A Story Called Rest
A Story Called Rest

A Story Called Rest

Can we imagine a society where Sabbath constrains our clamorous desires?

Appears in Winter 2016

"Papa Angelo?" Despite her broken English, I understand that Maya, a seven-year-old Syrian refugee, is asking about my husband. Where has he been all these mornings that I have picked up her and her brother, bringing them back to my house while her parents attend English class?

"Work. He's at work."

"Work?" she asks quizzically, then nods, smiling with sudden understanding. Maya makes a threading gesture. For a quick second, I imagine she is pantomiming heart surgery. Then I realize stupidly that she thinks "Papa Angelo" is a tailor.

"No, no." I raise my fingers as if suspended over a keyboard. "Laptop." My fingers dance. "Laptop."

"Oh, laptop!" We have understood each other. Almost.

My conversation with Maya hints at the difficulty of sustaining conversation about work and rest. Our vocabulary for work, like Maya's, is limited by our modern, industrialized imagination. Work is no more to us than the Sisyphean nine-to-five; it is paid labour. Conversely, when we think of rest, we imagine beach vacations, golf courses, and retirement: habits to sustain work and finally deliver us from it. As John Koessler writes in The Radical Pursuit of Rest, "Work seems to be at the center of all things." He adds, "Rest in this paradigm of life exists for the sake of work."

By way of contrast, biblical Sabbath is not an injunction against work for work's sake. We don't idle the body only to improve its performance. That is our culture's impoverished, work-centric, and inevitably anxious view of rest. Rather, biblical Sabbath displaces work from the centre of human life and reimagines a world cohering in Christ—a world where houses are built by more than human industry, where cities are protected by more than human vigilance, even a world where work is imbued with greater dignity and urgency because "in the Lord [no] labour is in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58). Sabbath, in the most Christian sense, affords a rest by which we are not so much restored as re-storied—not simply refreshed but freed to "be still and know that he is God." Sabbath rest is more satisfying (and possibly even busier) than retirement.

Modern and Rest-Less

Decades ago, we were predicting our messianic deliverance from the world of toil— an age when machines would increase productivity and produce for us an inordinate amount of free time that, without vigilance, might easily become boredom. And in one sense, our machines have indeed borne the physical burdens of much of our labour, especially on the farm and in the home. A field can be plowed, seeded, and harvested with several passes of the tractor; dirty clothes can be washed and spun dry at the twist of a knob and the push of a button. We owe great gratitude to our machines for the weariness that we have been spared.

But if work's primary onerousness were its backbreaking demands, if its burdens were merely physical—and rest a thing to be produced by labour-saving devices—how would we explain the well-documented trend of the "New Domesticity" and our voluntary return to the busy, bustling kitchens of our great-grandmothers to indulge the pleasures (!) of gardening and canning, knitting and sewing. Unlike we might have previously thought, work is not burdensome only insofar as it is manual.

There is more to worry about work than its physical demands. Indeed, as anyone with a smartphone and laptop knows, the material conditions ensure that the burdens of work are never left behind. The office fits in our back pocket, and the light never goes out. Human technologies, as presciently argued by Marshall McLuhan, act as prosthetic devices. Whether on the farm or at home and in the city, our machines do not reduce the demands of work so much as multiply the body's capacity for doing it. In this way, they don't deliver rest but make us clamorous for greater productivity. In other words, our bread today may not be produced by the sweat of our brow—but this isn't to say that we have lost the taste of "anxious toil" (Psalm 127:2).

The lived condition of modern work life is anxiety: resources are scarce, time is running out, and we are falling behind. Today's worker only competes insofar as his body achieves machine-like potential. The market is flooded with self-made gurus like Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek (and The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef), who promise solutions to "10x your per-hour output." Executives are offered courses like those at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, which posit "the body [as] business relevant." Rest, when entertained in modern conversations about work, is usually proposed as a solution to greater output—avoiding the unfortunate fact that as productivity rises, the opportunity cost of every hour of non-work rises with it. Whatever the colour of one's collar, the modern worker lives with anxious dread: of automation; of increasing demand; of the process of aging (and the slowing of the machine); of greater financial insecurity.

Of the disappearance of rest.

