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Discovering Sabbath

Xandra Carroll

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God.

Exodus 20:8

One of my professors during grad school was a wizened field biologist called Burne. He had many adventurous tales after years in the field surveying New Zealand wildlife. Burne would often pause, mid-lecture, to launch into one of his stories, much to our delight! One story I’ve never forgotten was the time he ended up stranded on a lesser-known island off the north coast. Poor Burne had taken great pains to get all the data he needed for his research project in a meager six-day span, and a boat was meant to come retrieve him at dawn on the seventh day. But a southerly kicked up, and the little skiff couldn’t make its retrieval journey due to dangerous water swells. Burne realized he would have to wait an indefinite amount of time for the windstorm to blow over, with limited provisions and a less-than-ideal shelter. Seeing as he had nothing better to do, Burne went back into the forest. He left all his gear behind in the cabin and simply enjoyed the sights and sounds of nature. “The most amazing part of it,” Burne explained, “was that I learned more about that island in the one day without my gear than I learned in the six days before it.” Burne told us about the power of observation: “How easy it is for a field biologist to limit her sight to the narrow lens of a monocular! How quickly we forge ahead with our instruments, measuring the length of petals and stalks, and forgetting to smell a flower or appreciate its lovely color.”

I have often thought about that story as the years have gone by. I think Professor Burne experienced something that day that every human has been searching for: rest. What he discovered was less about observation and more about observance—the observance of a very ancient tradition called the Sabbath.

All of us long for rest, no matter our cultural background or religious beliefs. It’s not uncommon to see comical T-shirts sporting statements like, “Sleeping is my superpower” or “I’m awake. Please respect my privacy during this difficult time.” Rest seems like that faraway thing we can never get enough of. Throughout history, songs and stories have pointed to a magical land where we find the peace and wholeness we’ve spent our lifetimes yearning for. From the old bluegrass song Big Rock Candy Mountain to the tale of the secret garden atop God’s Thumb in Louis Sachar’s book Holes, finding a restful paradise is the ultimate jackpot. But it’s so much more than something we long for only in this life. When a loved one dies, we often say, “Rest in Peace.” But it would be fitting of us to pause at such times and ask, ‘rest where?’ If there is no life after death, there can be no rest. If there is no hope beyond the grave, there must be no wholeness but rather, decay.

The Sabbath is not a death, but an invitation into life. When Jesus stood at the graveside of His dear friend Lazarus, as He was confronted with the rawness of grief, Jesus spoke about the hope He had and the hope He offered. He said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” (John 11:25). There were tears in His eyes as He said this; He was weeping because of the loss. Yet in a profound act, Jesus spoke loudly into the tomb of Lazarus and invited him to rise from the dead. Lazarus came out of the tomb, alive. The resurrection of Lazarus foreshadowed not only Jesus’ own resurrection, but the resurrection we will all experience someday, whereby those who live in Jesus will enter eternal rest—eternal life with Him.

People have differing viewpoints on rest. Religious and secular people alike often view their day of rest as a goal to do as little as possible in a 24-hour day period. Others seemingly prefer to take the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” approach, cranking out 70-hour work weeks and never taking time off. Neither of these views seem practical, as one leaves us unrested, and the other leaves us restless. For Jesus, rest is not a dormancy but an activation. In fact, Jesus was very controversial with the religious people of His day because He was so active on the Sabbath. Nevertheless, if we look at what He was active doing on the Sabbath, we see that it was bringing about restoration and healing—things that needed to happen for rest to take place.

Even for those who follow the way of the Lord of the Sabbath (Jesus), there is sometimes confusion around observance of the Sabbath, leading to extreme views. Some Christians argue that there is no need for a day off since the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus, should be our true rest. Still others count certain activities like driving and cooking akin to sacrilege. Regarding the former view, I hesitate to agree with it because observing the Sabbath is one of the ten commandments given to Moses, and we will practice the other nine (Exodus 20:1-17). Common sense has shown us time and time again what disastrous effects befall a human being who is disallowed sufficient down-time.[1] Long working hours have been linked to suicidal tendencies for both males and females across multiple countries.[2] Regarding the latter view, even secular philosophers over the centuries have observed that doing nothing is anything but restful. In his letter to a friend, the Stoic philosopher Seneca writes:

The greater part of your life, certainly the better part, has been devoted to the state: take some of your own time for yourself too. I am not inviting you to idle or purposeless sloth, or to drown all your natural energy in sleep and the pleasures that are dear to the masses. That is not to have repose. When you are retired and enjoying peace of mind, you will find to keep you busy more important activities than all those you have performed so energetically up to now.


The Sabbath is neither meant to be a day of striving nor slothfulness. Yet while there is no striving, there is an element of effort. And while we aren’t meant to be slothful, we are meant to slow down. It’s important to make a wholesome, nourishing meal that we can consume and gain energy from. But there is an energy cost to making that meal. Yet at the end of a good meal, no one ever complains of being empty. Like planning a good meal, a little intentionality will help us to sabbath well. Putting effort into resting well results in a deeper and more lasting rest. As Hebrews 4:11 tells us, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.”

Read part 2 on honoring the Sabbath.

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[1] Mark Rice-Oxley, Why do so Many Construction Workers Kill Themselves? (The Guardian: 2019). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/13/why-do-so-many-construction-workers-kill-themselves.

[2] William Wan, More Americans are Killing Themselves at Work. (The Washington Post: 2020) Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/01/09/more-americans-are-killing-themselves-work/.

[3] Seneca, On the shortness of life. (London: Penguin Books, 2004) XXIX.