Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Work, Life, and Sabbath: A Personal Reflection

A couple of years ago, my then 16 year old daughter asked me, “Dad, why do you work so much?” She asked this innocently. She had observed how fatigued I was driving home from work and asked this out of a deep concern for her dad. I had taken on multiple new roles and was struggling to juggle all of my responsibilities.

My initial response was purely defensive. I said, “To buy you all of the stuff that you ask me to purchase for you.” I quickly apologized but I found that I did not have a real answer. At this point, it would have been easy to say, “I work so much because God wants me too.” Those of us who live out our vocations as pastors, teachers, and religious professionals can easily mask over a compulsion to work by appealing to a sense of calling. But what happens when the work I believe I’m doing for God begins to feel like its eroding the work that God desires to do in me?

When I open the Bible, its initial words challenge my assumptions about Christian calling, vocation, and work. Genesis 1:1–2:3 sets the tone and agenda for life as God intends. In sweeping language, Genesis narrates God’s effortless work of creation. God speaks creation into existence over six days. Then God rests. This rest is called sabbath. It establishes the rhythm of creation for those open to Scripture’s revelation.

The God who created the universe and all that is in it stitched rest into the fabric of our existence. But this is even better than you think. Go back and ponder Genesis 1:1–2:3 anew. You may notice some patterns. First, verse 2 begins with a description of chaotic beginnings. God does not begin with a clean and polished finished product. God begins with a chaotic mess: formless, empty, dark. But God’s Spirit is there at the beginning. God hovers over the mess, poised and ready to act. This is a powerful reminder for all who seek the God of Scripture. We do not have to appear before God at our best. We only have to open ourselves to God’s work. In Genesis, God may begin with a raw collection of shapeless stuff, but God does not end there. God will transform this chaos into a very good world. This is true of our lives too. With God there is always hope of a beautiful tomorrow.

Second, the six days of creation unfold calmly and without drama. God’s work appears almost effortless. There are no hiccups. There are no false starts. Everything goes as God intends. God simply imagines the elements of creation and speaks them into existence. All of us know that creative work of any kind is difficult. It is toilsome. It is tiring. But God makes it look easy in Genesis 1 and God still pauses to rest on the seventh day. God does not keep on creating. God works for six days and then rests. God is powerful enough to make the work of creation seem simple, but still takes sabbath and embeds rest into the contours of creation.

Third, the work of creation advances from chaos and darkness to order, beauty, and light; from work to rest. This timing challenges our modern rhythms. We tend to think of a day as moving from day to night. Yet in Genesis the flow is this: “there was evening; there was morning.” Also we often rest so that we can work instead of God’s model of work that culminates in rest. These differences may appear subtle on the surface, but with reflection we find a radical challenge to our lives. Life’s end is not darkness or endless work. It is light and rest. The future is better than the past.

Finally, stepping back from the whole of Genesis 1:1–2:3 notice the overarching movement. In 1:2 we encounter a messy chaos. On days 1–6 God orders, shapes and fills the created world. On days 1–5 God remarks that his work on each day was “Good.” So on days 1–5 God moves creation from a mess to one that is good. Then on Day 6  God finishes God’s work by filling the earth with all types of animals and then creates men and women in God’s image. At the end of Day 6, God evaluates the whole of creation as “very good” (1:31). So now creation has moved from a mess to good to very good. But the good news gets better as Scripture announces something even better than “very good.” This something is called Sabbath (2:1–3).

Sabbath is a space in which all striving and work ceases. It is where our identity depends not on what we do or have done, but who we actually are–people created in God’s image for relationship with the true Lord of Creation who invites us to rest with and in him.
This is the promise that Jesus offers his followers in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Sometimes we justify our endless work for God by appealing to Jesus’ actions. Since Jesus did good on the sabbath and helped others, so should we. It is easy to cite Jesus’ words in support of this: “The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28) or “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm; to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). In both these contexts, Jesus is being provocative. Jesus did not break sabbath in order to advocate for 24/7 ceaseless activity by his followers. Jesus broke sabbath to prevent religious authorities from thwarting the true meaning of sabbath by suffocating those most desperate for God. If we use Jesus’ example to justify our lack of Sabbath, we are missing the point.

I continue to ponder my daughter’s question. If God who effortlessly created this universe through words alone modeled rest on the seventh day, why do I feel the need to work so much? Perhaps I have something to prove. Maybe its to cover up the dull ache on the inside that reminds me of past failings, disappointments or regrets? Is it a deep longing for absolute certainty and security that depends more on my abilities and strengths (or lack thereof) apart from a deep trust in God? Or maybe its simply that I don’t believe I’m enough.

This thought brings me back to the opening chapter of Genesis again. God began with a mess, brought it to very goodness, and then added rest on the other side of very goodness. Perhaps Genesis 1:1–2:3 is not merely a story about creation. Instead, maybe its an invitation to true life and rest. Maybe Scripture wants to tell me that God is enough for me and I am enough for God. Maybe then I’ll find the rest and abundance that God has offered us from the beginning. 

What do you think? Will you join me in finding out?

© 2017 Brian D. Russell

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