Sabbath: A Day of Being, Having, and Doing Enough

June 29, 2011


In the rush and pressure of our busy lives, most of us have completely forgotten what enough of anything feels like.

How do we know we have done enough work, made enough money, achieved enough success, done enough for others, built enough security, have enough options, enough room for enough things, enough time to get to the bottom of our ever-expanding to-do list?

A working thermostat senses when our home is sufficiently warm in winter, sends a signal to the heater – to power down into resting mode – until the thermostat tells the heater when to begin to add more heat.

What if our own inner thermostat is broken? What if the quiet voices that tell us we have done what we could, given what we were able, tried our best – what if this inner knowing has been silenced? If we move too fast, we ignore the signals we receive from our bone-weary souls, day by day, moment by moment, voices that tell us, shout at us, trying to get us to listen: Our house is already on fire. But we have no time to listen, no time to stop and notice the flames engulfing us even now, even as we read this.

The Hidden Sabbath Commandment: Never Give Away Your Freedom

Many of us know that the Sabbath finds its roots in the Genesis story. The Creator works for six days, shaping the green, fluid beauty of the earth with life everywhere: birds and fish and beasts of the fields, verdant trees, flowers, fragrances wafting gently on breezes that circle this fresh, fertile orb of life. On the seventh day, the Creator rests. For now, this is enough. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for this rest can literally be read, “And God exhaled.”

God exhaled. When do we exhale? Perhaps, like God, we exhale when we feel certain that our good and necessary work is done. What then is our work on the earth? In a world gone mad with speed, potential, and choice, we continually overestimate what we can do, build, fix, care for, or make happen in one day. We overload our expectations on ourselves and others, inflate our real and imaginary responsibilities, until our fierce and tender human hearts finally collapse under the relentless pressure of impossible demands.

No living organism can sustain this kind of violent overwork before it breaks, or dies. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is more fully defined as a day free from work, a day that forever symbolizes, and insures, our liberation from slavery. When the Hebrews were enslaved, they were certainly not at liberty to take a day off. When God set them free from captivity, God required the people to keep a Sabbath day holy and free from labor, as a reminder that they were free men and women, not slaves – and by taking a day off, they could never become enslaved. More importantly, they could never, ever again choose to live as slaves.

But the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: in it thou shall not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest as well as thou.

And thou shall remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and Jehovah thy God brought thee out thence by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm: therefore Jehovah thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5: 14-16)

Nowhere in scripture do we find texts that insist God wants us to be miserable, overwhelmed, bone-weary, exhausted, or discouraged. But there are countless verses about having a life abundantly, well rested, well nourished, along with tidings of great joy; this is the day the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it; Come to me, all who toil and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

Why do we then, enslave ourselves to a cacophony of endlessly multiplying duties and responsibilities? Surely our hearts’ deepest motives are good. We want to help, we want to be of service to those in need. We hope to make a difference in the world, to feel we contribute in some meaningful way to our family, our community, our world. We dream of making the world a better place, leaving it more whole, compassionate, just, and loving than when we found it.

But we can only do so much. Just as a child can only collect so many Easter eggs in their tiny hands before one drops, falls, and breaks – so can we, as adults, honestly and honorably love only a relatively small number of people deeply and well in the short span of a human life. We can only give our best and fullest heart’s attention to a few projects, endeavors, and expect them to receive our best.

If we try instead to keep pushing, striving to increase these numbers - if we try and care for more people than we are truly able, promise more than we can physically, emotionally or spiritually deliver, agree to fix more problems, join more groups, or accomplish more tasks than is humanly possible, we will eventually collapse; things will break; people will get hurt.

And, sadly, we even begin to lose any sense of joy, hope, or excitement about our life and work. When every day ends by feeling nothing we do is ever enough, we risk falling into a most horrific spiritual prison, convicted by our belief that we will never be enough.

Sabbath: A Sanctuary in Time

Rather than be plagued and tormented by the question, “Have I done enough?” the question we must begin with, if we are to radically accept this most beautiful, luminous gift of our freedom, is this: What is most precious to you?

Is it your work? Your success? Your position in the world, pride in your achievements? Perhaps your financial security?

As a Hospice chaplain, I have been privileged to sit with people who realize they are facing the raw, unvarnished truth of their own impending death. In the fierce crucible of this truth – one that each of us will face, nearly always before we feel ready or prepared – few people ever regret having too little time at the office.

Instead they wonder: Have I loved well? Have I cherished those who have so lovingly and generously cherished me? Did I care as fully as I was able for my children, did they know I loved them? My dear friends, the ones who stood close, lifted me up when I was falling into despair, have I ever let them know how deeply grateful I am that they shared so much of their precious time, care, and love in my company, how crucial they were in helping me through so many heart-shredding, terrifying times in my life? 

Many wonder if they are leaving the world a better place because of how they lived, what they did, how they cared for people. They ask: Have I left anything behind that is beautiful, or good, or useful for others? Have I been kind?

Some question whether they took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy their life. Did I drink deep from the gifts and blessings that were showered upon me? Or was I in too much of a hurry, moving too fast, too busy to notice, hold, celebrate, give thanks for – or even to notice – the warm sun on my cheek, the smell of the earth after a summer rain, the playful laughter of my children, the delicious touch of my beloved partner?

The thread running through all these tender, reflective wonderings is time. Everything precious, everything beautiful, everything sacred, needs time. Every single value or belief we claim to hold dear to our hearts – love, friendship, children, trust, compassion, honesty, faith, peace – all these grow only in the rich, slow soil of unhurried time.

Gentle, unstructured, unproductive time. Time to rest. Time to listen to those still, small voices that teach us what is right, and good, and true. Time to gather with those we love, and enjoy a meal together without watching the clock. Time to share love and gratitude with our family ad friends. Time to stroll through the park, down the street, through the woods, leaving our watch and cell phone behind. Time to play, to nap, to rest.

