The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

Let me offer some final reflections regarding my last two posts (here and here) about the relationship between scarcity, shame and exhaustion.

As I've argued it, following Brene Brown, many of us are operating out of a mindset of scarcity. What Brene calls the "never enough" problem. Physically and psychologically we feel exhausted and depleted, which interferes with our ability to invest in authentic community and prophetic ministry.

What is causing this exhaustion?

Some of it is caused by what I've described as "the scarcity trap," the way neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety. Facing what Brene calls "the shame-based fear of being ordinary" we push to be noticed, successful and significant. We work hard and over-commit because we want to matter. As I put it in yesterday's post, shame produces exhaustion.

Now, the solution to exhaustion, many will tell you, is the practice of Sabbath. And I agree. But that observation is missing something very important.

Specifically, we all want Sabbath. What stressed out and exhausted person isn't craving rest, margin and restoration?

So the issue isn't convincing us that we need Sabbath. We all know that. The issue is this: Why is Sabbath keeping so difficult? 

Why aren't we doing something we want to do? Something weird is going on. We want to rest. We crave it more than just about anything. But we can't, won't or don't rest.

What's going on? Why don't we practice Sabbath?

Here's why: Because to practice Sabbath means that you have to start saying "No" to create the margins you need to rest and rehabilitate. But with each "No" the shame increases. With each "No" you are backing away from something that would have made you important, noticed, successful, significant or more materially well-off. We don't practice Sabbath because when we stop the world starts rushing past us, making us feel like we're getting left behind, like we're losing, like we are missing something. Sabbath starts to feel like failure.

In short, we don't practice Sabbath because Sabbath is an assault upon our self-esteem. Sabbath shames us. Or, more precisely, Sabbath surfaces our shame.

So we need shame-resilience to practice Sabbath. That, in my estimation, is what has been missing in the ubiquitous calls to practice Sabbath. We all know we need Sabbath. We all want to rest. But our fears of failing and falling behind keep tempting us away from rest. Our culture shames us out of Sabbath.

Which is why I think Sabbath is a form of spiritual warfare with the principalities and powers. With the rise of capitalism our culture has been infected by what Alain de Botton has called "status anxiety." Which is to say, shame is the fuel of capitalism. Capitalism feeds off of this neurotic anxiety, using fear to create wealth and abundance but leaving us physically exhausted, psychologically broken and spiritually depleted. Which is why we call it the rat race.

Conservative Christians like to think that spiritual warfare is about the spiritual, psychological realm. Liberals like to think of spiritual warfare as being about the political realm. Both are missing the point.

Pay attention to what I'm saying here. The therapeutic is the political.

As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, Sabbath is resistance. Sabbath resists the spirituality of the principalities and powers--the capitalistic and consumeristic rat race--to nurture the physical and psychological resources to fuel further resistance, making us increasingly available for both community and prophetic ministry.

If shame is the fuel of capitalism then Sabbath is the fuel for the Kingdom of God.

But, and here's the big take home point, Sabbath-keeping requires shame-resilience. Sabbath requires relaxing into the "shame-based fear of being ordinary" as we allow the world to rush by as we settle into the humble, small and human rhythms of Sabbath. To practice Sabbath means to go quiet, to be less noticed, to rest into the ordinary. And it takes shame-resilience to do that.

The therapeutic is the political. 

Sabbath is spiritual warfare.

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20 thoughts on “The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare”

  1. and we constantly get things like this.

  2. I am not one who usually goes on about the "good ol' days"; as my father, who grew up on a farm in the hills, used to say, "I'll tell you about the good ol' days; they weren't that good". However, I can remember as a child growing up in a small town during the fifties and sixties when all the stores closed on Sundays, and at 4:00 PM on Wednesday afternoons. I was working in one of the grocery stores as a bag boy when it first started Sunday business. On the first Sunday no one came in until after church; then they walked in very cautiously, as if they were thinking, "I'm not supposed to be doing this". Now, wherever you go, Sunday is the busiest day for most food stores.

    In a way I am a bit saddened those days have passed. Quiet times, or Sabbaths, were set aside for us. But, times do change. And as I once heard someone say, "Change is not, as many like to think, a pendulum, swinging back and forth between conservative and liberal; it is more like a wrecking ball, knocking down those things we thought would last forever, making room for those things we never dreamed of".

    So, that said, maybe the responsibility of a Sabbath has been handed to us as individuals. Maybe that is how we had to grow up. Society does not do it for us anymore, nor does the home town, or even the church. If we do not create that Sabbath moment for self, it does not get done, so we must choose. Mine is the morning, before dawn, when nothing hinders me from facing God and myself; nothing else has my attention....except a couple of our dogs, little Yorkies, who need scratched when I'm readying. But I think that's OK.

