Struggling with the Sabbath

K   |   August 18, 2023 

For years Sundays have been my least favourite day of the week. Why? Because they are the days when I, as a single woman living on my own, feel most alone. There have been countless Sunday mornings when I have had to force myself to get out of bed, get dressed and go to worship. Sometimes worship clears the fog, but often, Sundays include at least a few tears and a lot of loneliness. I am part of a wonderful fellowship where I know I am loved and valued, and yet, Sunday, my Sabbath day, can be the hardest day of my week.

Sabbath* is about as counter-cultural as you can get in the 21st century. A day focused on God (not ourselves), on ceasing (not producing) and on being present (not focused on the future or the past). Sabbath calls us to step outside of our cultural conditioning and do things differently, often by not doing those things at all.

It is the Sabbath's very counter-cultural ness that is the point. Imagine being an Israelite just delivered from bonded labour in Egypt. You are used to someone else determining every part of your life; your value is only in what you produce. Along comes God and informs you that His way of providing food for the journey is not you working for it, but Him providing what you need each day. I imagine that it was tough for the former slaves to comprehend and trust that idea, but then God adds that one day a week, you are not allowed to do even that. For your whole life, you have had to work and earn every day just to put food on the table, and now you run headlong into Sabbath, and it feels odd, uncomfortable, and, well, wrong.

In our productivity-driven world, Sabbath often feels wrong. However, the more I reflect on this sense of wrongness, the more I am convinced that this discomfort is essential as it invites us to wrestle with the Sabbath and engage with God's grace.

For me, the loneliness of the Sabbath is the biggest challenge; for you, it could be work and family demands, the financial cost, or even the temptations to indulge yourself that come with taking time off.

So how can we engage with the Sabbath? How can we wrestle with God's gracious gift of the opportunity to cease?

1) Pay attention

How do you feel about the Sabbath? When you think of keeping Sabbath, what do you think is complex, challenging or even impossible? Where do you feel resistance to Sabbath keeping?

Our resistance is often a door into what is going on in our hearts and can help us to pray more effectively. So we do well to pay attention to our resistance to Sabbath. One way to begin is to take just a small amount of time each week (on the day that works best for you to have as your Sabbath) and talk with God about your struggle to practice Sabbath keeping. Make sure you leave space for listening for His response to your struggle.

2) Wrestle rested

One of the most helpful pieces of Sabbath advice a friend ever gave me was to follow the Israelite model and start my Sabbath the evening before. The Jews begin their Sabbath on Friday evening with a family meal and prayers, and preparing that meal was their last work of the week. I have found that starting my ceasing on Saturday evening helps; I pack up my office, put things away, turn off my work WhatsApp and email notifications, and prepare for time away from the week's regular activities. I go to bed early and get a good night's sleep to prepare for the rest of my Sabbath. Starting my Sabbath on Saturday evening has the added advantage of freeing up time on Sunday evenings to prepare myself for the week ahead.

3) The rest of the week matters

Ruth Haley Barton, in her book Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest, points out that in between the introduction of the Sabbath to the Israelites in Exodus 16 and the giving of the law in Exodus 20 is the story of Jethro confronting Moses about his unsustainable life. Moses was burning the candle at both ends, trying to oversee all the Israelites in the wilderness. Jethro warns him about how dangerous this is and suggests he share the load creating a more sustainable life for him and a system of governance for the people of Israel.

If you regularly push the limits during the week, if your lifestyle is unsustainable, then Sabbath won’t solve your soul fatigue. Either you will be so exhausted that all you do is sleep, or you will feel the pressure to keep working and ceasing will be challenging. Sabbath is not the solution to an overtaxed life. Like Moses, you need a sustainable life to experience the full grace of the Sabbath.

4) The only rule is 'stop'!

In the Gospels, we see Jesus repeatedly confronting the Jew's legalistic practice of the Sabbath. Orthodox Jews still have 39 types of work forbidden on the Sabbath (www.ou.org). While some of the Sabbath rules might seem silly, they were all designed to help the Jews keep the Sabbath. The problem is that in trying so hard to keep it, they robbed the Sabbath of its intrinsic grace.

It is easy for us to end up doing the same thing; we want to keep Sabbath the right way, so we convince ourselves that if we just avoid these things or do those things, then we will have kept the Sabbath. The reality is that God's Sabbath command simply says 'cease' (Shabbat, the Hebrew word for Sabbath, comes from the word shavat or cease) from work and even from those things that seem essential to you.

So, Sabbath keeping in its simplest terms is, if it feels like work for you, don't do it. This means that for each of us in the body of Christ Sabbath may look quite different. Cooking, for me, is mostly work, so on the Sabbath, I plan not to cook, but for someone else, cooking might give them life, so part of their Sabbath practice might be to experiment with new recipes or cook a meal for a friend.

One little warning that, from my own experience, is helpful here. Beware of renaming work as play. I have found that I can be remarkably clever in convincing myself that it is OK to do 'x' work task on the Sabbath because I enjoy it. This is one of those areas where paying attention (see 1 above) helps guard against legalism.

I still find the Sabbath hard, and I still feel lonely on Sundays, but as I intentionally wrestle with the challenges that Sabbath keeping brings, I am learning to lean more heavily on God, to be more attentive, and deliberate in how I practice that Sabbath and slowly I am learning to experience the life-giving grace of the Sabbath.

To help you wrestle, here are a couple of books on the Sabbath that I found helpful.

* As members of the body of Christ freed from the bondage of the law, we are not legally bound to keep the Sabbath, but it is a spiritual discipline or practice that, like prayer, fasting etc, can be beneficial to our life with God.

 

 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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K

K is an Aussie transplant who has lived in North India for the last two decades. Her biggest buzz comes from being able to help others to learn and to enjoy a deeper relationship with Jesus. K can frequently be found in one of the cafes in her adopted home city drinking hot chocolate since real decaf coffee has yet to make its way to India.

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