Reader Question: The Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest, but for those who are involved in the church it is anything but restful. What can we do about this?
The more involved a Christian becomes in the work of the ministry, the less restful his or her Sabbath appears to be. This is especially true of pastors, teachers, and other ministry workers. At 10 PM on Sunday night, after the sanctuary is dark and empty, I am often physically and emotionally fatigued from emptying myself in the pulpit. Can involved Christians have a restful Sabbath? We must start by understanding the true nature of Sabbath rest.
The Nature of Sabbath Rest
The Hebrew word shabbat means to cease, to end, and to rest. Taking Sabbath certainly includes ceasing from routine labor and business. But if we think about Sabbath rest as something exclusively or even primarily physical, we are missing the riches of shabbat.
We are called to rest because “on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Gen. 2:2). Does this surprise you, or “Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary” (Isa. 40:28). God can help the weak because he never grows weak. When God rested on the seventh day, it was not to recuperate. After all, Jesus revealed that “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (Jn. 5:17); God is always working as he sustains and preserves the universe moment-by-moment. If God stopped his providential governance on the Sabbath, the universe would devolve into chaos.
Some say that the Lord only rested in the sense that he ceased from his work of creation to set an example for man. But Exodus 31:17 suggests otherwise: “the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Ex. 31:17). When God rested, he did not merely cease in his work; he rested to be refreshed in his Being. That is to metaphorically say, God set aside a day to be satisfied in the enjoyment of his good creation. Barnes is right that “He is refreshed, not by the recruiting of his strength, but by the satisfaction of having before him a finished good.”
Sabbath rest is not merely physical; it is also spiritual. Setting aside routine labor makes it possible for us to assemble with God’s people for spiritual refreshment through worship, prayer, and preaching. We cannot find abundant life apart from sharing with others in the satisfaction of the one who is infinitely better than his very good creation. Our Sabbath rest is primary in God; it is a ceasing from the sound and fury of life long enough to feel the relief of our repose upon the Everlasting Arms.
Enjoying God in community is our chief end. Neglecting to assemble is sinful and spiritually disastrous (Heb. 10:25). There is no longer a national death penalty for Sabbath breaking, but neglecting the Sabbath kills the soul. Cutting oneself off from the communion of the saints is as deadly as being cut off from the land of the living. Old or New Testament, the leave of Sabbath leads to death.
We need Sabbath rest. We are weak, frail, and easily distracted. In a world where phones ding for our constant attention, God gives us permission to simply enjoy him. Jesus said that “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mk. 2:27), a day of rest for restless people. John Wesley’s Sunday morning prayer captures the spirit of shabbat:
Glory be to you, O holy undivided trinity, for jointly concurring in the great work of our redemption, and restoring us again to the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Glory be to you, who in compassion to human weakness, not capable of an uninterrupted contemplation of you, have appointed a solemn day for the remembrance of your inestimable benefits. O let me ever esteem it my privilege and happiness to have a day set apart for the concerns of my soul, a day free from distractions, disengaged from the world, wherein I have nothing to do but to praise and to love you. O let it ever be to me a day sacred to divine love, a day of heavenly rest and refreshment.
Being disengaged from mundane affairs, we are free to do nothing but praise and love the triune God. This spiritual worship is what marks the Sabbath as “a day of heavenly rest and refreshment.” While a ministry worker may be responsible for organizing and leading the assembly in this praise, worship, and adoration, he may still experience spiritual refreshment as a member of the body.
While a ministry worker may be responsible for organizing and leading the assembly in praise, worship, and adoration, he may still experience spiritual refreshment as a member of the body.
This is not to say that physical or emotional rest are unimportant. Involved Christians must find other ways to recuperate their bodies. Some pastors set aside time on Monday for physical rest. It is improper, however, to call this a Sabbath, or to say that because of their ministry duties they do not have a true Sunday Sabbath.
