If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week, we take ourselves far too seriously. The moral sweat pouring off our brows blinds our eyes to the action of God in and around us.
— Eugene H. Peterson
Question: "Do you take a day off?"
Answer: "Unthinkable! In a world where a cobalt bomb might detonate any moment, how can the very people entrusted with the Word of Life to this doomsday population take a day off?"
This interchange took place in a seminary classroom while I was a student. The answer came from a prominent pastor whom, I thought, I had every reason to admire and therefore emulate. Thus, when I became a pastor, I practiced what had been impressed upon me: long hours, seven-day weeks, year after year. Most of my friends and mentors did the same. The only alternative I could imagine was sloth, by far the deadliest of the ministerial sins.
After a few years, pressure from my wife and children got me to take an occasional break. I began to realize I worked far better and got more done in six days if I had a change of pace on the seventh. Remarkable! The arguments and evidence mounted: I was persuaded to take a regular day off.
Then I noticed something (why it took so long I'll never know): my practice was not at all the same as the biblical practice of Sabbath-keeping. I had more or less assumed I was being biblical, but actually I stood in stark and utter contrast. My day off was basically utilitarian, a secularized Sabbath, making it possible to get more done on the other six days. It was also a commonsense contribution to family harmony and emotional health.
At that point I set out to keep a genuine Sabbath.
No other behavioral change has brought so many unintended but welcome benefits to my life of faith and my work as a pastor.
Daily and weekly rest
Sabbath means "quit." "Stop." "Take a break." The word itself has nothing devout or holy in it. It is a word about time, denoting our nonuse thereof, what we usually call "wasting time."
The biblical context is the Genesis week of creation. Sabbath is the seventh and final day, in which "[God] rested [shabath] … from all His work which He had done" (Gen. 2:2 nasb). As we reenter that sequence of days when God spoke energy and matter into existence, we repeatedly come upon the refrain "And there was evening and there was morning, one day.… And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.… And there was evening and there was morning …" (Gen. 1:5-31 nasb)— on and on, six times.
This is the Hebrew way of understanding day, but it is not ours. Our day begins with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness and closes, not with evening but several hours past that, when we turn off the electric lights. In our conventional references to day, we do not include the night except for the two or three hours we steal from either end to give us more time to work. Because our definition of day is so different, we have to make an imaginative effort to understand the Hebrew phrase evening and morning, one day. More than idiomatic speech is involved here; there is a sense of rhythm.
Day is the basic unit of God's creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But it is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening, "I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep" and drift off into semiconsciousness for the next six or eight or ten hours, a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive and have no cash value.