Sabbath Rest

The second post in our Rule of Life Series, as we look at how and why incorporating sabbath into our weekly rhythms is so important.

At church a few weeks ago, someone very kindly asked me what it is I’m doing these days, since just over a year ago I left a job working for a large ministry just down the road to start CURATE. Her question immediately threw me off, because for some reason, I couldn’t adequately explain what I do as a spiritual director or what CURATE is all about, and I fumbled over my words. Then I immediately felt insecure, and that insecurity stayed with me and hung over me like a raincloud in a cartoon. I realized that her simple question and my fumbling explanation revealed a deception that I often believe about myself, hard as I try not to: I believe my worth is deeply attached to what I do.

Busyness and Boredom

We live in a culture that equates busyness with significance. We’re defined by what we do, so we avoid the Sabbath because we don’t want to acknowledge our limits as human beings. We’re constantly attempting to prove our worth to ourselves and to others. I’m struck by Eugene Peterson’s observations about two underlying narratives behind our busyness:

  1. “I’m busy because I am vain. I want to appear important.”

  2. “I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself” (The Contemplative Pastor).

Ouch. Stopping our “doing” would mean facing something we’re perpetually trying to avoid—feeling insignificant, unseen, or unimportant. Susan Phillips quotes one of her directees in The Cultivated Life: “I fear stopping because then I will feel regret for the emptiness of my days.” Double ouch.

Phillips also notes, though, that it’s not just busyness that prevents us from regularly keeping the sabbath—it’s also boredom. We’re far too anxious to be bored—so much so that our instinct is to reach for our phone or iPad or computer. Oftentimes, we have all three of these screens in front of us—plus the TV—and we anxiously switch from screen to screen, paying little to no attention to what’s happening in front of us or within us. “Busyness and boredom may lurk in the shallows of our experience, separating us and possibly shielding us from deeper verities,” she writes. Living this way, as a slave to busyness and boredom, is utterly exhausting, isn’t it? When we can’t stop in our busyness or boredom to make space to delight in God, we miss out on the deeper truths of our God who gave us the gift of rest.

Falling in Love with the Gift of the Sabbath

Now, as you’re reading this, these words may be stirring up a kind of guilt within you for not practicing sabbath. But, my friends, the beauty of the sabbath is that it’s actually meant to set us free from the burdens and deceptions we carry through our days. It’s meant to be an invitation to breathe in deeply and remember that we are creatures in our Creator’s hands, and we’re safe there.

Ken Shigematsu writes in his book God in my Everything: “We need not just rest but a certain quality of rest: deep inner rest, rest from the inner murmur that says we are defined by what we do, what we have, or by what others think of us. Part of the reason we can’t truly find rest is that we are trying to validate our existence to ourselves or to other people. To experience full rest, we need to be free from the voice of self-condemnation.”

There is this beautiful passage in Isaiah 58:13-14 that really speaks to how Sabbath is a gift:

“‘If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath

and from doing as you please on my holy day,

if you call the Sabbath a delight

and the LORD’S holy day honorable,

and if you honor it by not going your own way

and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,

then you will find your joy in the LORD,

and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land

and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.’

For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Finding our joy again, delighting in God, riding in triumph on the heights, feasting on our inheritance — that sounds REAL nice, doesn’t it?

Sabbath isn't just described a gift of rest in scripture; ancient Israel regarded it as a sign of their unique covenant with Yahweh. It marked who they were as a people. We know that in Genesis 2, after God has created all things, He spent the seventh day resting. He called this day “holy” — the very first thing to be called holy in all of scripture. This day is set apart, consecrated, sacred—a day when we worship God in our rest, remembering that He is the One who holds the world in place, and His Spirit breathes life back into us. While the scribes and Pharisees treated this day as a means to holiness, Jesus reminded them that the sabbath was made for us as a gift from Yahweh, and that man wasn’t created to uphold the sabbath (Mark 2:27).

As I read and studied sabbath the last few weeks, one of my favorite remarks comes from Abraham Heschel, who said this about the Jewish perspective of sabbath: "It’s as if a whole people were in love with the seventh day.” Practicing rest for 24 hours can become such a delight and joy that we fall in love with it. If that’s speaking to your soul in the same way it did mine, then I have a hunch that the Spirit is beckoning you to make this practice a vital part of your life.

But actually keeping the sabbath—truly setting aside time and space to rest—and learning to fall in love with it takes work. Hebrews 4:10-11 encourages us to strive to enter the rest of the sabbath: “For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. So let us do our best to enter that rest…” (NLT). There is a striving, a preparing, an intention involved. And that’s precisely what Bryan and I experienced last weekend.

Experiencing the Sabbath

Teaching and writing about practicing the sabbath has been deeply convicting for both Bryan and me. We’ve been living in a season of working in some capacity every day, and whatever rest we have made time for has been anything but restorative. We both knew our souls, bodies, and minds were hungry for real rest, so we set aside last Friday afternoon through Saturday afternoon as our sabbath.

