Sabbath as Means or End?

We often hear calls for Sabbath as a means to sustain and support our work in the world, especially our work for the kingdom.

That call often sounds like this:

We're all so busy and over-committed. Consequently, we're stressed and exhausted. Often because we're doing good things for the kingdom, yes, but we're burning out. The pace of our lives, even doing good things, is unsustainable.

So we need Sabbath. We need to rest so that we can recharge the batteries. Sabbath slows us down so that we can keep the work going but at a more humane pace.

This call to Sabbath in the midst of soul-killing busyness is very common. You've heard it before and likely feel the need to rest yourself. We are all very tired.

But let me make the provocative claim that this call to Sabbath is the very worst way of thinking about Sabbath.

Here's my argument: We're ruining Sabbath because we're treating Sabbath as a means rather than an end.

Let me say it a different way. We are missing the point of Sabbath because we are instrumentalizing Sabbath, turning Sabbath into a technique and a tool.

Notice how the call to Sabbath tends to work. We're busy. That's unsustainable. So we need to rest. Why? So that we can keep working.

Sabbath in this view is a technique to sustain work. Sabbath isn't the end, it's a means to an end, the sustaining of work.

In short, we've turned Sabbath into a self-help technique. Sabbath is a recommendation for busy people to keep them from getting stressed out.

And by and large, that's how many Christians think about Sabbath, as a call to rest and relaxation, as a self-help technique to help them manage stress and busyness.

But in the biblical imagination Sabbath isn't a means to work, Sabbath is the end of work. Sabbath isn't to sustain work. Sabbath is the enjoyment that comes at the end of our labors.

This is a subtle but important distinction as it defines what we take to be our default condition. When Sabbath is a tool to sustain work then labor is our default condition, Sabbath is always spitting us back into the world of stress and busyness. We celebrate Sabbath in order to work.

But if Sabbath is the end and not the means then Sabbath rest, abiding with and enjoying each other, is our default condition. Work is the means to create and sustain that space.

I think the main reason we've missed the boat on Sabbath is that in the West our vision of Sabbath is too individualistic. When we think of rest we think of "recharging our batteries." Rest is all about me regaining energy to fuel more work.

But in the biblical imagination Sabbath was social, relational and communal. Sabbath was being with others, the cessation of work to create space for community and fellowship. Sabbath was not created to "recharge our batteries," but to create space where we could abide with each other.

Sabbath, in short, is the kingdom of heaven on earth. Love and community. Resting into each other.

Sabbath isn't a self-help recommendation for busy people.

Sabbath is intimacy and relationship.

Sabbath is not a tool to sustain more work, but the goal and end of life itself.

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