Slowing Down for a Sabbath Rest

“Hi. I’m Bill. I’m a workaholic and adrenaline addict in recovery.”

Now you should say, “Hi Bill!” (That’s the way it goes in a 12 Step Group. There is grace for everyone!)

How did I recover? How did I get free of adrenaline dependence and anxious overworking? By slowing down for a Sabbath rest. “Hurry Up and Be Still” is my advice. But before I tell you the rest of my story let’s consider the biblical concept of Sabbath.

Understanding the Sabbath

How do Christ-followers learn about the Sabbath today? We rarely talk about it in our churches. Most people disregard it. Most pastors disregard it. We think it’s an Old Testament law that isn’t for us. We’ve heard about those in the Jewish religion who practice a legalistic form of Sabbath keeping and that’s our concept of Sabbath. We don’t understand the Sabbath rest of the New Testament.

Actually, keeping a Sabbath day to honor the Lord and for personal rest and renewal is the most repeated command in the Bible. And the New Testament has a lot to contribute to our understanding.

I’ve learned about Sabbath primarily from Eugene Peterson. In “Sabbath as Praying and Playing” I share some of his uncommon and refreshing insights on Sabbath, gleaned from the Bible and also many years of practice. For instance he says:

The two biblical reasons for sabbath-keeping develop into parallel sabbath activities of praying and playing. The Exodus reason directs us to the contemplation of God, which becomes prayer. The Deuteronomy reason directs us to social leisure, which becomes play. Praying and playing are deeply congruent with each other and have essential inner connections…

What is it like to pray? To play? Puritan Sabbaths that eliminated play were a disaster. Secular Sabbaths that eliminate prayer are worse. Sabbath-keeping involves both playing and praying. The activities are alike enough to share the same day and different enough to require each other for a complementary wholeness (Working the Angles, p. 74-75).

Sabbath Rest Blessings

Peterson says that “a day off” is not Sabbath, but a “bastard Sabbath.” To take a Sabbath is to set aside one day a week to rest in God’s provision, to stop your work and be “unproductive.” The way Dallas Willard described entering Sabbath to me was, “Do nothing… Don’t try to make anything happen.”

Along these lines, sometimes the best thing you can do on a Sabbath is to sleep! (Read Psalm 127.) The Sabbath is a day to let go, to stop trying to control people and situations. It’s a day to unhook from performing for people or pleasing people. It’s a day to focus on what God is graciously doing all around you and respond to him rather than depending on your own abilities to make things happen.

Keeping the Sabbath teaches us to trust God and enjoy Him. It helps us to be governed by our good God in what we do and in how we do it. It’s God’s way to set us free from worry and anxiety, ambition and adrenaline, self-importance and anger, even loneliness. Because in the green pastures of Good Shepherd’s grace and beside his still waters we discover that it’s really true: “He restores my soul!” (Psalm 23:3).

During Sabbath rest I discover the reality of my life in God’s Kingdom: I am not alone. Everything doesn’t depend on me. Things don’t have to happen my way. God is with me helping me and working all things together for my good so I can be happy no matter what!

God Created the Sabbath

At the beginning of creation, even before Adam and Eve sinned, God gave to them the gift of Sabbath rest by showing them that Sabbath is creative work that it is part of his own nature. He blessed this day and set it apart as a holy a day for them to focus on enjoying his presence with them (Genesis 2:3).

Later, God put the Sabbath at the heart of his moral law, the Ten Commandments, teaching his people to “observe the Sabbath day” to “remember” that he is their Creator (Exodus 20:8-11; the first giving of the Law) and their Redeemer from slavery (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; the second giving of the Law).

Legalistic Sabbath-Keeping is Deadly!

But as time went on the Lord’s people strayed from keeping the Sabbath and so again and again the prophets reminded them that the Lord gave the Sabbath to them as a blessing and as a sign of his precious loving presence with them (Isaiah 56:2, 6-7, 58:13-14, Ezekiel 20:20).

When Jesus’ came on the scene most of the Lord’s people, following the teaching of the Pharisees, observed the Sabbath, but they did so in a legalistic way that missed the whole point of resting and rejoicing in their relationship with the Lord.  They followed an extensive list of rules designed to prevent anyone from doing any work.

But people were so burdened with the work of trying not to do any work that Sabbath-keeping was obscuring the grace and healing of God that it was intended to offer! (Mark 7:8-13).

Jesus’ Sabbath Rest

Jesus shook things up when he pronounced: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). Then he backed up his words by healing people on the Sabbath, breaking the nit-picky rules of the religious leaders while showing people that the Sabbath was a day to experience God’s healing (Matthew 12:9-14, Luke 13:10-16, John 5:1-15). He was teaching them how to come to him to find real rest, an “easy yoke,” a rest in God so deep and transforming that it we bring it into our work (Matthew 11:28-30).

