Karioshi suggests that the necessity of rest can be a matter of life and death. This Japanese word essentially translates as “death from overwork,” a tragically regular phenomenon in Japan in which men and women die, whether of natural causes or suicide, because of too much work and no rest. Even though this concept is given a name in Japanese, it’s not a foreign concept to the American worker.

We have a problem with rest. We don’t do it. In the United States nearly 50% of workers do not take full advantage of their paid time off. Further, Americans are half as likely to be taking vacation in any given week as they were 40 years ago. Even as we give lip service to the fact that rest is important, we have trouble actually stopping our work long enough to embrace rest.

As an international relations major in undergraduate, we read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: an early document drafted and approved by the United Nations to serve as a guiding frame for national legislation. I was surprised by Article 24, which declares, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

Article 24 is, in fact, a decent distillation and summary of the biblical concept of Sabbath, with one glaring omission. The Declaration assumes that this right, and the other rights it enshrines, are self-inhering. That is, these rights rise out of us as human beings and have no external referent.

The Bible gives a different origin of our rest, not first in us, but first in God, and given to us:

Genesis 2:1-3

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And 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. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Exodus 20:8-11

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

In other words, we know rest is important, but we’ve forgotten the true source of and reason for our rest. And when forget where rest comes from—true, soul-satisfying, bone-deep rest—we fail to stop work long enough to rest, and we miss out on a truly full and flourishing life.

So, in a world that doesn’t remember why we rest, is less and less likely to stop work at all, and who increasingly has trouble understanding rest as a key part of life, what do we do? The Scripture offers a threefold practice in response to our unwillingness to rest: remembering rightly, stopping intentionally, and embracing the life God offers.

The fourth commandment is the lengthiest of the 10 commandments. Further, it is one of only two that do not begin “Thou shalt not.” Instead, the first word of the fourth commandment is “remember.” What does remembering have to do with rest? In rest, we first and foremost remember who God is. Everything in the true and better story starts with God. And what do we remember about God? God is a God who created, a God who works, but beautifully, wonderfully, almost surprisingly, he is also a God who rests (Gen. 2:1-3)—a God who completes what he started, who brings to fruition all his plans, and as a result can step back and enjoy all that he has made.

My brother-in-law is a civil engineer. Specifically, he works as a Director of Traffic Engineering and Survey. In other words, he makes roads. In his case, he spends a lot of time taking bad roads and turning them into good roads. Speaking of driving on a road that he designed, he says, “It feels like completion and immense satisfaction. I constantly look left, right, and ahead at all the features my team designed over the course of months and years. I think about all the challenges we overcame to make the road function in a way that the public can enjoy it without even really thinking about it.” After all, we only really notice that road when it doesn’t work for us.

We all know the difference between a task checked off the list and a job well done. Creation is God’s job well done. On the seventh day, God looked left, right, and ahead at all the wonderful beauty of his creation and was glad. God is not an exhausted worker or a detached clockmaker; the God of the Bible is a delighted craftsman.

But the truth of rest does not simply require remembering who God is; it requires remembering who we are. To get the frame of reference on this, we must look even earlier in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1:26-27, God says, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” And what God says, God does: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Who are we? Humans are image-bearers of the almighty God who created all things by the word of his power in six days and rested on the seventh. As image bearers, we are called to work in this world to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor. When we experience rest from that good work as a job well done, we are, momentarily, looking like God. It is an integral, inescapable part of being a human being—we were made to rest because we were made in God’s image. True rest is not a picture of laziness or inability but a picture of sufficiency, joy, and delight.

Yet, even this is not the full picture. We are not simply in the image of God, but also we are creatures, created by God. All too often, we rest not out of a job well done, but out of a desperate necessity, a deep exhaustion. Remembering who we are in rest is remembering that we are not God, that we cannot care perfectly for our children or our aging parents, that we cannot perfectly love our roommates, that we cannot work at our maximum limit one hundred percent of the time. Eventually, as they say, our bodies keep score and we shut down and sleep.

And, sometimes, as one pastor put it, sleep is one of our greatest acts of faith, because sleep is the declaration that God is God and we are not, and that is good news.

Rest starts with remembering, but it does not end there. Consider the remainder of the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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…”

The second pattern or practice of rest is to stop. We are meant to rest by stopping. Sabbath, the word that appears throughout Scripture in connection with rest, has as its most foundational meaning “to stop.” In Genesis 2, it says that God finished his work and rested. A more basic translation might be that God finished his work and stopped. Exodus 20:8 reads “Remember the Sabbath day.” We could also say, “Remember the stopping day.” God gave his creation, and specifically his people, the gift of Sabbath as one day of seven to embrace the practice of stopping.

