“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.” (Exodus 20:8)
“Efficiency” and “productivity” are concepts that have reached so far out of the weekly 9 to 5 that they have become normalized standards in everything we do. Just scrolling on the internet reveals hundreds of messages on how to “life hack” and optimize our daily workflow, using Silicon Valley’s constant technology outputs to crank up our daily efficiency bit by bit.
In her article “Improving Ourselves to Death,” Alexandra Schwartz writes, “We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.” For Christians, engaging in this grinding mindset, creating the “best version of ourselves” is a misguided, and often harmful priority to engage in.
But it’s also almost impossible to avoid — especially in areas where market vocabulary like competition, perfect information, and rational behavior has seeped into how we view our lives. According to this neoliberal mindset, the pace of life is growing faster and faster by the day, so we must shed old, outdated parts of ourselves and constantly upgrade to compete in a Hunger Games-esque society. This does not only apply to those in corporate environments, but even to those engaged in things like ministry and social activism: With undiluted access to the world’s problems on all of our social media feeds, we are compelled to strive and strive and continue to work — there is no end.
Bishop Robert Barron writes in And Now I See that at the heart of the original sins lies our disobedience to God’s intended rhythm for our lives, a rhythm that requires a full, unmitigated day of spiritual rest after every six days of work. Originally, God issued the Ten Commandments to Moses in a post-slavery Egypt context, one in which the Israelites were working back-breaking labor without respite. Just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the earth, God commanded humans to do the same, understanding how little about our limits we know. Although in a vastly different culture, there is a similar “no days off” mentality (although this one is self-imposed) in the current gig economy, one not confined to a physical office: Work is wherever your 13-inch laptop is.
Non-Christians also know very well how important “detoxing” from technology and work culture is: The preponderance of pricey retreat camps for engineers who want to find their "innernet” amid a culture that is dragging them along at uncomfortably fast speeds reveals that we are working in a way that runs against our nature. There is a God-created rhythm in our lives that we must obey, because God knows it is the actual way we can create “the best version of ourselves,” a notion of self centered not on us, but on God. As Jesus states in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Frankly, in our current culture, both Old Testament and New Testament ideas of Sabbath have been lost. Old Testament prophets had to continually remind Israelites that the key to prosperity was living as God’s ordained people, and the key to that was to observe the Sabbath. Ezekiel states, “Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (20:12). Jeremiah says, “But if you listen to me, declares the Lord, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but keep the Sabbath day holy and do no work on it … this city shall be inhabited forever” (17:24). There is even a one-year Sabbath ordained in Leviticus 25, in which after six years of hard labor, an entire year is dedicated to the Lord in rest, dwelling in the assurance of God’s providence.
Jesus never criticizes the Sabbath’s day of holy rest, only how the Jewish people had twisted rest into counterproductive rule-mongering. He frequently heals on the Sabbath, saying “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12), and he never fails to respect the holiness of the day. Paul continues the less regulated, less judgmental Sabbath Jesus ordains. He writes in Colossians 2:16, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” The Christian Sabbath becomes opened up in terms of can dos and cannot dos, but its importance remains the same.
Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, writes, “To sanctify the holy day is the same as to keep it holy. But what is meant by keeping it holy? Nothing else than to be occupied in holy words, works, and life.” He even goes as far to say that God “will punish all who despise His Word and are not willing to hear and learn it, especially at the time appointed for the purpose.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Sabbath as a “protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money.” Overall, rhetoric around the Sabbath will and must never change, even though our society bends in different ways. It is a command that we take an entire day off from not only physically working, but from the work-oriented mindset as well.
In Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Pastor Peter Scazzero offers an immense wealth of knowledge that can be used to help Christians Sabbath correctly. He writes, “On Sabbath I embrace my limits. God is God. He is indispensable. I am his creature. The world continues working fine when I stop.” On a deeper level, we may feel that we might fail God if we do not constantly pursue God’s work on the ground. Scazzero constantly emphasizes understanding our limits, and working within them through God.
Scazzero likens the Sabbath to a snow day, in which all pressures and obligations are lifted, and all we can do is actively, yet restfully ponder the love of God. The Sabbath, to Scazzero, is simply doing “whatever delights and replenishes you.” He acknowledges that Sabbathing in our contemporary society is an incredibly far-fetched and aspirational idea, and Scazzero affirms that it will be difficult, that Christians will have to reorganize their weeks to take a Sabbath off. This may be near impossible for those who may work every day of the week, or have responsibility over other people — that is why there is no judgement when one cannot Sabbath. If a person has the means to Sabbath, however, the insight, wisdom, and intimacy with God and others one can achieve is unparalleled when compared to the productivity one could achieve by working that extra day.
The notion of “doing good,” of the disciplined Protestant work ethic, can also be easily twisted from someone having the mentality of Christ to thinking he or she is Christ. In this current moment of rapid fire social media, we are exposed to countless depictions of suffering and tragedy, both in here and abroad — it is easy for us, as Americans, to see the world’s suffering as our responsibility. This longing is good and biblical, but can easily contort into a savior complex, believing the sole burden to fix society lies on the individual. A self-centered faith emerges, one that does not fully trust the power and immensity of God but trusts rather in individualistic doings. The self, rather than God, becomes glorified, and as the self continues to work and work, there is simply no time to reflect on this backwardness.
Thomas Merton writes in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Thus, it is critical that we devote not just a few minutes in devotion time, or an hour and a half in church service, but an entire day dedicated to resting and dwelling in God’s grace, not feeling the urge to constantly “do.” If Christians began acting toward this calling to Sabbath, the work that we do, whether it be corporate or social justice, will undoubtedly begin to change radically for God’s glory.