But none of what Jesus did or said was meant to do away with Sabbath-keeping. Certainly, he obeyed God’s command! Furthermore, he followed the best part of the Jewish custom of honoring the Sabbath, while rejecting the legalistic application that was burdening the people (Luke 4:16, Mark 6:1-2).

Jesus’ Sabbath days featured a lot of relaxation. He enjoyed going on leisurely walks in fields and by the lake, receiving hospitality from friends, and retreating into extended hours of solitude and silence with the Father. We know that Jesus took naps and probably he took naps on his Sabbath.

The “work” that Jesus did on the Sabbath was the Father’s work and it flowed out of his intimacy with the Father. It occurred in the context of his life with others in community. He walked to the local synagogue to participate with friends and neighbors in services, which were much calmer and simpler than typical church services today. In Jesus’ day people gathered in small communities to share in Bible readings, spontaneous discussions from the Scripture texts, and prayers. On the Sabbath at the synagogue and in homes those who were sick came to him and he ministered God’s healing to them.

Sabbath Keeping in the Early Church

Jesus’ followers kept a Sabbath day too (Luke 23:56, Acts 16:13, 17:2). Even Gentile Christians observed the Sabbath (Acts 13:42-44). The fact is that God has intended that people should observe the Sabbath rest in God throughout eternity! (Isaiah 66:22-23). God has created us such that we need one day in seven to do no work and to rest in God’s grace.

Some people get hung up on which day to keep a Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath has always been Saturday. The early Christians made Sunday the Sabbath to honor Christ’s resurrection. But as Paul teaches, any day can be used for a Sabbath (Romans 14:4-6). That’s a good thing, because Sunday is not a day that pastors and church leaders in our culture can rest! It’s hard to do in our culture that never sleeps or rests, but it’s helpful if you can pick the same day each week to be your Sabbath.

The writer to Hebrews knows how prone we are to neglect to keep a Sabbath and to cultivate the disposition of resting in and relying on God rather than merely our own abilities. So he urges us to stop working and “make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11). He emphasizes that it’s in a state of rest that we can hear God’s voice and respond to him with obedient hearts (see Hebrews 4:1-13). Sabbath days and the rest they cultivate in us are for Hearing God!

The Sabbath Psalm

One of the ways that God has helped us to practice Sabbath is to provide us with Psalm 92 which is specifically designated as a Psalm to pray on the Sabbath. Have you ever prayed this psalm in a time of Sabbath rest? The notation at the beginning of the Psalm says: “A Psalm to be Sung on the Lord’s Day” (NLT). Take a Sabbath and spend some time with Psalm 92 — you’ll find it very helpful!

To explain Sabbath praying and playing Peterson draws on Psalm 92.  This little known Psalm presents the Sabbath as a day to “give thanks to Yahweh” and to “play in honour of [the] Most High” (Psalm 92:1, Jerusalem Bible).

The Psalmist then provides us with three metaphors showing that the parallel Sabbath actions of praying and playing are like music (verses 1-4), animals (verses 10-11), and palm trees (verses 12-14).  Music?  Animals?  Palm trees? Yes!  Praying and playing need the musician’s combination of discipline and delight, the wild ox’s unrestrained and exuberant prancing, and the palm tree’s vibrant growth in the desert.

And because prayerful play and playful prayer are not meant to be detached from real-world-living the middle of the Sabbath psalm addresses the problem of evil (verses 5-9).

When we set aside a day to do no work so we pray and play we find that our souls are restored! We proclaim with the Sabbath Psalm-writer: “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock!” (verse 15).

Let the Peace of Christ Rule in your Hearts

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul says (Colossians 3:15). We all long for the peace of Christ, but perhaps we don’t want to be ruled! There’s no peace without offering our hearts to be ruled by Christ as we do what we’re doing.

Sabbath works the same way. Some people think they can experience the Hebrews 4 “Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9) without setting aside a day for Sabbath rest. You won’t be able to do it! A day with clear limits in which you do no work trains your body to rest in God. It’s a day to set aside our productivity and restless activity. It’s a day to live without hurry and worry. It’s a day to stop doing and just be.

On the Sabbath, we let go of all the ways we want to make things happen or control the people and situations in our lives. We submit to the Lord and his government of our lives. We learn that the world is not on our shoulders after all — God is running the universe and he can do it without us! The people around us will be just fine — we ourselves will be just fine — even if we don’t get our To Do List done!