The Biblical commandment to Remember the Sabbath is precisely such a gift. It is a sanctuary, a holy temple filled to overflowing with the single most elusive, priceless enzyme that makes all good things possible: Time.

Isaiah sings: Call the Sabbath a delight. In the Hebrew tradition, Sabbath begins at sundown. Everyone leaves their work, their projects, their responsibilities behind, lays down their tools, and goes home. There, with everyone safely gathered, they circle the family table – parents and children, beloved friends and guests – and they light candles, they sing, pray, they offer their hearts’ blessing with and for one another, they confess aloud their love and care for each other. Before the Sabbath meal, faithful married couples bathe and dress in clean, fresh clothing; when the meal is finished, when friends and guests depart and children gone to bed, they retire to their bedchamber to make love.

Ignoring God’s Gift

As Christians, our relationship with Sabbath is less clear, and as a result, finds far less prominence in our daily lives. We know that Jesus chafed at the rampant legalism that had unnecessarily turned the Sabbath into an impossibly complicated maze of rules and regulations. “The Sabbath was made for you, not you for the Sabbath,” he insisted.

Because the Hebrew Sabbath begins at sundown, there is no question about whether, or when, to stop, leave our work behind, put down our tools and lists, turn out the lights at work, lock the door behind us, and go home. Home to rest, to renew, to nourish, to listen, to love, to find delight in the breathtaking miracle of simply being alive.

The Sabbath sundown, then, is a gentle, but firm, reminder that we are not in charge; we do not run the show, make everything happen, the only ones who can make sure things get done. Once the sun falls below the horizon, we are finished with our work for the week. Whatever we have done, whatever we have left undone, is of no consequence; our work is over, and the time to rest, refresh, and enjoy our life, begins right now. No exceptions.

In the Christian tradition, interpretations of the Sabbath vary so wildly that most people seem anxious to give up on the whole enterprise. Without a working thermostat, without a specific time to practice the commandment (and it is still a commandment) most of us are tempted just to let it slide.

When I speak about the Sabbath with church folk, they often look at me as if I am just a bit wet behind the ears, naïve, my head clearly in the clouds, or locked in some ivory tower. Instead I am schooled in the real-life dilemma faced by both clergy and members of the congregation, who confront me with plaintive cry that predictably arises from our harried, overworked sense of imagined indispensability to the running of the known universe, “Oh, I would love to take some time off, but I just can’t right now, I have so much on my plate that just has to get done, I am so busy, and there’s a whole bunch more coming at me right now – and besides…(wait for it)…if I don’t get this done, who will?

Here we meet a deeply fundamental test of our faith. Because I am convinced that one crucial aspect of our reluctance to stop is our genuine concern that God just might not be up to the task. Without some fierce, solid knowing that there are forces infinitely larger than ourselves running things, we never, ever feel permission to drop anything we believe is precious, valuable, or important.

The Sabbath, a commandment to stop working and allow God and the earth to grow the food, make the rain, shine the sun, and feed our family, forces us to confront this faith – or lack of it – in ourselves, every week, week after week, year after year. But if we never truly stop, we will never be convinced that God may, in fact, be fully capable of handling things quite nicely – without our constant help or supervision.

Remember the Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath. Remember who you are, remember that being alive is a gift. Listen to the breeze rustle the leaves of the trees, speak a word of kindness to someone in need of hearing it, place your hand on your child, your beloved, and offer them your blessing, be still, be quiet, listen. God is offering us the most elegant, magnificent present under the tree.

To open it, unwrap it, and take delight in it, we only have to stop.

Seven Critically  Necessary Sabbath Questions for Stewards to Consider

1. How do we intentionally steward the gift of time? Do we actively, intentionally discuss, question, or choose whether we deeply desire unhurried, unstructured time, to live, pray and worship together in contemplative, reflective, easy, nourishing, healing community – or does everything just seem to grow, and speed up, and get bigger and more complex by accident or sheer inertia?

2. How do we really want to live in time? When we awake, each and every morning of our lives, when first think about our day, does it bring us all a sense of easy, spacious, peaceful contentment?

3. If not - why not? Jesus repeatedly insisted we should not worry about tomorrow; that if we sought first the kingdom within us, everything we truly need would be given us; and that he would give us life, and that abundantly.

4. Which part of Jesus’ teaching and assurance, what part of the Sabbath commandment, have we decided to ignore, or refuse to accept – perhaps as unrealistic, outdated, or irrelevant – in order to maintain a church that celebrates and uplifts our increasingly stress-filled, overwhelmed, exhausted, disappointed lives.

5. What do we honestly expect of our clergy and lay leaders?  Does it take a 40 hour, 60 hour or 80 hour week to fulfill the expressed expectations of the faith community?

6. Is it possible for clergy and lay leaders to take a day off–when they run errands, do grocery shopping, home repair, banking, family time, car maintenance, etc;  and also have a Sabbath day, a day of rest, renewal, and spiritual nourishment?

7. What Sabbath practices do you embrace?  What Sabbath practices can your faith community embrace?  Prayer, sitting in silence, re-connecting with nature, sharing in a meal with friends and family?


-- Wayne Muller is an ordained minister in the Methodist Church, author, therapist and founder of Bread for the Journey, a network of grassroots philanthropists supporting neighborhood local projects through micro-grants. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Wayne has served as a senior scholar at the Fetzer Institute and is extended faculty at the Institute of Noetic Science. He is a best selling author of several books including "A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough" and is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post. Wayne Muller lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He offers personalized, guided retreats and sabbaticals – as well as mentoring and spiritual direction – in person and by phone.