I once started a list with just the title, “What I accomplish on the Sabbath” —and those words lay on a big blank page.
Actually, that captures most of my point. At least in the world’s eyes, Sabbaths don’t accomplish very much, and I think that’s fine.
How did I get comfortable with such scandalous unproductiveness?
In college I was dating a Christian who decided to “keep the Sabbath.” What that meant to him was, no studying on Sunday. I had a choice of either mirroring that schedule or being out of sync with him. So I quit “working” on Sunday. Eventually I fell out of love with the guy, but I fell in love with the Sabbath. What won me over was this passage from Isaiah 58:
“If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot
From doing your own pleasure on My holy day,
And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable,
And honor it, desisting from your own ways,
From seeking your own pleasure
And speaking your own word,
Then you will take delight in the Lord,
And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth….”
I was intrigued by the reward offered for keeping the Sabbath: that I would take delight in God. I was tantalized at the idea of increasing my enjoyment of Him, and amazed that it could happen as a result of doing something—or rather, not doing things. After all, the passage indicates as much “negative” obedience as positive action.
As Ecclesiastes says, there is—
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted….
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing…
A time to keep and a time to throw away….
A time to speak and a time to be silent….
But if we think there is only a time to do first-column things and never a time for the second column, our lives will be askew.
There’s an array of ways (and even times) to make this space, and I am not interested in getting legalistic about it. But I think it’s vital for each of us to figure out how to embrace a Sabbath lifestyle. Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath, says the Sabbath was made for us. How can it benefit us?
I have been taking a day of rest weekly for decades, and here are some reasons why:
It refreshes me
Of course, I love the refreshment of naps on Sundays. But as I first sought full benefit from keeping the Sabbath, I found this verse:
This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength….” Isaiah 30:15 (NIV).
I decided that the Sabbath is a special time for repentance. It takes a certain amount of leisure for me to engage in self-examination, and the Sabbath gives that to me. Faithful as He is, He graciously renews me when I humble myself.
I also thought of various projects to make Sabbath hours refreshing. For a while, I wrote letters of appreciation to people who had impacted me. The first person I thought of was a woman who had been my nanny when I was very young. I had trouble tracking her down, but eventually found her and received a reply, thanking me for my letter and recalling our times together. Soon I received a second letter, this from her son, saying she had passed away only a few days after hearing from me.
It re-orients me
It puts me on a different schedule from most people. In college, I chose to crack the books on Saturday when most of the campus was partying, and on Sunday I was free while they dealt with hangovers and homework deadlines. When I keep a schedule different from that of others, I am reminded that I belong to God, and that I am on His timetable, not the world’s—“my times are in His hands.”
This is not to say that Sunday always has to be one’s day of rest. Many pastors and others find a different day to set apart.
On the Sabbath, I often take a few moments to look back, gathering up loose ends: Did I promise to pray for someone and forget about it? Did I handle that mid-week crunch the way God would have wanted me to? And I sometimes spend time on goal-setting, helping me to be more intentional about the upcoming week. The Sabbath creates the perfect opportunity for the kind of mid-course correction that I would miss if I barreled through it taking 90 minutes for church and then heading right back to my own inclinations.
The Sabbath can afford a rest from entertainment and social media, thus making a space for deeper thinking and inward focus. It can cue a break from eating–obsessing over nutrition strategies and gratifying appetites. When observed with repentance, Sabbaths can free us from “the terrible burden of always having to have our own way,” as devotional author Richard Foster would say.
It’s a Commandment
One of the Big Ten, to be specific. Because few people have any appetite for getting legalistic about how and when to “keep the Sabbath” (nor do I), the particulars aren’t discussed much. But God is pretty clear in the Fourth Commandment that it involves not “working.” Purely for myself, that has meant not pursuing professional/academic, commercial, or even secular entertainment activities on Sundays.
It was scary at first to refrain from doing work on a Sunday afternoon when I knew other professionals were busily getting set to compete with me the next morning. It was hard to learn to depend on Him for provision, trusting Him with my time. Yet I have always found God faithful in preparing me for what He knew I would need.
The Sabbath is a womb
The time and the space for conceiving something new have to be available before life can form. If we want newness in our lives, the rest and the openness of the Sabbath can allow that newness to come in. Just as John the Baptist urges making way for the coming of the Christ, and Mary was receptive to the news that she would bear the Messiah, so we are called to make a space where the Lord can do new things.
In the passage below, see how connected these two ideas are: turning from one’s familiar ways, and finding the fruitfulness of His ways.
Seek the Lord while he may be found….
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them….
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord….
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Is.55:6-11)
Now, that’s productivity.
About the Author:
Leah Farish is active in women’s ministry in Oklahoma, and in the Middle East and North Africa. She is a lawyer who would rather do stand-up comedy. Her husband and kids would prefer that she do that as well.