My parents are members of a generation of hard workers. They carried the United States out of the Great Depression and passed on to us the value of a good work ethic.
I am grateful for my father’s example of being a disciplined worker because it has taught me to be useful, independent, and to lead a successful life. I’m challenged now to use well this good gift that I have received from my parents. In part that means I must not dishonor them by turning their gift into a destructive character trait.
Is it possible to take a strong work ethic and make something negative of it? I believe it is. In the garden of our lives, it can introduce weeds of perfectionism, overwhelming ambition, and stress-related illness. These weeds can choke the joy out of us and focus our attention on our accomplishments rather than on our loved ones.
How does a person avoid getting swept away with the value of hard work? Every job brings its pressures, and if we have a strong work ethic, we want to do our jobs well. So we must find a way to balance that desire with other values that are important—such as time spent with our families, for counting our blessings, for rest and recreation. I’ve found that the answer to striking this balance comes in receiving another gift, this one from my heavenly Father. It’s the gift of the Sabbath, which He offers me because He loves me and knows what I need.
Several years ago I attended a workshop in which Marva Dawn discussed Sabbath keeping. She was obviously a hard worker, but she didn’t appear driven or uptight. On the contrary, she was relaxed and full of happiness. Her radiant presence drew me to Sabbath keeping. I wanted my life to exude the same aroma of joy that I sensed in her.
Marva made a radical statement: “What I don’t do on the Sabbath becomes significant.” What a humbling thought for anyone who takes pride in being known as a hard worker! How can it be? Isn’t our work the means by which we provide for ourselves? Yes and no. Yes, we provide for ourselves. But no, we can’t provide for ourselves in our own power. Our very breath comes from God, who is our true Provider. He doesn’t want us to forget Him.
When God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them into the desert, He sent two days’ worth of manna on the day before the Sabbath so the Israelites wouldn’t have to work on the Sabbath (Exodus 16). He performed this miracle because He wanted to show them that He would provide for their needs, that they didn’t have to struggle to provide for themselves. Likewise, He doesn’t want us to stress about our future. He wants us to see how He will lovingly take care of the things that concern us.
The ingredients of Sabbath keeping
Marva taught me the ingredients to Sabbath keeping through her book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly. She taught me that Sabbath keeping involves learning to take time to rest, to pray, and most important, to celebrate the God of the universe. She taught me three important lessons about the meaning of the Sabbath.
1. Stopping to rest. Just as I put a period at the end of a sentence, somewhere I need to put a period at the end of my workweek. Doing so is never easy, because there’s always more work than I can finish in six days. But when I stop and rest, I find that what isn’t really important fades away, and those tasks that are important remain there for me to do after the Sabbath.
Often we can get caught in the addiction of doing things that aren’t necessary. I don’t need to take over God’s role here on earth, doing the million things that need to be done. I only need to do the tasks He wants me to do—and I can’t figure out what my assignments are unless I take time to ask and then to listen for the answers.
2. Taking time to pray. Getting through life is a messy business. I make mistakes. Our culture tempts me into unhealthy choices. I get swept into competing with those around me even though my gifts and talents differ from theirs. What a heavy burden that can be!
After working hard in the secular world, my spiritual fountain is like a rusty well that’s muddy and full of debris. It takes a while to get it flushed out so it will run clear again. It takes me a while to realize that God doesn’t want me to carry a heavy burden. He only wants me to carry a light one.
Jesus said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). When I follow Him, I find my way. When I keep the Sabbath, I take time to come to Him and find out what He wants for my life—how He wants me to spend my time during the following week. Sabbath keeping means turning off the TV, the radio, and the world to hear God’s answer. He doesn’t try to shout over the din of the world’s answers to life. He waits until I turn to Him, hold still, and seek His guidance. Sabbath gives me an opportunity to do that.
3. Celebrating the God of the universe. I’ve learned that an important part of Sabbath keeping is taking time to attend church and be with people who are seeking God. I don’t attend church services just to get rules on how to get through life—although I’ve learned much through doing so. But the church service reminds me of God’s character and what He’s capable of doing. Without it, I forget how big He is and what He‘s done throughout history, not to mention what He’s done for me in the past week.
When I take the time to remember how I’ve been loved, my current challenges lose the power to upset me. It’s hard to worry when you’re singing and expressing appreciation for the blessings you have. It’s hard to be depressed when you take an afternoon to walk in nature. It’s hard to be lonely when you invite a friend to dinner!
I learned from Marva Dawn not to do anything I “ought to,” “must,” “should,” or “have to” on the Sabbath. Children don’t worry about their needs, because they believe their parents will take care of them. The same is true for me on the Sabbath. I relax, because I’ve been reminded that my heavenly Father knows what I need and is already at work to provide it.
It’s easy to interpret God’s commandments as rules that are a burden to keep. But when we do so, we miss the love that’s behind them. While God expressed the Sabbath as a law in the Ten Commandments, keeping the day merely as a law turns it into a burden. God’s intention in commanding me to keep the Sabbath holy is one of protection. His intention is to bless me with a gift of grace.
And this gift isn’t just for me. It’s for you too. Unwrap it, and let it bless you with new energy, a new perspective, and a new zest for living.