Which commandment of God is most consistently ignored in the western world? I would argue that the command to take a weekly day of rest is a strong contender for that position.
‘Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…’ (Exodus 20:8-10a)
‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).
In years gone by. the Sabbath (interpreted as referring to Sunday) left a bad taste in the mouths of many Christians. It featured a long list of things you could and couldn’t do. Could you go out for a meal? Could you read a newspaper or watch TV? Could you go to a soccer game? In some houses all you could read was the Bible or Pilgrim’s Progress!
Nowadays we’ve gone to the opposite extreme. Very few Christians seem to have any qualms about going out for lunch after church on Sunday (and thereby requiring others to work). Sunday sports is completely acceptable; in fact, if you’re a parent of a child in a sports league, it will likely displace church for at least half the year. We’re proud of the fact that we’re no longer legalistic. “We don’t interpret the Sabbath literally”, we say, meaning we don’t actually take any notice of it at all.
Also, society has changed; we no longer live in Christendom, and there is now no longer a single, agreed-on day of the week which is completely safe from the demands of economic activity. Your employer can require you to work any day they like, and require you to be available, via smartphone, at the times you aren’t at work (and if you’re self-employed, your customers will certainly expect that!).
I find it interesting that we so often counter an extremism by going to the opposite extreme! And all the time, looking at the people in my parish (especially the younger people), I find myself thinking, “Wow, they could really use a rest!” I’ve read that we sleep on average two hours a night less than our grandparents used to sleep. Most of us don’t work in jobs that wear us out physically, so we don’t go to bed exhausted and fall asleep right away. Also, we drink lots of caffeine, use electric light all evening and stare at screens – which plays havoc with our bodies’ production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep.
Do we now begin to understand the sheer generosity of God? In Egypt the slave-drivers required the Israelite slaves t work 24/7 to produce bricks for their building projects, but when God led the slaves to freedom he gave them the priceless gift of a day off! Yes – the Sabbath was made for our benefit! God taught them – and he teaches us too – that we run best if we don’t give ourselves over to economic activity 24/7. Once a week, we need to take a break. ‘For best results, follow Maker’s instructions’!
Never mind what society says is legal or illegal; we can’t expect a secular society to make it easy for us to follow God’s instructions. We have to take responsibility for this ourselves. Maybe our Sabbath will not be Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) or Sunday (the Christian ‘Lord’s Day’). All right – so what day of the week are we going to take as our Sabbath? And how are we going to take it?
Monday is my Sabbath, and I try to start it at least by Sunday evening. I don’t work on that day, I don’t book meetings for it, and I don’t check work email through the day. Marci and I are both off, so we have things we do together (one of my ideals is to spend a couple of hours outside, but I’ll freely admit that’s more of a summer than a winter thing).
I know of people who observe a digital sabbath – once a week they disconnect from all their screens and spend the day doing other things. In today’s world, where the screens so often summon us back to the demands of employers/customers and the relentless, 24/7 economy, I find that idea rather attractive, although I don’t do it myself (because I use my computer to write, and writing is one of the things I do for relaxation).
This is not about legalism. This is about health, wholeness, well-being, shalom. We have been told quite clearly that we run best if we take a regular weekly day of rest. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’. In other words, it’s not a law, it’s a gift. Which makes it so sad that today we so often refuse it. In the end, we’re the ones who suffer by that refusal.
What concrete steps could you take to receive the weekly Sabbath as a gift from God?