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December 14, 2019


Wayne Kirkland and Alistair Mackenzie • Theology of Work
Work on Sunday? What does the Bible really say about the honoring the sabbath?

 What do you think of when you hear the word "rest"?


Do you dream of quiet days in a deck chair on a deserted beach? Or perhaps time with family and friends, completely free of the prospect of work?


What the Bible says about rest

There is much in the Scriptures about rest - almost as much as about work. This is not surprising when you consider that work and rest are two sides of the one coin. You can"t have one without the other. And their relationship to each other is modelled in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2 . within the story of Creation.


By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. [1]


What exactly did God do when he rested?


He took a break. He refreshed himself. Was God exhausted so that he needed a rest? Or did he just want to stand back and enjoy what he had made? If we hope to appreciate the worth of something, we need to take time to enjoy and evaluate it, to catch a glimpse of the big picture and gain a new sense of perspective.




Early in the history of the people of Israel, a "sabbath" was established, based on the example of the Creation story. It was a sign of the covenant. The fourth commandment is one of only two that are given in a positive form - "Remember the sabbath, to keep it holy". For the sabbath was intended by God to be a day of delight. An opportunity to celebrate life and to anticipate the future. It was also a day to be set apart, consecrated and dedicated to God.


Like the other commandments the sabbath was given in order to keep the people of Israel liberated. The call to "lay down the tools" for one day a week was a discipline to break the relentless demands of work. In this sense, it was not so much a "commandment" as a kindness, an example of God's care.


In the Gospels the sabbath plays a prominent role. Not surprising, since many of the run-ins that Jesus had with the religious authorities were about sabbath-keeping. The legalism of the day had tied the sabbath into a highly negative command, with laws against all kinds of trivial activities. This was consistent with the "ethics of avoidance" predominant among the Jews at the time. Their effort to "avoid sin" missed the point of the sabbath rest entirely. The response that Jesus made was to demonstrate mercy, healing, liberation and restoration. In doing so he made a dramatic point about the true meaning of the sabbath.


Sabbath then is, viewed biblically, a day of pause, a time of physical rest and renewal, an opportunity for spiritual refreshment. It is a gift from God.


Rest - not leisure

It's important to note the distinction between rest and leisure. Rest and sabbath are not the same as leisure, though they may certainly overlap. Rest is all about recovering our equilibrium - with God, with ourselves, with others and with creation. Leisure has as its goal personal enjoyment - which may may well be a by-product of rest, but not its purpose. The goal is quite different.


In fact, leisure can frequently divert us from rest. For many people it either becomes so dependent on frenetic activity that it is just another form of work (like the old "work hard, play hard" maxim) or so caught up in personal pleasure that there is little room to reconnect with God, our inner selves and others.


If work is about us exercising dominion over the earth, then rest and the sabbath are about letting God have dominion over us - setting time aside for God, entering into God's rest, listening to God's voice. The aim is for us to consciously allow God rather than work control our lives.


A further complication is the place consumerism has come to play in our culture. We are constantly being asked to buy this or that gadget, or take this overseas holiday or that thrill-seeking adventure - as if filling our lives up with more and more pleasurable experiences will somehow lead to greater happiness.


Unquestionably a Christian needs to discover a place for leisure. However leisure is not the biblical opposite of work - rest is. For it's as we seek to be renewed and re-energised that we are able to re-enter the rhythm of work.


Rest is a dirty word

In spite of the clear biblical mandate to rest, life is increasingly so full that few people take the time to rest well. Alvin Toffler's prophetic words of the 70's have been confirmed with remarkable accuracy. Life is dramatically faster now than it was a generation ago. Little wonder that the reply I expect most when we ask friends how their week has been is, "I'm just so incredibly busy," or "Flat stick!"


Why have we allowed the treadmill of life to speed up? Why do we have to live faster and faster, so that our lives seem to be spent just trying to keep pace? No doubt there are many factors, but three key ones Gordon MacDonald identifies in his short article "Rest Stops"[2]are: our preoccupation with productivity and efficiency, the impact of consumerism, and the intrusion of technology.


a. Productivity

Efficency and productivity are virtues in our society. And productivity means efficient activity. Our narrow definition of productivity excludes any concept of strengthened relationships, often with unfortunate results. For example, in an efficiency drive within orphanages, staff numbers were reduced. However, it was quickly discovered that when there were not enough staff to handle and hug babies, the babies simply died.


