Re-discovering Sabbath

Benny Tabalujan

From: God on Monday: Reflections on Christians @ Work. © Wordjoy Pte Ltd, 2005.

My home filing cabinet contains a letter dating back to 1985. A precious reminder of my early days as a young lawyer, it was written by the managing partner of the Melbourne law firm where I was employed. The letter was brief. It said that my target billable hours for that year was 750.

For most lawyers in private law firms, billable hours are critical. Typically, they are the single most important – and in some instances the only – measure of a lawyer’s success. The more hours you bill, the more valued you are by the firm. That, in turn, translates to higher pay.

When I started working in 1985, 750 hours per year was a reasonable target. I knew hardworking lawyers in my office who clocked higher figures of 1,000 and sometimes 1,200 hours. They were regarded admiringly as super-productive lawyers. They were heroes.

Two decades later, an annual target of 750 billable hours appears woefully low. The same law firm in Melbourne today will expect a lawyer to record something in the range of 1,200 – 1,800 billable hours per year. Most other law firms require similar hours. In other words, the target has virtually doubled.

This phenomenon is not confined to the legal profession. Many other professions have witnessed the same escalation of hours worked. Throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Asia’s newly industrialised economies, the increased hours individuals put into their work point to a common trend. Paradoxically, even as unemployment persists, those who have full-time jobs are working harder than before.

People in full-time work thus face a dilemma. The number of hours in a day has remained the same. But work days have lengthened. So where are the additional working hours to be found? The answer: we cannibalise the hours and energy previously dedicated to the rest of life in order to feed the seemingly insatiable drive for longer and more intense working hours.

This frenetic pace has a profound effect on our search to find the meaning and purpose of our work. If, from a Christian perspective, a primary purpose of work is to help develop personhood, then the modern trend towards workaholism is a major stumbling block to that goal. Many Christians are simply working too hard too often to benefit from the lessons generated by their work. We need to do less in order to become more.

It is in the midst of this constant work pressure that Christians must remember the ancient rule of the sabbath. Modelled after God’s work-rest rhythm as described in the creation week in Genesis, sabbath stands as a handbrake to our modern compulsion towards overwork. Sabbath is a reminder that there has always been and should always be a limit to work. Work must have a boundary so that we have time to reflect upon and personify its lessons.

Sabbath is the main boundary. This article explores its meaning and some of the hurdles we face in practising sabbath.


The Meaning of Sabbath

Originally, sabbath was equated with rest. In the Genesis account, God performed his creative work in six days and then rested on the seventh day, blessing and sanctifying it (Genesis 2:2-3). Eventually, the seventh day of the week, Saturday, became the Hebrew sabbath.

Setting the seventh day aside as a day of rest does not mean that God, who is all-powerful, needs time to recuperate from activity. Rather, God used the sabbath to look over, reflect upon, enjoy and celebrate the work he performed. It follows that if work is about results, then sabbath is about reflection; if work is preoccupied with mission, then sabbath delves into meaning.

From this perspective, sabbath is as much a part of creation as are the other six days of work. The Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel, remarked that “it took a special act of creation to bring [the sabbath] into being”¦The universe would be incomplete without it.”[1]

For the Israelites, God’s work-rest rhythm was later codified as the Fourth Commandment which instructed the Jews to keep holy the sabbath day. The Jews understood the sabbath not only as a sacred time for man, but extended it to their livestock and their land. Thus work was to cease on the sabbath so that their oxen, servants and strangers in their midst could rest and be refreshed (Exodus 23:12). Later, sabbath also became a time for worship and many of the Jewish feast days fell on the sabbath.

By the time of Jesus, however, sabbath had become legalistic non-work rather than holy reflection. Jewish rabbis and scribes argued what activities were prohibited on the sabbath. Much of the debate revolved around the definition of work. Some said the sabbath prohibition meant that a Jew could not travel more than 2,000 cubits (about 914 metres); others said the limit was 3,600 cubits (1,645 metres). Yet others created loopholes. One group argued that a Jew could travel 2,000 cubits, find a tree, deposit food and declare the spot a temporary home a few minutes before sabbath began and then, when sabbath started, walk another 2,000 cubits!

