Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Part 3: The Spiritual Discipline of Rest
As a boy, I got a little anxious each Sunday morning when my parents stopped at a convenience store to buy mints prior to church. I was convinced we shouldn’t buy anything on Sunday. Somehow, I got the idea Sunday was the “Christian Sabbath” and that we simply should rest.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned the Bible says nothing about a Christian Sabbath. The Sabbath was part of the Mosaic Covenant, and Christians—whether Jewish or Gentile in heritage—are not required to keep it. The Sabbath was a sign to the world that God had set apart the Hebrew nation as His own people (Ex. 20:11). In Christ, we are free from Torah observance (Rom. 3:20–22).
But as I’ve grown in my walk with Jesus, I’ve come to realize that, though the Bible doesn’t require us to keep Shabbat, as it’s called in Hebrew, learning how to rest can significantly strengthen our relationships with God. In fact, when God gave Shabbat to the Israelites, He was teaching them the spiritual discipline of rest, a habit Christians today desperately need, both physically and spiritually.
Interestingly, God didn’t tell the Hebrews about the Sabbath until their Exodus from Egypt. Adam and Eve weren’t told of it, nor were the patriarchs. According to the Bible, no one kept Shabbat until God commanded the Israelites in the wilderness not to collect manna on the seventh day (Ex. 16:5). Then He formalized Shabbat in the Ten Commandments (20:8–11).
God knew people needed a command to stop working. The word sabbath literally means “to cease working.” When God gave Israel the Sabbath, He said slaves, animals, and foreigners also must receive a day off. He Himself was the role model: After creating the world in six days, “He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done” (Gen. 2:2). God insisted the Israelites rest and dedicate themselves to Him and to remembering the redemption He provided (Ex. 35:2; Dt. 5:15).
Most of us lead busy lives. Our calendars are filled, and our days are hectic. Given the option, we sometimes take work to an inhuman, spiritually destructive level—to the detriment of our souls. It’s no wonder Jesus taught that extremely stringent Sabbath rules missed the point by creating work instead of rest. “The Sabbath was made for man,” Jesus said, “not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27).
Usually, we are starved for rest—all due to sin. Our habits of filling our days with impossible to-do lists, being addicted to work, and being unable to go to bed early or sleep soundly all come from sinfully behaving as though we can control more of our world than we really can. We live the lie that if we work harder, we’ll accomplish things only God can do. Our inability to rest is driven by the fact that we don’t really know how to live fully dependent on God. I love this Jewish bedtime prayer:
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings sleep to my eyes. . . . Into Your hand I entrust my spirit.
. . . Our God in Heaven, assert the unity of Your rule; affirm Your sovereignty, and reign over us forever.1
This is a prayer of ceasing and affirming that God works when we sleeping humans cannot. How deeply we need the discipline to submit our agendas to Him. I know a pastor who says that sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is admit we need to go to bed.
Consider how you can physically rest with and in God. Give yourself times of intentional rest. It need not be a full day; it could be an afternoon or a few minutes during a hectic morning. Rest with God on a short prayer walk after a long meeting. Turn off your cell phone for part of your day and use that time to seek God.
I have deeply enjoyed setting aside a day to seek God’s beauty in creation or through a favorite artist as a way to rest my soul in His goodness. Whatever you choose to do, physically rest with God. You are not obligated to do so, as Israel was commanded; but it might be exactly what your soul needs.
Sabbath in Jesus’ time had devolved into an enormous list of manmade minutiae. Religious leaders created such strict rules about what constituted work they even regulated how many minutes before sundown one could light candles and when someone inside a house could give or receive something from someone outside without it being “work.” Jesus had a different point of view. He taught the type of rest that brings spiritual life.
On one particular Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue, as was His custom (Lk. 4:16), and found a man with a withered hand (Mt. 12:9–13). Trying to trap Jesus, the religious leaders asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (v. 10). In reply, Jesus taught a Jewish doctrine later called pikkuah nefesh based on Leviticus 18:5, which says when a person’s life is in danger, even Sabbath laws take a back seat. Then He healed the man, telling the leaders, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:12).
Jesus didn’t break the Sabbath; He placed it back on its foundations. People are so valuable to God that healing and preserving life is not considered work. True rest comes from recognizing how precious we are to the Almighty. We are made in His image, filled with His life, and created to reflect Him. True spiritual rest for a Christian can be found in the discipline of remembering and believing that we are of inestimable value to our Creator.
On another Sabbath, Jesus was accused of breaking the Law because He healed a woman who had not been able to stand up straight for 18 years (Lk. 13:10–14). By the same reasoning, Jesus declared, “Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman . . . whom Satan has bound . . . be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” (vv. 15–16). He argued the principle in Jewish doctrine later called tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or “preventing suffering to living things,” based on Genesis 9:3–4 and Exodus 23:5.
For Christians, Jesus’ teaching reminds us how deeply our suffering affects God. He is not untouched by it (Heb. 4:15). We can find rest in knowing we don’t suffer alone and unnoticed. The spiritual rest we need in suffering can be found in the promise that God cares about our pain. That is why Scripture tells us to cast all our care on Him “for He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).
On another occasion in Jerusalem, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath who had been paralyzed 38 years (Jn. 5:5–15). The Jewish leaders “sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath” (v. 16). But Jesus argued that healing the man wasn’t breaking the Sabbath: “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (v. 17). In other words, Jesus said God does not stop working. Men need rest, but God does not! Since the seventh day of the creation week, God has never ceased His work.
Consequently, we can rest secure in the knowledge that God will never stop working in our lives. “He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:3–4). Your story is not finished. You can find spiritual rest in the truth that even though you rest, God is working.
Resting is a central part of Christianity—a defining truth. Hebrews 4:10 says, “He who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works.”
Our salvation is based on learning to rest in what God has done on our behalf. We cannot work to redeem ourselves. We can only trust the work Jesus has already done. When we intentionally practice the habit of resting, both spiritually and physically, we illustrate the truth of our salvation—and doing so draws us closer to God.
- Joshua Rabin, “Bedtime Shema,” My Jewish Learning (myjewishlearning.com/article/bedtime-shema).