  3. I have my own version of these same struggles. I'm always tempted to expand my "platform." I think, "I should get on Twitter, garner a bigger following, get a bigger book deal, the stuff I'm doing is as good as if not better than what's circulating out there..." But it's all neurotic anxiety, pushing me to add more and more to my life.

  4. "But our fears of failing and falling behind keep tempting us away from rest."

    I've been a church musician/singer for over 20 years and have recently stopped. I deal with the fear of failing and falling behind constantly. I craved the attention that I no longer get. I'm constantly toying with the idea of getting back to it knowing all the while why I want to.

    Thanks for this series, Its been very personal for me and timely. Thanks

  5. When were in Italy this past year, we saw a different mindset. In the US-if we create a successful restaurant, we push to open another or expand next door or create a franchise. In Italy, it's the small, family owned restaurant that is enough and valued (for the most part). I'm working on being enough and being okay with an empty calendar.

  6. These last three posts have really hit home for me. The question I have is "How does one acquire shame resilience?" Is that even possible? I recognize that I have very little.

  7. I would like to push back a little bit about something. In your first post you wrote:

    People at a church might complain about not connecting at church and about being lonely. They express a craving for deeper, more authentic community. So the church hires a small group minister to invest in small group ministry.

    But do you see the problem here? I don't see it as people don't come because their time is scarce, but rather that church is operating like a retail business trying to sell us a product to fix what ails us and, frankly, their product stinks. I would think that people expressing loneliness in what is supposed to be a community would be a pretty serious issue cutting to the very heart of the whole enterprise and the response here seems to be rather trite. All we need is to have Beer & Hymns like Nadia and we're all good! (To her credit, when I saw Nadia a couple of years ago she told the group emphatically, don't just copy what we do as HOASS!) People make time for things they care about. The holidays are among the most stressful and busy time of the year, yet people make to get together with friends and family. I find that for many churches there is nothing but a passing effort to create a community that people care about.

  8. One thing I'd push back on here, as a psychologist, is the notion that "people make time for what they care about." That's way too simplistic a model for human motivation, cognition and emotion. The fact is we care about many, many things, things that often come into conflict. Also, we care about things with different parts of the brain--cognitively and affectively--which also creates conflicts (e.g., why it's hard to keep New Years Resolutions).

    All that to say, its a great struggle to get all this lined up, motivationally, behaviorally, emotionally, cognitively, habitually, and volitionally.

  9. I too have personally benefitted ftom this series. If anything, the one idea I love the most in it is the phrase above "making us more available...."

    That is in part because, when reading through the series this week I was struck by how different its focus is from so much I used to associate with Christianity. A good part of my experience was with a church community that packed out members' schedules. Not only did that dynamic give rise to so many occassions for neurotic anxiety ("What will they think of me if I don't go?" "Here is my chance to shine!, distinguish myself!, er, serve..."), it was heavy-laden with the emphasis, explicit and implicit, that each new meeting, series, class, scheduled event was a "meeting of the body," i.e. that, as opposed to all the "wordly" or "selfish" things vying for my time (anything leadership/clergy hadn't thought up was subject to such designations) these activities were all but God-ordained. Phewy.

    What was tough this week in reading the series, however, was articulating the way(s) the ideas here are different: I'm trying to move beyond simply judging my former group - that is easy enough and, I am seeing, not very loving. Now there are words to describe the standard coming together for me over the last little while: "Does it (a teaching, an event, a spiritual practice, an approach, a fellowship, etc.) "make me more available:" to God, to myself, to others?"

    The wonder I am seeing over the past year is that the more available I make myself or become to God, to myself, and to others, the more available he/I/they become(s) to me.

    And as John expresses so well above, I find indeed that it is on me to carve out this time (and, luckily, lately, the joys of the benefits begin to outweigh the discipline required to do so). Sabbath as a lifestyle, as a starting point, rather than sabbath as an event or, worse, as an ovligation. At times it becomes like the "eclectic" experiences of kingdom described elsewhere on this blog: something beyond my own understanding breaks through often enough, even if it is "only" perspective, "only" insight into myself, "only" a useful idea on how to go about the busyness of everything else.

    The series elicited many other reflections in me as well. This, alas, is "all I have time" to relay right now. Thanks all: Richard, for the series; other readers, for valuable comments.

  10. I've been reading through these last three posts and I have this feeling/thought that something is missing.

    With each "No" you are backing away from something that would have made you important, noticed, successful, significant or more materially well-off.

