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It’s amazing how many TV commercials and printed advertisements portray the joy of being at rest.
A woman gazes out her window, savoring a cup of coffee. A couple yawn and stretch on silk sheets, welcoming the rising sun. Friends walk together slowly through the woods. A teenager strums a guitar at the end of a pier, enshrouded by mists rising from a lake.
If only we could enjoy such timeless moments ourselves. If only our souls were at peace. If only.
There’s wonderful news, according to the marketers. Such restfulness is just one transaction away. All you need to do is try Maxell House coffee. Or invest your nest egg with Fidelity. Or rent a cottage in the woods through Airbnb. Or buy a Range Rover and head for the mountains. You, too, will then be able to sigh with contentment.
Here’s the irony: Restfulness can actually be yours right now, in the life that you already have.
And it’s free.
All you need to do is receive a gift that God has always been willing to give. It’s connected to the deep wisdom of keeping the sabbath – setting aside the equivalent of one day every week to make a clean break with the exhausting, demanding, hurried culture in which we live, move, and have our being.
The Hebrew word shabbat means “stop, quit, cut it out.” It’s part of the design of creation. Genesis reports that God himself enjoyed a “sabbath rest” after fashioning the cosmos. He calls his people to do the same. This is not a request or a recommendation. It’s a command.
And it’s quite possibly the single most challenging divine directive for Americans in the 21st century.
That’s because work makes us feel useful. And important. And maybe, from time to time, we even have moments when it seems as if we’re actually in control. There are always things that need to be done: answering a dozen more emails, attending the next meeting, cleaning another closet, following up on new customers, shopping for new shoes, putting all the spice containers in the cabinet in alphabetical order.
But none of these tasks – in fact, no task at all – rivals the importance of placing ourselves in God’s presence. And then simply staying there.
Theology professor A.J. Swoboda notes, “It is not as though we do not love God – we love God deeply. We just do not know how to sit with God anymore… We have become perhaps the most emotionally exhausted, psychologically overworked, spiritually malnourished people in history.”
The unidentified author of the New Testament book of Hebrews acknowledges that entering God’s “sabbath rest” – resting from our strenuous efforts to make it through life under our own steam – is a major challenge. “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11).
When you think about it, that’s a wonderful turn of phrase. It takes effort to enter God’s rest. It takes planning and resolve to keep the sabbath in a culture that is allergic to slowing down.
For many of us, choosing to stop for one-seventh of the week feels like punishment. Think of all the things we might otherwise be able to accomplish. But this resistance is based on a serious misunderstanding of the meaning of sabbath. In his bestseller The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, pastor John Mark Comer pleads with his readers to understand that cultivating restfulness is not a have-to. It’s clearly a get-to.
Another author, Dan Allender, adds that sabbath comes down to replacing daily frenzy with the kinds of things that fill our souls with joy. “Sabbath is the holy time where we feast, play, dance, have sex, sing, pray, laugh, tell stories, read, paint, walk, and watch creation in its fullness.”
That doesn’t sound much like punishment.
There’s no consensus amongst followers of Jesus as to how we are to keep the sabbath, or even if there’s a particular day of the week – Saturday? Sunday? – that should be targeted. If you’re just beginning to consider a regular sabbath experience, you might choose to carve out half a day. Or designate a block of at least three to four hours in which you fully unplug yourself from the world. That means no TV, no computer, no flat screens. Turn off your phone. Turn away from social media. Keep your calendar free from appointments and distractions.
Stop working. Stop planning. Breathe deeply. Be still and know that God is God.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann was fond of reporting a discovery from his own experience: “People who keep sabbath live all seven days differently.” A weekly oasis of rest and reflection, in other words, is contagious. Because it helps us reorient our souls toward the True North of God’s presence, we gradually become spiritually healthier, happier, and more centered.
All for the bargain price of deciding to accomplish nothing at all.
Comer asserts that keeping the sabbath, in the end, is really just a way of saying “Enough.”
Our ordinary lives are enough. We don’t need to make any more purchases or take any more trips to experience deep rest.
What we really need is just to set aside the time to enjoy what God has already given to us.
That’s because – if we can rework a familiar saying – it’s better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all.
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