True and better rest means stopping work.

This is, after all, what God did. What did Genesis 2 say? That God finished all his work, and he rested. God completed his work, and he stopped. And Exodus chapter 20 takes what God did in Genesis 2 and says: what God did, you must do—six days you can work but then one day you’ve got to stop. You’ve got to stop working.

This was a crazy thing to say to a people just rescued from 400 years of slavery and who now lived in a barely survivable situation in the wilderness. And yet, God said it. This is a crazy thing to say to a people living in or around the capital of the United States who are responsible for security, political decisions, financial policy. And yet, God says it.

How can God tell people like us to just…stop?

The Sabbath practice of stopping is one of the only ways to reorient ourselves away from that savior-complex that whispers in our ear that the world, our world, relies on us. Sabbath is a reminder, God telling us to stop checking our email at 11:00 pm at night. Instead, go to sleep. What does stopping work well look like?

God isn’t just concerned with our work, but also the work of those for whom we are responsible. Note the expansive nature of the Fourth Commandment: 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.  If we asked those for whom we are responsible (our children, our employees, our students), “Do I prioritize your rest?” what would they say?

Why can we not stop work? Because we cannot stop worrying. To stop work, we also must stop worry. “Stop worrying,” sounds almost as ineffective as “Stop being sad,” or “Stop being anxious.” Helpful advice, but impossible. Yet, it is not just me saying this—this idea comes from Jesus himself, a much more credible and convicting source. In Matthew 6:25 Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life.”

Alright, Jesus. This is great in theory, but it seems impossible in practice. Maybe there’s something here, though. What are we saying when we say to stop worrying? We mean to stop devoting our attention to those things which crowd our hearts and our minds with fear, insecurity, and doubt. A plethora of research now connects our constant connectivity via our phones and computers with an increase in anxiety and associated mental health challenges. Rest is in an invitation to stop worrying by stopping checking your phone.

For example, in Restless Devices sociologist Felicia Wu Song illustrates how our phones and the worlds to which they expose us shape us in important and profound ways, often ways that are antithetical to the Christian life of loving God and neighbor. Towards the end of her book, she writes:

Observing the Sabbath then can help us realize that the solution to the tyrannical imperatives of digital ecology is not exercising complete withdrawal but rather cultivating an independence from them. The gift of the Sabbath day is that it trains us into this independence—an independence that is rooted in God’s definition of who we are and what life is about, over and against the molds that we are pressed into daily by the digital media economy.[1]

Exactly right, with one nuance. Rather than understanding Sabbath as a training in independence from our devices, we might say that Sabbath recalibrates our dependence in the right direction. The truth is that we are dependent creatures. I am less interested in a bare independence from devices or social media than I am in a restful dependence on the right things. We depend on all sorts of things daily, but an unhealthy dependence is a symptom of a deeper problem of idolatry, a lack of trust in the One upon whom we can actually, eternally, completely, truly, and happily depend.

Stopping as rest relativizes our work and pushes against our propensity for worry by recalibrating our dependence to the right place.

Stopping is all very good. It’s a fundamental, foundational part of what it means to rest. And stopping comes after the crucial practice of remembering who God is and who we are. But, so far this picture of rest is relatively passive—rest as remembering and stopping. Here’s the thing: we misunderstood the story of Scripture if we think of rest as only something passive; as something that is only stopping. John Murray, a Scottish theologian and founding professor of Westminster Theological Seminary, writes, “Sabbath rest is not inactivity; it is not unemployment, but employment of another sort from that of the six days.”[2]

This was precisely where the Pharisees in Jesus’ day got mixed up. They were so focused on stopping that they completely missed the fuller, richer point of Sabbath rest. They forgot that Sabbath was first a gift. And as a result, they were living lives that weren’t overflowing with God’s grace and lives that were not caught up in God’s story.

Notice in Genesis 1 and 2 that God blesses three things? The first two are tangible, physical things: He blesses the sea creatures and the birds. He blesses mankind as in his image. But then, the third thing is not like the others. He blesses the seventh day. Sometimes words like “bless” get so loaded down with Christianese that we forget their original meaning. Blessing in the Bible refers to “flourishing and the multiplication of life.” God blessed the seventh day as a particular instantiation of flourishing and life.

So, rest—and in particular, the command for Sabbath—is best understood as a gift, as a gracious expression of God’s tenderness and care. In Ezekiel 20, God re-narrates the history of Israel since the Exodus, and his laws, particularly his Sabbaths, come up repeatedly: “So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live” (Ezekiel 20:10).

