By: Rieneke Helder | February 13, 2023
During our short lives the question that guides much of our behavior is: ‘Who are we?’ […] The three answers that we generally live — not necessarily give — are: ‘We are what we do, we are what others say about us, and we are what we have,’ or in other words: ‘We are our success, we are our popularity, we are our power.’ – Henri Nouwen (2023)
The practice of Sabbath is one that has historically been used to center Christians each week on their identity in Christ. Sabbath involves stripping away our productivity, taking delight in being with the people we love, and being reminded by the truths of Scripture that define who we are, rather than the words of others. The Christian discipline of Sabbath is scattered throughout Scripture and invites disciples of Jesus to both consider where we misplace our identity and intentionally recentre it on the finished work of Christ.
Whether a familiar or foreign practice, Christians at any point in their lives are invited into the slowness that our God displayed in creating for six days and resting on the seventh. There are plenty of books published on the topic (such as Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest by Ruth Haley Barton, or Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann), but one of the most fundamental pieces of a theology of Sabbath for our chaplain, Josiah Bokma, is that Sabbath invites us to be in touch with God’s character, something that will inevitably transform us.
Bokma shared that, “It’s less about taking a day off than it is about entering into the restfulness of God and resisting the restlessness of the world.”
Significant to Bokma’s learning about Sabbath, scholar Walter Brueggemann writes the following: “That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear [first,] that YHWH is not a workaholic, [second,] that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and [third] that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work… wherever YHWH governs as an alternative to Pharaoh, there the restfulness of YHWH effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh.”
Bokma continued, “There is an important difference between vegging and re-creation; we need to make sure we are not just vegging in our lives. There’s a place for our minds to spin, for our thoughts to be neutral, but if we don’t fill our minds with the wonder of Jesus we won’t actually be restored. Re-creation focuses on the question of how God wants to restore our souls, refresh us, and give us deep joy. In that, we consider what we love and delight in.”
Simon Mischuk, a third-year biblical and theological studies major, shared his perspective on and experience with Sabbath as a student.
“The point of Sabbath is continual rest in Christ. [I notice that there are] people who downplay the importance of Sabbath, or whose motivation for Sabbath is purely for the physical. They strip it of any spiritual meaning, saying, ‘God gave us Sabbath, and when you rest you’ll be more productive.’ It misses the point, I think.
“On the flip side, it can be legalistic if we say that we must Sabbath. To the legalists I’d say that it’s not a means of getting something from God, but that he gives it to us as a gift. We are called to rest in the finished work of Christ. That is where we find our rest, we continually come back to it, and we will end there.”
Mischuk continued about his own experiences, saying, “I struggle to Sabbath, and oftentimes I can get in my head about why I’m not Sabbathing—I need to do this, God’s commanded it. I’ve allowed it to become a hindrance, where it’s something I need to do rather than a gift that I get to [receive]. When I do Sabbath and take time to rest, it is spiritually fulfilling, not just physically; there’s a goodness in that, as I am drawn back to the truth of the Gospel again and again.”
Many of Mischuk’s peers express similar sentiments as he does, so what can be said for students in a world where we are wired to produce as much as we can to acquire our own stability? Often the biggest challenge in practicing that Sabbath rest is simply being able to put the work away. Bokma shared some practical tips that helped him in his own experience as a student:
“Sabbath can expose your idols and attachments, our restlessness. We see how hard it is actually to rest—that’s probably why we resist it!
“I would encourage students to organize their weeks and their lives practically so they can actually take a full 24 hours off from their academic work, which is studying. We must remind ourselves that it is an act of trust and surrender. The fear is that you need that time to get your stuff done. One study showed that students who Sabbathed were actually even more efficient—they got as much or more done compared to students who did not practice Sabbath!
“[Additionally,] there can be flexibility as to which day and what hours you do it. One professor I know here takes off Saturday evening until Sunday afternoon, as they need Sunday evening to do course prep for the week. I also encourage that we don’t downplay the primacy of Sunday, [as] it was the day that Jesus rose from the dead on. Tying Sabbath to resurrection is vital; with Sunday being the first day of the week, we serve from a place of resurrection, not towards it.
“When considering how to spend your time when practicing Sabbath, think about questions like these: What brings you joy? Who brings you joy? What fills your heart with worship or wonder?”
Peter Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader and other titles, breaks Sabbath rest down to four components: First, stop work for a full 24 hours, regardless of the day. Second, enjoy rest. It’s not meant to be grueling or heavy, but something that lightens our load and invites us into the presence of our Father. Third, practice delight. When deciding what you do on the Sabbath, ask yourself what brings you life and joy. Fourth, contemplate God. Sabbath rest is not an invitation to sink further into ourselves, but rather to take delight in the control our Creator has over everything.
As Bokma shared, “[Practicing the Sabbath] shifts us away from performance identity, careerism, haggardness and hurriedness. It shifts us away from thinking that the world is on our shoulders.” How will you, as a student, faculty member, or friend of Redeemer, respond to the invitation we have been given to enter into the rest that God’s character inevitably provides us?