Rest is an important spiritual practice that has big implications for our day-to-day lives. Countless Scriptures, from Genesis to Psalms to the Gospels, remind us that rest is necessary. But rest can quickly become a buzzword that no one really understands. We say we need rest, but what does that actually look like? Is it a nap, a walk, a few minutes along? And so often, as we work to find rest, we end up feeling even more restless.
Because while rest and finding rest are important, there’s more to the answer than just removing something from your life in order to create margin (though that’s important). What we;re really seeking is something more fulfilling, more beautiful, more essential: the Sabbath.
Many of us (myself included), have spent a majority of our lives having no concept what “keeping the Sabbath” looks like—or could look like. The idea of the Sabbath ends up in the pile of Christian disciplines that must be for “other people.”
The truth is, observing the Sabbath is core to the life of a believer. To engage in it without knowing why isn’t really possible. But to dismiss it because we don’t understand it is just a squandering of God’s gifts.
So, what is this Sabbath? Well, it’s a period of intentional rest modeled at its very earliest by God:
“By the seventh day, God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done” (Genesis 2:2-3).
Did you catch that? God rested. But why? I mean, God didn’t really need to rest, because that would imply lack of strength, energy or ability—which is in opposition to the nature of God. Rather, God rested because He wanted to enjoy His masterpiece, and He wanted to give us permission to do that, as well.
God knows us. He knows we must be told to settle down, and He knows that unless we do, we’ll miss everything. Because our human nature is to move toward some perpetual motion where we sleep a bit less, schedule more efficiently and cram as much life into life as humanly possible.
But God wants more for us. He wants more than just a fullness of a life that we concoct ourselves. He wants us to rest—in Him.
Let’s go back for a second to the Genesis account of creation—where God is resting. Can you imagine what that literal or figurative “day” must have been like? This was a day without sin, without worries or stress, without hunger or fear—just perfection. Balance. Peace. Sit in that for a moment and imagine swimming in a crystal clear lake and eating off the land and feeling nothing but the warmth of God. You don’t know what time it is. You don’t have any internal narrative telling you that you’ve failed. You’re perfect and created in the image of that which is also perfect. Your soul is still. Stay there for a moment…
This is Sabbath rest, which means literally to desist from exertion, to put down, to be still. And we see it for the first time on year 1, day 7—God Himself practicing it.
From that point on, the Sabbath as we see it in the Old Testament was really a ritual law, not just a good idea. For 1400-ish years, the Sabbath was law, because God was raising humanity and, at that point, they were children who needed to be forced to stop. God was saying to Israel, “I need you to take this day, I need you to rely on me, and I need you to trust that your food, your safety, everything, is from me.”
It reminds me of the napping situation I experienced with my then-2-year-old daughter. Sometimes, she went right down for her afternoon nap and woke up happy and refreshed. Conversely, when she fought it and continued to play and push back against sleep, things were not always pleasant.
You see what I’m getting at, don’t you? God was treating Israel like a child—a child who didn’t quite know the limits and needed boundaries.
But then, the child grew up, and the Sabbath was no longer a set of laws needed to be governed, but a condition of the heart that needed to be guarded. Enter, Jesus…
“Then He said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’’” (Mark 2:27).
Jesus was saying to the Pharisees (and really to us), “I know you want rules. I know you’ve been raised on do’s and don’ts, but today is new day.” The Sabbath is now a matter of willful obedience to God and a matter of the heart. The Sabbath is now a spiritual discipline, custom-made for you to be intentionally still and restful.
It’s not a rest that calls you to do nothing, but rather, a rest that beckons you to refocus your heart, quiet your mind and devote your time to following Jesus and having an awareness of the warm embrace of God.
Reframe the thinking to having a Sabbath-seeking heart and building in consistent time at very frequent intervals (hourly, daily, monthly, yearly) to breathe in the seventh day. The day when everything was as should be—and as it will be again.
That is rest, and that is worth fiercely pursuing and guarding.
Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.