When talking with a friend the other day, she told me that her boss stressed the importance of taking a day off each week. At least on the surface, she understood that there was an expectation by her supervisor that she would schedule “Sabbath time” into each week. Unfortunately for my friend, the nature of her work makes it hard for that to happen. But it got me wondering—what’s the point of forcing someone to take downtime?
I understand in principle why each of us needs some time off—one day a week, a few weeks a year. Although it’s possible to keep a frenzied pace going for several weeks in a row, eventually the lack of a change of pace catches up with us and exerts its physical, mental, and spiritual toll on our health. We need a break. Maybe not one day out of seven, but we require some sort of break every once in a while. But why would someone mandate that rather than just make space for it? Can you have “downtime” if you’re being forced to take it? Is rest as restful when someone else has written it into your schedule? Is it truly a break when it’s forced upon you by your boss?
One of the earliest (chronologically speaking) commandments in Israel’s cultural history was the Sabbath rest: “Remember the Sabbath day at keep it holy. For 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…” This one didn’t require any special liturgy or rite. One didn’t need to know how to make any specific sacrifice or utter a special incantation. The Sabbath just was, and God’s people were supposed to honor it by resting. But people of the Old Testament aren’t that different from us, and they struggled with it.
In today’s reading from Jeremiah (17:19-27), the prophet stands at a major thoroughfare and reminds the people of Judah and Jerusalem to observe the Sabbath as was commanded to their ancestors. Apparently, God’s people had forgotten why they were supposed to honor the seventh day of the week, and they had begun to do what every one of us has begun to do—fill up a day of rest with all the other “stuff” that wouldn’t fit into the rest of the week. But, as Jeremiah declared, there’s a price to pay for forgetting the Sabbath.
And here’s the real reason we’re supposed to have “Sabbath time”—whether an observant Jew or a Christian whose boss likes to use contemporary religious language in inappropriate ways: Sabbath time is for our relationship with God—not for our relationship with ourselves. Rest, relaxation, downtime is for us. We need a break. We can’t keep working at this pace. We must have some time off. But “Sabbath time” isn’t empty time. It isn’t R&R. It’s time apart from our lives in an effort to reconnect ourselves with God.
Imagine spending one full day each week structuring every action, every conversation, every bite of food, every destination, even every thought on God. It’s hard to spend 24 hours each week that focused on God without being transformed. Sabbath rest is the stewardship of time. We give proportionally out of our week (one-seventh in this case) just as we are called to give from our financial resources (one-tenth as a tithe). And, as I’ve written before, we don’t give up our time to God in response to something we feel. We give it up first because we’re told to, and we then watch as a relationship of gratitude and appreciation develops.
You might not want to set aside a whole day only to do God’s work, but once you do it as a mandated obligation something happens inside you. Like the people of Judah and Jerusalem, you discover again that you belong to God. You renew your relationship with him and reconnect in ways only possible by spending time together. One day out of seven is a tremendous cost—can’t argue with that. But there’s a reason it’s costly. There’s a reason we need to find a different “day off” besides the Sabbath (in the Christian case, probably best observed on Sunday). That’s because that one day a week is already spoken for.