Just as the Christian faith provides us with a strong foundation from which to work out the various dimensions of calling, work, and vocation, it also provides us with a strong foundation from which to address the topic of rest. The Christian tradition doesn’t stop with validating rest, leisure, and play, but provides a thoroughgoing vindication of them. Scripture attests that God, in some sense, rests, that he provides rest, and that he enjoins his people to rest. Scripture offers rich resources that can bring rest to our restless world.
A Christian perspective on rest must begin with, but should not end with, the Sabbath Commandment, which appears in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Exodus 20:8-11 reads,
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 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 animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the commandment is reiterated with slight, but important, changes in emphasis:
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.
As the fourth commandment, the Sabbath commandment occupies a unique place in the Decalogue. It is, as Patrick Miller writes, the “crucial bridge” between the three opening commandments that focus on proper worship of God and the last six commandments, which focus on protecting and promoting the welfare of our neighbors.
The Sabbath commandment itself enjoins both devotion to and imitation of God, on the one hand, and protecting and promoting the welfare of our neighbor, on the other. It is also one of only two commandments to explicitly focus on the good of the addressee, which means that it encompasses and comprehends commitments to God, to self, and to others. The Sabbath commandment is an appropriate place to focus efforts that mean to direct our ensemble of responsibilities and relations toward the common good in ways that integrate the interests of others into our own.
The Sabbath commandment is the third most-cited or invoked commandment in Scripture, reinforcing its special place in the Decalogue. Indeed, Karl Barth went so far as to say that the Sabbath commandment “explains all the other commandments.” And Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel described the fourth commandment as “an epitome of all other commandments.”
The Sabbath commandment enjoins two pairs of activities. First, it requires both remembrance what God has done – in exercising restraint on the seventh day of creation and delivering his people from endless work in Egypt – and human observance of those same principles. Second, it requires devotion of the day to God and ceasing work. There are both positive and negative, “doing” and “not doing,” parts of the commandment. (It is, according to Miller, the only commandment of this sort.)
To observe the Sabbath commandment is cease work for a period. While the commandment requires God’s people to remember what God has done and to devote the day to God, it also requires suspension of “certain workday activities and ordinary busyness.” Ceaseless work, even by those who understand well that work can be done to the glory of God, is a violation of the Sabbath commandment, which calls God’s people to stop their labors with regularity. The formulation and focus of the commandment suggest that regular cessation of work honors God, is good for us, and is good for our neighbors.
Contrary to some perspectives, the Sabbath Commandment should not be read as a back-door promotion, encouragement, or requirement of a certain amount of work. It is not intended to specify a minimum amount of labor or to valorize work, but to require rest. The point of the Sabbath is to punctuate our lives with a regular rhythm of restraint, regardless of the opportunities or demands of the season. Patrick Miller cites John Calvin on this point:
There is no reason to assume that [the Sabbath commandment] seeks to command work for six days and then stop for a seventh. “This must not be interpreted to mean that God commands us to work. Truly we are [already] born to that [end]” (Calvin, Sermons on the Ten Commandments, 116). Human toil is built into the system and the story of creation has made that clear (Gen. 2:15; 3:14-4:2). Work is required for human survival. The issue is not getting work done but making sure that it does not go on all the time and that one may let it go—and let it go regularly, “even in plowing time and in harvest time” (Exod. 34:21). The rhythm is unbreakable even when season and other external circumstances would seem to preclude the rest. Work may have its rewards, but only if its limits, pressures, and demands are set under the safeguard of the Sabbath.
Abraham Heschel believes that there is a duty to work for six days, and that it is “just as much a part of God’s covenant with man as the duty to abstain from work on the seventh day,” but these are nevertheless independent injunctions.
It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to overstate the importance of the Sabbath safeguards in Jewish custom. The Sabbath, which Heschel described as a “palace” or “sanctuary” “in time,” symbolized the rest-giving presence of God for a people who had, under Egyptian rule, known only the relentless drive toward productivity and lean efficiency – more bricks with less straw.
The constant toil under Egyptian rule was replaced by a rhythm of work and rest under God’s rule. Enslavement to the relentless drive toward doing all the work one could do was replaced with the paradoxical freedom of restraint. And, unlike the Egyptians who gained from the ceaseless toils of their Hebrew slaves, the Israelites were not to displace work onto others while they embraced leisure – everyone, including foreigners, beasts, and even the land itself was to enjoy the benefit of restraint, or “refraining from doing everything that one has the power to do.” The fact that the land itself enjoyed Sabbaths suggests that the Sabbath is also about sustained attention to and care of creation.
The cessation of work does not mean that God’s people have been called to do nothing at all on the Sabbath. Indeed, the safeguards extended by the Sabbath are to be joined by attention to God, neighbor, and non-human creation. As Paul Heintzman writes,
The biblical Sabbath teaches us that leisure should not merely be an external cessation from work in the rhythm of human life but that it should also be an internal spiritual attitude. Like the Sabbath, our rest, leisure, and play should have not just a quantitative dimension (one day out of seven), but a qualitative dimension directed toward ‘wholeness and fullness’ of life for ourselves and for others.
As Michael Fishbane notes, the Sabbath involves sustained attentiveness to God’s hesed – his gratuitous kindness, unrequited care, and supererogatory acts – as a sort of training in extending that hesed to others. This element of sustained attentiveness is important. Walter Brueggemann writes that authentic Sabbaths “resisted multitasking,” while “inauthentic Sabbaths” lacked “genuine work stoppage” and true distance from “restless anxiety.”
We do not honor the Sabbath commandment in five minute increments where we check our handheld devices to see the latest in our email inboxes, what’s trending in social media, or who has earned the latest headline in professional media. Authentic Sabbaths are an oasis of monotasking in a multitasking world.
Thus the Sabbath command deals with two problems of a restless society – the lack of rest and the lack of focus. Those who practice the Sabbath don’t wonder where their leisure time went, as it is neither broken up into unrecognizable parcels nor diffuse in purpose. Those who practice the Sabbath have their time shaped by regular periods of sustained, uninterrupted attention to God, neighbor, and non-human creation. By both commanding cessation of work and redirecting uninterrupted attention toward God, neighbor, and creation, the Sabbath commandment both safeguards rest and gives it purpose. In “Confessions of a Sabbath Breaker,” published in Christianity Today (1988), Eugene Peterson describes the Sabbath commandment as the only commandment that is a spiritual discipline. The Sabbath deals with our problem of time confetti. It can knit together fragments of time, build a beautiful palace out of what seems to be the scrap heap of our time. In this way, the project of resting well and in accordance with the Sabbath commandment is somewhat like Nehemiah’s project of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall from the “heap of rubbish” and “burned stones” that Sanballat describes in Nehemiah 4.
Much more could be said about a biblical theology of rest and about developments with regard to the Sabbath commandment in the New Covenant. It would also be worthwhile at some point to analyze, and apply to the issue of rest, Judeo-Christian conceptions of time itself. Likewise, it might be profitable to learn from cultures in which the concept of time is not characterized primarily by linearity or finitude.
Here are some resources:
Jon C. Laansma, I Will Give You Rest (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2015)
D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982)
Steve Bright, “Sabbath Keeping and the New Covenant,” Christian Research Journal 26, no. 2 (2003).
Leland Ryken, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work & Leisure (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).
Theology of Work Project, “Balancing Rhythms of Rest and Work”