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Sabbath-making as Soul-keeping


Over the course of a busy semester at Belfast Bible College the pressure from assignments and exams, administration, teaching, homes, health, placements, and worries is felt not only in our souls and minds but also our bodies.  Now and again we have phases in life when we just plain get tired, and we need a break from pressing labours.  But sometimes, if we’re honest, we reach this place less because of this or that particular obligation and more because we haven’t been pausing along the way.  When this happens, we not only grow weary but we can get plumb worn out.  

The word ‘Sabbath’ might trigger repulsion from some, depending on how legalistically it has been used in a person’s context. But instead of talking about the usual Sabbath-keeping, I’m talking about Sabbath-making. Weekly rest is something we make as a form of inspired receptivity to God’s provision. Creating Sabbath is a salvific activity: it is God who keeps our souls as we rely on him through restful space. When we trust God to take care of us, as theologian Marva Dawn explains, we cease from compulsive productivity and embrace wholeness.[1]  These are two movements, if you will, of a weekly day of rest: we cease with one hand and embrace with the other.

Exodus 16.11-30 is a good example of the first movement of ceasing.  This account illustrates God’s provision for his people even when they were doing nothing to make it happen.  The Israelites had what they needed when they took God at his word; when they collected enough manna for two days and rested on the Sabbath, the manna stayed fresh and they ate their fill. It was an act of faith to collect twice as much on the sixth day of the week in order not to have to collect it on the seventh.  Trust is at the heart of Sabbath ceasing.

But what about us?  From what are we meant to cease?  Simply put, Sabbath starts with taking a 24-hour period away from that which resembles labour. What constitutes work differs from person to person, but generally speaking it is that which you do for the most of your week, whether or not you get paid for it.

As Dawn suggests, though, we should extend the subject of work to the broader cultural compulsion to be productive.  Even if we are not working at our day jobs on a Sunday, we can try to ‘get done’ a whole list of other things that we didn’t get done during the week.  This, though, is to miss the point of Sabbath. The Sabbath is not given to us to use but to enjoy. As one Jewish scholar puts it: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. [The Sabbath] is not an interlude but the climax of living.”[2]

The first question, then, is, from what do you need rest on a Sabbath day? What do you constantly feel the weight of getting done?  What is ‘work’ for you? It’s important to identify this so you aren’t mindlessly sucked in to doing what saps your life. 

So we come to a second ‘movement’ of Sabbath practice, which is embracing. There are multiple gospel passages that talk about wholeness. For example, in Luke 13.10-17 we read about a woman who had been crippled for nearly two decades by an evil spirit.  Jesus knew that the law prohibited work on the Sabbath, so when he healed this woman on the Sabbath, he was well aware that he was going to get up the nose of the religious leaders. Yet Jesus wanted to make the point that God gave the Sabbath to bring life to his creation, not to quash body and spirit (which is exactly what religious legalism does).  On this special day we are to embrace that which fosters life.

In this light, one of the most important things we can pursue on the Sabbath is wholeness of being.  You may know the biblical word for it: shalom. It means more than just peace between disgruntled parties; it indicates being safe, sound, healthy, perfect, and complete.  It signifies a sense of harmony both within and without— the absence of distress or friction whether that be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.

In short, shalom is God’s word for fullness and goodness and total satisfaction in life.  We could say with Cornelius Plantinga that “shalom is the way things ought to be.”[3] Of what shalom are you in need, or what wholeness can you bring to another? What restorative activities can you intentionally embrace once a week?  By and large these include any activity which you can enjoy with a free spirit and that is up-building for mind, body, soul, and emotions.  Think for a moment now about what gives you energy, what restores you. What do you think is just plain fun?

Western culture is fuelled in large part by a scarcity mentality, which leads to worry about whether there will be enough time, money, energy, people, sunshine, patience, or love to do what we need to do. It infiltrates so much of our media, thought life, and financial habits that we don’t even realise the low-level, almost constant urge to obtain ‘enough’, not just for today but for the future.  But our God is a God of abundance and our trust in him means we live in a place of sufficiency. Just like the Israelites knew enough manna for each day, and as the crippled woman knew Jesus’s sufficiency to restore her to health, so also we are invited every single week to express our trust of our good, good Father through the sacred habit of Sabbath-making.  And in so doing we entrust our souls one more time to the only One who is able to keep them safe until the day of our final Sabbath rest.

[1] Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), sections I and II. Sections III and IV address the Sabbath habits of embracing and feasting respectively.

[2] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath (Toronto: Harper Collins Canada, 1951), 14. Italics mine.

[3] Cornelius Plantinga Jr, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be (Leicester: Apollos, 1995).