Practicing Life-Giving Sabbath

  • 5 March 2018
  • Randy Wollf

field of flowersRivendell, an Elven realm in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a beautiful haven of rest – a place protected from the dangers plaguing Middle Earth. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes the peace that Frodo and his companions experience in Rivendell after narrowly escaping the evil forces bent on destroying them. In Rivendell, 

The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present.

Tolkien’s description captures something of the essence of Sabbath. When we practice Sabbath, whether it’s setting aside a full day or part of a day each week, we experience rest and peace amidst the rigors of life. In his book, The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan says we experience Sabbath when we stop doing what is necessary and do that which gives life. Life’s obligations and challenges don’t go away, but practicing Sabbath gives us a break from them and affords us the space to replenish ourselves and refocus on God and His priorities.

The Bible clearly teaches the importance of observing a Sabbath day of rest. God, Himself, rested after His creation work (Genesis 2:3). Did He need to rest? No. But by resting, God set an example for His human creation—the ones He made in His image—so that we would live maximum lives in keeping with His design for us.

Walter Brueggemann, in Reverberations of Faith, said:

Sabbath provides a visible testimony that God is at the center of life—that human production and consumption take place in a world ordered, blessed, and restrained by the God of all creation.

Practicing Sabbath is an acknowledgment that God is in control and that we trust Him to look after His creation (including us) as we rest. For those of us who struggle with workaholic tendencies, taking a daylong break from what is necessary breaks us free from our compulsion to engage in excessive work activities. Sometimes, we are motivated to work excessively because we believe we have financial needs. Other times, we simply work too much because we want more of things we don’t necessarily need. In both cases, taking a day off will help us to refocus on God as the One who provides and to realign our priorities in keeping with His desires. 

The Theology of Work Bible Commentary describes how Sabbath is intended for our good. Jesus said that Sabbath was made for people and not the other way around (Mark 2:27). In Luke 6:1-5, we see Jesus and his disciples picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath. In addition, Jesus healed on the Sabbath (e.g. Luke 6:9; 14:5). Jesus, as the Lord of the Sabbath, clearly demonstrated that it is desirable to meet human needs, including our own, on the Sabbath.

What gives you life? How are you currently taking time to focus on God and to replenish your body, mind and spirit? I love to practice a day of rest on Sundays, although when I was a pastor, I would often take my Sabbath on a different day. For me, I find engaging corporate worship and an interactive study of Scripture life-giving. I greatly enjoy family time, whether it’s discussing life around our usual Sunday lunch of home-made bread and soup, going for a Sunday afternoon walk, or playing a table game. I also find that reading a good book can give me a break from the normal routines. 

Reggie McNeal reminds us that “Putting off Sabbath means putting off life.” 

Practicing Sabbath has many benefits. Yet, one of the biggest benefits is that it serves as a rallying point for practicing Sabbath rest throughout the week. It sets a tone for trusting God and resting in Him. Mark Buchannan says that Sabbath is “both time on a calendar and a disposition of the heart. It is a day we enter, but just as much a way we see.” Practicing Sabbath helps us to experience Psalm 91:1-2 continuously:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

As Harry Emerson Fosdick has said:

He who cannot resy, cannot work; he who cannot let go, cannot hold on; he who cannot find footing, cannot go forward.

We need a Sabbath day and a Sabbath heart.

Randy Wollf is the Director of MinistryLift and Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Leadership Studies at MB Seminary.

>> You can discover how to incorporate Sabbath practices in your life by watching this MinistryLift training video (available to MinistryLift members) or by contacting MinistryLift to inquire about training in this area.