Lewis describes. On the six days, we acknowledge by our actions that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world, that God’s love does need a riverbed to flow in, that our work is indeed vitally important and significant. On the one day of rest, we live out the equally important reality that we are superfluous. God has no need at all of anything we can do or say or create or imagine. On that day, we live in the joy of knowing we are beloved because God’s love comes to us as plain bounty.

One of my colleagues, who has observed a sabbath for more than 30 years, says that on the sabbath she is no longer identified with any of the roles that fulfills in her working life. On the sabbath, she is simply a beloved child of God. She reflects that it took her several years of sabbath observance before she learned how to step aside from those roles as she began her sabbath, but now it is like changing into comfortable clothes, the highlight of her week.

When we over-function, when we work continuously without a rhythm of work and rest, we are acting as if only one half of C. S. Lewis’s paradox is true. We take ourselves too seriously. We move dangerously close to idolatry.

What Does the Sabbath Look Like?
The sabbath has impressed grace on my heart more than anything else in my life. I have observed a sabbath for twenty-five years, ever since my husband, Dave, and I spent 18 months living in Tel Aviv, Israel. Our experience of the sabbath there involved a day with many fewer options: no shopping, no movies, no meals in restaurants. We didn’t have a car, so the absence of busses had a significant impact on us and slowed us down incredibly.

We returned to the U.S. determined to bring some of the slow pace of the sabbath into our lives here. For our first decade of sabbath observance, we had small children. On our Sunday sabbaths, Dave did nothing related to his job and I didn’t do housework. We enjoyed our children without the feeling we should be getting something else done at the same time. We had one day each week free from multi-tasking.

As our children approached adolescence, I began a seven-years stint as a freelance writer and editor. So I added a new discipline for Sundays. I didn’t go into my home office, didn’t turn on my computer. Then seven years ago I was ordained as an associate pastor in a lively congregation, and I moved my sabbath to Mondays, following the tradition of Eugene Peterson when he was a pastor. For several years, Dave also had Mondays off, and those Mondays were tender days of relaxed intimacy, long walks, leisurely conversations, spiced with some time alone. Three years ago, Dave’s work schedule changed and he began working on Mondays. I have spent these last few years observing a sabbath all alone.

The specifics of what a sabbath looks like has changed with each life stage, but the common, overarching principle is to cease from working. Of course, work includes far more than just paid work. Balancing the checkbook, mowing the lawn, doing laundry, and shopping for groceries also feel like work to me. The Hebrew word for sabbath simply means “stop, cease, desist.” We need to ask ourselves what we need to cease from in order to make some space for God.

The many excellent books on sabbath keeping suggest a variety of possible ways to draw near to God on the sabbath. I have heard people talk about their joy on the sabbath as they walk in nature, pray thankfulness prayers, practice mindfulness, or spend time with children reading or acting out Bible stories. Many people enjoy beginning the sabbath with a festive meal, complete with candles, special sabbath bread, blessings for the children, and perhaps some singing.

Setting high goals for drawing near to God on the sabbath has an inherent danger of continuing a pattern of over-functioning. What we need most of all in our frantic culture is to stop our activity. As we learn to stop in a weekly rhythm, over and over, week after week and year after year, our hearts will absorb something about God’s grace that cannot be learned from careful Bible studies or excellent sermons or insightful discussions.

The Benefits of Stopping
A day centered around stopping gives us time and space to see our lives more clearly, to notice where God has been present in the previous week, to pay attention to where we have resisted God’s hand in our lives. This noticing might happen while waking up in a leisurely way, while sitting on a park bench, or while walking or riding a bike. On every single sabbath, we might not have profound insights about God’s presence in our lives, but without taking time to stop and notice where God is working, we will see a whole lot fewer of the miracles that surround us.

A day free from work enables us to learn thankfulness. In one Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are forbidden on the sabbath because even intercession is too much work for the sabbath day. Because the sabbath encourages us to cease striving, to let go of the tasks and goals that fill our minds six days of the week, we have the space to look around us at the beauty of the world God made. We have the space to notice the things we want to be thankful for.

Sometimes on my sabbath I sit in our living room and look at the trees outside the window. Trees are amazingly beautiful in their different seasons. As I sit there, I realize that all week long I have rushed in and out of the living room without noticing any of those trees.

The trees speak to me of a deep truth. It is right and good that I work hard on the six days of the week, striving towards the goals that God has laid on my heart. As I work hard, of course I will miss some of the beauty that surrounds me. So it is also right and good that I spend one day each week resting with joy in the goodness of God, my creator, my redeemer. On that day I can enjoy the miraculous beauty of the world God made, and I can cultivate thankfulness.

My heart grieves when people tell me why they cannot possibly keep a sabbath. “We have too much to do. We couldn’t possibly keep a whole weekend day free from chores and errands.” I long to help people understand the theological danger of continuous productivity. When we are constantly working at something, our hearts begin to believe we are too significant. God is no longer at the center of human life. Our own activities move into center place, and we become idolaters.

Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, begins with the profound truth that life is simply not about us. The book’s popularity attests to a deep ache for purpose and meaning in the midst of the frantic pace of our lives today. We long to understand our place in the universe, to know who we are in the light of God’s love. Over time, the sabbath helps us live in the truth of who God is and who we are. The sabbath teaches us grace, helps us stop racing around as if we are the center of the universe.

(To access six other articles I've written about the sabbath, click here.)     

Originally published in "Congregations," Summer 2003, Pages 28-30.