We can even make ourselves feel guilty if we're not working or being "productive". It's our  "productivity" which generally feeds our sense of value and worth.


Obviously rest doesn't fit too well into this equation! If it's not productive, it doesn't feed our self-worth, and therefore it's a distraction from what is seen as really important in life.


b. Consumerism

Our culture is fixated on standards of living. We even measure the economy by how much it has grown each year - through the lens of productivity and consumption. Unfortunately the church has largely bought into this. We are very much products of our society. In the incessant drive to possess more we have laid a real trap for ourselves. For as Gordon MacDonald says, "The more we want, the more revenue we must produce to get it. The more revenue we must produce, the longer and harder we have to work. So we build larger homes, buy more cars, take on added financial burdens and then find ourselves having to work harder to pay for it all. More work, less rest." [3]


In fact, under these conditions, rest becomes the enemy of work.


c. The role of technology

Technology is a wonderful thing. During the writing of this book, we - the co-authors - have certainly profited from it. One of us travelled extensively overseas, yet we were able to continue the process of writing and developing the content via a laptop computer and email, passing the text backwards and forwards round the planet.


It has never been so easy. But the same benefits of technology are also responsible for very negative consequences.  Mobile phones, computers, jet aeroplanes and the like mean that life is now actually more hectic and faster than ever before. Virtually everywhere on earth is easily accessible. Consequently it is more and more difficult to get away from the pace, noise and demands of everyday life.


A British editor we were recently working with, planned a one-week holiday in the French Alps at a remote cabin. It was a marvellous break for her. Only problem was, when she returned to her office the following week she found waiting for her 103 emails! An increase of the very "paperwork" that such technology was designed to reduce.


The call to simplicity

Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, the gospel calls us to simplicity. Because of the intense pressure exerted to speed up life, to be more "productive", to accumulate more, to experience this and that, we need to take deliberate action if we're to fight against the current.


Some practical forms of simplicity

All of us live in our own unique circumstances. The daily challenges I face may be very different to the challenges you face. However, each of us can develop habits and routines which help us grow a work/rest rhythm in our lives. Here are some things we, the writers of this book, have consciously worked at.



a. Dropping our expectations

We've noticed that an enormous amount of stress and effort is given to appeasing our appetite for an increased standard of living. Many of us can actually live on substantially less with very little pain. Buying a house in a cheaper area of town and then resisting the desire to "upgrade"; buying a second hand vehicle that has already depreciated substantially but still has good life in it; settling for mainly secondhand furniture; eating out only occasionally; keeping one's wardrobe to a minimum and wearing clothes till they are well-worn; choosing cheaper forms of entertainment and holidays - all these are some of the practices we have pursued over the years. And they have reduced the cost of living substantially.


During the years of greatest expense (teenage children!), simplifying our standard of living has meant much less financial pressure on us than on many of our friends. We are content to live on a lower income and therefore have more time and energy to give to other matters - including rest.


b. Not being slave to the phone

Modern inventions have changed the pace of life, and the ubiquitous telephone is one of the clearest examples. Whether landline or cellphone, its insistent ring has become one of the great compulsions of modern life.


I base most of my work from home. The room off my bedroom acts as office, study and library. There are tremendous advantages to working from home. I don't have far to commute each day (the traffic is very light on our stairwell!), I keep overheads to a minimum, and there is great flexibility in my day for mixing family, friendship and community responsibilities with employment.


However, with all upsides there are downsides. One is the accessibility people have to me via the phone. They know that I can be reached all times of the day, night and weekend. The interruption this can cause to family life, let alone rest and recreation, is potentially enormous.


I experienced a real breakthrough when I realised that I wasn't obliged to answer the phone every time it rang. I did not have to be at the beck and call of everyone. After all, with the modern invention of answerphones people could easily leave a message. If it was urgent I could always ring them back.