    Not everyone who is busy or exhausted or living in this place of scarcity is there because of selfish motivations (i.e. worrying about missing out on things that would make us more important, noticed, successful, etc.). There are many people who are working two or three jobs whose concern isn't necessarily to be "more materially well-off" than they are with making sure they earn enough money to put food on the table and make rent, car payments, clothing needs and doctor bills. So the scarcity thought, and focusing on things that make me important, noticed, successful, etc. are more the concerns of people who can afford it.

    The other thing that I thought about was that all this implies it's all about me. I'm backing away, I'm missing out .... But could it be that we have trouble saying, "No" because people/society expects everyone to say, "Yes?" Could it be that we don't say, "No" less out of trying to be important, and more because we don't want to deal with the confrontation it might generate?

    Just a few of my random thoughts.

  11. I really like this! Because the truth is I do make time for all sorts of things that I don't really care that much about like keeping up on deflate gate for example...

    On the subject of Sabbath it was made for human flourishing, but institutions (the powers that be) will have a tendency to turn it for the flourishing of the institution (even institutions filled with people with the very best of motives), and then Sabbath becomes conflated in our minds with the activities of the institution (on the Sabbath)... making it hard to say no because what if we are saying no to God? So we say yes and get a little more tired...

  12. in 2015, I am finally reading for the pleasure of it. As much as possible, I'm devouring books I'm not required by church, profession or ministry to read. I realized I have unconsciously put myself in a mental sabbath. Reading for the love of it as resistance.

  13. Hi, Richard. I'm a minister at a Church in Bakersfield, CA. The other ministers and I are in the middle of asking our elders to consider implementing a year of Sabbath rest for repairing our fragmented and exhausted relationships, reimagining where God might be at work in our neighborhood, and responding to God's call and work in a way that is intentional rather than reactive. This post, and the two before it, sum up well what I've observed in my context, and I appreciate the language you've provided for processing our fatigue and fragmentation.

    I have a question for you. What practices help us to develop shame-resilience?


  14. I'd be curious to see your take on Chalmer's 'The Expulsive Power of a New Affection' or Edwards 'Freedom of the Will' or Luther's 'Bondage of the Will' or some of Calvin's writings about the heart as an 'idol factory'. it seems like adding a word to 'people make time for what they care about' and making it 'people make time for what they care about MOST'. This allows for competing/conflicting 'cares', but at the end of the day one wins out (or 'no choice' wins out, which is a choice in itself - fueled by some desire/affection).

  15. No, cause what wins out isn't necessarily what people care most about. I do all sorts of things that are of okay-ish importance, and that's usually what I need to do to feel like I'm surviving to the next day. It's not the things that are most important to me in any way - it's things like taking a shower, making my lunch for work, going to the bank. Even my leisure is not what I most want to do, but what feels easiest to do, because I'm worn, and engaging with something I'm really looking forward to requires energy I usually don't have. This is all besides all the days I want to paint, really do want to, and I just can't get myself to open the program.

    This is not some "grand uncovering of my true, secret desires". This is fucking depression. I'm not doing those things because I care about them most, or because I don't REALLY want to paint badly enough, or because deep down I'm lazy. I do things because they are the only things I feel strong enough to do.

  16. I think it applies and it does so in each moment where we are choosing to do one thing over another. So I can choose to reply to your response or choose not to respond - the question for me is - why did i choose to respond? And therein lies the real heart work; and for Christian's we need God's help to understand why, if God is desiring that of us for a specific decision. I don't think he cares about a lot of decisions we make - (do I wear brown pants or black pants today). But when it comes to choices that may be inferred from or clearly prescribed in His word, then yes I think He cares. So I choose to respond, I think (and hopefully there is some truth here) with a desire to serve, but since as a Christian, I am simultaneously a saint AND sinner, I am sure there is some of my 'fleshly' pride involved.

  17. As a kid I was shamed by other Christian kids about all this silly sabbath stuff, so I would invent artifice to cover up the practices of my family. All parties were misled. When sabbath reappeared as more than a 24 hr period-- a key factor that fenced me off from busyness -- it became a toxic dumping and a talk-sick dumping. Having all the employees of my soul cease "work" is a worthy revealer of just how little control I have ceded to my God. Yet, in a sabbath state of mind as I choose to walk into a church, I can find it a place to safely practice the view of all others therein as having more status in the kingdom than do I, without others taking advantage of my scarcity. Sabbath pleasure is emulating the age 12-30 Jesus, taking a break from construction of wine casks and the wine trade itself. My sabbath worship as a membrane between the words of my Father inside and the utterance of his words in song and silent speech! Man I enjoy it as much as having cake.

  18. Canadians are very similar in that. The work hard so as to enjoy long weekends ALL SUMMER ;o)

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