What have I gotten myself into? I wondered. I was pregnant with my second child. If I wasn’t in labor, we were planning to move into our new house on my due date. My dissertation, a research paper more 300 pages long, was due in less than a month. It was a nightmare come true. I’ve got to keep going, I told myself. I’ve got to get through this.
That was over two decades ago. Looking back, I can hardly believe I survived that incredibly stressful time. Yes, we moved on my due date. Baby Sammy was born a week late. I got my dissertation in on time. But it took me more than six months to recover. In the years since that incident, I have become more and more convinced that I am not the only one who over commits herself in a big way. It is, I’m afraid, part of life in America. And it may be getting worse.
Research supports this observation. “In the last 20 years, the amount of time Americans spend at their jobs has risen steadily. Today’s work year of 1,949 hours is 163 hours–almost a month–longer than in 1969,” writes Juliet B. Schor, associate professor of economics at Harvard University, in her book The Overwooked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1991).
I am often trapped by thinking, just one more thing. Then one more, until I am exhausted and have lost all perspective on life. This is not what God intended. This is why, I believe, God gave us a Sabbath and commanded us to keep it. Not as an arbitrary rule to restrict us, but because he knew we would keep grinding away if he didn’t tell us to stop.
Sabbath keeping has never been easy. I can’t imagine the Israelites found it easy to rest one day in seven when they were surrounded by hostile nations who worked day after day without ceasing. I wonder if the Israelites worried that their enemies would grow stronger than they did because they had more hours in which to grow crops, build cities, and wage war. They had to believe God would prosper them while they rested.
Today, with the pressures of our busy lives we need a Sabbath more than ever. But how can we do it? How can we slow down, seek God, lay aside our agenda, and enter into his rest? In a culture that values what we do, how can we cease doing and seize the Sabbath?
1. Purpose in your heart to obey God’s commandments, even if they don’t make sense to you or seem unreasonable. For many years after I came to faith in Christ, I did what seemed reasonable to me instead of trying to obey all of God’s laws. I rationalized my behavior by telling myself that I was doing better than most of my friends. But I was only fooling myself. Finally God convicted me of my lukewarm ways. He showed me that the way that seems right to me results in . . . death (Proverbs 14:12). One of my areas of disobedience was keeping the Sabbath.
At times I have wondered why keeping the Sabbath is so important to God. Deep down inside, I wondered, why was it even included in the ten commandments? Breaking the Sabbath certainly isn’t the equivalent of murder or adultery. Or is it? In Exodus 35:2, Moses told the Israelites, “Whoever does any work on it (the Sabbath) must be put to death.” Sounds like God took it very seriously.
Keith Boyd, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, says we need to keep the Sabbath because “if we don’t keep that commandment well, then we won’t be able to keep the others.”
2. STOP. Quit. Cease. I am convinced that the only way to understand the importance of the Sabbath is to just do it. Some things must be experienced. We have to stop and cease from our activities to fully recognize what God is doing in our lives.
One Sunday morning I had my hand halfway in the washing machine when I heard God say, “Stop!” “Come on Lord,” I argued. “It is just one load of clothes I didn’t get to yesterday. It won’t wear me out to toss them in the dryer.” Silence. The kind of silence that says, I’m not going to argue with you, because you know what you need to do. It wasn’t about fatigue, it was about obedience.
Phil Ashey, associate rector at Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Virginia, says, “God didn’t stop creating after six days because he was tired. God didn’t have to stop. He chose to stop. He could have kept going. He could have created an eighth day and an eightieth day and an eight hundredth day. He didn’t need to stop. There is always more work to do.”
3. Recognize that you need a break from the work of this world to see your life from God’s perspective. “The purpose of the Sabbath,” says Keith Boyd, “is to rest, recreate, and reflect on God’s work.” We can’t rest while we’re working. We can’t recreate unless we cease from our labors. We can’t take time to reflect on God’s work in our life without being still.
When we don’t take a break, we get caught up in the notion that worldly achievements will give our lives meaning and satisfy our longings, but only an intimate relationship with Jesus can meet those needs.
