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Keeping the Sabbath Saved My Marriage, My Ministry, and Probably My Life

I used to think resting from work was selfish, until I considered the example of Jesus.

Nearly 10 years ago, as a college pastor at the University of Oregon, I toiled nearly 80 hours a week doing the “work of the Lord.” No boundaries. No rhythms. No intention. No rest. Every crisis was my crisis. Every complaint was my problem. Everything and everyone came to me. The long and short of it. I began to burn out. And I knew there was a problem when I started hoping I would burn out. Burnout offered a way out of all the insanity. Though I had never thought it possible, I was, in Paul’s words, beginning to “weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). The cost was high. I constantly got sick, my marriage was struggling, and my ministry became misery as I went frantically from crisis to crisis.

Flannery O’Connor has this little throwaway line where she speaks of a priest who is “unimaginative and overworked.” That was me. There was only one problem: The ministry was thriving. People were getting baptized. Students were repenting. The group was growing. It all came to a head one Saturday morning. After an 80-hour workweek, I scheduled an appointment with a student in our college ministry for 10:00 a.m. that Saturday morning. Having not slept well for over a month, I missed my appointment, not even hearing the sound of my alarm. I woke up to a voicemail on my phone: “How could you miss this appointment? Pastors shouldn’t miss appointments. You have failed me.”

I had become, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, a “quivering mass of availability.” A need-filler. A gofer. A Christian handyman, available to everyone and everything but the Lord my God. Standing there, I nearly broke my flip phone over my knee and threw it against the wall. I had been working tirelessly only to let one more person down. I could not go on like I had been. By the sovereign grace of God, I had been reading a book by pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson. Through reading the book, I discovered something I had completely ignored in 10 years of Bible reading—this thing called the Sabbath. Peterson eloquently discussed how one day a week he would say no to ministry demands and go on hikes, eat good food, read poetry, and meet with God. I was intrigued. Was this not a waste of time? Was he not wasting his time on selfish endeavors? Then it clicked.

Up until this time, I had thought Sabbath-keeping was selfish. And I thought that if I did rest, it was a sign of weakness. Then I had the epiphany of a lifetime: I had been trying to be selfless. In helping everyone else, I had forgotten myself. I had become the preacher of the gospel who needed the gospel himself. Or, worse yet, I subconsciously thought God wanted me to forget about myself so I could serve others. But that is not the gospel. Jesus loves me too. I could love others only to the extent that I could recognize God’s love for me. I could see to the needs of my community only to the extent that I admitted my own needs. I could care for God’s people only to the extent that I would allow him to care for me. In forgetting all this, I had neglected to care for the body God had given me, the spirit he breathed into me, this soul that he molded with his own hand.

A Commandment, Not a Suggestion

Wisdom prevailed. I admitted my own limits and embraced my finitude. It was one of the first “not goods” in my life where I recognized I had a deep, human, God-created need. In living for everyone else, I had been trying to be omnipotent and omnipresent; God had never intended me to be either. As I read the Gospels, it became clearer and clearer to me that Jesus himself was not selfless. Jesus went into the mountains and prayed to the point that even his disciples could not find him. Jesus ate. Jesus drank. Jesus slept. He took care of himself. And never once was Jesus hurried from place to place, controlled by a busy schedule. Jesus lived a rhythm completely different from anyone around him. The rhythm of his life was, in itself, a prophetic act against the rhythms of the world.

Sabbath rhythms are not meant for paper; they are meant to be practiced. “Holy days, rituals, liturgies—all are like musical notations which, in themselves,” one Jewish scholar writes, “cannot convey the nuances and textures of live performance.” We are not to know about the Sabbath. We are to know the Sabbath. In the years since starting to practice the Sabbath, my family and I have become avid, albeit imperfect, amateur Sabbath-keepers. One day a week, my family turns all the screens off, lights some candles, prays, and invites the God of the Sabbath to bring us rest. This practice, which, again, we do far from perfectly, has saved my marriage, my ministry, my faith, and, I might even say, my life. However, we have come to find that Sabbath never just happens. In our 24/7 world, I have never once seen someone accidentally keep a Sabbath. Sabbath is an action of great purpose, one that demands feisty intentionality. It requires us to live in a rhythm that squarely opposes the dangerous pulse and habits of our world. Sabbath-keeping is not just a small vignette in the Bible. Page after page, story after story, book after book, Sabbath comes to us. This is not a minor motif in the story of the Bible—it is one of the greatest themes of the Bible. Sabbath is not extra credit. It is a commandment, not a suggestion.

Sabbath is God’s eternal way of helping us worship our good God and not worship the good work he has given us to do.

The Sabbath, Jacques Ellul contends, “shows that work is not after all so excellent or desirable a thing as people often tell us.” In other words, Sabbath provides work with a healthy framework within which good work can be done. The fourth commandment, we must remember, only prohibits us from work on Sabbath. Nothing else is prohibited. This simple act of not working revolutionizes our lives by re-centering our identity on being with God rather than on what we do for the world. Workaholism, in the end, is the result of our sense of self not fully coming into the light of Christ. Workaholism is very different from alcoholism—for the alcoholic, there is no slowly reintegrating alcohol after into your life after getting clean. Workaholism is different. For a workaholic, the issue becomes learning to live rightly in relationship to work. A workaholic will most likely have to get back to work.

The Idol of Exhaustion

As for my work, studies continue to reveal that pastoral burnout is connected to the pastor’s sense of being and worthiness. I became a workaholic chiefly because I had not allowed the grace of Jesus to reside in the depths of the caverns of my soul. I even used to think the Sabbath was a break from ministry. Now I see the Sabbath as ministry. It frees people. It helps others in the church. It establishes boundaries. And, above all, it proclaims the Good News of Jesus. As I read Peterson, one question came back to me over and over again: How can I preach salvation by grace when my life is built on an altar of workaholism?

In our culture, in place of a meaningful relationship with Jesus where we are defined by the Father’s love, we will continue to relish our overstuffed, busy lives. Busyness will be our trophy. More often than not, the only way we can truly feel good about our lives is if we are burning out doing it. We want scars to brag about. We have, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we’re running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see least.” It seems this cultural mantra has been treated like a command from God, but God never asked us to work to the point of burnout.

We were not created just to work.

Work is not our Ultimate.

A. J. Swoboda is the pastor of Theophilus Church in Portland, Oregon. This article is adapted from his book Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World (Brazos).

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