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What I Learned on Sabbatical -- and Why You Might Care

Updated: Feb 24, 2023


After 18 years of full-time sexual integrity ministry, I was given a 7-week sabbatical by our board of directors. In my entire adult life I had never had that much continuous time away from work. It was a precious gift, and I am thankful.


But I know the question you are asking: Why would I care about your sabbatical?


In other words, Why should you even keep reading this article?


Because you and I are more alike than we are different. We have the same fundamental needs since we are fellow human beings made in God's image. And one of those basic needs is rest.


Keep reading if you want to gain some insights about rest that could help you achieve greater spiritual, physical, and emotional health. Yes, God's creation and design of rest really is that incredible -- and essential!


Defining Rest


Before I share my personal sabbatical discoveries, let's get a working definition for rest. This definition is rooted in the biblical idea of Sabbath.


And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. -Gen. 2:2-3


When God finished His creation work, He rested. In His case, this wasn't because He was tired or needed any sort of energy "replenishment." He rested in order to enjoy His work; to relish, or glory in it.


Part of Sabbath rest is pausing to enjoy and delight in doing good work.


God went on to establish a weekly rhythm of Sabbath rest for His people:


Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. -Ex. 20:8-11


God commands us to "remember the Sabbath day" and to "not do any work" on it. It is a holy day set apart for physical rest -- and spiritual reflection. To "remember" the Sabbath is to remember the God of the heavens and earth, and worship Him accordingly.


Part of Sabbath rest is being still and worshiping the God of creation.


Sabbath rest is a regularly dedicated time to cease from work, to focus on God, and to celebrate all the good that has been done in His name.


God created the Sabbath to be a regular part of life. At the very least, one day a week is to be set aside for Sabbath rest. But there can also be seasons of Sabbath rest, such as a sabbatical. God even instituted "rest" for the land every seven years (see Exodus 23:10-11).


The main question for you and me is do we take Sabbath rest as seriously as God does? And if not, what are the consequences?


Discoveries from My Sabbatical


The following are some discoveries I made on my sabbatical that I hope will help you pursue a better balance of Sabbath rest in your own life. At the end of the article I post some additional resources for better work-rest balance.


1. Rest is good and needs to be a regular part of the rhythms of life.


Following from the above definition of Sabbath rest, this first "discovery" may seem like an obvious no-brainer. Duh, of course rest is good and needs to be part of my life!


But slow down. Sometimes what appears so obvious is glaringly absent from our actual week-to-week lives.


Do you really believe that rest is good and necessary? Or do you treat it like a nice accessory, but not a true necessity? In other words, do you view rest as equally as important as work? Is it scheduled on your calendar like everything else you consider important? When you disobey God's command to rest, do you confess it as sin?


(Ok, I'll stop there. I sense my questions were getting increasingly painful -- and personal!)


Because Sabbath rest is connected to God's Sabbath rest in creation we need to see it as both good and necessary. The idea of Sabbath existed before sin entered the world. Therefore, it is holy, good, and part of God's original design for human beings.


2. Rest is harder than it seems.


I was so looking forward to my sabbatical. I envisioned deep relaxation of body, mind, and soul. Then I was struck by a surprising reality: rest doesn't come easily!


Remember the definition of Sabbath rest: a regularly dedicated time to cease from work, to focus on God, and to celebrate all the good that has been done in His name.


Intentionality, ceasing work, focus, celebration. These are not terms that indicate passivity. Ironically, real rest takes some real effort!


To illustrate how hard it can be to truly rest, do this exercise. Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes, Slow your breathing. Be quiet. Now, attempt to stay still for ten minutes. At the end of the ten minutes, on a scale of 1 to 5, rate how peaceful you felt. (1 being totally at peace, 5 being very anxious/stressed)


Maybe you scored really well. I didn't. To sit still for 10 minutes may be easy to do physically, but mentally it's a real challenge. Things may be quiet on the outside (especially if the phone is turned off), but to "turn down the volume" internally takes some attention.


​The primary challenges to rest that I encountered on my sabbatical were:

  • Distractions -- they are everywhere, both external and internal.

  • An overactive mind -- as illustrated in the 10-minute exercise above, quieting the mind can be difficult.

  • Expecting Sabbath rest to work from the outside in rather than from the inside out. In other words, falsely believing that rest (or peace) is contingent on the right circumstances.

As challenging as rest can be, it is worth the discipline. Adjusting focus and setting better expectations about what true rest is can really do wonders for experiencing deeper peace.


I know it seems contradictory to say you must "work hard" at rest, but if you don't you will continue to believe the lie that Sabbath rest is achieved merely by inactivity. Sadly, this only reaps a harvest of restlessness and weariness.


3. We are designed for purpose; even rest can be meaningful and life-giving.


I have battled rest my whole life. I haven't valued it as highly as work, or "ministry." I have seen it as something that is only necessary to regain energy to get back to the "real" business of life: work.


But if God, the eternal self-sustaining Creator of all things, rested, this must mean that rest is good and meaningful. And if I am made in God's image, then engaging in rest is part of my duty and delight in reflecting Him.


What this looks like practically for me is reframing my mindset around restful activities.

  • Sleep (and naps) can be an act of worship, trusting that God is sovereign and fully in control when I am unconscious.

  • Going for a walk is a time to connect with God's creation and be amazed at His creativity. (And maybe I don't even need to record how many steps I'm taking...)

