By Sean Palmer
It’s late. Not terribly late, but later than I’d normally find myself waiting for my French Press to deliver me a new pot of freshly ground attentiveness. I only drink two beverages—water and coffee—and since coffee is mostly water, I have, in my view, the healthiest drinking habits in the world.
I’m up working late tonight. I’m writing articles, essays, sermons, blog posts, and sketching podcast episodes. And I’m behind. Way behind!
I blame my father. When I was a boy he told me that as a black man in America, I’d have to be twice as good to gain half the opportunities. He taught me to work hard and never quit. I was never allowed to quit anything.
I also blame my culture. My entire adult life the message was sent and received that I should pursue “success.” Of course, in Christian circles “success” sounds a touch vulgar, so we renamed it “influence.” Either way, the outcome was the same: Work. Work hard. Work all the time. And we pursued all this work because the worst thing to do in America is fail. Work, we supposed, was the antidote to failure.
I could probably go on complaining. I could make a list of all the forces and pressures that will keep me hunting and pecking on the computer into the wee hours of the night or will rouse me before the breaking light of dawn, but the fault is mine. I’m working and awake because I’ve sinned. I dismissed God’s command to keep Sabbath. When it comes to blessing my life, I’m much more confident in my industry than God’s command. I suspect I am not alone.
The 9 Commandments?
No matter how we slice it and regardless of the mental gymnastics we perform to get around it, God’s command to keep the Sabbath is right there for all of us to see and easy to ignore. In most churches the Ten Commandments are handled with deadly seriousness, and for good reason. It’s obvious how covetousness, murder, adultery, and the rest infect viciousness into our lives. But when it comes to Sabbath, we are slow on the uptake. We’re slow, not because we don’t enjoy rest, but because we don’t trust it.
Most of us believe a collective lie: Our lives will be better if we work a little bit harder. We hang posters on the wall about the lions chasing gazelles and admonish one another about the early birds and worms. We applaud political speeches that extol the value of hard work. We celebrate the go-getters and self-made. We tell each other those stories because they echo a belief that is deeply held and unquestionably supported: Work produces blessing.
We’re not entirely wrong for believing so. It doesn’t take much to see the difference in lifestyle, opportunities, and pleasurable outcomes experienced by those who work hard versus those who don’t. If your measuring stick is the American Dream, the best strategy to measure up is work. So that’s what we do. We work, and we work all the time. And in the 21st century, with the Internet, email, and videoconferences, we never stop working. Unfortunately, when it comes to reflecting and living God’s command, a little bit of doing it wrong has lead to a lot of dysfunction. Work is the wrong way to find blessing.
No commandment is more deeply rooted in the life of God than Sabbath keeping. Sabbath does not exist as a hedge against human temptations nor a reply to a human request. It is birthed from the very life-giving rhythm of God. Sabbath made its first appearance not as a command, but as God’s response to his own creativity. Christians can embrace Sabbath because we trust that God knows better than we how beings flourish, and God himself rests.
After concluding the cosmos, God rested. In rest, God enjoys the fruit of his labor, celebrates the goodness which exists around him, trusts that his work is good, and most importantly, enjoys his living creation for the masterpiece it is. Dorothy Bass wrote, “God declares as fully possible just how very good creation is. Resting, God takes pleasure in what has been made; God has no regrets, no need to go on to create a still better world or creature more wonderful than the man and woman. In the day of rest, God’s free love toward humanity takes form as time shared with them.”
To put it simply: God has no need to keep on working!
Is there more God could have done? Of course, God could have. Could knees or eyes function better? Probably. Do annoyances like ants, cockroaches, or cats need to exist? No. Could chocolate be as healthy as kale? Certainly. God pronounced creation as “good,” not perfect. God’s infinite power could have done infinitely more, but God’s creative prerogative has never been to merely erect creation. God desires to enjoy life, to enjoy us.
The same is true when God delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery. As the Israelites entered their wanderings, there was a lot of work to do. The Israelites hadn’t yet established a legal code or financial system; little had been done to organize education or orchestrate how the community would feed itself. There was no structure. Yet as the outset of their journey to promise began, God instructed them to set apart the Sabbath and keep it holy. Israel had more than enough reasons to keep their noses to the grindstone, but God told them not to. What better gift to a people who had spent 400 years without the freedom to take a day off? God essentially said to his people, “Work six days and rest. Take one day, Israel, and enjoy what I’ve done, enjoy what you’ve done, and enjoy one another.”
How much of your time, energy, talent, and sweat have been spent constructing a life you can’t enjoy? Are you missing the joy of your family because in the smiles of your children you see estimated payments for braces and in their growth spurts you see clothes that barely last a season and encroaching college tuitions? Is your response to the natural occasions of life to seek blessing from digging deeper, working longer, and constructing more? There are families who view one another as burdens because careers and tasks overwhelm time together and loving support. Sabbath helps us keep all of life in focus, not merely the anxieties of life.
We lose so much because we distrust rest. We sacrifice more than we know because we’ve come to think of work as our salvation and we “can rest when we’re dead.” What we don’t realize is that work without rest is killing us.
Work Without Rest
Work without rest fools us into believing our lives are our own and the outcomes are the fruit of our exertions. Work without rest tricks us into thinking that everything important will deteriorate without our diligence. Work without rest twists the values of industry and makes our work drudgery rather than a blessing. Work without rest deceives us into believing that we are the creator rather than created. In the end, work without rest is its own slavery.
Perhaps our greatest fear is that God isn’t up to the task of providing for us. Ironically Sabbath exists to teach us the precise opposite; we aren’t up to the task of providing for us. There is a temptation to believe that Sabbath is God’s tool for your relaxation. In truth, it’s God’s road to reality.
To practice Sabbath is to remind ourselves that we are not our own creation. Sabbath reveals that you and I can know that even the most worthwhile endeavors eventually reach the point of being enough. Life will never be perfect, but in six days of work it can certainly be good.
There appears to be a more simple, beautiful, and life-giving alternative to getting more of what we want and need out of life. If you’re like me, you’re just beginning to realize that it won’t be discovered by drinking another pot of coffee.
Sean Palmer is the Lead Minster of The Vine Church in Temple, Texas. He speaks, writes, blogs, and cohosts the podcast “Not So Black and White with Sean Palmer and John Alan Turner.”