At its heart, sabbath is a life-affirming rhythm of joy, gratitude, laughter, wonder, and delight interwoven throughout our entire lives. We see this principle affirmed in Jesus’s response to criticism he receives about his own sabbath practice: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28, NRSV). My reading of Scripture has led me to a simple rule of thumb for what counts as sabbath practice: whatever fills you with more love for God, others, and yourself is a genuine sabbath practice. Here’s another way to say it: whatever breathes God’s life into you fits God’s purpose for sabbath rest.
Although the ways we enact sabbath in our lives will differ from one another, the purpose is the same for each of us: that which leads to the vitality and well-being of the whole person. Jesus, for example, feeds his disciples and heals the “whole body” (John 7:23) on the sabbath. Here are the simple principles that guide my practice of sabbath:
– Do that which fills you with joy and delight.
– Do that which leaves you refreshed and renewed emotionally.
– Do that which promotes peace of mind, body, and spirit.
– Do those things and be with those people who fill you with life and love.
In light of its life-giving intent, a sabbath practice that makes sense for us all is to avoid anything that stirs up worry or hurry. Abraham Heschel in his book The Sabbath provides wise theological counsel here: “The seventh day is the exodus from tension . . . a day of detachment from things . . . the Sabbath is given to us by God for joy, for delight, for rest, and should not be marred by worry or grief. . . . Rest on the Sabbath as if all your work were done.” For this reason good food, naps, time with family and friends, music, hiking, singing, gardening, and love-making for married couples are all wonderful sabbath practices. Do whatever recreates, restores, renews, or refills your spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional reservoir. Do whatever increases joy, delight, and rest. And avoid doing whatever detracts from any of these.
Heschel’s wise words keep me grounded in the theological reasons God created sabbath in the first place. Rather than sabbath being about obeying a list of rules that drain us of life, God’s original intent for sabbath was to breathe life into God’s people. We exhale all week long as we give of ourselves to our jobs, families, and other responsibilities. When we practice a rhythm of sabbath restfulness, we inhale rest, joy, and delight, and we exhale tension, worry, and grief.
When we practice a rhythm of sabbath restfulness, we inhale rest, joy, and delight, and we exhale tension, worry, and grief.
Sabbath is a day to surrender ourselves and our limitations, fears, and worries to God. When we acknowledge that we’ve done all we can, no more and no less, only then can we enter into God’s rest. I find that my best sabbaths disconnect as much as possible from what Wendell Berry calls “the six days’ world” in his book This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Berry says that, in order to enter fully into sabbath rest, “you must leave behind the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.” Berry speaks to me of the need to let go of everything I feel the need to control, including my “plans and hopes.” Perhaps you will want to make it a weekly practice to surrender to God on your sabbath someone or something you worry about. For at least one day a week, you can remember that you have done everything you can for six days. On your sabbath, you can entrust your life and loved ones to the God who cares for you seven days a week. When we keep sabbath well, sabbath protects us from the worries of the other six days of the week.
As you discern with loved ones what a rhythm of sabbath rest may look like for you, be careful not to work too hard at resting. Be playful in your sabbath practices. Take small steps. It’s neither wise nor helpful to change your entire life today. Some days and weeks will go better than others. Give yourself the gift of being allowed to fail, and remember that you’re on a journey. What is most important is that the long-term trajectory of your life is bent toward greater restfulness for yourself and others.
This is an except from Joe Gorman’s latest book by The Foundry Publishing, Healthy, Happy, Holy: 7 Practices toward a Holistic Life.