This may surprise you, but God is a big supporter of naps. In the Hebrew language, Sabbath means simply “to rest.” The concept is introduced early in scripture in Genesis 2. It’s not long before God takes a nap. After God creates the universe, God rests; and that day was made holy.
A fun fact to consider: The Sabbath command is the longest of the Ten Commandments. The only one that comes close is not taking God’s name in vain.
Why might God be so insistent on this command? In Exodus 23, God instructs the people this way:
“For six years you should plant crops on your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year you should leave it alone and undisturbed so that the poor among your people may eat. What they leave behind, the wild animals may eat. You should do the same with your vineyard and your olive trees.
“Do your work in six days. But on the seventh day you should rest so that your ox and donkey may rest, and even the child of your female servant and the immigrant may be refreshed” (verses 10-12).
“Might overwork also be crushing us physically, emotionally and spiritually?”
Sabbath was established for creation’s benefit. By giving the land a rest, God ensured that everyone could eat – especially the children, the immigrants and the servants. The persons who were considered the lowest in society would be guaranteed a break, a chance to rejuvenate their souls and their bodies.
Skipping forward a few hundred years into the New Testament, we see all the major players observing the Sabbath or taking a rest. In one of the Gospels’ well-known stories, Jesus’ disciples catch him napping in their boat during a storm.
After Jesus was crucified, and before he was resurrected, the people in charge of burying him observed the Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body quickly, because the Sabbath was quickly approaching. The women helped him bury Jesus, wrapping his body in cloth, before leaving to observe the Sabbath. “They went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment” (Luke 23:56).
Can you imagine what that felt like?
Western Christians today have a hard time celebrating Sabbath. After all, we reason, Jesus did say that Sabbath was created for humans and not humans for the Sabbath, so maybe we shouldn’t be that rigid over it.
More people work multiple jobs out of necessity. With the rising cost of healthcare, many folks feel hesitant about retirement. Teenagers feel the pressure, too. College is more expensive than ever, so students feel as if they have to succeed in coursework and extracurricular activities in order to get a good scholarship.
“Sabbath was established for creation’s benefit.”
Hard work is important, and we should value it. But might overwork also be crushing us physically, emotionally and spiritually?
At what point should we as followers of Jesus question the world around us and ask: Could we do things differently?
Consider how we tell people about ourselves. What do we want people to know about us? Typically, one of the first questions we ask one another is “What do you do?”
This sends the message that the most important part of our identity is connected to what earns us a paycheck. It’s also hard for those of us who may be underemployed or find ourselves in a position where our job does not give us fulfillment.
Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt asks this question as she thinks about the different economic realities our church folk face. She wonders, for example, “Do we introduce new church members by highlighting their shiny resume?”
As the Jewish tradition reminds us, we are more than what we accomplish, what we earn, what we create, what we consume.
The most important part of our identity is found in Genesis in the creation account. We are created in the image of God, and you – me – we are beloved children of God.
In his Scandalous God: the Use and Abuse of the Cross, the Lutheran theologian Vitor Westhelle says that in order to practice and believe in the resurrection, we have to believe in Sabbath.
What does this look like for us today, especially for Christians who are entrenched in a culture that values us for our production and consumption?
Here are a few questions I have begun to ask myself as I approach Sabbath:
How does my lifestyle affect the ability of others to observe Sabbath? Do my patterns of consumption limit others the opportunity for Sabbath? Do I take one day out of the week where I don’t buy anything? If I can afford it, do I buy from companies that are good to their employees?
How can I help people, who, for a variety of reasons, may not be able to practice Sabbath? How could I show Christ to them? This could be offering free babysitting for parents with no family support. Or advocating for companies to pay living wages.
When have I smiled today? Or when have I paused just to take a long, deep breath? Could I consider such moments mini-sabbaths?
What questions do I ask when I’m first meeting someone? Do I ask the person what they like to do rather than how they earn a living?
When we experience Sabbath rest, and enable others to have a Sabbath rest, we get a glimpse of what resurrection and the new creation look like. Perhaps this is what Augustine meant in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”