Jill Firth peels back the layers of the fourth commandment.
Do you treat yourself like a 24/7 sweatshop worker? Many of us live as if we have no need of relief and refreshment, as prescribed for everyone including slaves, strangers and even donkeys in the sabbath rules given to Israel (Exodus 23.12). According to the Christian psychiatrist, Arch Hart, failing to rest leads to stress-related diseases and burnout. Hart advocates taking a day every 7 days, as well as some relaxation time every day, as essential to physical and mental well being.
The Hebrew word for sabbath, shabbat, literally means ‘ceasing’ or ‘resting’, as God ceased or rested on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2.3). On the first Sabbath, before the Fall, the man and the woman rested with God in the garden of Eden. Outside Eden, Israel was called to imitate God who rested on the first sabbath (Exodus 20.10–11). On the way to the Promised Land, the sabbath reminded God’s people to live in trustful dependence on God the provider (Exodus 16.22–33). The sabbath was a time for giving rest to others in the community and caring for the needy (Deuteronomy 5.12–14; Isaiah 58). The ‘sabbath year’ reminded Israel not to overwork the planet (Leviticus 25.1–7). The year of Jubilee, a ‘sabbath of sabbaths’, called them to a just and redemptive lifestyle (Leviticus 25.8–12). In the New Testament, the promise of sabbath rest is fulfilled in salvation in Christ (Hebrews 4.1–11). The sabbath looks forward to the eternal reign of Christ and the creation’s release from decay and death (Romans 8.18–25, Revelation 21.1–4).
Some Christians consider the sabbath to be a part of the moral law, binding on all. Others believe that Jesus’ claim to be Lord of the sabbath signals that a day of rest is no longer required for Christians (Matthew 12.8). A study group chaired by the Biblical scholar, Don Carson, concludes that while neither Saturday nor Sunday is obligatory as a day of rest, one day of rest and refreshment each week is appropriate for human functioning.
A sabbath is not just a day without work. Eugene Peterson critiques the ‘secularized’ or ‘bastard’ sabbath—a day off for resting only so as to work more efficiently on the other six days. Peterson, a busy pastor, takes a Monday sabbath with his wife, Janice. After reading a psalm together, they walk in silence in the woods for several hours, revelling in God’s creation. On the way back they share their thoughts and experiences. A true sabbath is a day for praying and for playing, says Peterson, ‘a time to quit our work and contemplate his’.
Ceasing, resting, embracing and feasting are four aspects of the sabbath experience, according to theologian Marva Dawn. Dawn chooses Sunday as her sabbath. She sets aside her weekly work and completes her preparations on Saturday evening, then begins her sabbath in the literal physical rest of sleep. Even in the final stages of her doctoral thesis and on the day before final exams, Dawn ceased from work on Sundays. On her sabbath, she teaches the Scriptures and offers hospitality, but she completes all her preparations on Saturday. For Dawn, sabbath is a time of reflecting on our values in the light of Scripture so that we can embrace God’s values ‘to the hilt’, delighting in God, not pursuing our own affairs apart from him (Isaiah 58.13–14). Feasting in worship, music, beauty, food and the company of others becomes a weekly ‘eschatological party’ as we look forward to the marriage feast of the Lamb in the eternal sabbath rest of God. On Sunday, Dawn eats different food, makes time for creativity and friendship, celebrates and worships in community. To mark the beginning and end of her sabbath, she lights candles and uses traditional prayers drawn from Jewish practice. Dawn delights in her sabbath, eagerly looking forward to it through the week and looking back with joy when it is over.
I was intrigued by the unfolding dynamic of ceasing, resting, embracing and feasting. I had a few days’ break coming up, which seemed like a good opportunity to road test these ideas. Driving up to the beach house, I switched off all technology, aiming to cease not only from active work but also from mental preoccupation with work and daily issues. After a long walk on the beach, I?took a nap then enjoyed some Scripture reading. Hours just watching the waves helped me find a place of resting in God. Eventually, I felt ready to ‘embrace’, reflecting on God’s providence in Psalm 104 and his loving care in Psalm 139. I spent a morning walking, journaling and praying, reviewing the past year. In the afternoon, I offered the coming year to God, and prayerfully considered changes to my lifestyle which would allow more time for the activities and relationships that God was bringing to my attention. On?the final glorious sunny day, I?clambered in rock pools and enjoyed a special meal, feasting on the love of God in creation.
Recent leadership theory emphasises the connection between who we are and how we lead. ‘Leadership has little to do with making lots of decisions, with getting a great deal done. It is about getting the right things done’, says Simon Walker who teaches leadership at Oxford University. ‘As leaders, the crucial quality we need is the courage to stop. The courage to wait and be still.’ He continues, ‘While everyone around us is clamouring for a decision, the leader waits until she is confident and clear’. Robert Fryling is a senior IVP publisher who developed new weekly patterns after reflecting on the sabbath. He benefits from a complete break from his weekday thoughts and activities by taking a technology-free day without his computer, mobile phone or even television. His sabbath includes Sunday worship, small group, walking, resting, praying, reflecting and journaling.
Sabbath time is a gift from God. We can joyfully set aside our daily work, putting our trust in God the provider. We can rest in God’s presence as we look back to Eden, and as we look forward to the new heavens and the new earth. We can embrace God’s Kingdom values, reaching out with the gospel and with justice, and caring for his creation. We can taste the eschatological feast as we worship God, rejoice in salvation, and have fellowship with his people. Ceasing, resting, embracing and feasting help us to move from living like sweatshop workers, or unredeemed donkeys, to finding sabbath rest as the beloved children of God.
Jill Firth is an ordained Anglican minister, a trained spiritual director and an Adjunct Lecturer at Ridley Melbourne. Jill is part of an EFAC Victoria planning group for quiet days and retreats. Regular 24 hour retreats are offered by EFAC in the Melbourne area.
Don Carson (ed), From Sabbath Day to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation (Zondervan, 1982).
Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Eerdmans, 1987).
Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Eerdmans, 1989).
Archibald Hart, The Anxiety Cure: You Can Find Tranquillity and Wholeness (Word, 1999).
Simon P Walker, Leading out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Piquant, 2007), page 125.
Robert A Fryling, The Leadership Ellipse: Shaping how we lead by who we are (IVP, 2010)
Glenn Davies, ‘Sabbath and Ecology’, St Mark’s Review 212, May 2010, pages 25–38.
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Jill Firth peels back the layers of the fourth commandment.