Sabbath: A Spiritual Discipline

You can read Part 1 of this discussion HERE.

Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline provides a list of spiritual disciplines that have become an pretty standard list. He groups them three ways:

  • Inward: Meditation; prayer; fasting; study.
  • Outward: Simplicity; solitude; submission; service.
  • Corporate: Confession; worship; guidance; celebration.

I don’t think Foster would claim that this list is exhaustive, but as I say, it’s become standard. For example, other authors often list “silence” separate from “solitude”. Dallas Willard in The Spirit of Discipline includes disciplines such as frugality, chastity and fellowship in his discussion of spiritual disciplines.

I find it interesting that neither of these respected authors discuss “sabbath” as a distinct spiritual discipline. I hope to use this post to argue that sabbath-rest, although related to other disciplines, should be valued as a distinct discipline in its own right.

Sometimes we Gentiles might assume that Sabbath becomes a matter of routine for Jews and therefore simpler for them to give up one day per week. This perception may contain some truth, but Amos 8:4-5 describes an attitude consistent with our times, “When will the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” Sabbath-rest clashes with our culture’s emphases on consumption, efficiency, productivity and time management. A popular book from 2000 captures this tension well with the title Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World in reference to the events found in Luke 10:38-42.

A recent CNBC article made the statement “There’s little arguing that the concept of Sabbath is in serious danger.” The article discusses how technology has helped work intrude into our lives in never previously imagined ways. “It took labor unions 100 years to fight for nights and weekends off, some say, while smartphones took them away in about three years.” According to some research the average smartphone user checks her phone every six minutes. Additionally, “government data from 2011 says 35 percent of us work on weekends, and those who do average five hours of labor, often without compensation—or even a thank you.”  We have come to associate busyness with importance.

The pull from culture to adopt its values is intense. Choosing another path requires discipline. We require discipline not to check work email on our days off. We require discipline not to interrupt game night with the kids to run another load of laundry. We require discipline to rise early to abide with God without checking the overnight sports scores. We require discipline to establish a tech-free family meal focused on our relationship with God. We require discipline to build “down time” into our week, or to dedicate a day such as Sunday to personal renewal. Is this why the Sabbath command was necessary, because rest does not come naturally to us?

When many of us think of sabbath our thoughts gravitate toward solitude and silence. These are distinct disciplines that may occur during a time of sabbath but they do not capture the full scope of sabbath. In her book Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity Keri Kent discusses 6 aspects of practicing sabbath-rest:

  1. Rest – learning to be still and reducing stress;
  2. Reconnecting – in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy the 10 Commandments apply sabbath rest to everyone in the household, even animals. Sabbath is an inclusive event that flattens the social hierarchy.
  3. Revising – refers to examining our priorities. What is more important than sabbath, really? What parts of our lives do we need to rearrange to make sabbath-rest possible?
  4. Pausing – references small moments throughout our week where we accept interruptions as opportunities for spiritual growth. Is my task more important than this person? Pausing also encourages to interrupt ourselves at times to contemplate the wonders of the ordinary around us.
  5. Playing – extrovert personalities find refreshment through interacting with people more so than quiet contemplation. Sabbath-rest legalism should not prevent us from pursuing refreshing activities.
  6. Praying – meets the sabbath-rest goals of rest, loving God, and loving others.

In 2006 Church of Christ author Darryl Tippens published a book titled Pilgrim Heart in which he describes 15 “practices” for aiding our journey with Jesus. He dedicates two of those chapters to discussing sabbath-rest. He clarifies that “Sabbath as a wonderful benefit and blessing to humanity that our culture greatly needs. Sabbath — which I use broadly to signify rest, “down time,” quiet, renewal, recreation, getting away — can occur any day of the week. It can be eve a part of a busy day.

Tippens presents his discussion in the form of 8 paradoxical “beatitudes” that I’ll attempt to summarise here:

  1. Retreat – Retreat from the word is one of the best ways to serve others. Times set apart for silence, reflection, prayer and other forms of worship can permanently change our understanding of our mission and our relationship to the world.
  2. Rest – Rest is not a burden, but a life-giving gift and joyous freedom.
  3. Play – Part of our weariness results not from the weight of our work but from the dreary joylessness of our working lives. We should respect leisure as an intrinsic good.
  4. Embrace Imperfection – The point is not to endorse uncaring or sloppy work, but to call us to be strategic with our limited resources.
  5. Slow – I cultivate patience by deliberately choosing to place myself in positions where I have to wait.
  6. Create Boundaries – ‘Multi-tasking’ may be a virtue in certain limited settings, but it is disastrous as a way of life because it means that no one thing [or person] ever receives our total devotion.
  7. Say “No” – In the midst of the tsunamis of life, one cannot enjoy the luxury of retreat from the fray. Still, not everything that calls to us is a crisis. It takes careful discernment to determine when to say no.
  8. Connect – Time spent in authentic community is also a kind of Sabbath rest.

I’ve quoted heavily from other sources because I’m certainly no expert on the topic of sabbath-rest or even much of a practitioner. Yet it seems to me that integrating sabbath-rest into our lives is one way God calls his people to be counter cultural. Again, God no longer demands that we cease work for a 24 hour period, but he graciously teaches us to value rest as way of preparing His mission.

Some traditions regard sabbath as a fast. Others view sabbath as a time of feasting: a joyful celebration. A healthy practice of sabbath will integrate both elements into our lives. The 10 Commandments have often been divided between the first two focused on loving and worshiping God and the last six that guide our relationships with our neighbours. In this way they help Israel fulfill the great commands of loving God and neighbour. But the third command to keep the Sabbath doesn’t fit neatly into this division unless we see it as a transitional merging of the two.

Exodus 20:10 calls the seventh day “a sabbath to the Lord your God.” Clearly it is God focused. Yet just as clearly it benefits neighbours as the householder cannot delegate work to children, servants, guests, or even animals. All people are to experience sabbath-rest equally. In this way sabbath-rest is both a God-focused fast and a communal experience. We may not enjoy both elements at the same moment, but our overall experience of sabbath should seek both fasting and feasting.

In some ways the use of the word sabbath confuses us due to its association with the formal practices of Judaism. Perhaps another way of thinking about this topic is to develop a theology of rest. Does your understanding of God really require him to rest? Or does your image of God have him continually in motion? If our Christian journey is a process of being transformed into the image of God, then we must transform our schedules to enable the pursuit of  refreshment and renewal in a theology of rest.


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