The Bible is clear about the command to Sabbath. As was pointed out, the benefits of doing so are particularly relevant for leaders. But, what does it look like? Below I propose four aspects of Sabbath-keeping that will help you grasp its practice. This post will cover two of the components and Part Four will contain the other two.
The dictionary provides several definitions of the word 'retreat' that have particular application to this subject. Note especially definition number 4 below:
Retreat [ree-treet]: (1) the forced or strategic withdrawal of an army or an armed force before an enemy; (2) the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy; retirement; seclusion; (3) a place of refuge, seclusion, or privacy; (4) an asylum, as for the insane.
Retreat, in this context, means to escape normal, ongoing activity to engage in what is out of the ordinary and restorative. This is self-evidently a good thing. Yet, leaders often find it difficult to retreat for these reasons:
An addiction to achievement. There are some who truly feel guilty when they relax. They see relaxation as selfish, irresponsible, and undisciplined. Thus, they have a preoccupying sense that there are always “better things” to do than unwind. When they sabbath, they believe they are not achieving. This, of course, is incorrect. They are achieving something of great value in regard to rest and connection to Christ—good for both the body and soul.
“There’s still work to do.” Rarely do we finish in one week all the work we feel we need to finish. In fact, if you’re a pastor, you know there is always something that can be done to make the church better. There are people to counsel and sick people to visit. There’s always a need for more prayer, more strategic thinking, more relationship building, and more study for sermons—even on Sunday afternoons. After all, there are only a few days until the next sermon. Sunday comes with amazing regularity!
Demands of others. Sometimes the demands of spouse, kids, family, and bosses preempt leaders of the choice to rest and restore. In this mindset, we feel we have lost the ability to choose for ourselves what we do with our time. A sense of entrapment and loss of control sets in, which, in turn, leads to bitterness.
“Things will crash and burn if I step away.” We have a belief that if we are not engaged with work at all times, then the proverbial wheels will fall off. Things won’t get done, people won’t get taken care of, and life will be worse with the Sabbath than without it.
Yet, the Bible is clear. God is not ambiguous in this command. We must sabbath in order to obey God, and in order to sabbath, we must retreat from the life we live the other six days of the week.
Recreation means literally re-creating our selves. It means doing that which gives life in body, mind, and spirit, not that which drains it. Therefore, we must discover and then affirm those activities that are not just different from the routine, but also bring life back into us after six days of leadership that depletes it.
Talk to anyone who regularly works out, whether by walking, running, weight-lifting or any other regular physical discipline, and they will tell you the breakdown of muscle restores and rebuilds the body. A sense of physical re-creation is the result. The physical and mental benefits of such exercise are well established and need not be listed here. Spiritual benefit is also present, for as Paul would say, “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). We do our souls well when we keep our bodies well.
Some think Sabbath means lying on the couch watching TV all day on Sunday. Yet, in addition to getting a good nap and plenty of rest, this day may legitimately include working the body differently than you do the rest of the week. Small gardening projects, enjoyable handyman tasks, taking a hike or walk, going for a short run: such activities are not “work” provided they are different from your six-day-a-week routine and are not demanding or draining, but are instead restorative. Physical activity on the Sabbath does not mean rigorously working out unless that is restorative to you. But lying dormant for hours upon hours rarely restores our bodies either. Sabbath is better experienced if we seek to recreate our bodies as well as rest them.
We recreate our minds by reading books, enjoying the arts, and engaging in thinking activities. Novels (books unrelated to work), movies, music, theater, art, museums: all create escapes that can renew the mind. Thinking activities such as chess, card games, puzzles, and board games can ignite parts of the mind that often lie dormant. Be careful, however—there are forms of mental activity that are not restorative at all. There is a difference between engaging the mind and merely entertaining it. While possibly harmless, some entertaining kinds of activities, including certain movies, video games, TV shows, music, and all the rest, don’t lead to mental restoration. How many times have you sat through five to six hours of mindless television and at the end of it said, “Man, I feel alive and restored!”? Transformation, therefore, comes by renewing our minds, not simply amusing them (Romans 12:2).
Recreating ourselves spiritually goes hand-in-hand with renewing ourselves in body and mind. We are, after all, whole selves and not merely parts. Therefore, beyond the disciplines of daily prayer and Bible study, on the Sabbath we should pursue that which helps us simply enjoy God. Worship and service should be spiritually restorative even for those in ministry. We all must discover some restorative dimension to worshiping on Sundays, even if we are the ones leading the time together. We should also, even in ministry, find joy in serving others and God on the Sabbath.
There are also outside-the-church pursuits that have great potential to restore spiritually. Art, poetry, and music can elicit spiritual emotions and comprehensions of God that are inspiring and healing. They allow us to ponder the amazing love of God, his character and might, and the multitude of spiritual blessings we possess. These are activities that move us to be joyful in God. Engaging nature by drinking in the sight of mountains or oceans, hiking a nature trail, or gazing at a flowery field or at the stars may cause us to consider the bigness of God and provide a deep, secure perspective for facing the challenges of life and leadership.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:3–5)
Inspirational and restorative Sabbath-keeping, the kind that makes us aware of and more available to God, includes turning from the normal activity of working to the special activity of pondering God’s work.