Longing for the Sabbath World

In the 1961 case McGowan v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court voted to "keep the Sabbath." Nevertheless, the Court did not uphold Sunday-closing laws because it recognized the importance of worship or religious observance. Instead, the Court argued for the validity of such laws on the basis that they presently (though not historically) derived from more secular concern: "to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens." In other words, rest in modern America was like a disfigured body severed from its Head. God might be dead, but the need for rest was alive and well.

In her book The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz acknowledges our "unassuageable longing" for rest, whatever our religious persuasion. Her own renewed interest in seventh-day rest had less to do with the allure of Jewish orthodoxy (which she had never known in her "half-godless" childhood home) and more to do with the "time illness" from which she saw herself and others suffering. Shulevitz sought Sabbath, not to find God, but to soothe the lived panic that is the 24/7 world of too much work, too little time. She recognized that the boundaries of work had never been more porous, the need for Sabbath never greater.

Culturally, we crave rest. But this isn't to say that we long for Sabbath, whose livelihood depends on something beyond its ability to repair the human machine so that it re-enters the line of production. Sabbath is not a practice purposed for work or even an interior, individual observance. It is bone-deep rest made possible as we rehearse together, as God's gathered people, a different story—a story that reverses the curse of proud selfrule and climaxes in the finished work of Jesus Christ, anticipating the day when earth is made heaven.

In the Beginning

In Exodus 20:8–11 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15, the fourth commandment—to keep Sabbath—comes with a recitation of sacred history: of God's seventh-day rest as well as Israel's deliverance from Egyptian slavery. More than a weekly means for catching their breath as God caught his at the foundation of the world, Sabbath was a story by which Israel understood God and his purposes, themselves and their place in the world. The Sabbath command came with its own true "once upon a time."

Once upon a time, "The heavens and the earth were finished . . . and God rested" (Genesis 2:1–2). In the first story to which Sabbath refers, our modern categories for work expand beyond paid labour and laptops. God, like women throughout the centuries, is engaged in the gratuitous acts of homemaking. As John Sailhamer points out in his commentary The Pentateuch as Narrative, in Genesis 1 God is primarily concerned with the habitability of the earth and the welcome he intends to provide; he is expecting guests. Unlike other ancient creation myths, like the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the Genesis story of the world's beginning introduces the scandalous idea of divine work for the purpose of human flourishing—a world in which true rest is possible because someone else is awake. But this world God is making is not just home for humanity: creation is also a temple for God himself. According to John Walton, author of The Lost World of Genesis 1, "Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple." To understand the Sabbath as tied up with the very founding of the world signals, not just God's work and God's rest, but God's rule.

"The earth is the lord's and the fullness thereof," cries the psalmist (24:1). These are the tidings of the Genesis story, which no doubt Jesus recalls when he reassures his own followers who are worried over clothing and bread, even life itself. Don't be anxious, he implores. "Seek first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33). Rest, in the most Christian sense, is not the temporary act of escaping the rat race, nor is it the lazy reach for the remote on Sunday afternoon. It is bound up in the story in which we are immersed weekly: in our corporate reading of the Scriptures, in the waters of baptism, at the table of Christ, in our prayers for God's name to be hallowed and his kingdom to come. The narrative arc of the Sabbath points beyond our anxious preoccupation with rent and groceries, college tuition and retirement savings, and grounds us in the eternal certainty that God is on the throne. The central actor in earth's drama is not humanity, but God, and he never slumbers or sleeps. Sabbath unseats work from the narrative centre and puts God in his rightful place of rule, forbidding our terrifying freedom to believe that pay and productivity are the only means of our provision.

If there is no God, there is no rest to spare us our fears. As Albert Camus has keenly perceived, a world without God is a universe "without appeal," and humanity must learn to self-rely. But if the Sabbath story is true, it saves us in more ways than one: not just from the inhumanity of ceaseless work but also from the frantic fears of self-rule. What if jobs disappear? What if I am disabled? What if I work but the paycheque does not provide?

Be still and know that I am God.

