One of the ways I got around sabbath-keeping for so long is that I dismissed it as “a Jewish thing” that had very little to do with me. It was certainly a nice idea, but I wasn’t convinced it was something important from God for me. I am not alone in this; it seems many have had a tendency to dismiss sabbath as being part of another culture, a relic of another place and time. This is why it is so important to begin our exploration of the sabbath by fully grasping that this whole idea actually begins with God. God lived it first and later shared it with his chosen people as the optimal way to live.
When time had no shape at all, God created “a holiness in time” by working six days and then ceasing on the seventh. Over time this rhythm became uniquely associated with the Jewish culture because the Israelites were the first group of people to practice sabbath and experience its benefits, but the pattern of working six days and then resting on the seventh is something that flows from God’s very nature and being. So we honor those who first incorporated sabbath-keeping into their way of life and learn all we can from them (which certainly puts the Judeo back into our Judeo-Christian tradition!), knowing that the practice of sabbath-keeping really cannot be relegated to one group of people in one time period. Sabbath begins with God.
Sabbath is more than a lifestyle suggestion or an expression of one’s ethnicity.
It is a spiritual precept that emerges from the creation narrative where God expresses God’s very nature by finishing the work and then ceasing on the seventh day.
What if this pattern of working six days and then entering into tranquility and peace, happiness and harmony on the seventh has always been there for us—established by God at the very beginning of the created order—how might this change our lives if we fully grasped its significance?
Entering into this God-ordained rhythm is one very concrete way in which God’s people can become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Sabbath is a means of grace, a practice that creates channels for God to impart something of God’s self so we can then be a conduit of God’s nature to the world.
When we first start practicing the sabbath, we might not always experience this peace and serenity right away or even every time. The first thing we might experience is the discomfort of discovering how addicted we are to human striving and hard work; we might discover that we do not even know who we are when we are not working. As we unplug from our normal ways of being connected, we might experience intensifying feelings of angst or fear of missing out, or we might be ambushed by emotions we have kept at bay by staying so distracted and busy. This is all very normal and most of us will encounter some of these inner dynamics from time to time, making sabbath feel anything but peaceful. But after twenty years of practice and learning to wait through the initial discomfort, my experience now is that this peace, this tranquility, this shalom descends more quickly as I unplug and power down, trusting my weary soul to God.
Ruth Haley Barton is founder of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors and Christian leaders, and the congregations and organizations they serve. A seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), Ruth holds a doctor of divinity from Northern Seminary along with her studies at the Loyola University Chicago Institute for Pastoral Studies. She is a sought-after speaker and preacher, having served on the pastoral staffs of several churches and also teaching frequently at the graduate level. Ruth’s books include Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Life Together in Christ, Sacred Rhythms, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Retreat, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence. She shares perspectives on transforming leadership through her Beyond Words blog and her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership podcast. Her latest book is entitled Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (10/2022).