God connects his statutes and rules (his commands) to life itself. But he continues: “Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” God has gifted Sabbath to his people to point them back to him. God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel to tell his people that the Sabbath is a shadow, a signpost. The Sabbath is not the substance itself, but a pointer away from itself toward something greater.

Jesus picks up this theme in Mark 2, responding to Pharisees who are accusing him of distorting and profaning the Sabbath.

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28)

Here, and elsewhere, Jesus declares that actually the Pharisees are those who have distorted the Sabbath. They have profaned the Sabbath by receiving it not as a gift, but a burden. Jesus offers a corrective. He says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Jesus reminds the people that Sabbath was created for—given to—man. God is a good, gift-giving Father. This is why the crucial part of rest is living in God’s grace. If we do not understand Sabbath—and all of rest—as a gift, we will inevitably distort, misinterpret, and profane it.

As we put all of this together, we begin to see that rest is part and parcel of living in God’s story. And this is a story that precedes us, a story we live in now and forever. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.”

This is why the Bible so closely connects the principle and practice of Sabbath with the invitation for rest. To devote one day of seven to wholehearted, embodied resting is to live more fully in God’s story. Or, in other words, to devote one day of seven to wholehearted, embodied rest is to live as if God really did create the world, really did rescue a people for himself, and really will finish what he started.

But to inhabit this story, we need help. Through the ages of Christianity, many theologians, pastors, and thinkers have identified worship, particularly gathered worship, as an inherent, inextricable part of true rest. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it so strongly as to say the whole Sabbath day is to be spent “in the public and private exercises of God’s worship” (Q60).

For the record, the Westminster Divines are right. We get in trouble, though, when we too narrowly define worship. Writing sometime after the Westminster Assembly, and within a different stream of Reformed theology, Geerhardus Vos observed that, “The Sabbath is not in the first place a means of advancing religion…It is a serious question whether the modern church has not too much lost sight of this by making the day well-nigh exclusively an instrument of religious propaganda, at the expense of its eternity-typifying value.”[3]

In other words, there’s more to worship than religion. Another pastor (excuse the quick succession of Reformed namedropping), Eugene Peterson, was able to identify the importance of rest on the Sabbath in the twofold idea of “pray and play.”[4] Peterson helps us to see that we must worship God in his house with his people (the church) and in his creation with his creatures (nature).

One important side note: God in his Word clearly sets apart one day for rest—as an opportunity to live more fully in his grace and in his story—but we do not only live in his grace and his story on Sunday! John Calvin writes of using the Sabbath day as an opportune time for meditation on the beauty of God. But he says,

Now, that meditation is to be continual, for if we think we have done all we need to do when we reflect upon God but one day of the week, we are incredibly dense hypocrites, for if our lives come from him, we are not to spend a single minute without considering him. Therefore, if we want to limit our time contemplating him, it is so we can take the liberty to live six days like brute beasts roving here and there at will while God is being satisfied with one day for himself. There is no purpose in that.”[5]

Dense hypocrites and brute beasts—Calvin pulls no punches! God’s blessing of Sabbath is not to limit our life to only one day a week and to leave the rest of the week is dreary and dull and given over to brute labor. No, Sabbath is blessed and gifted to us in order to inform, re-form, and transform our lives as we live more fully in God’s story.

The blessing of Sabbath rest in Genesis 2 is re-iterated as a command for Sabbath rest in Exodus 20 and then re-gifted to us in Mark 2—because we forget! We are fickle, forgetful people. We tend to—in a sense—drift out of God’s story. Because we all too easily and naturally pay much more attention to other stories than to God’s story. Rest, and particularly the Sabbath, is God’s built-in antidote to this perennial problem, a day to intentionally remember, to remember who God is and who we are, a day to stop, and an invitation to live, reorienting ourselves to the truest truths of the universe and leaning forward into the day that Jesus promises.

[1] Felicia Wu Song, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age, 200. Emphasis in original.

[2] Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, 33.

[3] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, 141.

[4] Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath-Breaker,” Christianity Today, 2 Sept 1988, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1988/september-2/confessions-of-former-sabbath-breaker.html.

[5] John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor, 127.

Joe holds a Masters of Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary, and currently serves on the pastoral staff of McLean Presbyterian Church. He graduated from American University, where he majored in International Studies with a focus on identity, race, gender, and culture. Joe believes the gospel is big enough to capture all of life and hopes to be a part of bringing that to reality in people’s lives.

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