Sabbath: The Pleasure Of Doing Nothing

What Sabbath Taught Me About Rest  

When my daughter was little, she did everything to avoid napping. She desperately needed to nap every afternoon, and everyone knew it except her. When she caught herself nodding off, she would fidget and look around to see if there was a party happening to which she had not been invited. She continually resisted the rest that she most needed. Most grown-ups struggle with the same thing. It took me years to realize that my day off work--which I called my Sabbath--was merely a time for me to catch up on the things I did not do during the week, such as sorting clothes, sorting toys, taking my kids out on a date, paying the bills, preparing my next garage sale, selling stuff online, vacuuming, doing the laundry, planning meals, or writing a paper for a class. Checking off items from my to-do list brought me some temporary peace of mind but never really rest.

According to the American Center for Disease Control, 80% of doctors' visits are stress related. Each one of us experiences 50 stress responses a day, causing us to engage our "fight or flight" instinct, releasing powerful hormones designed to heighten senses in survival situations. The problem is that we have not been created to continually live in survival mode. Jesus' invitation to live life to the fullest has nothing to do with being high-strung or frantically moving from one crisis to the next. Living to the fullest requires the willingness to slow down in order to savor every moment that life gives us. Rest is a gift. Rest is a command. Rest is a person.

Rest is a Gift

In his book, The Sabbath, Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, provides a unique perspective on rest. Rooted in the Jewish tradition is the idea that on the seventh day of creation God did not simply abstain from work, but he created menuah (rest). Just as the heavens and earth were created in six days, menuah was created on the Sabbath, thus making the universe complete. Menuah is a state of being that can be translated to mean happiness, tranquillity, serenity, peace and rest. In Psalm 23, David sang about the waters of menuhot, translated into English as “still water." The psalmist writes that it is by those tranquil waters that his soul is restored. The stillness David alludes to in his song is not a physical place but it is a state of being.

In Jewish tradition, the fourth command to "Remember and keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8) is not only about refraining from work, but it is an invitation to rest even from the thought of labour.  We are to enter the Sabbath as if all the items on our to-do list were checked off. Choosing to observe the Sabbath is to accept God’s invitation to be in communion with him like two lovers on a date. It's a time to enjoy his presence alone or in good company. Heschel writes: “The Sabbath is a day of harmony and peace, peace between man and man, peace within man, and peace with all things” (p.31).

In Deuteronomy 5:12-15 we read the Lord's personal instructions about the Sabbath: “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On that day you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day".

Those instructions were given immediately after the Israelites were emancipated from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Twenty generations endured harsh treatment. Day after day, the Israelites were forced to work beyond their breaking point. Rest was never an option. Living freely and lightly was the most foreign concept to them. They were out of Egypt, but not free from the harmful conditioning caused by slavery. As a result of their liberation, God offers his children the gift of the Sabbath. Through the sweet invitation to rest, the people would remember and celebrate what God has done for them. Every time they observed the Sabbath, they would claim their freedom, worship their deliverer, and enter into God's fullness.

If Sabbath is a gift, why are we so reluctant to receive it and to make  the most of it?

I suggest that honoring the Sabbath requires faith and humility. It requires us to recognize that the world can get by without us for a day. It is a step of faith. It is an act of trust in his omnipotence. It is believing that He is wise enough, strong enough, and significant enough to sustain His work, even when we are not engaged in it. For that moment in time, we exist solely for God's pleasure. Heschel writes: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekend; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. Is not an interlude but the climax of living” (p.14). We rightfully seek fulfillment through work, relationships, adventures, fun activities, and various forms of entertainment. God created us to experience the pleasures of this beautiful playground we call earth. However, we were equally made to experience the unique pleasure of doing nothing.

Rest is a Command

Taking time to enter into Sabbath rest is not a recommendation, it is a command. We find it in the same list of commandments as “you shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). Yet, it is the only commandment we glorify ourselves in breaking. If people ask us how we are doing and find ourselves answering “busy,” it may be a sign that we are on a dangerous path. In his book The Holy Wild, Mark Buchanan explains “most of the things we need to be most fully alive never come in busyness. They grow in rest.” Should we not work hard for God? The problem is that we confuse "pleasing God" and "trusting God". The term “pleasing” is synonymous with “satisfying” or “appealing.” Pleasing may w understood God suggests that we can satisfy his demands or become more appealing to him. Through the right behaviors and more success? This system of thinking leads us to the performance trap:

  • More right conduct + less wrong behavior = Godliness
  • More success + less failure = Favour

God is inviting us to experience a new paradigm:

  • Doing less for God + being more with God = Peace
  • Less striving + more trust in God = Freedom and Rest

It is not that we religiously restrain ourselves from all work. I still prepare a meal for my family, but I am learning to discipline myself to slow down. I quiet my mind sufficiently so that I can tune into His presence and enjoy him more. He is a fun and playful person to hang out with.

Rest is a Person

“For a child to us is born, a son will be given to us, and the government will rest on his shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6)

 Jesus is the ruler over all things and the Prince of Peace. He declared himself the Lord of the Sabbath, the master of rest (Matthew 12:8). We will never find a passage in scripture that describes Jesus in a hurry or overly busy. In spite of the many demands that were pressing on him, he was never in a rush. He was fully present. He slept in the middle of the storm because he physically needed to. He took time away from the crowd because he wanted to slow down and enter that place of rest. For us, we find refuge in the realization that peace is not produced by the absence of something such as conflict, demands, and to-do lists, but it is found in the presence of someone. The Prince of Peace ushers us into his very nature.  A Sabbath honoring lifestyle is the cure for burnout.

 Since my burnout, I realized that Sabbath-rest is more than merely a day off work. It is a unique atmosphere we are invited to enter into. In the Jewish tradition, to enter into Sabbath-rest, we must let go of strife, fighting, anger, controversy, complaints, resentment, righteous indignation, or anything that may dampen the spirit of peace. We must let go of personal concerns, anxiety, sadness, fasting, mourning, worry, fear, distrust or any activity that might reduce the spirit of joy. It is a time to rest from all that drains our body, consumes our mind, confuses our spirit, and clutters our soul. Heschel calls it an “exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness.” It is an invitation into the very essence of The Prince of Peace.


Coaching questions:

  1.  How would you describe your pace of life? How manageable is it?
  2.  What would it look like for you to fully trust God in all areas of your life?
  3. What does the following statement mean to you? "Peace is not the absence of something, but the presence of someone."
  4. What must you let go of, in order to experience the Sabbath rest?


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Heschel, A. J. The Sabbath. Farrah, Straus, and Giroux. NY, New-York. 2005

Buchanan, M. The Holy Wild. Crown Publishing Group. 2009