Since God deals with us as whole persons, we must take a holistic approach to cultivating a restful Sabbath. But even as we look for ways to simplify our schedules, we should be hesitant to cut back on spiritual activities.
Countless churches have shortened their worship services or discontinued the Sunday evening service altogether to allow their members to “get more rest” or “spend more time with their families.” Setting aside that most spend their freed hours engrossed in a screen, this cutting back on worship time is a dangerous departure from the classic Christian understanding of shabbat. The Lord’s Day is a call to attend to the means of grace—the divine grace that refreshes our inner man. God’s word is the source of our health; we need to hear more of God’s word, not less. Since early in the church’s history (possibly from the very beginning), this has included a second meeting on Sunday evenings.
Our experience of rest each week is often proportional to the intentionality of our focus on the Lord of the Sabbath. To cultivate a more restful Sabbath, start by waking up early enough to pray, read, and attend the prelude to morning worship. Many families arrive at church five or ten minutes before the service begins because they choose to snooze the alarm five or ten times before getting out of bed. Experiencing a restful Sabbath may actually begin with less sleep: waking early enough to arrive at church in time to meditate on Christ during the prelude and relax one’s spirit in God’s presence. Recently, I attended a service with a well-organized prelude time where the entire congregation sat in silence and began to meditate on a selection of hymns. After a few minutes of beautiful organ music and contemplation on the Scriptures open in my lap, I felt at ease and ready to worship.
Even when you are weary, attend the Sunday evening service. Involved Christians are usually busiest on Sunday mornings. If you were required to tame twelve tiny tikes during the morning service, you may be tired and tempted to sleep through your alarm for Sunday evening service. But Sunday evening may be your best opportunity to experience the refreshing worship that your soul was made for. Evening services tend to be more relaxed and relational. Since a local church in my community stopped having Sunday evening services, one of their couples now attends our service. The man regularly remarks, “This is our oasis each week.” They are refreshed by finishing their Sabbath and starting their week with a word-centered worship service.
Experiencing a restful Sabbath may actually begin with less sleep: waking early enough to arrive at church in time to meditate on Christ during the prelude and relax one’s spirit in God’s presence.
Even outside of the corporate gathering, cultivate a serene atmosphere. Sabbath is for public assembly as well as private dwelling (Lev. 23:3). Put away electronics (I need this reminder) and linger long over a hard copy of Scripture. Sit quietly and practice the art of silence. My father once remarked that as a child he was not permitted to play loudly on the Sabbath. To some, this seems like legalism. But in fact, it is good wisdom: children should learn from a young age that the Lord’s Day is a holy time, set apart for peace, rest, quiet, and refreshment. That is not to say that there is no room for fun. Eugene Peterson is right that we need to make room for praying and playing. But playing must never distract from or supersede praying.
No matter how busy your Sunday schedule, learn to possess yourself in peace. Refuse to be consumed with anxiety over the duties of the day. Sabbath is an important time to remember Isaiah 26:3-4: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” Possessing oneself in peace is only possible as one walks in the Spirit of peace. This is a way of life that I am trying to cultivate. In my zeal to work for the kingdom, I often forget to simply relax and enjoy the wonderful works of God.
Pastors are especially responsible for cultivating Sabbath rest in their churches. Ministers should limit distractions from true worship. A string of event announcements mid-service tends to draw the attention of the church cook away from restful satisfaction in God and onto her green bean casserole. Pastors are also responsible to ensure that the entire church staff has a break. Sunday school teachers should be relieved at least once each month. Most importantly, pastors should practice and preach on Sabbath, helping the congregation to understand God’s provision so that they are more grateful and intentional in their practice of shabbat.
God has given us permission to set aside the cares of life and join him in being satisfied in the enjoyment of his goodness and glory. The abundant, resurrection life of the Lord whom we worship is available to all who believe: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Let us hasten to appropriate this rest as we draw ever closer to our eternal Sabbath.
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