This week was part five of our series, Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life. Last week we started getting more practical about how to live a life of simple contentment in some specific situations. We started with our stuff. This week: Our time. In a world that is busy and chaotic and stressful, when we feel the pressure of life pushing in on us as we run from one thing to the next, how can we slow things down? With an ancient practice that is often misunderstood. Keep reading to find out what that is and what we can do with it.
A Slower Pace
Do you remember going on vacation as a kid? I remember several different vacations we took. I remember seeing Disney for the first time and marveling at the magic found there. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Old Faithful erupt, or gaping in awe at the artistic wonder of Mount Rushmore. Long will I treasure seeing the history of our nation preserved in the various Smithsonian Museums, sitting in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol Building, and walking the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg. And the feeling of being small while standing at the base of the giant redwoods in King’s Canyon, California is one that will ever give me perspective on just how big the world is. I really was privileged to get to go and see a lot of our incredible nation when I was growing up.
But do you know why I so enjoyed the various trips and vacations we went on when I was growing up? It’s not because of the things I got to see and the places I got to visit (although those certainly didn’t hurt!). It’s because I was able to just go along for the ride and enjoy the experiences. Not a single part of those trips depended on me. I didn’t have any responsibility as we went. As a case in point, on one of our trips I accidentally left my luggage sitting at home when we left for the airport. We didn’t figure it out until we got there—a trip about the same distance as from here to the airport. My dad tried to make a mad dash home to get it, but couldn’t. Was I worried? Not a bit. I knew my folks would just buy me the few items I would need for the week once we got where we were going (I believe that trip was to Boston). Now, they weren’t very happy with me, but I wasn’t worried. I was just along for the ride. And I enjoyed it.
Now, compare the experience of vacation as a kid with vacation as an adult. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy going fun places with our kids. But it’s not the same as it was when I was in their shoes. What’s the difference? The weight of responsibility. Whereas a kid just goes, for the parent, the burden is a bit heavier. As an adult, nobody plans the trip for you. If you want something planned, you’ve got to plan it. Now, I’ll admit that Lisa, the administrative dynamo that she is, does most of this in our household, but the point is still sound. If you’re a parent, you know the feeling of having to make sure not only that you are packed, but that all of your kids are packed. They don’t have the wherewithal to adequately think through all the things they might need for the journey. That’s on you. And, as an adult, you’re the one paying for the experiences you have. The bigger the thing you want to experience, the bigger the price tag it will carry and that just brings a whole new world of stress to the table. Then, there’s the fact that you have to go back to real life where everything rests on your shoulders there too. It’s a lot to process…and it makes vacations a very different animal than they were when you were young.
Now, that’s vacation. But do you ever feel life goes like that sometimes? Consider it through the lens of the kid-adult split again if you have to. Although this does not go without some tragic exceptions, and they have a lot more stressors on them than we used to have, kids live lives that are relatively free of stress and worry. Adults? Not often so much. Why? Again, it’s because we feel the burden of responsibility. If we don’t work, we don’t eat. But, it’s not just us not eating. There are people who are depending on us to feed them—little people or even just pets who can’t do it on their own. If we don’t work, we won’t have a place to live; we won’t have a vehicle to get us around; we won’t have clothes to wear. It gets exhausting after a while, doesn’t it?
Listen: What if we didn’t have to carry all of that? What if there was a way to go through life more like a child than an overburdened adult? Well, as we continue in the fifth part of our series, Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life, I’m here to tell you that there is. There is, and it’s not necessarily what you might be thinking. But, if we get this right, it is guaranteed to give us a huge step in the right direction of finding that sense of contentment we are all seeking. And, that has really been the big idea of this whole journey. Living a life that is hurried and chaotic is not what any of us wants. There is something inside all of us that longs for a life that is slower, simpler, and more content than we are right now. We see this longing expressed all over the place. Design shows talk about creating urban oases where homeowners can escape the busyness of the city without having to leave its limits. The standard recipe for made-for-TV romantic comedy success is to have the protagonist somehow forced to leave the city she called home and wind up in a small town somewhere where she can find love—and a simpler life. One of the newest HGTV real estate shows is called “We Bought the Farm.” It’s about suburban or city families buying farms out in the country to have a simpler life. The irony of all of this for us who live in small town America, though, is that just because the town is smaller doesn’t mean the stress is lower. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, there isn’t any place that can achieve this holy grail of properties for us because it’s not primarily about a place, it’s about a feeling. The question, then, that aches in our hearts and minds is this one: How can we have a simpler more content life than we know right now?