William Wilberforce, a leader in the fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire, once said, “Blessed be to God for the day of rest and religious occupation, wherein earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted.”
4. Learn to be satisfied with what God has for you–materially, emotionally, and physically. When my son Sammy was ten he had a horrible case of strep that wouldn’t go away. Every two weeks, when the nurse called to tell me that Sammy was still sick, I responded by going home and cleaning my house with a toothbrush. Surely those germs were lurking somewhere, I thought. I was determined to hunt them down and wipe them out!
One time, as I wearily wiped another doorknob, God spoke to me. “You don’t need to be doing this,” he told me. “It’s not going to make any difference.” I didn’t want to hear this. I wanted to do something–anything–to make my son well, but the outcome was in God’s hands, not mine.
We are a restless generation, rarely satisfied with what God has given us, always wanting more. We want to make things happen and we think that our efforts will yield the desired results. We need to come to God, admit our desire for control, like I did, and die to it.
“God invites us to learn to stand back and be as satisfied with what God has done as God is. To enter into a place of delight with God and simply receive from him,” says Ashey.
5. Let go of the idea that you have to do it. I often find myself thinking that I have to do it or it won’t be done RIGHT. “We think our work is indispensable,” says Ashey. “We think that if I am not there, on the job, making sure that it is happening, then everything will fall apart.”
Jack Hayford, pastor of Church of the Word in Van Nuys, California, says, observing the Sabbath is a “regular reminder, on a weekly basis, that you can’t get it all done. You can’t do it without God, not well, and not fulfillingly, not adequately, and not as creatively and not as satisfyingly as with God’s help.”
6. Prayerfully make some concrete rules. If you are married, agree with your spouse on a time and day of the week. Most will want to have their Sabbath on Sunday. Pastors who work on Sunday need to choose another day. “Most of all don’t let the choice of day, an issue that has caused denominations to split, keep you from keeping the Sabbath,” cautions Ashey. In our family, we cease our labors at 5:00 PM on Saturday and break the Sabbath at 5:00 PM on Sunday.
Once you settle on a day, make some ground rules using Boyd’s guidelines: is it recreation? Is it restful? or is it reflective? Our family attends church services on Saturday evening as the start to our Sabbath, or if we miss that we drag ourselves out of bed in the morning to attend services, no matter how tired or frazzled we feel, unless we are ill. We don’t do laundry, clean house, go shopping, or cook elaborate meals. We take walks, read, visit with friends, nap, putter in the garden. On snowy days, we go sledding. In the summer, we often swim in the local pool.
I find it especially important to eliminate activities that are stressful. For me this eliminates almost all entertaining except having friends over for pizza or leftovers. I like to focus on activities where I can hear God, such as being outside in nature.
Joshua M. Peck, a Rockland County, New York publicist and Conservative Jew, says Orthodox Jews do not do commerce of any kind on the Sabbath–no buying or selling. Even turning electrical appliances off and on or riding in cars is prohibited. In the Jewish faith, married couples are encouraged to have sexual relations on the Sabbath. After morning services at the synagogue, family and friends typically gather for a long, relaxing meal.
If you fail and get caught up in doing, repent and ask God to forgive you. Then try again. Ask God to give you strength and wisdom to keep a Sabbath that pleases Him. It took our family many starts and fits before we were successful Sabbath keepers.
If you and your spouse can’t agree on every rule, don’t despair. My husband, Sam, and my son, Sammy, think watching Sunday afternoon football is a wonderful way to celebrate the Sabbath! I’m not crazy about their choice, but I let it go. While they watch the game, I take a nap or read a book. When the game is over, we take a walk together.
In 1924, Eric Liddell stunned the world by refusing to run the 100 meter race at the Paris Olympics because the trials were scheduled on Sunday. His dedication to God’s law still convicts me, paltry Sabbath keeper that I am. Liddell went on to win a gold medal in another race–the 400 meter–a race that he was not expected to win.
I believe God gave us the Sabbath because he loves us. He doesn’t want us to become enslaved to achievement, performance, and perfection. Instead, he wants us to know the satisfaction and security that comes from knowing his power, his provision, and his purpose as we break from our work and turn to see his creative work in our lives.