NORTH AMERICA’S largest purveyor of Christian merchandise recently began opening its 315 stores on Sunday afternoons. Family Christian Stores touted its decision as a way to expand ministry opportunity. According to a press release, the firm sees it as a way of fulfilling its “calling to provide … Bibles, books and other Christian resources to meet their [customers’] needs—when their needs arise” (italics supplied). That sense of urgency makes them sound more like a crisis hotline than a retail store.
The media were quick to make comparisons with other Christian-owned businesses that do not open on Sundays: Lifeway Christian Stores, Mardel Christian and Educational Supplies, Hobby Lobby stores, and Chik-fil-A restaurants. Family Christian Stores did not see the parallels. “No one is going to hell if they don’t eat a chicken sandwich on a Sunday,” FCS president David Browne told The Dallas Morning News—as if souls hang in the balance because they can’t buy Max Lucado or John Eldredge between noon and five on Sunday.
Hardly anybody thinks people are going to hell anymore if they do buy a chicken sandwich or go shopping on a Sunday. But The Charlotte Observer’s Ken Garfield thinks that maybe U.S. culture is going to hell because of its surrender to the rat race. He called the FCS announcement “another sign of the culture turning Sunday into one more day in the rat race—that no matter what your faith, or even if you have no faith, life is too demanding to allow anyone to take a step back and a day off.”
Garfield hinted at the spiritual dimension of a weekly day of rest: Faith is what allows people to emulate God and rest from their works. “Life is too demanding” for those of little faith, because the inability to rest is the incapacity to let go of the illusion of control. The constant need to work, shop, and meet demands can be a practical denial that God is in control. Conversely, a spiritual discipline of regular rest from the constant drive to check items off a to-do list can be a powerful symbol of our trust in God’s sufficiency.
From Labor Law to Worship Day
The biblical Sabbath was a blend of the practical and the spiritual—a labor law for the protection of workers and a symbolic participation in the life of God. In Exodus 20, the Sabbath commandment is addressed to people who have both servants and animals working for them so that all who labor will be given needed rest. Workers do this by imitating God, who rested.
In Deuteronomy 5, the Sabbath is connected to God’s delivering his people from bondage in Egypt. Work is good. Bondage is bad. But work easily becomes a form of bondage. The Sabbath is a sign that our work is not coerced, and regular rest allows us to experience our work as free people rather than as bondslaves.
Christians today tend to connect the Sabbath with corporate worship, although the Hebrew Bible did not treat the Sabbath that way. In the Christian church, the history of Sabbath (and Sunday) is complex, but eventually the principal Christian day of worship and the principle of Sabbath rest coalesced in the church’s thinking.
That was not without wisdom. As the 20th century Christian philosopher Josef Pieper argued, true rest is not possible apart from worship. The heart of divine worship is sacrifice, and sacrifice is the ultimate antithesis of utility. “The act of worship creates a store of real wealth which cannot be consumed by the workaday world. It sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns.”
Our churches and families need to return to a Sabbath consciousness that can provide a platform for countercultural witness. Without being legalistic about it, Christians have a duty to protest the oppressive tyranny of time and productivity and an economic order that tries to squeeze inordinate productivity out of people’s energies.
Such a witness will take varied shapes, but along with church worship it should be characterized by a cessation from paid employment, a respite from commercial activity, an investment in relationships, a receptivity to divine wisdom, a celebration of creation, and intentional acts of kindness.
Churches and small groups should experiment with mutual covenants to take back their Sabbath time. And in the course of experimentation and mutual feedback, they will find a blessing.
Such efforts will take mutual support and planning, because our lives are swept along by the currents of modern culture. Our culture fosters an ethic of accumulation, which teaches us to value ourselves primarily in economic terms. It even teaches us to rate our leisure by the number and the quality of our toys rather than by the restorative quality of our play. We are also shaped by a utilitarian ethos that teaches us to justify every activity in terms of its usefulness to us and others.
There is a gratuitous quality to Sabbath rest. It is antithetical to utility. The celebration of the goodness of God and of his creation needs no further justification.
The Charlotte Observer’s Garfield suggests that, “in a twist,” the largest Christian retail chain opening on Sundays may “stir some of us to take a stand against the routine of everyday life.”
“Sunday is ours,” he says. “You can’t have it.”
Rest and leisure are God’s, we say. And the world can’t take them away.