Jesus incensed the Jewish leaders of his day when he sought to restore the true sabbath concept. Although Jesus personally observed the sabbath rule of worshipping in the synagogue, he made it clear that sabbath legalism had no place in the kingdom of God. He confronted the legalism of his day by declaring himself “Lord of the sabbath” (Mark 2:28). He cured people on the sabbath. His disciples plucked grain on the sabbath. Jesus sought to rediscover the sabbath rationale rather than merely keep sabbath rules.

Even as Jesus challenged the sabbath legalism of his day, he himself practised the sabbath work-rest rhythm during His earthly ministry. Luke’s gospel is replete with Jesus withdrawing to pray, plan, think and commune with God. Before he handpicked the twelve apostles, he withdrew and spent a whole night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12). On another occasion, after the apostles had returned from an extensive period of public teaching, he withdrew to the relative quiet of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10).

Jesus also prayed often (Luke 9:18, 11:11). Sometimes he prayed alone (Luke 9:18). At other times, such as before the transfiguration, he selected three of his closest disciples to pray with him (Luke 9:28). In the midst of a hectic public ministry, he would disappear in the evenings to nearby Mount Olivet (Luke 21:37; 22:39).

Jesus’ example teaches us that sabbath is important to work and ministry. The reason is that everyone needs God’s work-rest rhythm. Rest is an essential part of life. In music, rests and silences provide the backdrop against which sounds are enjoyed. Similarly, rest provides the context from which meaning is drawn from work. Thus Paul Stevens makes the insightful remark that:

Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, ready for rest on the seventh”¦[they] woke up to experience sabbath, not to get on with their work.[2]

In a similar vein, Watchman Nee, a famous twentieth century preacher in China, wrote a short book on the epistle to the Ephesians and titled it Sit, Walk, Stand.[3] Nee’s unusual title is drawn from what he saw as the three key verbs in Ephesians which summarise a Christian’s life in Christ. We are first called to rest and sit with Christ (Ephesians 2:6); then we are exhorted to walk in a manner worthy of Christ’s calling (Ephesians 4:1); and finally we are roused to stand firm against the evil one (Ephesians 6:11). Implicit in this is the proposition that if I am not first rested and comfortable in my new identity in Christ, then I will not be able to draw on his strength to walk righteously or to fight against evil valiantly. Or, to put it in another way, being precedes doing and rest precedes work.

Our challenge today is to follow Jesus’ example and practise God’s work-rest rhythm in our modern and hectic working lives. Jesus demonstrated a ministry characterised by work and withdrawal, activity and rest as well as action and reflection. He needed these periods to better discern God’s will for his life. So do we.


Meaning Through Sabbath

Accordingly, following Jesus’s example, Christians today should practise the sabbath principle as part of our work. Putting aside the legalism of the Jewish sabbath, we should incorporate into our working week designated periods of rest and reflection. Some of us may choose to experience the sabbath through gardening – a therapeutic activity which relaxes the mind and revives the spirit. Others go on a hike or walk. My personal preference is to spend a few hours with my Bible and another book – some quiet time to read, meditate and pray.

Although the modern Sunday cannot be fully equated with the Jewish sabbath, Sundays do provide us with a convenient weekly time that can be set aside as our personal sabbath. Those who are engaged in shift work on Sundays may have to allocate a different day for their sabbath. But for the bulk of us, Sunday makes an ideal sabbath. It’s is when we meet with fellow Christians to worship God. And it’s when we are more attuned to spiritual matters.

The rationale for devoting a Sunday or an alternate day each week as a personal sabbath is simple: it is through a regular discipline of reflection that we learn how our work helps to usher us towards mature personhood. Abraham Heschel points out that man is typically enamoured by and labours for “things of space,” but often fail to realise that spirituality is manifested in sacred moments of insight. Hence, “it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”[4]

We also ignore God’s cosmic work-rest rhythm at our own peril. People who work without adequate time for rest and reflection suffer physically for it. Their health deteriorates. Their families hardly see them. In extreme cases, they die. The Japanese – a most industrious people – have a word for this: karoshi (death by overwork).

