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The Practice of Sabbath Time: The Trust of Ceasing

May 9, 2011

Inagrace Dietterich

In 2011, I am blogging on the theme “The Simple Life: God’s Quiet Revolution of Love, Forgiveness, and Unity”

All the great motifs of our Christian faith are underscored in our Sabbath keeping. Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of God’s grace. Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope—the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come. (Marva Dawn)1


At a time of economic uncertainty, with many people either unemployed or underemployed, with local, state, and national budget deficits, with the gap between the haves and have-nots increasing, the church has the opportunity to proclaim a message of hope. While joining in efforts to improve economic well-being, as well as programs to care for those most affected by the downturn of the economy, the opportunity is to witness to an alternative way of life, a simpler lifestyle that is not dependent upon worldly success. Indeed, the message of God’s quiet revolution of love, forgiveness, and unity may be easier for people to hear as they realize that they cannot secure their own material well-being. Thus the Beatitudes in Matthew and Luke proclaim God’s blessings upon the poor and the powerless—“the broken-hearted” (Isa. 61:1). The intent is not to celebrate poverty, but to affirm that human wealth and strength may prevent people from relying upon God’s mercy and love. “The ‘poor in spirit’ are those who stand without pretense before God, stripped of all self-sufficiency, self-security, and self-righteousness.” 2

The practice of sabbath time holds promise as a way to begin experiencing and experimenting with what it means to live a simple life, a life of discipleship trusting in and waiting upon God. Marva Dawn in Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, offers a perspective which brings the theological, practical, and missional aspects of sabbath keeping together. Over the next few months, this blog will draw upon her work to consider: (1) The Trust of Ceasing: The experience of freedom from and repentance for work and worry. (2) The Faith of Resting: The renewal of life in grace-full faith. (3) The Joy of Embracing: The intentionality of commitments and lifestyle. (4) The Hope of Feasting: The fun and festivity of a weekly eschatological party.

SABBATH TIME. The English word “sabbath” comes from the Hebrew verb shabbat, which means primarily “to cease or desist.” To practice sabbath time means that the community stops doing what it normally does, that it ceases the activities that fill up the “work-week.” The biblical accounts of God’s creative endeavors indicate that the rhythm of six days of work and one day of ceasing work is a pattern not only recommended but also modeled by God. After working for six days to made heaven and earth, on the seventh day, God “ceased and was refreshed” (cf. Ex. 31:17). God’s sabbath calls for all human labors to cease. Time and opportunity are thus made available for repentance, for the confession of the many ways in which we human creatures try to be God by attempting to secure our own lives and create our own future.

CEASING WORK AND ACHIEVEMENT. Western civilization is built upon the work ethic. Identity, security, and status are all dependent upon the ability to work, the drive to be productive, and the desire to achieve. It is hard to escape the impression that people are valued in large part because of their busyness. Admiration is given not to the poet or artist, but to the hard driving entrepreneur who works 80 hours a week. The Bible offers a different perspective. Rather than congratulate those who keep working despite physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, it declares that the failure to set appropriate limits on work is a criminal offense of the highest order (cf. Ex. 31:12-17). While it is questionable whether sabbath violators were ever put to death, the strong rhetoric indicates the importance attributed to the sabbath. As “a sabbath to the LORD” (Lev. 23:3) no work is to be done in order to give honor to the covenant God.

Not only ceasing to work, but putting work within a proper perspective is an important part of keeping the sabbath. In the biblical  stories of  creation work is not the primary purpose of human existence. Rather than work, it is companionship with their Creator and with one another than marks the life of the first couple. While Adam and Eve were expected to tend and care for the garden (Gen. 2:15), it was not hard, exhausting labor that was intended. What God wanted was a good garden: “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.” 3 What God got, due to the human rejection of God’s intention, was a thorn-choked world of weeds, rocks, and dust that would yield its fruit only with hard work.