When I am needing some time for reflection, rest or writing, or when we have visitors, I will frequently just let the phone ring. Visitors sometimes get quite unnerved about this - their faces seem distraught as I continue listening or talking while the phone rings! Almost an "Aren't-you-going-to-get-that?" plea.


Family times are another discipline for me. I try to avoid answering the phone between 6pm and 8pm in the evenings. These are peak family times and I find it much easier either to let the phone ring, or to let one of the other family members answer and take a message.


c. Developing a regular time of solitude and silence

Some of us work in incredibly busy and noisy environments. Then at the end of the day we may come back home to more noise - stereos blaring, TVs blasting, maybe children crying or fighting. Noise and business everywhere. Not exactly the way to nurture a restful spirit!


In our home, disciplined use of the TV and stereo aid us enormously. Not only is the TV only on when there is a specific programme someone is watching (at least, that's the ideal we strive for!) but the wonderful button on the remote called "Mute" frees us from the tyranny of adverts. Watching a programme, we have discovered, is a much more restful experience when we don't allow ourselves to be subjected to the onslaught and noise of ads.


Different spaces in the home also help - especially areas for reading and chatting. And of course, if someone can't get a noise-free environment in the house, there's always outside - or even a walk.


I find the most restful times are often first thing in the morning - when everyone else is still in bed (a real challenge in our house as we have a very early riser!) or in the still of the early evening - particularly during the summer months.


d. Walking rather than driving

Perhaps the most obvious technological marvel of our age is the motor vehicle. It enables many of us to live and work in very different communities, and to visit family and friends hundreds of miles away in a short period of time.


One of the downsides of my car, I discovered, was that it "upped" the frenetic pace of my life because I was able to get to more places, do more things, and see more people in a day. Plus, city traffic being what it is, my stress levels often increased while in the car.


One of the habits I have developed to counter this hectic pace, has been to walk where I can, or even take public transport. (That's a challenge for me. I happen to be a car dealer!) Walking slows me down. It fills my lungs with air, my nose becomes sensitive to the smell of trees and flowers, I see things that I miss at 50km an hour, and I meet people I would normally drive straight past. It gives me time to think, to reflect, to pray and to relax. Unhurried, I build a rhythm into my daily life which makes me better prepared to face the times of busyness.


The biblical rhythms of life

Not only did God intend for us to experience the regular rhythms of the day (day and night) and week (six days working, one day sabbath), but there are other laws he laid down for the people of Israel. These include regular "religious festivals" (some lasting several days), the sabbatical year (every seventh year when the land was rested) and the year of Jubilee (the 50th year - after seven sets of seven years).


All were intended to structure into the normal schedule of work a balancing rhythm of rest. How we do this in our modern and largely urban context is a personal challenge we all must face. But rest we must - not only because our weary minds and bodies need a "breather", but also because of the constant need to realign ourselves with our Creator and his Creation.





1.      If you grew up in the church, describe what part the sabbath played in your early life - how was it expressed in your family and church context? Then think about how this has changed now - both in your understanding and practice of sabbath.


2.      What are some of the changes in our society which now make rest and sabbath more difficult to keep than, say, thirty years ago?


3.      Do you agree with the distinction made between rest and leisure? What forms of leisure do you think are also restful? What type of leisure works against sabbath?


4.      Productivity, consumerism and technology have been mentioned above as factors that have contributed to the speeding up of life. How have these affected your life? Are there other factors?


5.      Discuss forms of simple living which you think may help you grow an appropriate work/rest rhythm in your life.


6.      Have you ever had the opportunity for a sabbatical? Share your experiences, the lessons you learnt, or the things you would do differently next time.


7.      Discuss creative ways of making space and time for sabbaticals.





A gift from God - the sabbath year


A case study: Wayne Kirkland


1987 was a difficult year for me. Despite my intense commitment to working with unchurched young people, I was feeling tired and drawn. Everything was an effort. And the challenges I was presented with just served to overwhelm me. At the end of the year I sat with the other leaders of the organisation I served and discussed my predicament. Conversation was well-meaning but didn't really touch me, until one of the leaders - a middle-aged man - spoke about the need for sabbaticals. I had heard the term before - mainly used by my old university lecturers, but it was a totally foreign concept in the environment of our organisation. As he talked, the penny dropped - not that this would be the golden answer to my woes, but the timing was right to experience a break.


