By Lance Witt
I never thought I would be writing an article on Sabbath. For the first thirty years of my Christian life, the concept of Sabbath wasn’t even a blip on my spiritual radar. I never heard a sermon on the practice of Sabbath nor did I ever read an article or book on the subject. I assumed it was one of those Old Testament things we just didn’t do anymore. I lumped Sabbath into the same category as Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits wearing anything woven together with two kinds of material.
Not only was Sabbath theologically irrelevant for me, it was practically irrelevant as well. I did not know one person who practiced Sabbath. And my philosophy of ministry would have had no room for Sabbath. I have a “calling,” and that calling demands sacrifice. Life is short and the needs are urgent. I have to squeeze all I can out of every second of every minute. I totally bought into the “burn out for Jesus” mentality. When that is your mindset, there is no room for a theology of rest.
That prevalent mindset is very American, but very unbiblical. All my life, I’ve been taught how to go and go faster; but no one ever taught me how to stop.
When I was six years old I got my very first bike at Christmas. It was a VROOM bicycle. It had motorcycle handlebars and made the sound of a motorcycle engine. There was just one problem. I didn’t know how to ride a bike. So, on a cold December day my dad took me out to teach me how to ride a bike. He walked alongside me holding the bike as I slowly learned to pedal and keep my balance. It wasn’t long before my dad pointed the bike back toward my house and told me I was on my own. Well, I did great until I got back to our house. I knew how to go, but didn’t know how to stop. So I panicked and decided the only way to stop was to run into our car.
As you can see, learning to stop is a lifelong problem for me.
In recent years I have begun to understand the importance of stopping and have begun to embrace a theology of rest. I have come to understand the importance of rhythm. We live in a universe that is defined by rhythm. As you inhale and exhale, your breathing has rhythm. Your heart beats in rhythm, and you have brain waves that move in rhythm. The seasons of the year are all about rhythm. Farming has a rhythm of planting, growing, and harvesting. The ocean waves have rhythm as the tide comes in and goes out. Even building muscle is marked by the rhythm of workout and recovery.
In fact, the reality of rhythm traces its roots all the way back to creation. In Genesis 2 we read that after God completed the work of creation, he rested on the seventh day. God certainly did not rest because he was worn out from six straight days of creating. He rested to model rhythm. This seventh day, the day of rest, was so important that the Bible says God blessed it and declared it holy. The first thing the Bible ever declared holy was not an object or a place, but a “time”, a twenty-four-hour period of time called Sabbath.
Just like the rest of the universe, you and I were made to live in rhythm. Recently I hiked my first 14er (a 14,000 mountain peak) in Colorado. It was intense, demanding, tiring, and hard work. But once we got to the summit, we stopped, rested, relaxed, and took time to soak in the beauty surrounding us. Part of the reward of work is stopping long enough to see what has been accomplished. That is a good picture of the rhythm God designed us to experience. Yes, life and ministry involves hard work. It is demanding and intense and tiring. But we must begin to learn that it is appropriate and good to stop, rest, and take time to soak in the good gifts of God.
The world or your ministry may not give you permission to stop, but God does. In fact, God has commanded that we stop and rest.
In her practical book on Sabbath, Lynne Baab reminds us that Sabbath isn’t about resting only when everything has been completed. “Sabbath is God’s gracious ‘five o’clock whistle’ that gives me permission to stop and lay down my tools, ready or not.”
God’s “top ten list” included the command to observe the Sabbath. The command to observe the Sabbath is the longest of the 10 commandments and has the most explanation attached to it. If we take seriously God’s commands about adultery, coveting, stealing, lying, and idolatry, we also should take God seriously when it comes to practicing Sabbath.
Due to some missions work I’m involved in, I have spent a fair amount of time in the little African country of Malawi. Only about 3 percent of the population has access to electricity. So when the sun goes down, people head into their huts and they are done for the day. A rhythm of work and rest comes more naturally. With the advent of electricity and technology, sunset is no longer a boundary for us. We can work around the clock. We can stay plugged in and engaged 24/7. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
Our love for speed and our obsession with doing more has led to an addiction that knows nothing of rhythm. Author Wayne Muller diagnoses our culture accurately. “We have forgotten what enough feels like. We live in a world seduced by its own unlimited potential.”
At least for me, my addiction to speed and noise and productivity have made the practice of Sabbath incredibly challenging. Who knew that “doing nothing” could be so hard?
When I first started trying to practice Sabbath, I hated it. It was not enjoyable or spiritual. It felt like de-tox. I kept wanting to check my e-mail or work on a ministry project or whittle down my “to do” list. I was so driven and overloaded that slowing down actually felt hard and uncomfortable. And even when my body was still, internally I was still amped up.
Over time I have learned that Sabbath is not a “have-to”, it is a “get-to”. It is an incredible gift from God that allows us to reflect, restore, replenish. During Sabbath God whispers to us “I’m in control. The world can get along without you for 24 hours.” We are not as indispensable as we think we are.
When I practice Sabbath I find that I am more “present”. I tend to do a better job of living in the moment and enjoying life’s simple pleasures. I notice the beauty of creation more easily. I listen a little better and I feel more joyful.
Practicing Sabbath is like getting a weekly perspective adjustment. When I stop and reflect and pray and spend time with God, I am reminded of what’s most important. Living in the 21st century is like living in a jar of muddy river water. Only when the jar remains “still” will the sediment drop to the bottom and the water once again become clear. Sabbath keeping helps me see God and life more clearly.
Through Sabbath I am learning that my significance is not wrapped up in my productivity. On Sabbath, I am not Lance the pastor, Lance the leader, Lance the financial provider, nor Lance the Replenish guy. I am simply a beloved son.
I love Pete Scazzero’s template for practicing Sabbath—Stop, Rest, Delight, and Contemplate.
Stop—Put productivity on hold for 24 hours.
Rest—For some of us the most spiritual thing we can do is take a nap.
Delight—In the New Living Translation, Isaiah 58 talks about enjoying and delighting in Sabbath. Sabbath is a day to enjoy what God has created.
Contemplate—Take time to “be” with God. Exodus 20 says the seventh day is a Sabbath “to the Lord.”
Maybe as you consider the practice of Sabbath, you are filled with questions about how this would look practically in your life. Or maybe in light of your season of life or responsibilities, the practice of Sabbath feels unrealistic. I want to challenge you to wrestle with this Biblically and then have some serious conversation with your family or ministry team about developing a healthy rhythm of life.
I don’t know exactly what it will look like for you, but Sabbath is helping me become a better Christ follower and a better person.
Lance Witt is Lance is the founder of Replenish Ministries, an organization devoted to ministering pastors to help them become healthy, holy, and humble. He also serves as the Pastor for Strategic Development at Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. replenish.net