By Joyce Long
Reddish-orange glints streak the evening sky, casting dancing shadows on the most holy worship site for the Jews—the Western Wall. Girls dressed in white, pink-ribboned chiffon dresses hold their parents’ hands as they descend the stairs. Sons in white shirts and black kippahs (yarmulkes) run ahead, shoving into checkpoint turnstiles. Orthodox masses crowd the wall with their prayers. Families pray and then return home to dine, read the Torah, and celebrate God’s deliverance. Jewish stores and restaurants close until Saturday at sundown. Old City Jerusalem empties. It’s Friday night, and Shabbat has begun.
Across the Atlantic, 5,693 miles away, the young, old, teenaged, and middle-aged all crowd sidewalks and streets. Cowgirls strut, dressed in boots and a few leather swatches. Cowboy counterparts sport 10-gallon hats, plaid shirts, jeans, and boots. Fan favorite NFL jerseys sport color and sweat. The exotic and eccentric dress and dance to their own beat. Giant electronic billboards advertising everything from Cover Girl® makeup to The Lion King Broadway show illuminate New York City in Times Square. Masses rush forward, destinations unknown. Friday night merges into Saturday, then Sunday. Welcome to the city that never sleeps.
When Israeli Christians refer to the United States, they smile and say, “The Land of Nine Commandments.” According to their law, our fast-paced lifestyle violates God’s principle of Sabbath. We ignore the fourth commandment found in Exodus 20:8—“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Even Sundays are filled with church activities, which can erode our personal rest. God knows we need a designated time to refuel and refresh spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
A disturbing report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April 2012 noted that 30 percent (40.6 million) of American adults sleep six or fewer hours a day. Undoubtedly those numbers have increased since then. The lack of rest and sleep doesn’t just make us grouchy. It can cause heart disease, fluctuations in weight, and even hallucinations. No wonder there is road rage. Physical, mental, and emotional health requires rest.
As Christians we often tattoo onto our to-do list an out-of-context Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (New King James Version). However God never intended for us to do all things. We’ve morphed into a society of people-pleasers, getting our high on accomplishment while ignoring time to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The strain of being overly busy drains us spiritually so that eventually we burn out trying to love and serve God and those around us.
Doing “all things” does not mean saying yes to every request. For Paul it simply meant whether circumstances beyond his control left him hungry or well fed, in need or with plenty, Christ had given him strength enough to survive. For us as Christians, it’s difficult to say no to good things asked of us because we want to actively serve Jesus. But we must take time to pray over our yesses and our no’s and listen to what the Holy Spirit tells us to do. Blessings will follow when we do this. When I say yes without prayer or much thought, I often invite stress into my life, leaving me ineffective. Even a simple, “I’ll pray for you,” doesn’t always happen.
Prayerful time with the Lord puts our priorities where they need to be, enabling us to rest in him. Joe Stowell wrote in his blog post “Too Busy to Rest”: “Occasional rest isn’t the enemy of a successful job, nor is it a disruption of your Christian walk. On the contrary, it’s an integral part of a balanced life. Do you feel the temptation to never stop for a rest, perhaps worrying that taking a break is a violation of your work ethic? If you’ve been working too hard for too long and are starting to feel the strain of overwork, perhaps it’s time for a prayerful pause.”
Resting begins with our priorities. Because parents often work outside the home and their kids participate in sports and clubs, families are exhausted. Meals are eaten in the car, and homework stacks up well past bedtime.
Reading the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend can help. Its subtitle says it all: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life. One of their most practical pieces of advice is to script a kind way to say no. Feel free to modify mine: “I would love to help, but at this time it would overload my time and make me ineffective.”
Another suggestion from Boundaries explains why being busy overrides our peace. When we say yes to something, we are also saying no to something else. When we commit to something that meets on a Wednesday night, we’re saying no to taking an after-dinner walk with someone we love. When we over-schedule our lives, no room for spontaneity exists. A stunning sunset is often missed as we’re driving to the next obligation.
How to prioritize? That’s the million-dollar question. Recently our associate minister preached a sermon from Philippians and explained, “Paul was busy but not scattered. When we try to do everything, we accomplish nothing.” To find rest, we need to prioritize our time.
One of the most focused, fulfilling times in my life illustrates this concept well. When my aging parents moved out of their 50-year-old home into an assisted living facility near me, I was working full-time. Due to their health issues, I was on call to check medicines, take them to the doctor, pay their bills, and simply listen. During that stressful and busy season, I asked: “What is it in my life that only I can do?” The answer to that question was how I spent my time.
Jesus understands the value of rest. His life was hectic, full of demands and confrontations. Matthew 14 records one of his busiest, most stressful days. It began with the news that Herod had beheaded his cousin, known as John the Baptist. “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (v.13).
But the crowds followed him. Seeing them with compassionate eyes, he healed their sick and fed 5,000 men as well as women and children with only five loaves and two fish. When Jesus dismissed the crowd, he went up on a mountainside to pray. Later that night he saved Peter from drowning. It was a long, emotional day for Jesus, but twice he took the time to rest and pray.
Jesus invites all of us to get off this world’s crazed merry-go-round and unite with him in living a well-balanced life. He even offers to hold us up, providing strength for the journey—one that doesn’t need to be stress-filled. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Traditional Jews remember and observe Shabbat (Sabbath), which literally means to stop and rest. They remember its twofold significance—the day God rested from creation and the night he delivered them out of Egyptian slavery. One Jewish writer noted: “If God’s work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that our own work is too important to set aside temporarily?” He further explained: “During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, our creditors, to our need to provide for ourselves; on Shabbat, we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.”
Glancing at his computer, a Jewish father realizes the time. It’s 2:30 p.m., Friday afternoon. Shabbat begins in five hours. “Got to leave now.” On his way to the elevator, he smiles at colleagues who think the same thing. At home, delicate china is carefully arranged on the table with two candles to be lit 18 minutes before sundown. Two loaves of challah—a braided, sweet, egg-based bread—are ready to be blessed and broken. Soon the family will gather to pray, dine, and read from the Torah with God as their honored guest. Shalom!
Joyce Long is a freelance writer in Greenwood, Indiana.
No More 24/7
Matthew Sleeth, MD, is the author of 24/6:
A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life and is a former ER doctor. His book is a response to the societal changes he’s seen during his life in the way people approach rest and the grave consequences of overwork and under-rest that he observed during his medical career. In this video, he talks about God’s intent behind the command of Sabbath and how to live out God’s call to rest.