The Bible does not glorify human labor for its own sake. Work is understood to be a part of humanity’s service in the care of God’s good creation. Beyond the garden, hard work must be done for the preservation and maintenance of life. Yet joy and fulfillment come not in relation to work but in relation to doing the will of God. The work of human persons is to fit within the larger and more basic purposes of God. Only within this context do the professions and occupations of human persons have value. “God intends that human beings act in relationship to the divine blessing, find the fulfillment of their lives in the world where they have been placed, both by working and more particularly by resting from work.” 4

By advocating the ceasing of work the practice of sabbath time is counter-cultural. Challenging the work ethic, it calls into question the frantic efforts to prove human worth by accumulating possessions and accomplishments. While the exact definition of “work” can be debated, basically what is meant is that for one day a week all activity that requires changing the natural, material world is to be stopped. By letting God’s world be, the created world can be celebrated and the Creator offered praise and thanksgiving. “To refrain from working—not every day, but one in seven—opens up temporal space within which a glad and grateful relationship with God and a peaceful and appreciative relationship with nature and other people can grow.” 5

Sabbath ceasing from work and achievement declares that identity is found in relationship with God. It is the God who created, formed, redeemed, and called God’s people by name who makes human beings valuable: “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Isa. 43:4). One of greatest gifts of practicing sabbath time within the Christian community is the nurturing of a sense of personal worth that is not tied in with usefulness and/or success.

CEASING WORRY, ANXIETY AND TENSION. It may be easier to cease working than to cease worrying. Life within modern societies provides a great deal to be anxious about, just scan the daily news. Or notice the increase of stress-related illnesses such as heart attacks and depression. Alcoholism and drug use as well as spousal and child abuse can be linked to the tension of contemporary living. As hostility and alienation grow, as incidents of road rage and school shootings increase, more and more people are withdrawing into gated communities. “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy suddenly to appear, intrude, and do harm.” 6

To such a people and in such a world, the Christian community is called to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). Rather than setting aside the dangers and difficulties of daily life, sabbath time brings the life-giving gospel into concrete engagement with the death-giving aspects of culture. It is a time to gain new perspectives, new priorities, and a new sense of God’s presence. By providing the opportunity to bring forward, lift up, and let go of the often-terrifying circumstances of daily life, hope can emerge from despair, light from darkness. Sabbath ceasing thus does not mean ignoring but rather confronting the distorted reality of an alienated world. The community of faith in and through its worship—praying and singing, confessing and forgiving, proclaiming and celebrating—announces to itself and to the world a different reality: this is God’s creation and God is in charge. On this basis it can also declare: “Fret not yourself …commit your way to the LORD; trust in him…be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him” (Ps. 37:1, 5, 7).

To keep the sabbath is to practice Paul’s advice: “Rejoice in the Lord always….Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:4, 6). As surprising as it might be the most frequent command in the Bible is “Don’t be afraid. Fear not.” This Good News does not reflect naive optimism, but is the affirmation that in the event of Jesus Christ the principalities and powers of a fallen and hostile world have been overcome. And even more, it is the promise and assurance that through the power of the Holy Spirit God is actively present to all those who call upon the Lord. “To celebrate the Sabbath is to rejoice in God’s presence. Our practices for the day include extra moments of thanksgiving and special times of prayer and petition, by which we can lay our anxieties and worries before God so that God’s peace, which both bypasses and surpasses our understanding, can guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” 7

CEASING TRYING TO BE GOD. The practice of sabbath time is a witness of confidence, trust, and hope. It declares that God governs this world and therefore human beings do not have to work and worry about making everything come out right. This affirmation goes contrary to the wisdom of the world which believes that one of the marks of maturity is the ability to be self-reliant, to be independent, to be in charge of one’s life. Individuals are taught to put stock in their own abilities, efforts, and initiatives as if their very lives depended upon it. Rather than God’s gracious gift, life is what we humans make of it. Indeed, one of the primary sources of worry, anxiety, and tension is the expectation that each person is on their own, in charge of their own destiny, and therefore must, in effect, be their own god.

