Seven days of work make one weak.

A friend of W. C. Fields once walked into his dressing room unannounced and caught him reading the Bible. Knowing Fields’s cynical attitude toward religion, he was surprised. Fields himself seemed embarrassed and quickly shut the book: “Just looking for loopholes,” he explained.

That captures some of the ambivalence most Christians I know have toward the Sabbath—looking for loopholes. They know it is special, and to be observed, but they don’t really know why or how. Frankly, attending religious services comes out a poor and distant second place to all the other things one can do with a weekend, like going fishing, playing golf, or just sleeping in and enjoying the Sunday paper over several cups of coffee. Or the Sabbath looms up as a barrier to getting some necessary work done, whether piled up in the office from the week before or waiting in the yard from the month before. So they always seem to be looking for loopholes: ways to get credit for keeping the Sabbath, without actually having to keep the Sabbath.

Some play the percentages loophole: “Well, two out of four Sundays isn’t too bad. In baseball, that would make me a 500 hitter.” Others attempt the “Have your cake and eat it too” loophole: they attend worship services, and then proceed to cram the day full of what they really want to do. The earlier the service the better for these folks.

The more theologically sophisticated go for the “You deserve a break today” loophole. They stay away from church, explaining, “I’ve had a tough week. I’m exhausted. This is the one day I have to rest up or do some things around the house that just have to be done. Didn’t Jesus say that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath?”

Indeed, Jesus did say it was for our sakes that God gave the command to observe the Sabbath and to keep it holy (Mark 2:27). But that’s the point, isn’t it? In the Sabbath command God has said to us, “Here it is, I give it to you for your own health and happiness. Keep it and you win. Violate it and you lose.” If something is given for our sakes, and we refuse to receive it, then we hurt ourselves. The Pharisees, to whom Jesus directed that famous statement, were violating the Sabbath. They were piling up so many rules defining how one should keep the day holy that the day was lost under the pile. But they violate it no more than we do when we commit the equal and opposite error and set no rules at all. They are guilty of the legalist sin, we of the antinomian sin. We both violate the Sabbath, and in the process hurt ourselves, the violators.

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What do we lose when we lose the Sabbath? We lose grace. This seems to lie behind the explanation for the Sabbath command given in Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” There is a rhythm and pattern built into creation from the beginning. It proceeds from the very character of God himself. He works and he rests. Not even with God is there ceaseless production; there is also rest from production. He has left that stamp of himself on his creation. We do well to imitate him.

Work, this side of the Fall, has a way of pressing us all down and burying us under its weight. Studs Terkel, after interviewing scores of men and women from a wide variety of occupations, concluded in his best-seller Working: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” But the Sabbath, even this side of the Fall, is a word of grace spoken into the lives of driven, harassed workers. It says to housewives and to account executives, to welders and to attorneys, “You may stop now—no, you must stop now—at least for a day.” Even to non-Christians it says, “Your life is not all law and necessity. The Lord of creation who causes his sun to shine on both the good and the evil, has also given you this grace and this freedom from work.”


In the Sabbath God gives us freedom. In Deuteronomy another reason is given Israel for keeping the Sabbath holy: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Keeping the Sabbath is a powerful way of remembering that we are freed people.

The beauty of the command to keep the Sabbath holy is that it empowers us to deflate all of the imperial claims that work would make on our lives. It enables us to look it in the eye and say, “No! I am not your slave! I’m stopping for the next 24 hours. In Christ I am free. My future well being is in his hands, not in how well my hands serve you.” The beauty of the command is that it is a command. We would rarely rest if we were given the choice. We need to be ordered by the Almighty to rest, or else well keep on obeying the orders of almighty work.

The Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times classified section has row after row of ads reading, “Job pressures too much? Overworked? Harassed at work? Headaches? Poor sleep? Stomach aches? Depressed?” They start off sounding a lot like our Lord when he looked at a weary crowd and said, in effect, “Are you burdened and weighed down with cares? Come to me and learn from me and I will give you rest.” But these ads are for work-trauma hotlines and work-injury and stress-evaluation centers; and they promise legal aid and disability benefits, not rest.

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The grace and freedom of rest on the Sabbath has a way of shedding grace and rest on the other six days of the week. Stephen Winward was right when he said, “If all of our days are to be holy, then we must keep the Lord’s day holy.” I would add, if all of our days are to be restful, then we must rest on the Lord’s Day. We sanctify a part for the sake of the whole.


The Sabbath also gives us hope. In many ways it is a window in this world that gives us a peek into the next. The weekly Sabbath has an eschatological character to it. It points to the eternal Sabbath of Hebrews 4, in which we will all rest forever in the celebration of God’s mercy. Poet George Herbert wrote of the Sabbath, “O day most calm, most bright / The fruit of this, the next world’s bud.”

If it is true that a day of rest in this world is the “bud” of the world to come, then we can truly rest in hope the rest of the week! If rest is the “bud” of the future, then the future is not in our hands, but in God’s. That hope saves us from the pride that gives idolatrous significance to the work we do through the week. If the Lord does not build the house, then whatever we do is done in vain. The future is in his hands, not ours.

But that hope also saves us from the despair that says nothing we do matters. Since the future is in his hands, he can take what we do and make it matter as he both weaves it into his grand scheme of redemption and gives us our daily bread, to boot.

The Sabbath should not be regarded as a petty legalism to be circumvented, but as a positive witness of the grace, freedom, and hope that animates Christian existence. If we are burdened by the anxiety and struggle of work, it may be just the approach we need to set forth the gospel in its redeeming clarity.


Contributing Editor

One need only read the favorite magazines of America’s intellectual community to discover that this group generally views Christian conservatives with ill-concealed disdain. Yet, on most issues of personal morality no group has been so frequently vindicated over the past 25 years.

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For example, religious conservatives have never had much tolerance for porn, and so were ridiculed. Now a strong faction of the feminist movement has risen up against it, and the antiporn movement is suddenly more respectable among intellectuals.

A more significant observation on the moral front concerns the most important moral development of this century: the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Polls show that in 1967, 85 percent of the nation disapproved of premarital sex; by 1979 that percentage had dropped to 37.

The consequences of this trend include the mushrooming of female-headed families, many of the high school dropouts and abortions, much of the poverty cycle—consequences that are now everywhere discussed and deplored.

Religious conservatives, seeing the connection with irresponsible sexual conduct, fought that revolution more stubbornly than any other group. Youth from these homes are likely to reject the notion that current cultural norms are superior to the teachings of Jesus.

With regard to substance abuse, no social group has viewed alcohol with more misgiving than religious conservatives; they have advocated abstinence, or at least a very austere view of drinking. Now the perils of drinking are getting attention. Ten to 13 million alcoholics, marital breakups, perhaps $135 billion of economic costs, the traffic fatalities and injuries—these are helping the nation realize that the consumption of alcohol causes enormous social tragedy.

The list could go on. Homosexual practice, the use of tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, et cetera—these are other issues where events have shown the wise judgment of the moral conservative. We concede that religious conservatives were slow to support racial integration, and are sometimes overeager to impose their moral convictions upon society by law. But their overall record deserves something better than the darts and jibes that regularly come their way. Recent history offers considerable proof.


Professor of political science, Miami University (Ohio)

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