First we may need to detox from overactivity, pride, ambition, or adrenaline. To stop working and running around may leave us feeling terribly antsy. To sit still our body may literally start jerking. We may feel like a baseball player at practice fielding and balls in the outfield that keep getting him at him one after the other!

But if we stay with resting in God long enough we will discover that the Lord gives us sweet rest and restores our soul in his peace. We will be very happy when we realize that our identity is not wrapped up in the things we accomplish or don’t accomplish, but in grace-based relationships, especially our relationship with God.

Little-by-Little I Started Practicing a Sabbath

For many years keeping a Sabbath to me meant going to church, spending some time with my family, and squeezing in as many “projects” as I could. That’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday, but it wasn’t enough to teach me how to live in God’s peace.

The writer to the Hebrews teaches us that New Testament Christ-followers need a Sabbath rest: “Be careful!… Anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work… So make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:1,8-11).

A number of years ago I started being intentional about setting aside a day of prayer for spiritual rest and renewal. Ray Ortlund was my spiritual mentor at the time and he got me started taking a one or two day retreat every three months. Gradually, I built that up to one day every week. What a novel idea — setting aside a whole day once each week!

What I do on My Sabbath Days

Sabbath means do no work! So Dallas Willard’s advice to me in my Sabbath-training was “Do nothing. Don’t try to make anything happen.”

So to enter Sabbath rest I try not to be productive. I have no agenda except to spend the day with Jesus or Jesus and my family, doing whatever we want to do together. Usually, the best way for me to rest deeply and connect with Jesus is in Solitude and Silence. (In more recent years all or part of my Sabbath days have been spent with my family or on a community retreat.)

My Sabbath may include sleeping in and then lingering in bed to meditate on Scripture or getting up before sunrise to take a slow prayer walk, but in either case, I want to begin my Sabbath day with ample time to be sure to, “Do nothing… Don’t try to make anything happen.” In fact, my goal is to get into this disposition of rest starting at sundown the evening before my Sabbath.

For some years I saved Friday as my normal Sabbath Day. Then I started using Sunday (another novel idea!) so that corporate worship was part of my day of resting in God’s grace. Sometimes I preach or teach on Sundays and so in those cases I usually set aside Monday as a Sabbath.

On a Sabbath I may stay holed up in my prayer room for hours, go for a hike in the hills, relax and celebrate with family, or go to a retreat center. Wherever I am, I usually fast from media and occasionally from food to help me to pray. Keeping Sabbath is itself a fast from work. I have found that Fasting is Feasting!

I especially like to spend some time in God’s Word on my Sabbath day. The most restful way for me to do this is to Abide in Prayer, slowly and deeply meditating on a verse from the Bible. Also I may use Psalms Prayers or meditate on a Gospel reading or other section of Scripture, perhaps in the way of Lectio Divina (“Guigo’s Ladder of Monks“). To help me engage my heart with God I often will journal my prayers, meditations, and, especially, the things I sense God saying to me, which are the most precious entries in my journals!

In the early years of learning to keep Sabbath I always saved Bible study for another day, wanting to be sure that I wasn’t working too hard mentally! But in more recent years I found that I have learned to do Bible study in a restful way and so I may do this for part of a Sabbath day.

Many inspiring, poetic Psalm Prayers and Breath Prayers from the Bible have come spontaneously bubbled up out of my Sabbath days over the years — in other words, I wasn’t producing them they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Caution! Caution!

Don’t try to do all the disciplines and activities I just described! I never do all those in one day! I may not do any of them! I start with, “Do nothing. Don’t be productive.” I make sure that I’m resting. I refuse to have an agenda for the day. I try to be sensitive to the needs and opportunities that are at hand with my family. I follow Jesus’ lead.

I have taken a risk to be so autobiographical. The risk is that you will idealize me or try to copy me. Please don’t think I’m holy because I keep a Sabbath! (Or that you’re an inferior Christian if you’re not keeping a Sabbath in the way that I do.) First, of all I don’t do this perfectly. I miss some Sabbath days and other days I don’t get in a full 24-hours. Sometimes I find that despite my best attentions I’ve slipped into a productive mode — the old workaholic snuck up from somewhere inside of me.

I discipline myself to set aside one Sabbath day each week because I need to grow in holiness — in love for the Lord and the people near me. I need God’s help to lay aside my ego and drive to be productive. I need discipline myself slow down for a Sabbath rest, to be still and know that the Lord is God – he is in charge, not me! (Psalm 46:10).

More on Sabbath Rest

The best way to learn the practice of Sabbath for pastors and other men and women in ministry is on a Sabbatical. We show you how this can be a reality for you in our Sabbatical Guide.

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