Remember the sabbath day, and 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; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
We all know victims of our economic system: relatives struggling to rebuild their lives after bankruptcy; friends who can’t get enough work to support their families; young people forced to work at jobs far from their fields of interest and academic or vocational preparation; elders who can’t retire because of the looming specter of destitution. With their stories in the back of our minds, we become acutely aware of the fragility of our own positions.
For those of us who have a reasonable chance of competing in this unforgiving system, our awareness of how easy it is to falter pushes us to constant motion. We go to work early and stay late, eager to demonstrate our competence and initiative to our supervisors and colleagues. If we hope to change jobs, we network obsessively and spend our free moments filling out applications and building our skill sets. If we have children, we are tempted to occupy all of our free hours, and theirs, with activities that will make them more attractive applicants to elite schools and colleges, so that they can have a more secure future. Enjoying our fellows becomes more and more difficult as we try to fit time for relationship into our hectic schedules.
When fear for our economic survival is combined with a culture that values productivity and efficiency above nearly all else, rest seems like a luxury, at best, or an act of dangerous folly, at worst. So we push and we strive, hoping that our efforts will help us survive or demonstrate our worth. Of course, many people, all too conscious of their inability to compete in the race, fall into anger and despair. When you know that all the running in the world won’t take you anywhere, why stay in the race?
Striving and straining for our crust of bread is the way of the world and has been since Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. With technological developments that increasingly blur the distinctions between work and personal time and the fading of a cultural Christianity that largely kept Sunday free for rest, worship and family, the pace at which people who would be “successful” are forced to run is only picking up. But is constant striving God’s way?
In Genesis and in Exodus, we are told of a God who rests. This is not the only thing he does, of course. He creates and he labors, bringing forth the cosmos from the void. But from the beginning – and “in the beginning” – rest is an essential part of the agenda. For his twenty-first century image-bearers, the God who creates is easy to identify with. After all, labor and creation are a part of life, whether we are crafting presentations or pot roasts. By contrast, the God who rests is easily ignored or forgotten, dismissed as unnecessary or anachronistic by twenty-first century Christians. This perspective is totally backwards. Work is a part of life, but God himself commands us to rest. Every wild beast must find sustenance, but humans alone are invited to share a weekly, day-long communion with our Creator and our fellow creatures.
How do we respond to this invitation to spend a day each week resting with God and resting in God? Do we trust that our Father will take care of our careers, our homes and our future if we take a day off? Or do we stubbornly insist that we don’t have time to observe the sabbath, that our lives will only move forward properly if we personally oversee each detail seven days a week? While Christians have been freed from the chains of legalistic observance, we still have the duty and privilege of leaning on God for our support. Jesus relied on God’s provision for his every need. Dare we do the same?