If you’re in ministry, you’ve been there. Plans are set to have a day off or some time away or even a meal with the family but…ministry doesn’t stop. I remember when I worked my first 100-hour week. I didn’t set out to do this but worked from 7 am to 10 pm seven days in a row. As I was ending that stretch on that Sunday evening it finally hit me,
I would never get everything I wanted to accomplish finished. There was always one more person to call, one more prayer to pray, one more detail to make righter.
I couldn’t possibly have worked any harder, more efficiently (at least at that point), or cared any more deeply about what I was doing. Add an unknown messiah complex to that and I was experiencing the never-ending merry-go-round that many of us do in vocational ministry.
What I needed, and what I imagine all of us who follow Jesus need, was permission to let our souls breathe, to experience downtime without guilt, and to work from a place of rest.
Why do we do this to ourselves? The US Travel Association says that Americans left 768 million vacation days unused this year, equating to $65.5 billion in lost benefits. More than half (55%) of workers reported they did not use all their allotted time off. For many of us, this has become a point of pride, we brag about how much vacation time we don’t use on a regular basis. That’s insane.
And yet, that was me. I was foolish. No one thinks they will burn out…until they do.
But this goes deeper than vacation days. Finding healthy ways to recharge (and not just escape – which has led to marriage and ministry difficulties) has been a recurring theme in coaching ministers and pastors. Most of us have learned how to have a terrible sabbath.
Perhaps we wouldn’t even need dedicated vacation days if we simply followed the Lord’s regular rhythms.
Rest from work or work from Rest
Scholars differ on why the Lord rested on day seven of creation but most agree that this is a model for we who follow the Way. Some have made a big deal (and I think rightly so) about man’s first act – to rest. God finished His extraordinary work of creation by creating man on day six. If I were just created on day six, I would be itching to get started but the first thing our Creator wanted from His creation was…to rest, then to work.
Most of us work as hard as we can for as long as we can until we have to rest – either because our body forces a rest (sickness) or our family or friendships demand a rest from work. But God has His creation work after they rest on day 7. Many then have magnified this idea summarized as working from rest rather than resting from work. Pattern? Model? At the least, we could say this is wise.
Most of us work as hard as we can for as long as we can until we have to rest – either because our body forces a rest (sickness) or our family or friendships demand a rest from work. But God has His creation work after they rest on day 7. Many then have magnified this idea summarized as working from rest rather than resting from work. Pattern? Model? At the least we could say this is wise.
I remember pushing through in college and, on average, pulling one all-nighter/month to catch up. I would take caffeine pills the following day through classes. Studies show that we are generally more productive when we don’t fight our bodies and find natural rhythms. Perhaps not working to the point of exhaustion but working from a place of rest would even increase our productivity.
Fun Class Assignment
This takes convincing for most of us. Though we know sabbath is wise and even see it in the scriptures we can easily dismiss it as an old covenant idea or rationalize it in another way. I invite the class each semester to debate the merits of the sabbath. Specifically, I ask them if sabbath is a suggestion or sin (if we don’t observe it). It is interesting to hear different perspectives each year. This is a matter that we all must cement in our hearts to live The Way our King desires. This much is sure, the sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27).
Or maybe cementing this in our minds is not enough. It wasn’t for me. I had to wrestle with identity at a deeper level first. I was grounded in the myth that I was the protagonist in my story and needed to rescue those needing help. I had to work harder because people were dying and literally going to Hell. Even as I write that I know it is paramount in importance but the faulty assumption is that I was the hero, not simply fruit attached to a vine. I forgot that it is His kindness that would lead people to repentance. It wasn’t until I was forced onto sabbatical that I woke up out of the matrix and was compelled to surrender.
Practical ways to (not) have a terrible sabbath
Pete Scazzero, responsible for helping to resurrect the sabbath for 21st-century protestants, outlines a good sabbath routine. He says that we need to Stop, Rest, Contemplate, and Delight. This is not a day off, it is “to the Lord”.
I never want to teach something I am not practicing so when I practice sabbath well I find these three ingredients need to be present:
- Rest. It seems as though Scripture compels us to treat this day distinctly. It is holy (distinct, separate, set apart). I cease striving on this day and rest differently. This is the only day of the week that I don’t set an alarm to wake up earlier than I would want. Some people will take a nap or go to bed early. What would real rest look like for you?
- Recreation. The students are often afraid that to experience a sabbath means that they are going to be staring at a wall all day and trying to not “work.” Taking the idea of creation, I look for a mode of re-creation. What activities give life? Recreate you? More and more it seems when I ask that question the response centers around nature for myself and those in my circles. I’ve been told that if you stare at a computer screen for most of your workday, you long for nature to recharge. For me, this is the day where I say yes to whatever my kids want to do and I don’t hurry to get it accomplished. Saying yes (rather than the usual, “In a little bit” or “Daddy has to work”) is fun and recreates me.
- Reverence. To experience sabbath well it seems people connected with the Lord in a way that was unique to the other 6. For most of us have been connecting in a community of like-minded believers in a worship service. Jesus visited the synagogue “as was His custom” as did Paul (Luke 4:16, Acts 17:2). Sometimes I use the word, “Response” because worship is not limited to a worship service. How do you in this paused time respond to the Lord and His goodness? For me, I generally respond to Him in deep conversation with others, in a dark room playing and singing, or a slow reading of His Word.
When this rhythm is functioning well in my life I find that I have even more productivity and those around me appreciate the less-stressed version.
I remember hearing a story about the Gold Rush in California. This was an unbelievable time in our country. Gold was discovered on the West coast and whoever made it there first could stake out a piece of ground and call it their own. It was an all-out race. If you could make it to the golden state before your neighbors, you chose the prime real estate.
I could imagine loading up the family and driving my horse and wagon to be first. If I race for the shortest checkout line and though most traffic most days, I know I would race here. But, the Christians would stop every seven days to observe the sabbath. While they stopped, passerbys would mock and move on ahead. I would be out of my mind as the caravans passed me but I understand their commitment.
It takes around 3-4 months to cross the US in a horse and wagon. To everyone’s surprise, they found that the Christians arrived first! By resting their team every seven days they were actually more productive in the end.
God doesn’t want us to be unproductive. He built these bodies and our minds and knows, as a good Father, what rhythm is best. He commanded His people in Exodus 16 to take a sabbath rest. They had just come out of slavery and God wanted them to return to the cycle of creation and have a day of rest. He provided a double portion on day 6 of manna so that no one needed to work on that day. When the Lord reminded them of this in Deuteronomy 5, He told them that this sabbath is given as a gift reminding them that they were no longer slaves. Slaves have no day off, but children of God do. Seems fitting for many of us that we remind ourselves that we are not slaves to work, performance, or even provision by learning how not to have a terrible sabbath.