But the wisdom of the world does not always coincide with God’s wisdom. Karl Barth opens his discussion of Christian ethics with this reminder: By demanding that men and women rest from their own works, it [the sabbath command-ment] explains that the commanding God, who has created humans and commissioned them, is the God who is gracious to them in Jesus Christ. Thus it points them away from everything that they themselves can will and achieve and back to what God is for them and will do for them. 8

One of the reasons Sabbath ceasing can be so freeing is that when persons cease to work and worry, they also cease trying to secure their own lives and create their own future. In other words, they let God be God! The people of Israel were taught this important lesson during the wilderness experience. The story of God’s provision of “manna” (Ex. 16:13-30) illustrates not only God’s care for God’s people, but also the difficulty of believing and relying upon that care. A work and achievement oriented people will always have that difficulty. As they worry about the future, they will continue to gather more than they need. And in their self-reliance, they will continue to ignore the fact that all of their stockpiling efforts will get pretty wormy once they lose track of God’s provision.

CONCLUSION. The practice of sabbath time, a time of ceasing, a time of abstaining from work and worry and reflecting upon the wonders of God’s work, will not come easily to contemporary communities of faith. Repenting of all the ways in which they try to be God will not come naturally nor will it be comfortable. Turning to God with hope-filled minds and hearts, trusting in God’s promises, means that they must stop, take their hands off the controls, quit their restless tinkering with the world, precisely in order to observe the power and grace of God. While there is much for God’s people to do as they participate in God’s mission in the world, the first step is to slow down, step back, and withdraw from the frantic pace of the world—and of the church. “Letting God be God in our lives does not, of course, mean passivity. We do not simply sit back and say that God is in charge of our work. Rather, when we get our priorities straight and remember that God is God and that we are merely [God’s] servants, we are empowered to do all that we can to be good stewards of the gifts and resources we have been given.” 9


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How can the practice of sabbath time lead to participation in God’s quiet revolution of love, forgiveness and unity?
  2. Read Exodus 31:12-17. Notice that God rested from the work of creation and “was refreshed.” Why should God’s people keep the Sabbath?
  3. How can the practice of sabbath time engage anxieties and fears?
  4. What does the phrase “hope of ceasing” mean to you?
  5. Identify key obstacles to ceasing from work and worry and placing full trust in God?
  6. How can your congregation more fully communicate a vision and provide support for a simpler way of life, a life filled with the practice of Sabbath time?

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

1 Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting  (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 203.
2 Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Word Books, p. 98).
3 Howard Thurman, quoted in Verna J. Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cowley Publications, 1991).
4 Walter Harrelson, Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Fortress Press, 1980), p. 85.
5 Dorothy C. Bass, “Keeping Sabbath,” Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (Jossey-Bass, 1991), p. 86.
6 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), p. 46.
7 Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 24.
8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark, 1936), Vol. 3, Pt.4, p. 53.
9 Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 30.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Inagrace Dietterich permalink
    June 14, 2011 4:40 pm

    Here is an idea for practicing sabbath rest, from Wayne Muller in his book, SABBATH: RESTORING THE SACRED RHYTHM OF REST (Bantam, 1999):


    Sabbath time is enriched by some period of intentional silence. Choose a period of time or an activity—such as a walk or hike, alone or with someone you love—when you will refrain from speech. Notice what arises in silence, the impulse to speak, the need to judge or respond to what you see, hear, feel. Notice any discomfort that arises when you are not free to speak.

    When I first went to a monastery, the Great Silence between evening meal and breakfast seemed unbearable. Later, during a ten-day silent meditation retreat, I was convinced that the other retreatants—also silent—were all angry, or somehow mad at me. I could not rely on my wit, charm, or intellect to engage them. For the first few days I resented the silence. Now, after years of practice, I seek out silences, I delight in them. They seem sweet, safe, a Sabbath, a genuine sanctuary in time.


  2. Inagrace Dietterich permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:06 am

    Creating Time and Space

    Sabbath can only begin if we close the factory, turn out the lights, turn off the computer, and withdraw from the concerns of the marketplace. Choose at least one heavily used appliance or device—the telephone, television, computer, washer and dryer—and let them rest for a Sabbath period. Whether it is morning, afternoon, or an entire day, surrender to a quality of time when you will not be disturbed, seduced, or responsive to what our technologies have to offer. Notice how you respond to its absence. (Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest).


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