Six months later my wife Jill and I, along with our eight-month-old daughter, found ourselves travelling into the deep south, to a small isolated community. It was the beginning of a four-month adventure which not only restored my sagging energy levels, but more importantly helped set the compass of our lives for the next "season".


During those delightful few months we explored beautiful Fiordland, I worked ten hours a week for a small Baptist fellowship - preaching, leading, pastoring - we developed rich and deep friendships, and I studied (a correspondence paper from a North American college).


Being enveloped by a caring community and appreciated for what we could contribute to them, having freedom to be a family without the usual demands on our time, studying church history, regaining a sense of spontaneity and of awe - all these elements combined to refresh and renew me. They were some of the key ingredients that made those few months a watershed in my life.


Sabbaticals frequently result in directional changes. I have seen this time and time again with my friends. 1988 was just that for me. I came back convinced that my time in youth work was close to an end. I was still completely unaware of what lay ahead, but the direction of my compass was already changing. I discussed this feeling with my fellow-workers, and we agreed that I would serve another 15 months - long enough to pass the baton to others.


As it happened I ended up going overseas to study at the college I had previously done the correspondence paper from. A new organisation was also in its infancy - and with my colleagues I was able to develop some fresh material and trial new ideas. It was an exciting time. The energy and confidence to explore and change was largely due to the invigoration of the sabbatical.


Sabbaticals can be for everyone

Often I hear from people, "Oh, it's okay for you. You can take time out. But I can't. My boss would never allow me to take an extended time and he certainly wouldn't pay me for it! You're lucky."


Of course there's truth in these sentiments. Many of us aren't in the position where we can just take a break from our employment. And yet it may not be as impossible as at first appears.


For some there may be an opportunity to make use of long service leave. Others may be able to apply for leave without pay, or accumulate holidays. A creative alternative would be to take up a short term, low stress job. A friend of mine took a year off from youth work and drove buses. "The most enjoyable year of my life," he tells me.


The critical thing is not so much the length of time - but the intention and purpose of the time.


Even if the ideal of a complete break is not physically possible, there is still the opportunity for opting out of an aspect of our work for a period of time. For example, taking a year-long sabbatical from church responsibilities or community activities. While this won't be the same as acomplete break from work, it can, if well structured, give space for plenty of rest, reflection and re-evaluation of priorities.


I realise that the idea of a sabbatical seems risky. It's not easy to abandon the security of our regular life and work commitments. Yet my experience, and that of several friends, is that it's a richly rewarding exercise. Forgoing it means that you'll miss out on a wonderfully refreshing opportunity.


There will often be a cost - lost wages or a lower income. I know that when I take my next sabbatical my small business will suffer - there will be no one to replace me. I'm also aware that there'll be some dislocation in the commitments and relationships I'm involved in.


But at the end of the day, as with our God-inspired call to take time out each week, we know the cost is worth it - because it's an investment in our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health, and a re-creation for the next phase of our work.



I'm not indispensable

My experience of a sabbatical has taught me one invaluable lesson. None of us, no matter what our gifts, positions of responsibility, or contribution to the church and society, is indispensable. God is capable of achieving his purposes without us. I know this might come as a shock to some - but it's true!


We are valuable to God, not primarily because of what we can "do" for him, but because of who we are. Sure, he delights in using us, but none of us is indispensable.


This truth has the potential to set us free from our activism and our desperate longing to feel needed. It can cause us to allow our relationships with God, with others, and indeed with ourselves, to become totally renewed.


This, I'm convinced, is one of the great benefits of the weekly sabbath - and of sabbaticals

[1]Genesis 2: 2-3

[2]Gordon MacDonald "Rest Stops" in Life@Work Journal. Vol 2. No.4.

For more resources from this and other authors, click on Faith and Work Resources.com link to the right of this page.

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