Fortunately, for followers of Jesus, we have within our possession the secret to being content in all circumstances. This comes to us by way of the apostle Paul, a man who reached the highest heights of cultural achievement only to pronounce it all worthless if our goal is a life of godly contentment. Flying in the face of the worry and other storms of life that work to steal our peace, the secret to being content is Jesus. True contentment is found in Christ alone.
But, while that sounds really good (in addition to being true), it’s a pretty abstract idea. Last week, then, as we got into the second half of our journey, we turned to getting more practical: How can we hit the mark of contentment in some situations we all face? We started with our finances, our stuff. From Paul’s instructions to his protégé, Timothy, we discovered that if we want to be content with our stuff, we need to use it like God would. This morning, as promised, we’re going to talk about how to be content with our schedules, with our time. And, as I said a minute ago, it’s not what you might expect. The key to being content with our schedules is not to do less things—although we may need to pursue that end if we are over-scheduled. The key to contentment when it comes to our time is to rediscover an ancient practice that is often misunderstood. It is a practice that is rooted in the concept of rest and you might know it as Sabbath.
So, what is Sabbath? Well, there have been entire volumes written about that, so let me not leave you to think we are going to answer every question this morning. But, I think there are some high points we can hit together that will help us see why this is such an important concept to get our hearts and minds wrapped firmly around if we want to experience the contentment we seek. And it starts right where the idea was first introduced to the people of Israel. Open up a nearby copy of the Scriptures fairly near the beginning and find Exodus 20.
Let me set the scene for us. Moses and the people of Israel are just a few weeks off of their escape from Egypt and the enslaving hand of Pharaoh. Under the leadership of Moses and the direction of the Lord, the people had journeyed a few weeks into the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula and were at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, God had called the people to set up camp. Then, after a pretty impressive display of power, He called Moses to come up on the mountain where he would receive the Law—the basic contours of the relationship He was inviting them to have with Him. The cornerstone of this relationship was a set of ten commandments that would eventually become part the foundation of jurisprudence for many different peoples in the ages yet to come, including our own. The commands are at one and the same time simple, yet profound. They are easy enough to grasp that they can be taught to a young child, but deep enough that a Ph.D. student could produce an entire thesis without exhausting all the thoughts we could think about them. But of all the commands, the one that has tended to generate more interest than any of the others is the fourth commandment.
Listen to what the Lord said to Moses in Exodus 20:8: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter; your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.”
Now, I suspect that many of you have heard or seen that before, but what does it mean? This is the part that is pretty simple. God wanted the people to take a day off once every seven days. In other words, on the seventh day they were to rest. Look at how God framed the command, though because this matters. This wasn’t some practice to be merely reserved for the wealthy—you know, the people who could pay others to work for them. It was for everybody and everything regardless of age, socioeconomic status, nationality, or even species. On the seventh day, they were supposed to stop working and rest.
Okay, but why? Again, this is simple: Because God did. God roots this command in a pattern He Himself set in place in creation. The creation narrative in Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested. As for what exactly it means that God rested we’ll have to save for another time, but the point is that whatever rest looked like for God, He didn’t do any of the work of creation on the seventh day. He rested. In other words, the pattern undergirding the command to take a regular Sabbath was pre-Law. God wasn’t making something up for them so much as letting them in on what He was already doing. He was simply inviting them to join Him.
Now, if that was all we had on the Sabbath, it would still be important because of its location in the Ten Commandments, but it probably wouldn’t generate quite the interest level it has over the years. I mean, consider the command to not take the Lord’s name in vain. That really doesn’t get much more mention in the Scriptures, and other than being analyzed when the group of commands is treated as a whole, it really doesn’t get much focus today. There was something about this command, though, that was of particular importance to God. It was important enough to Him that He actually came back to it before He sent Moses back down the mountain to fill the people in on everything he had learned.
You see, after God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, He wasn’t finished. He went on to unpack some of them and add some other things to them. He also gave Moses all the instructions for the establishment of the Israelite religion including the clothes the priests would wear and the construction of the place the people would worship Him—the tabernacle…in detail. So. Much. Detail.
