Is a “what-not-to-do” list enough?
A journey towards resting well on the Sabbath
I grew up in a Christian home and have attended church all my life. Early on I was taught the fourth commandment: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:9–11 ESV).
According to my Sunday school teacher, that meant mainly not doing homework on Sundays. Trying to be a good Christian, I followed that advice. As I grew older, more and more items seemed to make the “not-to-do” list: laundry, housecleaning, and other chores.
When I entered full-time ministry, I was determined not to become one of these overworked missionaries I had often read and heard about. I decided early not to work on my day off during the week.
But nobody had ever told me what actually to do on the Sabbath, which left me in some confusion. Sometimes not doing any work caused me to be bored and lonely. Sunny days caused me to feel tense because on the one hand I wanted to go out and enjoy nature, but on the other I desired to stay inside and read a book. If this all sounds very immature, that’s probably what it was. Nevertheless I continued with this kind of pattern—schedule one day off a week and not working on that day.
Several years later, I heard from a friend that she “prepared for Sabbath” on Friday evening in order to have a proper sabbath on Saturdays. I had no idea what that meant and quickly dismissed it as weird and legalistic.
This changed when I discussed the Sabbath with students from Gifu University using a KGK booklet about work. A Chinese student explained that the kanji used for Sabbath (安息 ansoku) is used to describe dead people in Chinese! That made me think: “Indeed, dead people do nothing!” As I reflected on it, I noticed that often people use the “day off” to finish up things they had not done during the week (e.g. exercise, grocery shopping, cleaning).
The KGK booklet hinted that the Sabbath has a deeper purpose than simply to recharge. We usually rest in order to be able to work again, but God rested without being exhausted. As we’re made in his image, there must be a meaning in rest itself. I decided to try a restful “do nothing day off.” I prepared the day before in order for it to go well. I decided that it was okay to consume creations that others had made (e.g. enjoy nature, read a book, watch a movie), but I wouldn’t be productive in contributing or creating anything myself. That meant I had to cook in advance and make sure the apartment was tidy and the laundry was done so I wasn’t tempted to do those chores.
On that day I was surprised how strong the urge was to be “productive” and how difficult it was to simply enjoy. Although I thought it would be nice to have a “do nothing day off” once a month as a spiritual discipline, I haven’t kept it up. With the KGK and GAM Team, we read the book The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero, in which he discusses how to create your own guidelines for the Sabbath. I learned that I longed for a regular day off. In my first term, I took one day off a week, but not the same day every week. Setting this regular day off has meant that I sacrifice being involved in some important events, but it has been a relief to have that day already set aside. Although I don’t always plan it well in advance and am at times tempted to finish my to-do list, I’ve gotten good at “not working” and closer to understanding the meaning of rest.
What I learned in a nutshell:
- It’s not enough to have a not-to-do list; I need a to-do list too.
- There is more to the Sabbath than simply recharging; resting has meaning in itself.
- Trying not to be productive on that day helps me realize I’m worthy just by my existence, not because of what I do.
- To rest well, I need to prepare in advance.
- Reflecting on the Sabbath, making my own guidelines for how to spend it is one thing, but to stick to those guidelines is another! It takes work not to work!