Dear Kanyaganyago: There is More to a Sabbath Rest than Doing Nothing
My spiritual son, Kanyaganyago is a new Christian. In this letter, I help him reflect on the importance of keeping the Sabbath.
I hope you have been well.
The past few weeks have been busy, filled with so much writing, interviews, research, and deadlines to meet. The heatwave has also not helped. The meteorologists tell us that we might get some relief from this extreme weather next month. But on the whole, God has been faithful.
Since you came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, we have not been able to catch up and talk. I thought this would be an opportune time to write to you as a way of addressing some of the questions you have been asking.
In this first letter, I hope to shed some light on the topic of rest, or as Christians call it, the Sabbath.
You have been wondering why you should stop working once a week to take a sabbath rest. You are right in saying that we should do it because God commands us. But I want to take some time and make a few things clear to you regarding the sabbath. This is just a letter, I may not be able to talk about everything that I have to say on the topic, but I will in subsequent letters.
When most older people, especially men, approach their age of retirement, they complain about losing a sense of purpose. They have been working for over forty years, and now all that is left to do is wake up in the morning to do absolutely nothing.
Part of who they are is the job they have been working for decades.
It is even harder to tell someone to rest for a day when all they see is a laundry list of tasks, responsibilities, and obligations begging to be taken care of.
Isn’t it a sign of irresponsibility to neglect work for a day in the name of a sabbath rest? Doesn’t rest somehow lengthen the task at hand? I mean, a two-hour job may not be completed until the next day. All these are legitimate questions, but the problem is that these questions miss the point.
Kanyaganyago, your problem is not that you are not as efficient as you want to be; instead, it is this: you are allowing your work to tell you who you are, and what you can or cannot be. You are turning to your job to tell you something good about yourself so you will feel good.
Most people will not admit that they spend their entire life thinking that everything is fine so long as they work. They believe they can become someone if they do something. The assurance of being who they hope to be is invested in work. In fact, some will say that they will rest when they die.
The challenge, my friend, is that the work you do was never meant to tell you who you are, intrinsically. It may tell you that you are a hardworking person but reducing your inherent worth to subjective qualities like hard work is tantamount to devaluing who you are as an image-bearing child of God. You were created in the likeness of God, not your job.
Now, the question is, how does rest solve this problem?
Well, it doesn’t.
Rest, like work, is not intelligent enough to tell you who you are. In fact, it can be as damaging as the work you are avoiding. The key, therefore, is to look at rest as a vehicle used by God to focus you on him.
Here is an analogy.
I am aware that you recently bought your first smartphone five months ago. Unlike the old feature phone you had, smartphones require a certain level of care as you will find out. My smartphone occasionally heats up, and then the applications start to freeze. This typically happens after extended usage.
I then restart the phone to try and remedy the situation. You see, because several applications can run simultaneously in the background, the phone is left exhausted since it was made to accommodate just a handful of active applications at a particular time. Therefore, when I restart the phone, all those background operations are destroyed so that its system can breathe again.
On restart, the phone will be faster and more efficient. But that is not the point of the analogy.
Here is the point: when the phone is switched off, when its phonebook, or camera, browser, or email app is not working, at that moment, the phone is of no use. Its usefulness is in its ability to carry out all the functions that are expected of a phone. So, to any regular human being, that phone is useless—until it is switched back on.
But not to its owner.
You see, Kanyaganyago, what that phone is, and what it can become is a reality present and active in the mind of its owner. It may be switched off, but the owner knows, even when the apps are not running, that it is her phone; that it is indeed a phone capable of all things a phone can do.
What that phone is, is not in its ability to function but in the fact that in the mind of its owner, it is still a phone even when it is not functioning.
The same is true of you and God—your owner. When you rest, you are rebelling against the entire culture which looks to things like work, money, girls—yes—girls, boys, technology, etc. to tell it who it is or can be.
To rest is also to decide that work, however important, cannot be the thing that informs your existence. Because, in the mind of God, you are known, loved, and secure—minus your work. You don’t have to work to be, you already are, without any work.
The preacher in Hebrews chapter four draws on the salvation history of the people of God, Israel, to show that rest—what he calls the ‘Sabbath Rest’—was a promise from God. He also says that it takes faith to enter that rest.
This, my son, is the way to look at rest. It is a promised gift from God that we take in faith. It is not something we turn to when we have nothing to do. Instead, it is an act of worship in reverent obedience to God. The preacher draws on the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 95 to show that the children of Israel did not enter God’s rest [for them] because they still doubted the God who had (literally) moved heaven and earth to prove to them that they were secure in him. They chose to disregard his presence among them by doubting his ability to keep them safe.
When you think about it, you will notice that the children of Israel did not just fear the giants they saw. They, in admitting that they stood no chance against these giants, were saying that the God who led them out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, giving them free-oven-fresh bread from heaven, etc. would not deliver on his promise of giving to them the land he had promised to their ancestor, Abraham. They were making God a liar.
Kanyaganyago, think of it this way: this Eternal God who created this world, and redeemed it from sin in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, has called you in faith to find life in him. Praise the Lord that you have heard him and now know him. But this is not the end. He promises to come again and make all things new (see Rev 21:1-8). This means that you are being saved; that you are on the journey to that Sabbath rest and that God who started this work is committed to completing it (Phil 1:6).
This is where the Israelites were when they stopped to believe that God would complete “the good work he had started in them.” As the scriptures say, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” (Ps 95:11).
I want you to know, my son, that the only thing that will ever have anyone cast away from the saving presence of God is unbelief. The failure to trust in God’s redeeming grace is what Jesus called “blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matt 12:31). In future, I will write to you addressing this topic. Remind me if I forget.
You may now be wondering how this relates to what I said to you earlier in this letter. Well, first of all, the Sabbath Rest which the preacher of Hebrews talks about is our eternal rest. The rest which I am recommending that you consider as an integral aspect of your faith is an anticipatory exercise that points to the final [R]est in Jesus, which is also the culmination of our salvation.
That anticipation is an endeavour of faith. It is the business of trust alone in the saving ability of God, even in your regular sabbaths. Do you now see the implications of taking a sabbath every week?
Going back to the analogy of the phone that I told you earlier. When you stop working and refuse to have your work tell you who you are, you are in faith saying that you will only listen to God’s view of who you are, and what you can be. That even when it is hard, and the giants are closing in, you will look to him who is saving you.
I know that this is a long letter, Kanyaganyago, but I trust that it has clarified a few things. I also want to encourage you that while taking a sabbath is hard—and it will be for a long time—take comfort in the promise that you are “a sheep under his care” (Ps 95:7). You will occasionally fail, but don’t let that discourage you. There is new mercy for every morning. That mercy also covers your failure to rest.
Until next time. Endeavour to live a restful life.
Grace and peace to you my friend, and son in the Spirit,
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