by David Timms
This Labor Day weekend matters. For sports fans it signals the start of the National Football League and the college football season. Historically, this national holiday dates back to 1894 when Congress hurriedly passed a law in the wake of the infamous Pullman Strike during which 13 railroad workers died at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshalls.
Congress established this weekend to honor the trade unions and labor organizations who had worked hard to secure fair wages, safer working conditions, and reasonable work hours (not 16-hour workdays) for workers. But while unions have fought diligently against abuse, exploitation, unreasonable busyness, and excessive demands on workers’ lives, many of us now run ourselves ragged by choice.
What better time, then, to consider an ancient biblical principle and spiritual discipline that addresses the runaway pace of our lives today? And what better place to turn than to the story that starts all of human history?
Back to the Beginning
To be honest, it’s a little strange. The creation story finishes oddly.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 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 2:1-3)
God rested from all of his work. Did he get tired? He’s just created the entire world in six days and we could understand anyone needing a breather. The seventh day—the Sabbath—would be much needed time off for any of us. But did God need to recuperate? Is that what the story means to convey? We can hardly imagine.
Or perhaps the Lord rested on the Sabbath, not because he needed to but because he knew we would need to. We don’t have inexhaustible reserves of energy. We can’t continue endlessly. Was he merely setting an example for us, so that our labor wouldn’t kill us? If so, did God just sit and watch the clock tick off 24 hours—idle and a touch impatient? But then, if God truly rested—stopped—wouldn’t the universe have just crashed around him? So many questions.
We bump into some very obvious problems when we view the Sabbath as nothing more than a day of rest. It must be more—for him and for us.
We’re not told what God did when he rested on the seventh day, but we might assume that he did not take a 24-hour nap. Rather, we might reasonably assume that he modeled a sacred rhythm—a rhythm of creativity followed by enjoyment; of work followed by celebration; of industry followed by wonder; and of effort followed by observance.
On the sixth day, God created humankind. “And it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). It was appropriate to pause. The plan was perfect. The work was excellent. The product was pleasing. But to rush on without observance, without engagement, without celebration is to drive only halfway to the destination. Did God create men and women only to start the next project as quickly as possible? Or did he achieve his objective and choose to take time to observe, engage, and celebrate?
We’re not well disciplined in observance, engagement, and celebration. Our cultural commitment to productivity drives many of us to a frenetic and unrelenting pace. As soon as we achieve one goal, we move on to the next. Our “to do” never ends and it hovers over us like a dark rain cloud. “We’re too busy to stop,” we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen.
Many of us have grown to believe that the work itself, the program, the activity, or the service is the goal; that finishing, completing, or achieving the goal is the end of the experience. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that the sacred rhythm involves an observance, engagement, and celebratory component. In a sense, we’ve settled for ice cream cones without the ice cream, for planting flowers and never looking at them, for getting our kids through school but not knowing them.
God’s Sabbath rest surely affirms that pausing is more than a nicety. It’s a necessity. To always be making or selling and rarely observing, engaging, or celebrating is akin to driving by the sights and never stopping to take them in. We forfeit so much of that for which God created us.
Blessed and Sanctified
The ancient text also tells us that God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested.” When it comes to the Sabbath, stopping and soaking is not wasting and losing. It honors the day and gives significance to it. It declares that this day—the day of rest—is the destiny and it sets the day apart as special.
Of course, many of us couldn’t care less. To us, each day—even the Sabbath—is just the next number on the calendar, another moment between the past and the future.
We have lost sight of the gift of the present moment and allowed ourselves to be duped into always looking ahead. We justify our self-deception by using culturally valued terms like ambition, ideals, dreams, or vision. But these terms betray the true sacred rhythm of work and rest by driving us relentlessly forward.
Some of us have even arrived at the place where rest produces guilt, not gladness; where celebration seems short sighted; and we meet a change of pace with discomfort rather than joy. Such is the successful annihilation of the Sabbath. Such is the distortion of this creation principle in our lives.
Can we bless and sanctify spaces in our lives—good-size spaces, on a regular basis—to enjoy, celebrate, wonder, and observe?
Commandments not Recommendations
Israel had so twisted the divine rhythms—perhaps exacerbated by their time in slavery—that God issued a decree.
“Remember the Sabbath day, by keeping it holy . . . . The seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:8, 10). “The LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The Jews needed a realignment, and God prescribed it with surprising force. Every seventh day belonged to the Lord. And those who violated the Sabbath felt the fury of judgment. During the time that Israel wandered in the wilderness, one man was caught collecting firewood on the Sabbath. His neighbors took him into custody and hauled him before Moses and Aaron. The Lord decreed that he should be stoned to death, a sentence that the people carried out (Numbers 15:32-36). It sounds so harsh. Death for collecting firewood?
On the other hand, promises came connected with the Sabbath. Centuries after the initial commandment, the Lord declared through the prophet Isaiah,
If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, if you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there—then you’ll be free to enjoy God! Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all. I’ll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob. Yes! God says so! (Isaiah 58:13, 14, The Message).
The Sabbath had both promises and penalties associated with it. The penalties helped reinforce Israel’s devotion to the discipline of celebration and worship. The promises highlight God’s delight when his people attend him and live in the present.
Some Ways Forward
How then shall we live, on this Labor Day weekend and beyond? First, recognize that smelling the roses matters as much as planting and watering them. It’s a divine rhythm. Second, know that time to enjoy is not time wasted but closure to the blessing. Finally, we honor each day of life by engaging fully in it, not tossing it aside in the pursuit of an elusive future.
Jesus declares that the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). God prescribes it for our good, not to enslave us. It reminds us that life’s journey does not stop with achievement but extends to celebration. It’s the discipline of rest and celebration that gives real meaning to our labor—something worth remembering on Labor Day.
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
Honoring the Sabbath Each Day
Think about Sabbath rest in the light of God’s rhythm:
• creativity followed by enjoyment
• work followed by celebration
• industry followed by wonder
• effort followed by observance
When you do things, do you then step back to appreciate what God has done through you? For most of us, probably not.
Beginning today, change your mindset. Don’t just focus on finishing the next task, always pushing toward the future. Be present in the here and now.
Make each day a destination to dwell in. Enjoy, celebrate, wonder, and observe.