  • Taking time to prepare and eating a meal (without looking at a clock) is an act of thanksgiving for God's provision and the wonder of how He designed the human body. There is purpose in food beyond physical nutrition; it is a means to fellowship with God and others.

  • Reading a book, listening to music, going for a drive, or planting flowers can all be meaningful acts that draw us into a deeper knowledge and appreciation for our great God.

​Rest is woven into our design and has a purpose beyond just getting reenergized for tomorrow's work.


4. God's creation is a testament to Sabbath rest


The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)

I love getting into nature, especially the mountains. There is something so majestic and awe-inspiring about these rocky crags that reach for the heavens. I feel wonder and amazement when gazing at the earth from a perch at 10,000 feet.


But I find there is more to be amazed at than just the beauty of God's creation. I find woven into nature millions of testimonies for Sabbath rest.

  • The cycle of light and dark every 24 hours indicates the rhythm of activity and stillness.

  • Animals are not in constant motion; they gather food and eat, but also sleep and play.

  • Flowers bloom boldly in the morning sun, but fall limp in the twilight hours.

  • The rhythms of rain and drought form a kind of dance between the land "coming alive" and "taking a nap."

  • The wind blows hard, followed by stillness and quiet.

Observing nature can provide a simple (but profound) education in our need for Sabbath rest. After all, nature is far more obedient to God's commands than we are!


Praise the Lord from the earth,

you great sea creatures and all deeps,

fire and hail, snow and mist,

stormy wind fulfilling his word!


Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars!

Beasts and all livestock,

creeping things and flying birds!


-Psalm 148:7-10


5. Sabbath rest is primarily communal


I am an introvert. I prefer solitude over groups of people. This isn't a bad thing, but if I'm not careful I can use this personality tendency as an excuse to isolate from community. But true Sabbath rest is communal.


Even when God rested from His creation work, He observed it and celebrated it communally. First, in Himself; He is one God consisting of a triune community: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. But secondly, He rested in the presence of human beings (they were created on the 6th Day and God rested on the 7th Day).


I certainly believe there is a place for solitude in Sabbath rest (even Jesus would withdraw to "lonely places" to pray; but one could argue even this was communal since the Son was praying to the Father). But a huge part of what our souls need in Sabbath rest cannot be experienced by ourselves.


There are 3 main communal "activities" of Sabbath: Sacrifice, Fellowship, and Worship.


  • Sacrifice -- In the "old days" this often included an animal sacrifice. But thanks to Jesus' once-for-all sacrifice on the cross, this is no longer necessary. Yet Sabbath rest still requires sacrifice: time, work, busyness, attention. To be quiet and still in our modern world is a sacrifice. Such sacrifice allows margin for connecting with God and others in ways that refresh body and soul.

  • Fellowship -- God made human beings for connection; with Him and each other. Sabbath rest includes connecting with friends and family for recreation and fun. If we really want to celebrate the blessings of God in our lives, we must share that celebration with others.

  • Worship -- All that is good comes from God (James 1:17). True Sabbath rest is thanking and praising our Creator for who He is and all that He has done. His work is "very good" indeed! And the best way to magnify praise is in a group of fellow believers. Worship is always intended to draw a crowd and direct attention and praise to the Maker of heaven and earth. Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! -Psalm 150:1-2


6. Life can only be enjoyed in the present


For some, the normal routines of life can become monotonous and predictable. Every day is just work, eat, sleep, repeat. The calendar app keeps rushing us from one activity to the next. Time races by. All that matters is what's next.


For others, although time keeps ticking, life has stopped. Nothing seems to matter. Food has lost its taste. Work is nothing more than punching a time card. Sleep is illusive. All of life is stuck in the past.


But neither dreams of the future nor memories of the past are happening now. And now is life. Life is only experienced in this moment.


My sabbatical reminded me to be careful of clinging to the unchangeable past or racing toward the unpredictable future. Instead, life is about being present in the now.


Interestingly, I discovered that "being present" is a far more restful way to live. Pining (or brooding) over the past is stressful and exhausting. Constantly imagining (or fantasizing) about the future, while fun and exciting, carries me away from opportunities that might be right in front of me now.


This doesn't mean we never examine our past or plan for our future. But we must learn to do so without sacrificing the only time that life is happening: now.


A Few More Ideas


Here are just a few more ideas from my sabbatical that might be useful as you think about your own times of rest:

  • Food and drink seem to taste better when enjoyed unhurried.

  • Devotional times with God are richer when not constrained by a clock.

  • It's ok for some tasks to be left unfinished.

  • God is sovereign; His plans don't need me. And yet,

  • God cares about my cares; He wants me in His life.

  • Living at a slower, deeper, richer pace enriches my life and enhances my ability to serve and love others well.

Final Thoughts


I hope this brief reflection on my sabbatical has helped you think through your own need for Sabbath rest, and provided you with a few ideas so you might engage more faithfully in "time to cease from work, to focus on God, and to celebrate all the good that has been done in His name."


What is God inviting you to do differently in order to engage more Sabbath rest? What will you do right now to take steps in that direction?


May God bless you as you rest in Him...


​----------------

Additional Resources to Help You Rest Well:


An Unhurried Life by Alan Fadling

Reset by David Murray (for pastors/ministry leaders)

Refresh by Shona & David Murray (for women)

Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

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