A Day Without a 'Do' List
By Lynne M. Baab
Published in Discipleship Journal, July/Aug, 2005, Pages 28-31
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
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
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
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 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