Out of Egypt

The creation story is one story of the Sabbath; the exodus is the second. Once upon a time, "You were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" (Deuteronomy 5:15). The slaves in Egypt had been the machines of Pharaoh, their value measured in productivity—bricks and more bricks. When Moses requests three-day leave for his people to keep festival, Pharaoh is indignant. "Why do you take the people away from their work?" he demands. "Get back to your burdens" (Exodus 5:4). In the Egyptian economy, bricks must be made faster with fewer resources: slavery is, at least in once sense, the merciless, inhuman overload of the body, which cannot, like a machine, endlessly speed up.

The Sabbath story of the exodus teaches that the body is more than machine, provision more than the output of human hands. We are freed, like the Israelites, to gather six days and awake, on the seventh, to the surprise of bread falling from heaven—manna being the first symbol of Sabbath economy and a signpost of God's grace. Israel could let the seventh day, even the seventh year, lie fallow because God himself had promised to feed his people. Israel could enter a land called rest precisely because God had prepared her way, giving her cities she did not build, cisterns she did not dig, vineyards she did not plant (see Deuteronomy 6:10–15). In the Sabbath-storied world, a new economy is at hand in which supply is not entirely determined by production.

Be still and know that I am God.

New Testament Rest

Despite how central Sabbath practice was for the ancient Israelites, it is strangely absent from the New Testament—omitted from the abbreviated list of commandments in Romans 13, even warned against in Colossians 2 as "shadow" rather than "substance." And this is because Jesus is the one to whom the story of Sabbath points, his resurrection inaugurating a new creation. But if Christians are no longer bound to keep Sabbath (and certainly there is disagreement about this), what does its story mean for us today? What does rest look like on this side of Easter?

Just as it did for the Israelites, the Sabbath story bends us low, reorienting us to our creaturehood—though not simply in terms of confronting us with the limits of the body. Rather, the Sabbath story dethrones the proud one whose boast is, "There is no God." The world does not spin because we are on call. Our table is not laid because we have been diligent. Rather, it is the Creator who sustains, the Creator who feeds. If Shulevitz has noted that Sabbath has the power to "protect us from the clamor of our own desires," she might have meant that regular rest slows the runaway ambitions that lead to physical collapse. But the biblical story of Sabbath—Old and New— also confronts humanity's idolatrous appetites for self-sustenance and self-congratulations, which fuel, even celebrate, much of our frantic, fearful work. "Be still and know that I am God." This is the freedom of leisure in the Sabbath-storied world, and it can certainly inspire us to regularly close our laptops as a deliberate act of trust.

But even further, the Sabbath story returns us to the original purpose of work, or avodah— a Hebrew word translated in a variety of ways: service, labour, duties, ceremony, ministry. Sabbath does not put work at the centre of all things, but it does expand our imagination for the activities that work might include, even the worship that true vocation is. Avodah blurs our tidy lines between sacred and secular. It is the word to describe the fourteen years of labour Jacob performed for Rachel's bride-price, and it is also the word for the ministry of the Levitical priests. Even Jesus himself was misjudged and violently hated for his use of the Sabbath as he stepped over the multitudinous restrictions on work and deliberately set about putting the world to rights on Saturday. "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath," he argued in defence of his acts of healing—the avodah of Sabbath.

Can we imagine a society where Sabbath constrains our clamorous desires? Would it mean, for example, imitating France's legislative ban on work emails outside of business hours or instituting the child- and dogfriendly culture of Menlo Innovations, a company whose guiding principle is "joy"? While these practices help to reclaim our humanity, they do not re-story us.

The compelling story of Sabbath is the church's to tell. Better yet, our neighbours, whatever their intellectual skepticism, long to hear it. As an example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, reconsiders his alienation from the church and its stories, which have provided such succour to the African American community. He had just visited the Christian mother who lost her cherished only son—Coates's classmate—to police violence. "I often wonder if . . . I've missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body."

"I wondered," writes Coates, "because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life." It isn't just Mabel Jones's striving against the odds for African American women that Coates notes. (Born to sharecropper parents, Jones is chief of radiology at a Philadelphia hospital.) Coates marvels that she could suffer the world's brokenness—and rest in hope.

Coates knew Sabbath when he saw it. It might even make a believer out of him.

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel

Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place. She writes widely for print and digital publications and travels to speak at churches, conferences, and retreats. Jen holds a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She is married to Ryan and together, they have five school-age children and live in Toronto.


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