The Evangelical faith and work conversation has gone through a renaissance recently. First in the 1980s and again in past 10 years books, articles and blogs addressing the subject of work have become nothing short of populous. Yet across the board, Sabbath-keeping makes a rare appearance in the faith and work discussion. Whether Lutheran or Kuyperian, from the 90’s or written recently discussion of Sabbath typically operates the following way: “Machines don’t need a Sunday, humans do.” Some allusions are made to Genesis and maybe Exodus. At most, the Sabbath is about trusting God, or a rhythm that helps us work well or become more productive for the other six days. Rarely does the discussion go beyond this.
Rejuvenating rest is not Sabbath keeping. The Sabbath is not a diet. The Sabbath is not a weekend. The Sabbath is about the “sanctification of time,” dwelling with God. The commandments of the Sabbath—to refrain from work and be joyful—both aim to orient the individual and the community to this end. There are many ways and rabbit trails this topic could take us down, and I want to concentrate on one aspect: what a theology of the Sabbath brings to the faith and work discussion.
Part of the Sabbath is about revealing your idols. In the Old Testament everything that prevents an Israelite from resting is probably an idol. But American Christians have a different problem. We don’t take Sabbaths. The complete lack of a Sabbath itself reveals another idol. Just as one can be addicted to checking email, shopping, or alcohol, humanity (esp. Americans) is addicted to the idol that we are needed. The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann writes: “Sabbath sets a boundary to our best, most intense efforts to manage life and organize land for our security and well-being.” Sabbath tells our bodies that God’s work does not depend upon our busyness. We rest so we remember we are not God. In the memoir of her time with a Hasidic family, Holy Days: The World of the Hasidic Family, Lis Harris writes:
I asked Moshe why it was, apart from emulating the actions of the Creator, that ceasing to work on the Sabbath honored God…”What happens when we stop working and controlling nature?” he asked, peering at me over the top of his glasses. “When we don’t operate machines, or pick flowers, or pluck fish from the sea, or change darkness to light, or turn wood into furniture. When we cease interfering with the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.”
Not working, refraining from “altering” creation, reminds us that we are creatures. The fact that our work becomes part of God’s work is a gift, an act of grace. So often we pray “thy kingdom come” while looking at our hands and thinking of the work they have done. The kingdom doesn’t stop coming because we stop working. I have faith in God because I don’t have faith in humanity, and this is a portion of what Sabbath-keeping expresses. The kingdom will come amidst our faithfulness and our unfaithfulness. Kathleen Norris says in Quotidian Mysteries: “Workaholism is the opposite of humility.” The Sabbath is about humility, about remembering that God sanctifies our work and our time. God’s invitation to rest and “dwell” through the Sabbath does mean something for our work. When we dwell with God amidst the Sabbath we become better at dwelling with God in our work. As one of my professors once said, the time spent in Sabbath-keeping forms us to better notice Jesus in the places of work. Faithful rest and faithful work cannot exist without one another. So, one does not Sabbath in order to work well, but we certainly will not work well unless we Sabbath well.