Sabbath: A Gift that Helps us Set Boundaries

When we returned from Poland, it blew us away how busy people were, and proud of it. And it was good stuff! Serving in the church, serving people. In fact, there seems to be no end to the needs we see around us.

In North American culture, our value is based on what we produce, so busyness can almost be a badge of honor. Have you ever had the feeling that you’re not doing enough to please God or to please the people around you? We don’t think of busyness as a sin, but if it keeps us from following and hearing God, it can be.

Busyness can also be something we use to avoid intimacy. We all have junk in our life. That’s part of being human and living in a sinful world. We can use busyness to keep from dealing with the uncomfortable stuff.

But this problem is not limited to life in North America. I have yet to meet a missionary who hasn’t faced the challenge of busyness.

In our experience on the field, my wife and I hit the wall many times through not knowing when to say no. Setting boundaries can be particularly hard for missionaries, because we’re also called to sacrifice. It can be tough to sense when “This is more than I can handle, but I’m sacrificing for the Lord,” crosses the line into, “I’m sacrificing, but now I’m actually doing damage to my own soul, to my marriage, to my life, to my kids.”

Thankfully, Sabbath is a gift God has given us as an antidote to our busyness.

Sabbath in Scripture

The Hebrew word translated “rested” is really ceased or stopped. Why did God stop?

Of course, God wasn’t tired or worn out; rather, he was establishing a pattern for us that shows that rest is good. In fact, this is the first time in the Bible that something is called holy.

Decoration image for quotation

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. … You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 

Here we see a different reason God gives Israel for observing Sabbath — you were slaves, and you were brought out into freedom. Slaves didn’t have a choice; they HAD to work seven days a week. But now you don’t need to keep living like a slave. You’ve been set free.

In Isaiah 58:13-14, keeping the Sabbath is associated with delight. Jesus talks about his willingness to give us rest for our souls in Matthew 11: 28-30, and he explicitly tells us that Sabbath was made for us in Mark 2:27.

Sabbath: A four-part gift

1. Sabbath is God’s provision to help us thrive, to engage in life-giving practices. Think of it as a day to just rest in the Lord, and ask him, “What do you have for me today as your gift in my life? What will restore me, body, soul and spirit?” That can be different for different people or in different seasons of life. I am refreshed by solitude; others are refreshed by spending time with good friends. Physical activity, especially in nature, refreshes me; others are refreshed in a whole different setting. Sabbath is not one size fits all.

2. Sabbath is God’s way of protecting us from our addiction to production. It’s a time that God allows us to be free from things like checking our email, or any other oughts or shoulds. It’s a practice of the sovereignty of God. If I really believe that my ministry doesn’t depend on me doing certain stuff NOW, if I can trust that God is in control, I can step away. I can practice Sabbath.

3. Sabbath is a great gift of God to help us regain perspective. You know that every once in a while, it’s helpful for you to turn off your computer and reboot. God gives us Sabbath as a way to do a weekly reboot — to regain perspective, to realign priorities.

4. Sabbath is God’s reminder that he built us for rhythm. We’re not designed to just keep going and going. As you read the Scriptures, you see the yearly rhythms of seasons, the monthly rhythms of the lunar cycle, the weekly patterns set off by the Sabbath, and the daily rhythms of night and day — and each are important.

Some helpful Sabbath practices drawn from Jewish tradition

  • Start the night before: Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown, by lighting a candle, eating and sleeping. The next day, it’s still Sabbath, and they’ve already had a nice rest. This practice recognizes that Sabbath rest is not immediate. You can’t flip a switch and be at rest. It takes time for our bodies, our minds, our souls, our spirits to adjust.
  • Think of Sabbath as an end AND a beginning: Sabbath is part of a cycle. It’s a time when we recover, we refocus, we reboot after a week of service and ministry, but it’s also a time of preparation. While we are resting and trusting the Lord, God is preparing us and what he has for us in the coming week. For many missionaries, Sunday will be a day of work, but this recovery/preparation cycle can start at any point in the week that you set aside as your Sabbath.

A few excellent books on Sabbath

  • The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan
  • Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Hayley Barton
  • Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero

Reprinted with permission from SEND International

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About the author

Bruce Cannon and his wife, Linda, served as church planters in Poland for 17 years before moving back to the States to lead SEND’s Personnel & Member Care Department.

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