Sabbath and Work

Small Group Study / Produced by TOW Project

1-hour small group study on Sabbath and Work

For more small group studies on workplace issues, go to the SMALL GROUPS STUDIES INDEX.

INTRODUCTION TO The Issue:

God created people to live in a rhythm of working and resting.  After creating the world, God looked around and saw that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God did not just cease from his labor; he stopped and enjoyed what he had made. The idea behind Sabbath is to experience joy in what God has done. And yet this rest is often illusive, illustrated by the following poem by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Come, rest awhile, and let us idly stray 
In glimmering valleys, cool and far away. 

Come from the greedy mart, the troubled street, 
And listen to the music, faint and sweet, 

That echoes ever to a listening ear, 
Unheard by those who will not pause to hear­ 

The wayward chimes of memory's pensive bells, 
Wind-blown o'er misty hills and curtained dells. 

One step aside and dewy buds unclose 
The sweetness of the violet and the rose...

You have forgotten what it is to smile 
In your too busy life­ come, rest awhile. 

Group Discussion: Does the word "Sabbath" conjure up images of rest or joy in your mind?  What images does Sabbath bring to your mind?

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT SABBATH AND WORK?

What does the Bible have to say about Sabbath? Right from the beginning of the Bible story it seems that a pattern of not only daily work and rest but also weekly work and rest is laid down. So let’s listen to the end of Genesis chapter 1 first and then the fourth commandment from Exodus chapter 20, which also refers back to Genesis.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
(Genesis 1:26-2:3)

An interesting fact about these verses is that the first thing in all of creation that is made holy is not a person or even an object. Rather, it is a day. Genesis does not say why God makes the seventh day holy, merely that God does make it holy. 

Group Discussion: In your mind, what makes a day holy? Do you have other days that you celebrate as holy (birthdays, anniversaries, etc?) What does a holy day look like to you?

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

The first part of God's command regarding the Sabbath calls for ceasing labor one day a week. In the context of the ancient world, the Sabbath was unique to Israel.No other ancient people had the privilege of resting one day in seven. At the same time, such a rest required an extraordinary trust in God’s provision. Six days of work had to be enough to plant crops, gather the harvest, carry water, spin cloth, and draw sustenance from creation. While Israel rested one day every week, the encircling nations continued to forge swords, feather arrows, and train soldiers. Israel had to trust God not to let a day of rest lead to economic and military catastrophe.

 

Group Discussion: We face the same challenge today to trust in God’s provision today. If you follow God’s commandment to rest one day a week, will you be able to hold a job, keep the house clean, prepare meals, mow the lawn, or complete your other responsibilities? Do you trust God to make this work for you?

 

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
(Leviticus 25:1-12)

In the Old Testament we find not only weekly patterns of work and rest but also yearly, seven-yearly and forty-nine-yearly cycles of rest. These cyclical rests serve two purposes. The first is to give both people and land a physical rest from the hardship and frustration of work. The second purpose is to invite people to recommit to God and experience deep spiritual rest. This second purpose satisfies a need to rest not only from physical exertion but from the instability, anxiety, and insecurity of your lives. God institutes these cycles of rest so that his people can set aside time to worship him and rediscover his covenantal love and faithfulness towards them. During these times of worship, Israel is reminded that God himself is their rest: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Exodus 33:14). When Israel turns to God in trust and obedience, this promise of rest is realized through Divine protection and blessing.

Group Discussion: Do you incorporate cyclical rest practices into your life? If so, what do you get out of them? If not, what might you hope to get out of a yearly retreat or sabbatical?

WHAT DOES SABBATH LOOK LIKE FOR US TODAY?

Here is a list of possible Sabbath practices, adapted from materials by Tim Keller and research by The Theology of Work Project. As you read this list, notice if any practice jumps out at you as something you want to try.