Just before God sends him back down the mountain with the original and famous stone tablets, though, God tells Moses one more thing. Flip over to Exodus 31:12 and look at this with me: “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites: You must observe my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, so that you will know that I am the Lord who consecrates you. Observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you.’” In other words, this was kind of a big deal. This wasn’t just something they were to do because God told them to do it, this was something that was going to be definitional of their very relationship with Him. It was to be something that set them apart from all the other nations around them and in a way that made them better than they were.
There’s more. Look at this: “Whoever profanes it must be put to death.” That is, working on the Sabbath was to receive the same penalty as murder. And just in case it isn’t totally clear what He means, He continues: ‘If anyone does work on it, that person must be cut off from his people. Work may be done for six days, but on the seventh day there must be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord. Anyone who does work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. The Israelites must observe the Sabbath, celebrating it throughout their generations as a permanent covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the Israelites, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” Now, we don’t have any evidence of this penalty being enforced, and the people were generally wildly inconsistent when it came to enforcing the penalties God outlined for violating various laws. But still, this all takes things to a whole different level of seriousness than we would perhaps be inclined to imagine they were at back in chapter 20. God was serious about this whole Sabbath thing.
As a matter of fact, He was so serious that it wasn’t just something that was to define their normal week; it was to define whole generations. Every seventh year was to be an entire Sabbath year during which time nobody was to plant crops. They were simply to live off of what grew up naturally, giving the whole land a rest. God, for His part, promised to make their fields particularly productive in the sixth years to prepare them for it. What’s more, every 50th year—the end of a week of the annual Sabbaths—was to be a “year of jubilee” which had its own set of instructions to direct the people in a national season of restoration and refreshment.
It was actually the people’s refusal to observe the Sabbath years that set the length of the exile to Babylon several hundreds of years after Moses gave the Law. They skipped out on 490 years’ worth of Sabbath years and so got one year of exile for each Sabbath year they ignored during that time—70 in all. This was, by the way, exactly what God told them would happen. From Leviticus 26:33 when God was outlining the consequences of their not following the Law: “But I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw a sword to chase after you. So your land will become desolate, and your cities will become ruins. Then the land will make up for its Sabbath years during the time it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies. At that time the land will rest and make up for its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate, it will have the rest it did not have during your Sabbaths when you lived there.” Bottom line here: This was a big deal.
So, all of that tells us where the whole idea of the Sabbath came from, and that’s important to know. But it doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do with the Sabbath ourselves as followers of Jesus and how it can bring any kind of a spirit of contentment to our lives when we’re lacking that. Perhaps to put that another way: What kind of an impact should the Fourth Commandment have on our lives today? Well…not the one we’re often taught it should.
You see, followers of Jesus over the last 2,000 years have often made the same mistake that the Jews were making in His day. Another story will illustrate this. Flip over to the New Testament and find Mark 2:23. There, the evangelist tells us that “on the Sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to make their way, picking some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’”
While the people of Israel didn’t take the Sabbath command very seriously before the Babylonian Exile, afterwards they were entirely more observant of it. Somewhere along the way, though, some wiseacre asked out loud a question many had likely wondered about only in their heads: If we aren’t supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, what counts as work? To be fair, this probably didn’t come from somebody trying to wiggle out from under the command, but rather from some folks who were sincerely trying to observe it. They wanted to get their relationship with God right and so when He said He didn’t want them working, they wanted to know exactly what He meant so they could make sure to not do it. Unfortunately, God didn’t spell out what He meant. As a result, the later teachers of the Law did it for Him. The forerunners of the Pharisees gradually defined 39 different categories of work each with their own set of sub-categories. More than anything else, then, keeping Sabbath became primarily about not doing things than doing them. This is the mindset Jesus and the disciples were encountering as they went through this field.
And while we may look back at them and laugh at how pathetically legalistic they were, Jesus’ followers today aren’t necessarily any better and haven’t been for a long time. The day for observing our Sabbath may have changed (Sunday because of the resurrection instead of the traditional Saturday), but our tendency to define it by what we don’t do rather than what we do hasn’t. Consider the existence of Blue Laws. What were those? Laws designed to restrict what kinds of activities could be pursued on Sundays and when. Why? Because it’s a holy day, of course. And so, people who counted themselves Jesus followers—who may or may not have consistently honored the Sabbath in their own lives—oversaw and supported the passing of laws intended to tell everybody—even people who had no intention of following Jesus and thus shouldn’t be expected to live the lifestyle of a Jesus follower according to guys like Paul—what they could and couldn’t do on the “Sabbath.” Kind of like what the Pharisees did here. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like the kind of attempt at honoring the Fourth Commandment that’s going to accomplish a whole lot in our lives. Let’s talk about what is.
