I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the continuity between the Old Testament and the New. These Christians held, among other things, that the Old Testament Sabbath commands—given to observe the fourth commandment—carry into the New Testament Lord’s Day. This meant that the whole day was consecrated to the Lord. A whole twenty-four hours out of every week was to be protected from interference from life’s workaday responsibilities.
Though I continue to have a great deal of respect for those churches and that tradition, my views have changed a little bit. I no longer believe that observing the fourth commandment requires refraining from all work on Sunday. But I haven’t abandoned sabbath altogether. Life as a Baptist has forced me to see this: It’s not just sabbatarians who need sabbath. It’s not just sabbatarians who need a day set apart.
It has always fascinated me that God chose to rest. He worked six days, creating the heavens and the earth and everything that would fill them. And then he, the God who never grows weary, chose to rest. He took sabbath. Why would he do this? Why would the all-powerful God rest? He rested to established a pattern, to establish a flow. There would be times for labor and times for rest. Six days you could earn a living and carry out your day-to-day responsibilities, and on the seventh you were to rest. Six years you could harvest your crops, but on the seventh the fields were to lie fallow. There would be ebb and flow, there would be work and rest. God did not intend all work and no rest; he did not intend all rest and no work. He intended both to flow in a pattern, a dance.
I still believe in the importance of a pattern of work and rest. Sometimes I think my fellow Baptists may have been just a little too reckless in abandoning the pattern of six days followed by one day.
Though we are not sabbatarians in my home, we have found ourselves following and valuing the pattern. We adopted it naturally, as a natural consequence of growing up with it. On Sunday we break from our regular work: the children do no homework, we avoid leagues and activities, Aileen does not schedule her regular activities. (As a pastor my schedule is slightly more complicated, so I take a break on a different day.)
Looking at it now, I see three great lessons we learn from a day set apart.
Sabbath teaches dependence. Sabbath teaches us to depend upon God. By taking one day away from our normal responsibilities, we declare our dependence upon God. We do not need to work seven days a week in order to have daily bread; we can work six days and spend the seventh in worship, rest, and Christian fellowship, and through it all trust that he will provide for our needs. My children can schedule their homework and projects so they, too, can learn to depend upon God without working all day and every day.
Sabbath teaches weakness. By taking one day each week away from our normal responsibilities, and by dedicating it to worship and rest, we declare our own weakness. We are too weak and too needy to work without rest. We are not God. We are not all-powerful. We are weak and limited. Sabbath reminds us that we cannot do it all, and that we do not have to do it all. As we acknowledge our weakness, we learn to lean upon God’s strength.
Sabbath improves the day. By setting aside one day and protecting it from work-related activities, we are able to elevate the day so that it becomes the best day of the week. Because we will not work, we are forced to look for other ways to use the day and these tend naturally toward worship, Christian fellowship and family.
God rested, so we rest. And that rest is sweet.