“Traditionally, sabbath is practiced from sundown to sundown, so that we’re able to begin not just with sleep, but with an admission that God is sovereign and caring for us and the world as we rest. “Jewish sabbath began in the evening when the family set aside all the to-dos of the work week. As the lamps were lit, everyone settled into the evening calm of Shabbat. Candles, prayers, blessings, food, the empty chair at the table— it all represented delight and refreshment in the presence of God and each other. When bedtime came, the family rested in God’s covenant protection. They woke on sabbath morning to a world they didn’t make and a friendship with God they didn’t earn” (Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook).

Beginning sabbath this way was beautiful, but it genuinely took several hours to come down from the perpetual motion of productivity and the need to feel entertained. We both intentionally kept our phones out of sight or turned off for a while, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I sat in a chair in our living room, fidgeting awkwardly, and told Bryan I didn’t know how to just be. And then, something amazing happened: it felt as though the lungs of my soul were expanding with a deep inhale and exhale. I felt at peace. I didn’t care about what other people were doing or feel the compulsion to share what I was doing. I didn’t try to assuage my boredom with a little Netflix binging. It was one of the most freeing, unhindered feeling!

In Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton recommends that there are three specific actions to exclude from your sabbath: work, buying and selling, and worry. Excluding work is an obvious part of the sabbath, but I really felt challenged by excluding buying something. My favorite online boutique was having a major sale, and I was very tempted to spend part of my sabbath buying something I really didn’t need. Not buying or selling is an attempt to free ourselves from the consumerism that drives our culture, and to rest in gratitude for what we already have. Excluding worry actually came naturally as I settled into the day.

Barton also recommends three things to include in your sabbath: resting the body, replenishing the spirit, and restoring the soul. Bryan chose to head to the gym as something that would be restorative, and I stayed behind, because the gym is rarely a place I feel restored or replenished; I decided to curl up with a book instead. A few weeks ago, I started reading Les Miserables for the first time. I studied literature as an undergrad, but it had been a few years since I’d read any of the classics, and somehow I had never read Victor Hugo’s masterpiece. I spent much of my sabbath engrossed in the first 150 pages of Les Mis and was reminded about how restorative and healing a beautiful story can be. The description of the life of Bishop Bienvenue even inspired me to love better, and to see the world through the tender eyes of Christ.

I delighted in spending the day with Bryan, not having to be anywhere or do anything in particular. I made pumpkin muffins and homemade bolognese sauce. Bryan and I played a board game. I rested my mind and my heart. I felt a sense of wholeness, of God’s presence, of shalom. Just thinking about it now makes me want to get there again. And when the last few hours of sabbath were dwindling, I actually felt refreshed, energized, and ready to work again.

Practical Tips for Making Sabbath Happen

We’re no experts at this critical spiritual practice, but studying about sabbath for just one week has taught us both so much. Though we’re still learning how to sabbath well, here are a few thoughts on making sabbath happen for you and your family.

Get it on the calendar. Look at your schedule for the next few weeks. Pick a 24-hour period (a FULL 24 hours is important!) that doesn’t require you to be anywhere, when task lists and undone projects can wait. Write “Sabbath” in your calendar. Tell anyone who needs to know that you’ll be unavailable until your sabbath is over.

Consider a sundown-sundown sabbath. There may be a kid’s soccer game on Saturday morning or a few emails to send before you can actually sabbath, and that’s okay! Do what you need to do to prepare for a full day of rest. Start in the afternoon or evening and continue through the afternoon or evening of the next day.

Light a candle and say a sabbath prayer to begin. Any kind of sabbath liturgy can be a beautiful way to begin. You can do this alongside your spouse and kids, and make it something the entire family looks forward to each week.

Remember that sabbath isn’t just about not doing work. It actually takes intention and work to do something restful and revitalizing! Abraham Heschel suggests: “A man who works with his mind should sabbath with his hands. A man who works with his hands should sabbath with his mind.”

Enjoy an unhurried meal with others. Cook something delicious with your family and enjoy it at the table, without phones or screens or distractions. Invite friends over and let them linger for a while.

Turn notifications off on your phone. Or keep your phone in a drawer or out of sight for as much of the day as possible! Be present in each moment. Trust me, this is worth it!

Delight in the God who gave you this gift. This day is holy—it’s set aside for Him, and He can’t wait to be with you.

Oh, I can tell you — I am starting to fall in love with the sabbath. I truly can’t wait for it to come again in a few days, and I hope this post is an encouragement to you to make sabbath a priority.

I’ll leave you with these words from Ruth Haley Barton:

“I know what it’s like to see my home and my children through the sabbath eyes of enjoyment. I know what it’s like to have rest turn into delight, and delight turn into gratitude, and gratitude into worship. I know what it’s like to recover myself so completely that I am able, by God’s grace, to enter my work on Monday with a renewed sense of God’s calling and God’s presence. How could you not love a day that does all that? How could you not sell everything you have for this pearl of great price?” (Sacred Rhythms)

"Oh God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and trust shall be our strength; By the power of your Holy Spirit quiet our hearts we pray, that we may be still and know that you are God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The Book of Common Prayer

Looking for some resources on the Sabbath? Look no further! (And if you have any recommendations, share in the comments!)

  • Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton

  • The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan (I’m currently reading this and loving it.)

  • The Common Rule, Justin Whitmel Earley