Discover God’s Life-Giving Freedom
Who among us hasn’t dreamt of getting away from it all? On steamy summer afternoons I long to escape my overly-air-conditioned office to relax on a sunny beach or hike a mountain trail. I crave for the unhurried pace and deep relaxation portrayed in travel magazines, but have learned that few vacations provide the deep rest my soul needs. Time away from work can be fun and refreshing, but as anyone who’s survived a road trip with toddlers or backpacked through Europe can attest, vacations can be exhausting and expensive.
For others, a vacation feels like an unattainable goal because they struggle to break away from the demands of their jobs. As a recent Washington Post article suggests, some workers’ sense of indispensability is so strong, they believe their colleagues cannot function without them. While we need a break from the pace of modern life, experiencing deep rest should not depend on the amount of time off we’ve accumulated or the size of our bank accounts.
God commands us to pursue a form of rest that is within reach of all of us, a different, deeper rest that comes from practicing the Sabbath. Unfortunately, our understanding of Sabbath rest is often shaped by the misconception that it is a day defined by religious rules — an extensive list of things we are prohibited from doing. A legalistic view of the Sabbath not only robs the joy of this beautiful practice, it deprives us of a restorative celebration that brings life to our daily work. Examining the biblical principles behind Sabbath invites us to enjoy the deep rest God desires for each of us.
A Life-giving Pattern
Sabbath reflects the life-giving pattern of work and rest we see in creation. Take a moment to skim the first chapter of Genesis and notice how many times God reflects on the work he had done. Seven times! After each phase of creation, God examines his work and declares “it is good.”
Notice, he doesn’t say, “Wow, that was tiring…” or “Thank goodness that’s over.” Rather, he admires the fruit of his labor and affirms its goodness. The monumental work of creation is not portrayed as burdensome, but as deeply satisfying. As the opening scene of Scripture draws to a close, God rests from his labor—not as an escape—but as a time of reflection and celebration of good work, well done.
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array…Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:1-3, NIV).
Our first glimpse of God reveals that our Creator, the force that holds the universe together (Colossians 1:17), balances work and rest. As his image bearers, this pattern is hard-wired into our design. Consider how author Tim Keller explains it: “This rhythm of work and rest is not only for believers; it is for everyone, as part of our created nature. Overwork or underwork violates that nature and leads to breakdown. To rest is actually a way to enjoy and honor the goodness of God’s creation and our own. To violate the rhythm of work and rest (in either direction) leads to chaos in our life and in the world around us. Sabbath is therefore a celebration of our design.” *
A Declaration of Freedom
God’s strongest instruction regarding the Sabbath appears in Deuteronomy, the manual for life and worship given to the Israelites after they were released from slavery in Egypt. This context is vital to our understanding of the Sabbath. Unlike some religious traditions, which load Sabbath practice with rules and regulations, the Sabbath portrayed in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 declares the freedom of people who had formerly been enslaved.
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Imagine how these words would have sounded to former slaves, people for whom life was unending toil, who had no say over when or how they would work. God instructed the Israelites to extend the freedom of Sabbath rest to every aspect of their community — to their children, servants, and even to their farm animals. To rest on the seventh day was to celebrate God’s gift of freedom. What a contrast to the common misconception that Sabbath is a somber time of religious practice, defined by the things we don’t do.
How do see your daily work—as a burden to be escape, an expression of God’s work through you?
Do you currently have a life-giving pattern of work and rest in your life?
How could considering this command in light of its historical context guide your personal Sabbath practice?
In the second part of this post, I’ll share five principles to inspire and empower your Sabbath.
Have questions about Sabbath rest? Let us know!
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This post was published July 27, 2016
Joanna serves as Denver Institute’s Director of Public Engagement, hosts the Faith & Work Podcast, and founded Women, Work, & Calling, a national initiative that disciples women for godly influence in public life. Prior to coming to the Institute, Joanna worked in global telecom, nonprofit consulting, and campus ministry with Cru. She served as associate faculty at Denver Seminary and as a sewing instructor at Fancy Tiger Crafts. A third-generation Coloradan, Joanna appreciates both the state’s innovative culture and its cowboy roots. She has an MA in Social Entrepreneurship from Bakke Graduate University and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She also completed a certificate of Women in Leadership through Cornell University.
She is the author of Women, Work, & Calling: Step Into Your Place in God’s World (IVP, Fall 2023) and is a contributor to the multi-author book, Women & Work: Bearing God’s Image and Joining in His Mission through our Work (B&H Publishing, Spring 2023).