Sabbath: Why a vacation isn’t enough

Who among us hasn’t dreamt of getting away from it all? On steamy summer afternoons I long to escape my overly-air-conditioned office to relax on a sunny beach or hike a mountain trail.

By Joanna Meyer

I crave for the unhurried pace and deep relaxation portrayed in travel magazines, but have learned that few vacations provide the deep rest my soul needs. Time away from work can be fun and refreshing, but as anyone who’s survived a road trip with toddlers or backpacked through Europe can attest, vacations can be exhausting and expensive.

For others, a vacation feels like an unattainable goal because they struggle to break away from the demands of their jobs. As a recent Washington Post article suggests, some workers’ sense of indispensability is so strong, they believe their colleagues cannot function without them. While we need a break from the pace of modern life, experiencing deep rest should not depend on the amount of time off we’ve accumulated or the size of our bank accounts.

God commands us to pursue a form of rest that is within reach of all of us, a different, ­deeper rest that comes from practicing the Sabbath. Unfortunately, our understanding of Sabbath rest is often shaped by the misconception that it is a day defined by religious rules – an extensive list of things we are prohibited from doing. A legalistic view of the Sabbath not only robs the joy of this beautiful practice, it deprives us of a restorative celebration that brings life to our daily work. Examining the biblical principles behind Sabbath invites us to enjoy the deep rest God desires for each of us.

A life-giving pattern

Sabbath reflects the life-giving pattern of work and rest we see in creation. Take a moment to skim the first chapter of Genesis and notice how many times God reflects on the work he had done. Seven times! After each phase of creation, God examines his work and declares “it is good.”

Notice, he doesn’t say, “Wow, that was tiring …” or “Thank goodness that’s over.” Rather, he admires the fruit of his labor and affirms its goodness. The monumental work of creation is not portrayed as burdensome, but as deeply satisfying. As the opening scene of Scripture draws to a close, God rests from his labor – not as an escape – but as a time of reflection and celebration of good work, well done.

“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array … Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:1-3, NIV).

Our first glimpse of God reveals that our Creator, the force that holds the universe together (Colossians 1:17), balances work and rest. As his image bearers, this pattern is hard-wired into our design. Consider how author Tim Keller explains it:

This rhythm of work and rest is not only for believers; it is for everyone, as part of our created nature. Overwork or underwork violates that nature and leads to breakdown. To rest is actually a way to enjoy and honor the goodness of God’s creation and our own. To violate the rhythm of work and rest (in either direction) leads to chaos in our life and in the world around us. Sabbath is therefore a celebration of our design.

A declaration of freedom

God’s strongest instruction regarding the Sabbath appears in Deuteronomy, the manual for life and worship given to the Israelites after they were released from slavery in Egypt. This context is vital to our understanding of the Sabbath. Unlike some religious traditions, which load Sabbath practice with rules and regulations, the Sabbath portrayed in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 declares the freedom of people who had formerly been enslaved.

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

Imagine how these words would have sounded to former slaves, people for whom life was unending toil, who had no say over when or how they would work. God instructed the Israelites to extend the freedom of Sabbath rest to every aspect of their community – to their children, servants, and even to their farm animals. To rest on the seventh day was to celebrate God’s gift of freedom. What a contrast to the common misconception that Sabbath is a somber time of religious practice, defined by the things we don’t do.

Five principles for deep rest

Years ago, I spent a year living in Zaragoza, Spain, a vibrant city between Barcelona and Madrid. One of highlights of that year was adopting a more European way of life – trading comfy American sneakers for more fashionable dress shoes and developing an addiction to manchego cheese that remains to this day.

Even though I loved my new lifestyle, I never got used to the Spaniards’ relaxed pace. Don’t get me wrong – the Zaragozans worked hard when necessary – but they also maintained a clear distinction between their personal and professional lives. Unlike many Americans, who struggle to carve time off into their schedules, Spaniards set aside Sundays as a day of rest. Aside from the rare bakery that opened to provide Zaragozans with their beloved baguettes, stores closed and traffic calmed as the city’s 700,000 residents enjoyed family dinners and long afternoon naps.

While my Spanish friends may not have realized they were practicing “Sabbath,” they instinctively knew they needed this balance of work and rest. We’d do well to follow their example.

As we explored in a previous post, God established the Sabbath to celebrate work well done and to replenish our bodies and souls. The Sabbath is a gift that many choose to leave unopened, but why?

Restless hearts

Practicing the Sabbath reveals the inner turmoil that keeps our souls from resting. Only by stepping away from work will we see the issues that drive our labor. It reveals the subtle, yet powerful ways we can become slaves to our jobs. Just as the Israelites were bound by the Egyptians, anyone who cannot rest from work is a slave. Sure, it looks different, showing up in the need for success, materialism, the expectations of others, or our employer’s demands – but it’s slavery nonetheless.

In contrast, choosing to rest one day a week, demonstrates our freedom and trust in God’s provision. We rest in Christ’s finished work for our salvation (Hebrews 4:1-10), not our ability to save ourselves. Author Tim Keller writes in Every Good Endeavor:

God appointed the Sabbath to remind us that he is working and resting. To practice Sabbath is a disciplined and faithful way to remember that you are not the one who keeps the world running, who provides for your family, not even the one who keeps your work projects moving forward.

5 Principles for Deep Rest Sabbath is commonly defined as a 24-hour period in which you step away from work, whether that comes in the form of a 9 to 5 job or household chores. The goal is not to be legalistic about obeying a set of rules, but to set aside time to appreciate and enjoy what God’s done. Have fun experimenting with Sabbath practices to find what works for your unique life.

  1. Make time for worship: Set aside time to reflect on your week and connect with God. This may take the form of corporate worship with your local church, a prayerful walk, or time in Scripture.
  2. Pursue delight: Take a nap, enjoy a relaxing meal, do something recreational or creative that contrasts what you do in your daily work. Keller encourages his readers to do something “avocational”, a hobby that is different from your main occupation.
  3. Unplug from your technology: Seriously! You may feel removed from the outside world, but that’s the goal – and the secret to true refreshment. For example, a student might refrain from studying, while an office worker wouldn’t check email or take work-related phone calls. Be prepared to graciously clarify your availability to friends or colleagues.
  4. Recognize that various stages of life practice Sabbath differently: Parents of young children may find it difficult to take 24-hours off from the daily work of raising kids, but you can strive to preserve the spirit of Sabbath. For example, begin a habit of afternoon quiet time for the entire family, take a nap, or spend time playing together.
  5. Prepare for your Sabbath: A truly restful Sabbath requires intentionality. Plan ahead to make the day special and to keep outside pressures from invading your time. The pressures of daily life will creep back in if you don’t guard your Sabbath hours.

Reflection questions

How do see your daily work – as a burden to be escape, an expression of God’s work through you?

Do you currently have a life-giving pattern of work and rest in your life?

How could considering this command in light of its historical context guide your personal Sabbath practice?

In the second part of this post, I’ll share five principles to inspire and empower your Sabbath.

Quotes by Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor

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