God’s Sabbath Confronts Our Success
By Ryan Farrell
By the end of the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and demanding long and brutal workweeks from working class adults and children alike. Then Henry Ford came along and concluded that something had to be done. So he instituted a 40-hour workweek for all of his factories — and the whole Western world followed his lead. But interestingly, this change to a more manageable work week was not rooted in compassion; Mr. Ford explained his reasoning like this:
“Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”
Ford hit on a key principle of a highly productive and materialistic society: Individuals need time to consume all that which is being created, and the 40-hour workweek was a new strategy to make Ford, and producers like him, even more profitable.
Today in the 40-hour workweek system, we enjoy more leisure time than ever before, but what is fascinating is that we find ourselves continually busy. In fact, busyness is the modern predicament. Americans currently report one-third the amount of free time that was reported in 1995, a 67 percent reduction in just 20 years.
But this isn’t due to increasing job demands; in fact stress levels are often independent of how much time individuals spend at “work.” Parents who stay at home with children are among the most stressed out and exhausted people in our culture. To add to this, our society is actually so busy that we are breaking down psychologically. Each year a higher percentage of the population is on anti-anxiety medication in order to function and it’s estimated that one in three people will experience a debilitating panic-attack at some point in their life.
Our culture has produced a busy, stressed out, and high strung population that is careening off the rails down the track of burnout and psychological dysfunction – all this in spite of having more leisure than ever before.
Gettin’ Busy With It
Even though business is trending up, this problem isn’t unique to our time and place — the human race has always been susceptible to busyness.
The people of Israel were similarly overworked in slavery under Pharaoh, their ruler who fancied himself a God. Pharaoh was a god that supplied them no rest, no relaxation, only work, only busyness. The God of Israel saw this and rescued his people. The first place he brought them was to a mountain called Sinai where he outlined what his kingdom was going to look like. He starts off with the 10 commandments, the fourth of which says:
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…
“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.” Exodus 20:1-2, 8-11
Israel had just come out of “the house of slavery,” which was overwork without rest. But God said his relationship with them would be different; it was to be characterized by rest — namely by something called Sabbath. One day off out of every seven where they would do no work.
The contrast between kingdoms is often lost, but Sabbath was one of the gifts of God’s kingdom that stood in stark contrast to Pharaoh’s kingdom. Everyone in God’s kingdom was to experience rest in Sabbath. A day that was “holy,” set aside “to the Lord.” Just as Israel had days dedicated to working, they now had a day dedicated to resting in their saving God.
And God was doing this because he was a resting God. It is tied to who he is, his character. He pointed back to creation and rooted Sabbath in his own resting action of the seventh day. But after creation fell from perfection, rest itself was threatened (see Genesis 3:17-19). Through Moses and the Israelites, we seek that God seeks to return rest to creation through his kingdom, and wherever God’s kingdom is, the people in that kingdom experience his rest.
This prompts an natural question: If rest is built into God’s kingdom but his people aren’t experiencing this rest (in fact they often experience the opposite) what does that really mean?
It probably means that something else is actually functioning as our God and we are living in some other kingdom that doesn’t have rest. If we are continually busy and overworked, then something else — some other god — is driving us to do all of this work. It’s not God because rest marks his kingdom.
So if Christians aren’t experiencing rest we need to be asking why? What is actually functioning as the god of this restless kingdom that I’m in? If we find ourselves in a life that doesn’t experience rest in a 40-50 hour work week, we can’t really blame our boss; it’s actually because we have put a whole lot of other tasks and duties on ourselves.
The increase of tasks and duties points to one big goal in our lives: Success. We want to be successful and we want to look successful, and it takes a myriad of tiresome tasks to accomplish this. We run ourselves ragged in the pursuit of success in our jobs, our families, and our communities because we have elevated success to the top of the human experience — rest is thrown out the window.
But the God of Rest gives his people rest; this was apparent also when he sent Jesus:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
Jesus sees all of our striving, he sees us in those darkest moments when the stress is piled up, and points us back to a kingdom that is marked by rest. He knows that the fallen cultures of this world, including ours, are bent towards burning people out, and his message points to the kingdom of the God of rest in the midst of a chaotic culture. He says, “Stop striving, here I have rest for your soul.”
God’s kingdom offers us many avenues of rest and Sabbath is a big one. This doesn’t mean a strict observance of Sabbath for Christians today; the New Testament reiterates the nine other commandments but it doesn’t reiterate the Sabbath. It even testifies that strict Sabbath observance can be an obstacle to the Gospel (Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16-17).
At the same time, when Jesus’ disciples were called out for breaking the Sabbath, he didn’t argue that Sabbath is no longer to be practiced. He seemed to shrug his shoulders and say, “Yeah they are breaking the law. But hey, I’m Lord of the Sabbath, and the goal of the Sabbath is to rest in me. Since they are accomplishing that, what is the big deal?” Jesus loosened the strict laws governing Sabbath.
And because Sabbath is modeled in creation, because it is rooted in God himself, because rest is a marker of his kingdom, and because Jesus seemed to loosen the demands of Sabbath while giving himself the moniker “Lord of the Sabbath,” it is wise that we pursue Sabbath with flexibility in some form in our lives today.
Now, this flexible Sabbath should be carefully discerned. Remember, for some reason, despite the fact that Henry Ford has given us all of this leisure time, we still find ourselves busy and strung out. This suggests that perhaps on some level we have been fooled by these “leisurely activities” — many aren’t actually providing us rest. So when we examine what to do with the Sabbath we should ask ourselves, do I really experience rest from this? Is all of my adventuring in the mountains really giving me restful time that I can devote to resting in God? How about all of our iThings, TV’s and other electronics, are they bringing us rest? Or do these just produce a different type of busyness? We are plagued with un-restful but “leisurely” distractions; we need to make a conscious effort to discern ways to spend our Sabbath.
The Fruits of Sabbath
One of the greatest fruits of Sabbath is that Jesus becomes the one that defines our success. His ministry here on Earth had all the indications of success including crowds following him everywhere he went. His ministry compelled numerous people devote their entire lives to him.
But he knew that all of that success was going to fall by the wayside. He knew that eventually he was going to die, and for a prophet in Israel to die a death like Jesus did on the cross, there was no clearer indication of apparent failure. Crucifixion meant that God actually wasn’t with you any more so many who knew him shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, I guess he wasn’t the Son of God after all.”
On the cross, one of the things that Jesus died to was his success, but when he was raised to life three days later he was more than successful — he was victorious. Even today his disciples do the same: having a relationship with Jesus is a path that is defined by dying to the world’s definition of success and being raised up through Christ as victorious over its systems of success altogether.
In Jesus, Christians aren’t merely successful in areas in our lives, they are victorious in them. Sabbath is a time when we can look up to God and know him better and look back like the Israelites did and remember how he saved us out of a stress-driven culture of busyness with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This is a recurring space for us to look to Jesus who offers rest for our weary souls and experience the rest that his victory won by inaugurating a Kingdom of Rest once again.
Putting aside a day for Sabbath trades worldly success that will fade and pass with kingdom victory that will remain forever.