Rest (Sabbath) reframes what work is supposed to be.
Work and rest are meant to work in tandem, but all too often they are seen as opposites. When most Americans think about rest, they have one thing in mind, the weekend. We push hard all week, and in doing so push rest and restoration to Saturday and Sunday, and on those days we binge deeply on any activity we feel will reduce stress enough so we can go back to work on Monday.
The American Institute of Stress (AIS) research finds job stress as the major source of stress for most Americans, and each year the level of stress escalates. Respondents say their job stress is due to the perception (or reality) of having little control over their work, but lots of demands. These high levels of stress are associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders. And, while 80% of Americans in the study say they have significant job related stress, the two triggers for work related stress are no direct control over their work, and no decision making latitude. Both seem as elusive as ever.
According to research from the Centers for Disease Control the majority of workers experience workplace stress due to the tension between worker characteristics versus working conditions, meaning individual characteristics such as personality and coping style determine levels of individual stress in the workplace. Workplace stress has become so prevalent the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that teens are adopting their parents’ lack of coping habits, and are themselves experiencing increasingly high levels of stress in school. The report suggests the results are the same for both parents and kids, lack of sleep, over eating, aggressive behavior and depression. Or as the Washington Post recently suggested too much work gets us sick, stressed, stupid, off balance and disengaged. Even academic researchers have noted the closing gap between the world of work and the world of home, finding that work and non-work identities are eroding because of the tension between work, organizational pressures and personal preferences (Ramarajan & Reid, 2013).
In other words, our work (or school) efforts get reduced to a “bag of burgers”, instead of being “creative, relaxing and enjoyable”. But, how do we move from a bag of burgers work life, to a work life that is creative, relaxing and enjoyable? One word – Sabbath. Yes, I know what you are thinking, “I already take a break, and in fact I look forward to the weekend all week!” Rest is good. Doing what you want is good. But, neither of these is Sabbath. So, what is Sabbath?
Sabbath is a day to step back from our work, and reflect on the goodness of work. (For those of you with theological inclinations, I realize I may not be hitting the target you want, omitting aspects of Sabbath that have to do with covenant, worship, etc – sorry). Sabbath gives us a chance to reframe, rethink and gain a new perspective on work. Yes, what I’m saying, is that our work stress may be largely due to our perspective on work. The idea of reframing what work means is not lost on Josef Pieper, a 20th century German Catholic philosophers, who believed a person could carry around the right attitude allowing a person to enjoy things as they are in themselves. But, to do this, we have to stop doing activities driven by motives to control. A very tall order. Let me give one example of Sabbath that leads to reframing that may help.
Each year I take my family up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (B.W.C.A.W.) in northern Minnesota. The B.W.C.A.W. is a protected wilderness which sets aside roughly one seventh of the state of Minnesota. This protected area is jammed full of lakes, in fact about half of the total area is water. Visitors have to get a permit to enter, they must pack out everything they bring in, there are no motors allowed on boats, no roads and no planes fly overhead. In many ways this pristine area takes a person back centuries. When my IPad wielding, media crazed children first get to this wilderness, they revolt. But, after a day or two, they enter into the rhythms of their surroundings, and you can see serenity on their faces. A stillness comes over them and when they reflect on their busy lives, they (no I’m not kidding) begin to realize how much of their life they are missing, or is simply racing by them. One of my children said on the ride home, “I don’t want to go back home because I don’t want to lose this feeling of being rested”. There is something about stepping out of your normal rhythms that allows for a new awareness of what is important.
One of my favorite authors, Sigrud F. Olson, captures a personal moment in this wilderness with the following:
“The sun was trembling now on the edge of the ridge. It was alive, almost fluid and pulsating, and as I watched it sink I thought that I could feel the earth turning from it, actually feel its rotation. Over all as the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distraction sights or sound, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. I thought as I sat there of the ancient admonition, “Be still and Know that I am God” and know that without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from the outside influences of man cannot know what spirit means” (p. 131).
Another way to think about this is what Jim Collins, a well-known business consultant, refers to as “preserving the core”. Collins’ research has found that great organizations define their mission and identify their core values, and then keep returning to them. People, like organizations, need to remember what is important to them and what they exist to do. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to find a spot of wilderness to regain their sense of rest, although it is not a bad idea. I am suggesting the Sabbath puts aside everything we use to distract, medicate, amuse or entertain ourselves, so you can remember what is at the core of our life. So what is the core?
Core perspective one: Work does not give us value.
For many work is a primary source of personal value and identity. If we don’t get the promotion we deserve, the recognition we have earned or ever land our “dream” job, we feel lost and worthless. Paul Stevens writes, “We may be tempted to become, through work, the architect of our own fulfillment. The workaholic tries to find his fulfillment in work rather than God” (2000). If work is your central purpose in life, the place you get your sense of self-worth, even if it is work for the church, you create a very fragile existence, and put work in the place of God (idolatry).
Core perspective two: God is in control.
Recently I suffered a dramatic eye injury and had to spend almost 2 weeks on my back. It was necessary to prevent any recurring internal bleeding. After a week went by, I became restless and anxious because I began to think about all the work I enjoyed and was missing. I was sure much of my work was being left undone. But, the truth is, my job (even though at work they see my contributions as valuable), began to be picked up by other people. If I never returned, they would be able to move on without me. The same is true for you, you are only penciled in, you can, and someday will be replaced. In much the same way, God is at work in the world, and to be honest, you and I are only penciled in, God can sustain the world without us and in fact can find a replacement if needed. Abraham Heschel, the “go to” guy on Sabbath thnking, writes, “We must learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man” (p13).
Core perspective three: Work is a gift
Finally, Sabbath breaks the rhythms of work, to remind us that work is a gift where we offer ourselves in service to God and to the world. Dorothy Sayers captures this idea by saying, “What is the Christian understanding of work? Work is not primarily a think thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the medium in which he [or she] offers himself to God”. To me, if God is at work in the world, His world, and He gives us gifts to use in the world; it makes sense we can honor Him by using those gifts in the world. In as much as I can see some of my genetic traits passed onto my children, and when they use and develop those gifts I feel honored – I am sure God feels much the same when He sees us pursuing excellence in the workplace.
I realize some people are trapped and no matter how hard they try, the job they are in currently will always be oppressive. To ask people who are suffering under an abusive or intolerant boss, or employees who are underpaid, or not able to use their talents to the fullest, to change their perspective and everything will be magically better would not only be unrealistic, but naive. But, many of you, if not most are working in jobs you “want” to enjoy, but you are losing your joy because you feel a lack of control. But, the truth is, your job is not your primary source of identity or value. You are not in control, you never were in control, God has been in control all along. And, work is a gift allowing you to serve God and the world.
If you agree with all of this and still feel as if you’re working for the weekend, it is time for you to have a REAL Sabbath, to step back, stop the rhythms of work and remember. Get back to the core.
- Collins, J (2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't. HarperBusiness
- Heschel, A. (1951). The Sabbath. Farrar Straus Giroux
- Olson, S. (1997). The Singing Wilderness, University of Minnesota Press.
- Pieper, J. (2009). Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Ignatius Press.
- Ramarajan, L. & Reid, E. (2013). Shattering the myth of separate worlds: Negotiating nonwork identities at work. Academy of Management Review, 38(4), 621-644.
- Sayers, D. (1949). Why Work, in Creed or Chaos? Harcourt.
- Stevens, P (2000). The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective Eerdmans Publishing Company