The Bible calls “the Sabbath” by many names: it is a blessed and holy day of rest (Genesis 2:3); a privilege reserved “for the people of God” and a taste of Heaven on earth (Hebrews 4:9); an act of trust in the power of the Lord (Ezekiel 20:12); a delightful and fulfilling day (Isaiah 58:13-14); a command (Exodus 16:23); and a day to do good (Mark 3:1-6), among many others. The Sabbath is not, as it has commonly been misinterpreted to be, a day when Christians rise early, go to church, read their Bible, and sleep the rest of the day – only to forget the experience as they return to work or school or whatever other vocation on Monday. It is meant to be a day of reflection, a day when Christians place their trust in and reliance upon God, demonstrating their need for Him by resting, even when the rest of the world says that doing so is folly.
Jews and Christians have practiced Sabbath rest in many ways, and to varying degrees, throughout history. First called “Shabbat” by Jews before the coming of Jesus, the Sabbath served three primary purposes: to commemorate the creation of the world by a Holy and perfect God, to celebrate the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, and to receive a taste of what life would be like in the age of the coming Messiah.  Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said that Sabbath ought to be a time to reflect on the “mystery of creation” – to become “attuned to holiness in time.”  The Sabbath is intended to bring peace to those who practice it but has been misinterpreted and misused by man from its inception to the present. Even in Biblical times before the coming of Jesus, God’s people went hundreds of years with strict rules imposed on the holy day such that healers could not heal, soldiers could not protect, and people could not feed themselves or their animals without breaking the law . The gift of Sabbath rest became a burden.
Though Jews practiced Shabbat on Saturday, the last day of the week, most Christians (some— Seventh Day Adventists—continue Sabbath practice on Saturdays) practice Sabbath rest on Sunday, the first. There are no clear commands in any of the gospels from either Jesus or His apostles mandating this switch. However, many theologians believe that, apart from Christians changing the day of Sabbath as a way to differentiate themselves from the Jewish custom, the first-day Sabbath tradition was born of the commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection on the morning of the first day of the week. 
It is a rare thing in the 21st century to find a Christian who even considers taking Sabbath rest at all, let alone commits to it on a weekly basis. With increasing hourly demands from work and school, to decreasing barriers between work and home life as a result of the technological and communication revolution, it has become increasingly difficult to find time to renew oneself through rest at all – let alone the complete, ultimate, holy rest offered to us by God. Many people are struggling to find time to take a break to the extent that they become addicted to the very act of not doing so. Clinical psychologist Steven Sussman defines workaholism as characterized by one’s placement of “work as a main means of gratification.”  The term was coined to refer to the addictive process by which a person’s career or job becomes the most important thing in their life, leaving them without any time for anything else – including rest. An increasing body of literature on the topic of workaholism over the past several decades evinces the epidemic of a no-sleep, “go” culture that furthers the age-old notion that rest means failure.  Many modern Christians, despite our best attempts at resistance, have found ourselves in a never-ending cycle of busy-ness by which rest has been equated to vocational failure. Why do we refuse Sabbath rest when it has been offered to us by an all-loving God? One answer is that modern Christians have become self-sufficient: we understand that God’s plan for our lives might not perfectly match up with our own and feel that we need to give Him a little ‘push’ to get what we actually want or think that we deserve out of life.
But not even Jesus Himself took the Sabbath off every single week. Upon confrontation by religious leaders concerning His and His disciples’ work (in this case, teaching and the gathering of food) on a Sabbath day, Jesus said that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man [Jesus] is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus demonstrates that the Sabbath was never meant to be a burden for humanity – it is a holy gift of Heavenly rest. Yet many modern Christians merely cite this verse as proof that the Sabbath is no longer obligatory. But the Sabbath is still a command, set forth by God for the first people of His creation (Exodus 16:23). This may seem a contradiction, but what Jesus is trying to tell us is that the command to engage in Sabbath rest is holy and merciful because it reminds us that we are reliant on a much more powerful, much stronger Father for our strength – we require rest to function, and rest comes from God. Sabbath rest was never meant to be a list of rules to be followed or a way for people to shame others for their work, but instead a kind practice instituted by a merciful God.
The pursuit of contentment is another reason to indulge in true Sabbath rest. The first chapter of the book of Genesis recounts the creation of the world, by which God creates all elements of the heavens and earth for six days before resting on the final day of the week, the seventh day. Yet when God rested on the seventh day, He did not do so out of exhaustion but because He was content with what He had done on the previous six days. He was basking in a sense of completion. This suggests that true rest, in the form created by God, ought to come in the form of stopping when the task is complete and being content in that sense of completion. Yet in our world of never-ending tasks and weekend phone calls and due dates and last-minute assignments, how can we ever achieve a sense of completion?
Such a sense is difficult in a world where there is always something new to do. Whether it’s the next task for work, a new assignment for a class, or a new television show to binge, the modern world rarely slows and allows us time to rest from a constant stream of tasks. And the continuous cycle of work is only getting worse: as John Mark Comer points out in his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, businesses were forced to close on the Sabbath day until the 1960s.  Now companies like Patagonia, who lock their employees out of the office every night at 8 and on weekends to guard against workaholism , are viewed as an aberration. Those of us who don’t work for Patagonia are constantly being bombarded by new stimuli: there is always something to do, even just after we have completed a task.
So, a dilemma: God commands Christians to engage in a holy Sabbath rest that is fulfilled when one is content with the work done over the course of the previous six days in the week. What happens if that work was ‘insufficient’? What if the to-do list was left incomplete? These are questions that I struggled with deeply as I first attempted to Sabbath in the first semester of my sophomore year of college. Until then, I had been terrified that if I gave up an entire day, I would be unable to complete everything I needed to do to get the grades I felt I needed to get. But throughout a semester of continually putting down my work and submitting to rest for one day only, I noticed something completely unexpected. I rarely felt burnt out on schoolwork, I had more time to pour into friends and family, and I was the happiest I had ever been. Ultimately, engaging in Sabbath rest for me is not only about getting a free gift of a day off from God (though that is surely a benefit). I also find joy every week in the action of submitting my work to Him and trusting that He will guide me to where I need to be, and that my decreased amount of time spent trying to control my life will bring me peace.
- “Siddur for Shabbat.”
- Andrews, J.N. History of the Sabbath, 1873: 12, 52.
- Ibid, 78.
- Sussman, Steven. “Workaholism: A Review.” Journal of addiction research & therapy, Suppl 6(1): 4120 (2012).
- Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. The Crown Publishing Group, 2019.
- Schulte, Brigid. “A company that profits as it pampers workers,” The Washington Post, 2014.