For starters, we need to redefine how we think about the Sabbath. Here’s a truth that may be uncomfortable at first hearing, but falls right in line with how guys like Paul told us to think about the matter. When it comes to the Fourth Commandment, we’re not liable for keeping it. Now, before you tune me out, hear me out. The Sabbath command came in the context of the Ten Commandments, right? What were the Ten Commandments? They were the centerpiece of the Law of Moses. What was that? It was the covenant between God and the people of Israel. Listen: Do we live under the purview of the covenant God made with the people of Israel today? No, we do not. We live under the auspices of the new covenant made by…Jesus, who the writer of Hebrews emphatically declares, along with His covenant, to be better than Moses and his covenant. That old covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. When it was fulfilled, it was replaced by the new one. If we think about any part of the old as still normative for us, we’re essentially saying that what was old is better than what is new. But, did the old covenant bring eternal life? Nope. Only the new.
So, the question we need to answer is this: Does the Sabbath still matter and if so, what does it look like under the new covenant? On the question of whether it matters, I think the answer is a resounding yes, but not because of the Fourth Commandment. Do you remember what God said was the basis of the Sabbath when He gave the command? It was rooted in the pattern of work and rest He built into creation. Interestingly, in Deuteronomy 5 He told the people the Sabbath was rooted in the fact that He had brought them out of the land of Egypt. We don’t have time to explore that difference now, but the point, I think, is that the idea of the Sabbath is rooted in God’s activity on our behalf. When Jesus responded to the Pharisees when they were picking at Him about the disciples picking grain on a cool Saturday morning as they made their way through a wheat field, He declared Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath. Why? Because He was the ultimate representation of God’s activity on our behalf. He was and is the fulfilment of everything God has ever done or planned to do for us.
All of that is to say that the Sabbath still matters for us. The question remaining is how. Well, let’s start with what it is not. The Sabbath is not about taking a day off once a week. Some committed followers of Jesus will disagree with me on that point and that’s okay. I don’t think taking an intentional day off as part of our embrace of the Sabbath as followers of Jesus is a bad thing. I just don’t think it gets at the heart of what Sabbath is all about for us. What I mean is, Sunday is not somehow more sacred than any other day of the week. On this point we must absolutely not be legalistic. Being a good follower of Jesus is not wrapped up in being in church on Sunday because it’s the Sabbath. Number one, it’s not the Sabbath as defined in the Old Testament, and number two, that command was fulfilled in Christ and, again, we aren’t liable for it. That being said, coming and worshiping alongside the larger body of Christ on a regular, consistent basis is something foundationally important for followers of Jesus to be doing…just not as a means of keeping the Fourth Commandment. We’re not liable for the Fourth Commandment.
As for what the Sabbath does look like for us, we can see this in the heart of what God was calling Israel to do. When He told them to take a weekly Sabbath, this was something new in the world. Nobody was doing anything like this when He commanded it. There were occasional holy days and feast days, but absent these, you got up and went to work every single day. The division of time into what we know as a “week” wasn’t a category that made sense to anyone prior to the Fourth Commandment. The reason was, prior to the invention of refrigeration and modern food preservation, if you didn’t work on a given day, you didn’t eat on that day. Therefore, everybody worked every day. No other religion had ever had gods who could be trusted to provide for them if they didn’t work themselves. No gods were ever really conceived of as caring enough for their people to do something like that. Rather, the people worked for the gods. If the people didn’t work, the gods didn’t eat, and that was something the gods weren’t willing to abide. So everybody worked. Every day.