  1. Take time for inactivity - Stop all schedule work, even ministry activities, and don't plan anything. This is analogous to Israel’s cyclical practice of letting a field lie fallow. During that seventh year, whatever grew in that field was left to come up.  People need unscheduled time to let surprising ideas crop up too.
  2. Take time for pleasurable activity - This means scheduling time for something that brings you joy, including refreshing recreation, prayer or devotional activities, and spending time around things you find beautiful such as God's creation or art.
  3. Choose activities that recharge you, depending on whether you're an introvert or an extrovert - If you feel recharged after relational activity, then make sure you spend time around other people during your Sabbath rest.  If, on the other hand, you need time alone to recharge, then honor that in your practice.
  4. Be aware of life seasons - It's hard to rest consistently if you're parenting a new baby or starting a business. Be aware of busy seasons and hold yourself accountable to taking a rest after a fixed period of time. (For example: the next three months is hectic at work, so I am scheduling a vacation for January.) 
  5.  Reflect on things that are just, pure, and pleasing (Philippians 4:8) - Some people find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal.
  6. Imagine your life from an eternal timescale (2 Corinthians 4:17-18) - look at your current situation from a distant point in the future
  7. Take stock of your priorities - If there is a solution that promises to fix all life’s problems, and it’s not Jesus, repent of it.
  8. Try a daily rest practice - for example reading a daily devotional or Bible reading plan or praying worshipfully at the beginning and end of every day.
  9. Decide on a weekly rest practice -commit to one full day of rest a week, or to a weekly meeting of Christians at church or in a small group.
  10. Plan for seasonal or annually rests - schedule a retreat, a sabbatical, or celebrate seasons of more intensive spiritual devotion, such as Advent and Lent.

Group Discussion: Which of these ideas stood out to you? Did a different Sabbath practice come to your mind? What do you plan on adding to your life as a result of this discussion? (Go around the room and have each participant answer.)

OPTIONAL CASE STUDY

Judith Shulevitz is a Jewish journalist who has written a book called The Sabbath World: glimpses of a different order of time. This is how she describes her discovery of Sabbath at a time when her work seemed overwhelming.

On the weekends my mood would darken until, by Saturday afternoon, I’d be unresponsive and morose. My normal routine, which involved brunch with friends and swapping tales of misadventure in the relentless quest for romance and professional success, made me feel impossibly restless. I started spending Saturdays by myself. After a while I got lonely and did something that, as a teenager profoundly put off by her religious education, I could never have imagined wanting to do. I began dropping in on a nearby synagogue.

It was only much later that I developed a theory about my condition. I was suffering from the lack [of a Sabbath]. There is ample evidence that our relationship to work is out of whack. Ours is a society that pegs status to overachievement; we can’t help admiring workaholics. Let me argue, instead, on behalf of an institution that has kept workaholism in reasonable check for thousands of years.

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily. This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction.

Individual Reflection: Take 5 minutes to write down any ways in which you identify with the experience of Judith Shulevitz or any ways in which her discoveries about Sabbath are important for you.

OPTIONAL TABLE DISCUSSION

Read these modern quotes about Sabbath and discuss with your group:

“He could take on anything and everything, it seemed, rather than leave himself time to reflect on his dissatisfaction with his life and what he might do about it.” ―Claire Tomalin writing about Charles Dickens

“Sometimes we feel that the busier we are, the more important we are--as though our busyness defines our worth...We can spend a lifetime whirling about at a feverish pace, checking off list after list of things that in the end really don't matter. That we do a lot may not be so important. That we focus the energy of our minds, our hearts, and our souls on those things of eternal significance--that is essential.”- Joseph B. Wirthlin

“The busyness of your life leaves little room for the source of your life” – Ann Voskamp

“There are a whole lot of people who are so freakin’ busy –they’ve so cluttered up their lives –they’re at their wits’ end. And if they’d only stop for a minute, they could hear the God of the universe whisper to them, ‘I love you’.” - Mike Yaconelli

“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life” – Dolly Parton

“Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week” – Alice Walker

"If you keep the Sabbath, you start to see creation not as somewhere to get away from your ordinary life, but a place to frame an attentiveness to your life” – Eugene H. Peterson

“Our great-grandfathers called it the holy Sabbath day. Our grandfathers called it The Sabbath. Our fathers called it Sunday. Now we just all it The Weekend” - David L. Herring

“I think the church is often a culprit in the busyness, especially in the evangelical church. Again, it's part of being Americans. Part of being evangelicals too is that we're highly activist. We are always diving in, willing to solve problems, and again there's a lot good there. But we also need the theological balance that the Kingdom is not ours to bring or ours to create.” ―Kevin DeYoung

Discussion Question: Do any of these quotations apply to your view of Sabbath? How has your view of Sabbath changed tonight?

 

For more small group studies on workplace issues, go to the SMALL GROUPS STUDIES INDEX.



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