Learning to Rest
One of my goals for this year is to intentionally and regularly keep the Sabbath. For years, this has been a spiritual practice I’ve found both fascinating and perplexing. I was drawn to this discipline, reading books and blogs about the Sabbath and listening to sermons and podcasts that explain its importance, but it was something that felt out-of-reach for me until I started practicing it for myself.
The language surrounding the Sabbath is intentionally generous. The Bible talks of keeping the Sabbath, which is to say it has already been given to us as followers of Christ and we need only to keep it, enjoy it, enter into it. The Sabbath isn’t something we earn or strive toward. It is not taking a day of rest, as if rest is a luxury we must steal. It is a gift that has already been given.
My own internal language around rest often stands in stark contrast to this mindset. The shoulds and oughts and to do lists are loud in my head, and instead of viewing the Sabbath as a gift, it can be easy for me to view it as something to work for and earn. I find myself rehearsing thoughts like, Once the laundry is finished, I’ll sit down; or Once my inbox is empty, I’ll stop replying to emails; or Once the house is in perfect order, I’ll rest because only then will I deserve to do so. This thinking goes against the language of keeping the Sabbath because it puts me in a position where I am the one earning rest rather than receiving rest.
I love this paraphrase of Jesus’s words in Matthew 11:28-30 about this: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (The Message).
I’ve heard some people say when they started keeping the Sabbath they were able to get more done in six days than they were ever able to get done in seven. That has not been the case for me. There is laundry that sits in a dirty pile if I don’t finish it before I Sabbath. There are sometimes dishes resting in the sink, dishes I could wash but actively choose to leave alone for one day of the week. There are emails I could respond to, more work that could be done, and a never ending to-do list that I could spend an extra day working on.
The mindset that keeping the Sabbath will allow you to get more done bothers me not only because it is logistically untrue, but also because the Sabbath isn’t supposed to be another life hack. All other days of the week are practices in getting the most done in the least amount of time. On my best days when I am feeling introspective and especially optimistic, I am thankful that there is a day set out of my week where productivity and optimization are not the default goals.
Keeping the Sabbath is a practice in limitation. I am finite, limited physically, emotionally, mentally, and relationally, and the Sabbath reminds me of this. Choosing to acknowledge and submit to those limitations is difficult for me, but the practice is good.
Keeping the Sabbath is also a practice in remembering God’s limitlessness. He is not limited in any of the ways I am, and he is infinitely capable of caring for me and the people around me. Remembering my limits and God’s limitlessness opens me up to receive the common graces of a guiltless afternoon nap, time spent on a favorite hobby, or a leisurely walk outside. At the end of the day in which I have kept the Sabbath, I exhale. The world has not fallen apart around me because I was never holding it together to begin with.
My keeping of the Sabbath is inexperienced and clunky, but there are a few questions I have found helpful as I’ve been incorporating this discipline into the regular rhythm of my week.
What helps me rest? I found it helpful to ask myself this question and keep a list of some of the things that help me rest, such as lighting candles, reading a good novel, taking a warm bath, and baking. Your list will probably be different and may include things I don’t find restful like gardening or going for a run. One of the most amazing things about keeping the Sabbath is that it can be intimately personal and unique. God created us all with unique preferences and personalities, and the Sabbath can look different for others than it does for you. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
How do I work primarily during the week? Rabbi Abraham Heschel offers this advice when considering how to keep the Sabbath: “If you work with your hands, Sabbath with your mind. If you work with your mind, Sabbath with your hands.” Most of the work I do in a week is with my mind, so I try to balance that with a Sabbath day in which I rest using my hands - baking a cake, going for a walk, knitting, etc. I don’t follow this rule religiously (one of the activities I most look forward to on my Sabbath is reading a good novel!) but it has been helpful to me.
What stirs my affections for the Lord? This is perhaps the most important question to ask when considering how to keep the Sabbath. Just as a bodies and minds need rest, so do our souls. The Sabbath provides a great opportunity to spend extended periods of time with the Lord that are not possible throughout the week. For me, this looks like spending some extra time reading and studying a passage of Scripture or spending time praying using the Online Prayer Center.