Resting from the Work: Observing Sabbath in a Hurried World
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blesses the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” —Genesis 2:2-3
What Sabbath Is and Is Not
According to Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sabbath constitutes “a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” Jewish tradition observes Sabbath, or Shabbat, from sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. Adherents abstain from activities such as cooking, writing, building, and anything deemed creative or that exercises control over one’s environment.
Christians practice a less definitive observance. Some Christian traditions observe a formal Sabbath on the seventh day (Saturday), others on the first day (Sunday). Still others claim that no specific day represents the Sabbath, believing the “Lord’s Day” serves as a symbolic metaphor for rest in Christ (Colossians 2:16–17).
T. Scott Daniels, Ph.D., dean of the School of Theology, explained the historical and cultural significance of observing the Sabbath for the Hebrews. “The nation of Israel used the Sabbath to mark their lives in contrast to the nations around them. It was meant to show others that this life is not dependent on our work, but it is dependent on God,” he said. In other words, it was about trusting that God would provide their daily bread even when they did not labor for it; they did not need to be driven by fear of famine.
For Christians, the New Testament illustrates how Jesus altered the meaning of Sabbath. “Christ abolished the need for keeping the Sabbath in the traditional sense, but we are still expected to employ a Sabbath mentality,” explained Daniels. “In the Gospels, Jesus says that Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. It’s not a legalistic thing. It’s supposed to be both a blessing for us and a message to the rest of the world that we don’t value busyness above God.”
Jamie Noling-Auth, D.Min, associate campus pastor, described the importance of keeping worship as a central focus in practicing Sabbath. “We have to be purposeful in setting aside a time to rest so that we can worship God. We may associate Sabbath with ‘me time,’ but worshiping the Lord plays an integral part. Through worship, we abide in Christ and feel the type of restoration that nothing else can provide.”
Why It Matters
“The noise of our lives drowns out God’s voice. It’s not that we don’t love God, but that we ignore Him without intending to do so. Usually, we are closest to God in a quiet moment, and some of us don’t have a single quiet moment all day long,” observed Joseph Bentz, Ph.D., professor of English and author of Silent God. His book cites examples of some of the most creative people in history who set aside time for rest and renewal—Albert Einstein, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and others. “Even if you are an achiever-type person, you should know that Sabbath feeds creativity and productivity.”
Bill Catling, MFA, professor and chair of the Department of Art, shared a similar sentiment about the connection between productivity and seasons of rest. “Being busy all the time, even if we think it’s for God, doesn’t produce fruit. A tree bears fruit seasonally as it was created to do. The Bible is filled with imagery of bearing fruit at the right time because of the right nourishment.”
But when believers neglect Sabbath, they thwart more than just their ability to produce. Theresa Tisdale, Ph.D., professor of graduate psychology, believes a frenetic lifestyle affects relationships. “Stress costs us in our relationships with others. There is a significant connection between the lack of rest and difficulties in relationships. When we don’t have an emotional reserve, we can’t connect well with others.”
Further, employing a Sabbath actually benefits physical and psychological health. According to Tisdale, “Research reveals that practices such as reflection and contemplation are associated with a decrease in blood pressure, a lower heart rate, and an increase in our sense of well-being.”
Noling-Auth holds that a Sabbath practice correlates with stewarding what God has entrusted to His followers. “Practicing Sabbath is good stewardship—of our body, mind, and soul. It shows that we want to live up to our fullest potential by respecting the boundaries of our human limitations.”
How Believers Can Respond
All of this talk of silence, rest, and contemplation leaves many in anything but a peaceful state, thinking, “What would I actually do on a Sabbath day? Where would I start? What if I want to slow down, but find that I barely have time to keep up with the demands of my daily routine?”
Before dismissing Sabbath as unattainable, Tisdale recommends taking a practical, realistic approach. “I believe each person needs to find a sustainable way to incorporate Sabbath rest into daily life. It needs to be personal, God-focused, and rhythmic. I suggest starting small. It will not be possible to change our habits all at once.”
Both Bentz and Tisdale offer suggestions for ways to begin adopting a Sabbath way of life, such as spending a few quiet moments outdoors every day, pausing several times daily for deep breathing and quiet, or decreasing the frequency of checking email, voicemail, and Facebook.
Still, it may be too easy to allow other priorities in life to push Sabbath practice to the spiritual back burner. In a culture that rewards overachieving and busyness, many people struggle to see value in slowing down. In fact, practicing stillness before the Lord may feel like yet another obligation on the to-do list. But Tisdale suggests a change in perspective. “I believe it’s important for us to shift from seeing Sabbath as one more thing to do, to seeing it as a time of rest and rejuvenation for our body, soul, and spirit.”
For Bentz, Sabbath teaches its practitioners to value what God asks above what society promotes. “God calls for balance in our lives. Jesus says that tomorrow will take care of itself. We have to fight what our culture values.”
Catling teaches his students that Sabbath is the only way to move through the intensity of life without letting it become the definition of life. He describes an “inner garden” that provides an internal landscape of peacefulness and reconnects the believer to his/her roots as a child of God. “This notion of a garden is so powerful because it takes us back to the Garden of Eden where we could walk with God in the cool of the day.”
Faculty and staff can best serve students by modeling a Sabbath mentality and lifestyle themselves. “Holiness and wholeness come from the same root word. How do we teach students that caring for our whole selves can lead to holiness? I think we need to start by living in a manner congruent with that value in our own lives as faculty and staff,” said Tisdale.
The APU community can also make use of the many opportunities already available on campus. “We purposely don’t do any student life programming on Sundays so that we can protect that as a day of rest. Throughout the year, we also offer multiple paths and venues to facilitate a Sabbath approach, like solitude retreats, Walkabout, the Prayer Chapel and Place of Prayer, Sabbath dinners, High Sierra, extended holiday breaks, moments of silence in class, meals at professors’ homes, presentations from chapel speakers—these are all ways that we try to encourage rest and renewal for the APU community,” described Noling-Auth.
Where It Leads
Even today, Israel’s Sabbath asserts its historical, cultural, and spiritual significance. Modern Christians may choose to revere the sacred practice of abstaining from work on a day solely committed to worshipping God in adherence to the Law, but because of the grace of Jesus Christ, they can focus less on what the Law permits or prohibits and more on how to respond to God’s invitation to rest with gratitude and humility.
“I believe that when Paul said to pray without ceasing, he meant to live our lives in a prayerful state. To me that means creating space for life to take place, space for Jesus to become part of the very fabric of who we are,” said Catling.
Heschel says that Sabbath practice in this life offers a glimpse of eternal life: “Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means.” Thus, believers prepare their souls for the promise of that eternity.
Bentz, Joseph. Silent God: Finding Him When You Can’t Hear His Voice. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2007.)
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.)
Posted: July 11, 2011