We mulled together. Once proverbial for a decidedly relaxed approach to work and study, university students had, it seemed, so deeply internalised the imperative to be productive that they were getting the guilts when they rested. A grief settled over us. It wasn’t that such affliction was unintelligible to us: my colleague headed up a counselling service that was hugely overstretched, and I’d been juggling two or three jobs simultaneously for the past five years, so we knew what it was to be overwhelmed in our work. It was, rather, that the demand constantly to produce—to squeeze your schedule until it sweats money (and so, eventually, as the wisdom goes, happiness)—had lodged so deeply in students’ lives. Standing on a wide threshold of time, it is the glory of a 20-year-old to be looking forwards with wonder, even with joy, at what is to come. How strange and distressing then that the invitation to rest in the midst of our labours should have become—along with everything else—an overwhelming point of stress.
I suspect my story will not surprise you. Many of us have internalised the belief that we live to work, to be productive. So, we’re quick to explain to friends and colleagues why it is we’re taking time off. We’re even quicker to trade quiet complaints about how hard we’re working, how swamped we are, how little time we get for ourselves. This is frequently true and often for troubled reasons: employment and enterprise that are strongly driven by narrowly measured results, which are tightly tied to ambitious time-frames or vulnerable to knock-on impacts from wider industry, typically create relentless work cultures. And such work cultures are not geared to consider the whole life of each employee; indeed, they readily claim the person who has internalised such a work “ethic.” But, for our part, the trading of complaints about work/life balance can sometimes be a veiled boasting: secretly, we congratulate ourselves on being such hard workers. There’s no doubt that job distress is often real; nonetheless, when we come to rest, we find the imperative to produce and to be valued as a producer remains with us. We rest uneasy. We try to be still but find the pent-up flywheel of the week is spinning madly inside us. Concerns about money and future throng about. For a moment, we’re concerned that our time management training didn’t properly prepare us for rest. And then we recall something about rest being good for productivity, and we relax. It’s OK—rest helps me to work. Armed with that thought, we promptly throw ourselves into a weekend that can only be described as a bewilderment of fun.
Again, this is all banally familiar. It settles in the puddling consciousness like a sodden paper towel. It’s hard, then, to recall God’s command to Israel. How did it go? “Six days you shall labour and do your work, and the seventh day is a day of work also—particularly for finishing all those other jobs that remain from the week; or else you can use it to relax so you might work even better. Seven days, therefore, shall you work, and then seven more, and seven after that, with the occasional weekend off. When you and your household rest, make sure it is in some way productive. After all, God never slumbers, so why should you?” Such a doctrine of total work would be unbearable, causing those most vulnerable to its power to internalise its abusive domination as “life-giving.” I am, of course, deliberately misremembering God’s words to Israel here; I want to draw attention to the fact that our restlessness (a characteristic of our fallen life) is shadowed by the spectre of total work, and that agreeing to rest requires us, in the first instance, to admit that we frequently allow work to assume the central place in our lives. As we’ve affirmed in The Good of Work, work is a gift from God, the outworking of humanity’s high calling to partner with God: to seek the flourishing of all creation and to lift creation in praise to its Creator. Good work is restored to us in Christ through whom we enjoy friendship with God by the Spirit. But when work is pursued apart from God and beyond the limits God sets, it tends to come under the domination of powers opposed to God’s purposes. Work takes centre stage; other things—the self, other relationships, even the world—become merely resources for work’s ends. It becomes an instrument of oppression, a totalised proposition, a liar’s invitation to freedom. Those who give themselves willingly to totalised work can become deeply subject to its domination. Most profoundly, totalised work lays claim—with great hubris—to time. Every moment becomes coin in a currency that (although debased as soon as spent) the working self obsessively budgets and spends. No wonder, then, that rest seems like a waste of time.
Therefore, if we want to do good work—to fulfil our high calling to partner with God in seeking the flourishing of the world—then we need to consider rest. In particular, we need to consider the rest God invites us into: we need to turn to the scriptural practice of Sabbath. In simple terms, the call to rest on the Sabbath is a call to share in God’s way as a worker (for God is the First Worker) and, like God, to cease work. The Sabbath speaks directly to work: in ceasing, we find grace to see our own work within creation and to better understand our endeavours in that light (be they crooked or true, fruitful or wasteful). The ancient and seemingly severe practice of the Sabbath both reveals the distorted place of work in our lives and provides a robust, wise context in which to experience the goodness and liberation of God’s rest. So what, then, are the origins of the Sabbath, and what does it mean?