Sabbath

“Who are you when you are not working?” That question makes me feel uncomfortable because the answer terrifies me. I have to be productive in order to have a “good day” because without accomplishments I am nothing. That is a problem.

I recognize that I am more driven than most, but have you ever noticed that in our culture, the question: “What do you do?” is the same as asking “Who are you?” Almost everything around us tells us that our identity is built on the choices we make, the jobs that we do, and the things we achieve. 

That, I think, has made this whole shutdown so difficult. For some, front-line workers especially, this shutdown has meant more work in stressful environments, but for the majority of us “non-essential” workers (how does that feel?) it has meant an extended time of doing less and that has also been difficult. This has meant more than losing choices, losing work, and doing less, it has felt like we are losing our very selves. Who are we when we are not working?

This idea that identity is based on choice, work, and achievement is not only a recipe for heart disease, it can also warp our relationship with God and lead to a misshapen spiritual life. If a bent life is the consequence of a broken identity, then it would appear that the solution is to recenter our identity on how God sees us. There are plenty of Scriptures that tell us who we are in Christ: 

1 John 3:1a: How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

Romans 8:15-16: For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship, and by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

One way to approach this problem is to memorize and meditate on these Scriptures and pray that God allows the reality of our true identity to sink into our hearts. As the reality that we are sons and daughters sinks in, our life will change accordingly. I am an advocate for the idea that what we believe impacts what we do, but I would like to use this blog post to explore the idea that it also works the other way around: What we do can shape what we find believable, especially when it comes to identity.

This is what makes the practice of Sabbath so important. Peter Scazzero, in his book Emotionally Healthy Leadership, defines a Sabbath as a twenty-four hour period where we cease from all paid and unpaid work in order to connect to God, connect to the people in our life, and to spend the day enjoying the things that recharge us and give us rest.  While Sabbath is the fourth commandment (see Exodus 20:8-11), it is as old as Creation itself. Sabbath is written into the rhythms of the world God has made. Genesis 1 tells us that God made the world in six days, but that he rested on the seventh (see Genesis 2:2-3). This is the rhythm God has hardwired into the universe, work for six, rest on seventh. It is no accident that the week in every culture of the world is seven days, but the question is whether we will follow God’s lead and rest on one of those seven days.

Let’s go back to the Creation and imagine this for a moment. Humanity is created on the sixth day, which makes Adam’s first full day of existence, the seventh day – a day of rest. Not only is the rhythm of Creation to work six days and rest on the seventh, but work in God’s world proceeds out of rest and not the other way around. We rest in God, we rest in our identity as sons and daughters of God, and then we work out of that rest. Not the other way around. 

What happens when we start living in this Sabbath rhythm? The more we practice it, the more it begins to shape our view of ourselves, God, and the world. For example, if I worked 24/7 I might start to believe that the world will fall apart if I stopped working. I might believe that I am indispensable. I might also believe that I am nothing more than the sum total of what I do. 

But what if I had the freedom to rest one day out of seven for twenty-four hours. What might I begin to believe? I might soon discover that God is a God who provides. That God is not an insatiable slave-driver, but a loving Father who is far more interested in me than in what I can do for him. I might realize that God has no trouble running the universe without me, that God wants me to enjoy him, his creation, and the people he has placed in my life. It would change everything.

So, last year I decided to practice Sabbath once a week. I don’t practice it on Sundays, because as I jokingly tell people, that is one day a week that as a pastor I do work. I chose a different day because it works better. I really believe that the New Testament gives us that freedom. So for me, my Sabbath became Thursday night to Friday night because in the daily rhythm of Genesis 1, the day begins with the evening, not the morning. 

I cease from all work and I practice things that I enjoy, that recharge me and give me rest. I go for long hikes. I bake with my daughter. I read a fun book.  I teach myself Javascript. I read through my journal and recap what God has been doing in my life the previous week. I hang out with my wife. We play games or go out, grab something to eat or cookout on the grill. I enjoy times of silence, simply sitting in the presence of God. I call a family member or write a letter. If the weather is bad, I might watch a movie. 

This has not been easy, because I don’t find trusting God easy. The phone rings or a text comes in and I feel pressure to answer it, because, you know, I am so indispensable. I should stay away from the news, but I don’t because I need to be in control and know what is going on in the world. Thoughts of unfinished work will flood my mind with worry. Sometimes I discover that an activity that I thought was restful and lifegiving is actually draining and I will have to plan a different approach to my next Sabbath day. Perhaps, I will have to take a day trip so that I will not be tempted to get involved in the pressing concerns at home. 

I have had to work hard to rest, because work is deeply embedded in my identity and the world we live in. But slowly, as I have practiced Sabbath, I am coming to the realization that there is a God who loves me apart from what I do and that my true self is the self that rests in God’s love. 

Have you tried to practice a Sabbath? How did it go? What did you get out of it? What obstacles have you run into? Are you a parent with a young family, or do you have a demanding job which makes Sabbath seem impossible? Please leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

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