The Lost Art of Creating Margin
Somehow, rest is hard work.
The difficulty in finding rest and creating space for self-care is a frequent conversation in many social circles because the pressure to be productive is intense, regardless of age, gender or occupational status.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year that 20 percent of the total workforce is working at least 49 hours a week. In the U.S., 85 percent of men and 66 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week. The productivity for the average American worker has increased 400 percent since 1950.
But it’s not just those in the workplace who are stressed.
If you’re not there yet, be warned: Parenting has become a competitive sport in which success is often defined as volunteering in the classroom, creating elaborate lunches, crafts and home decor, in addition to running children to and from multiple practices after school. And this doesn’t even include people with older kids supervising the excessive homework that seems to be the new norm. Both career and family life leave many of us feeling exhausted.
This is an age and a society in which busyness is seen as a virtue. And just about everyone struggles with the urge to find meaning in producing external results instead of focusing on our inner life. Because, really, who wants to brag about a lifestyle of rest in their next Christmas letter? Rattling off a list of achievements is what Americans do.
It’s easier to give a nod to the importance of rest than it is to actually participate in rest. On weekends, it’s so tempting to pull out your laptop and just knock a few things off of a to-do list under the guise of checking “a couple things online.” And the next thing you know, the weekend is over. It’s hard to turn off the need to “get things done.” And because most people can access work emails from home, the temptation to check in over the weekend is always there.
I had the chance to travel to Israel a few times in the past couple of years, and I was struck by the emphasis on Sabbath in Jewish culture and religion. A full day of Sabbath rest promoted family harmony and community connection.
At the same time, aspects of this practice, taken a certain way, seemed to veer into legalism—like having a special elevator to avoid pushing a button, rules against tearing toilet paper, hiring someone to turn on light switches. Some of the Jewish Sabbath rules felt more like fundamental edicts than a journey to rest.
This is an age and a society which busyness is seen as a virtue. And just about everyone struggles with the urge to find meaning in producing external results instead of focusing on our inner life.
But surely there is a balance, right? And don’t Christians have a responsibility to practice Sabbath?
In the Old Testament, keeping the Sabbath was not merely a suggestion but a requirement—which is why Jewish people today take it so seriously. We see the importance of Sabbath from the very beginning, as God rested in the creation story, and it is commanded throughout the Old Testament. Exodus 20 commands that the Sabbath be set apart on the seventh day, and that no work is done—even by servants or livestock.
At its most fundamental, Sabbath is ceasing to work. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes Sabbath as a decisive, concrete, visible way of aligning with the God of rest: “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative,” he writes. “It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”
We see the significance of Sabbath in the New Testament as well. While Christians tend to see observing Sabbath as a suggested ritual rather than a required law (as in the Old Testament), it is still very much a spiritual practice that Jesus and the disciples participated in. There are numerous references to the disciples keeping the Sabbath. And Jesus’ own life exemplified a rhythm of work and rest.
Practical theologian Kelley Nikondeha describes Sabbath as an act of faith and trust for Christians: “Our participation in Sabbath exemplifies our trust that the world does not run on our participation in the rat race,” she says. “That we are aware that God is the sustainer. And that Christians should want to participate in the rhythm of rest that God Himself modeled. God modeled Sabbath during creation. If we refuse to rest, we are not participating in the fullness of being created in God’s image.”
God created humans to rest, yet many people find this practice elusive. The modern pace and sense of self-importance drives many people to prioritize doing over being. Creating space for Sabbath requires intentionality.
Here are some practical ways to keep Sabbath in the modern world:
1. Shut off your computer.
For many of us, this simple practice is an act of resistance to work and mindless tasks. Have a day, or a portion of your day, that is free from email and other online distractions. Better yet, leave the laptop at work for the weekend.
2. Plan a weekly meal with family or friends.
Alternate who prepares the meal each week so everyone gets a break from cooking. Laugh, connect and linger. Enjoying a meal together is a wonderful way to rest with your loved ones.
3. Say yes to something different from your normal routine.
Go on a hike. Attend a play. Take a yoga class. Engage in activities that are outside of your work rhythm.
4. Get out in nature.
Engaging in the beauty of God’s creation is always a reset button for our harried world. Find an outdoor spot in your community (a beach, park or path) that fuels your soul and make it a point to spend time there every week.
5. Rest from commerce.
Shopping may not feel like work, but it’s not rest either. Avoid using Sabbath time for grocery runs, online shopping or other tasks.
6. Allow yourself to be unproductive.
Resist the urge to get something accomplished and sit in the feeling of rest. Give yourself permission to do nothing.
7. Schedule rest.
Sabbath won’t happen without purpose and planning. Put it on the to-do list, and make it a priority with the same level of import as your other tasks.
Busyness is not a virtue. And building regular rhythms of rest in your life can help reset life to the way God intended.
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