God called His people to be different because He was different. He was good. He cared about His people. He possessed all the resources in the world and didn’t have any kind of a need for us. We existed at and for His pleasure. He wanted a relationship with us because He’s a relational God. The Sabbath then, was not about what we needed to do for God or simply our not doing something at all, it was about what God wanted to do for us. It was about Him inviting us to trust in His character and to make that trust real by putting it to what was for centuries of human history the ultimate test: Not working and trusting in His ability and willingness to provide for us in spite of that. It is an invitation into the kind of childlike faith Jesus said is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven. Listen: This is different than the world around us operates. This is better than how the world around us operates. This is what makes the idea of Sabbath so holy.
While God did create us to work, and work is good; He didn’t create us to work ourselves to death. Now, apart from Him we have to do that because we’re on our own which is exactly how the world operates. But He didn’t make us to exist apart from Him. He created us to enjoy His creation, and enjoying anything well requires that we stop working long enough to take it in. It requires that we rest. God wants that for us—just like He has it for Himself—and so He invited us to rest. You see, rest is a gift from God. Rest is a gift from God.
The Sabbath, then, for us is again not about taking Sundays off. It’s rather about finding a balance of work and rest in our lives. There are seasons in which we have to work and work hard. But Sabbath reminds us to pause regularly to enjoy the fruits of our labors—the fruits of the labors our faithful God has enabled us to do. On that note, the Sabbath is about trusting in God more than in our own efforts to get done what we have to do. It is about intentionally reminding ourselves that the world does not depend on us. To put that another way, it is about intentionally reminding ourselves that we are not owned by our work. And how do we do that? By regularly and intentionally stopping our work in order to experience the wonder of all our needs still being met by the God who is able and willing to meet them. It’s not only that, though, Sabbath is about intentionally creating space in our lives to pursue God. Jesus said that we can’t accomplish anything meaningful unless we abide or remain or rest in Him. Sabbath allows us to do that. Rest is a gift from God.
Okay, but what does all of this look like in practice? Well, it does look like gathering with the church on a regular basis for fellowship, growth together, and worship. But again, that’s not and can’t be the sum total of our Sabbath practices. As a case in point: Me. I work every single Sunday. If Sabbath is just not working on Sundays I’m kind of off on the wrong foot from the start. Also, some folks have jobs that require them to work hours that don’t allow for regular attendance in Sunday morning worship services. So, what else do we have? Well, where are some of the places in your life that you can be more intentional about cultivating the attitude—borne out through behavior—that God has got things well in hand and your efforts, while important, are not the final statement on the matter? Could it be leaving work a few minutes earlier each day in order to spend time with your kids? How about being intentional about building up some of your vacation time in order to serve the kingdom of God in practical ways? It is definitely carving out and relentlessly protecting daily space in your life for studying the Scriptures and prayer. Perhaps it’s going to bed an hour earlier so you can be more rested and better able to manage the responsibilities that you do have each day. That’s just a sampling of ideas and you can be righteously creative beyond that.
But what does all of this accomplish? How does this help create and encourage a spirit of contentment in our lives? Think back to going on vacation or even just doing life as a kid. You were content then, right? At the very least you were more content than you are now. Why? Remember what we said? Because nothing depended on you. Do you see it? This is the very thing your good heavenly Father is inviting you to experience again in the practice of Sabbath. Sabbath helps us step back and see the bigger picture: That things don’t depend on us nearly so much as we fear they do; that our good heavenly Father can and will take care of us if we will only trust Him and pursue life His way. Now, it may be that you’re the kind of person who needs things to depend on you and that’s why you don’t rest, but come on. Ask yourself this question: Is a life of perpetual discontentment really better than swallowing my pride and trusting with a childlike faith in the God who loved me so much that He sent His only Son to die in my place to pay the price for my sins? Let go of your pride and receive the gift of rest your heavenly Father longs to give you. Rest is a gift from God.
Would you stand up with me? I want you to imagine something with me. I want you to imagine a time when you were a kid and things were as carefree and simple as they ever were in your life. Try and remember what that felt like. Now, don’t wrap it in a garment of nostalgia and make it what it never was, but weren’t you happier then? Weren’t you more content than you are now? Close your eyes. Imagine with me that you could experience that now. That you could experience the wonder of living life with the kind of childlike faith and outlook that you had when you were most content; when you knew that nothing depended on you and yet all your needs were going to be met. Listen: You can. You can when you make Sabbath-keeping a central part of your life. You can when you learn to rest in the loving arms of your faithful heavenly Father who will never leave you nor forsake you all the days of your life. Rest is a gift from God. Receive it and be content.