If Christians are to avoid karoshi-like lifestyles, we must cultivate a personal sabbath discipline. In particular, we must overcome three modern sabbath spoilers that commonly subvert our good intentions for practising a regular sabbath.


Sabbath Spoiler #1: Making Every Moment Productive

One of the great spoilers of sabbath today is the idea that every moment must count for something. We want to live life to the fullest. In our materialistic society, this means that during every waking moment we must either be producing or consuming something tangible.

Sabbath sabotages this production-consumption philosophy. A personal sabbath spent walking through the woods, propped on a sofa re-reading a favourite book, in the garden digging up soil, or in the study meditating on a psalm turns materialism on its head. There is no tangible thing produced. Nothing tangible is consumed. Such a sabbath adds nothing to a country’s gross domestic product or to a corporation’s balance sheet. In our modern world obsessed with production and consumption, sabbath is almost subversive.

Yet it is precisely this apparent uselessness of sabbath that makes it spiritually significant. Scripture urges us to: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Stillness is a pre-condition of knowing God. Stillness implies an inner quietness, a cessation from striving and shoving, and a shift from self-reliance to dependence. In the realm of work, sabbath stillness carves out moments when refraining from work allows us to find the meaning of our work.

To engage in a regular personal sabbath, we must discount the notion that every waking moment must be filled with activity. We must accept that sabbath, like prayer, is intrinsically beneficial despite its apparent uselessness. As Kenneth Leech points out, nothing spoils our inner spiritual life more than the insistence that it be useful and productive.[5]


Sabbath Spoiler #2: Mechanistic Time Management

A second hurdle to practising sabbath is time management taken too far. If time management is viewed simply as the call to be productive and the avoidance of sloth, then it is a perfectly useful tool. Unfortunately, that is not how time management is often viewed today. Modern time management efforts have spawned a whole industry dedicated to deriving utilitarian outcomes from every minute. Whereas centuries ago sun dials were adequate to give us the broad brush of daily time, we require watches which measure each hour, minute and second with calculated, even if meaningless, precision.

Ours has become a society transfixed by measurable objectives. Even Christians find it difficult to avoid the craze to classify, count, and control everything. Today, time is money whereas, in periods past, time was opportunity or, better still, time was life. Robert Banks, an Australian theologian who champions the notion of an everyday spirituality, argues that modern time management methods urge us to define and achieve tasks and goals, but not challenge or transform them.[6] In the same vein, Leland Ryken from Wheaton College reflects:

The view that dominates the time management movement is that time is a quantity”¦What is in danger of getting lost is the view of time as a quality in which the crucial question is not how much a person gets done but whether in a given activity a person has been all that he or she can be.[7]

To help Christians overcome an excessively mechanistic time management culture, we should engage in the regular practise of sabbath, when time can be spent without being measured. We should enjoy periods without watches and clocks. Instead of counting the present as minutes to be managed, we should accept the present as a gift to be appreciated.


Sabbath Spoiler #3: Busy Leisure

Even if the two earlier sabbath spoilers can be overcome, Christians face a third challenge: the confusion between biblical rest and modern leisure. Leisure was traditionally understood as “time free from work and other obligations.” It was “discretionary time, the time to be used according to our own judgment or choice.”[8] Leisure was that time and space set aside for inner renewal, physical rest, and thoughtful reflection.

However, contemporary society has made a veritable industry out of leisure. Hollywood and much of our media, sports and entertainment cater to it. With the commercialisation of leisure, the world offers “work and leisure” whereas Scripture offers “work and sabbath.”[9] Leisure is now commoditised rather than being enjoyed as true rest which creates “an intensified capacity for perceiving the loveliness of everything – food, clothing, the body, the soul – because existence itself is glorious.”[10]

Instead, leisure has become an activity-driven menu promising thrill, excitement, and titillation. It’s now wedded to consumption. From theme parks and rock concerts to hot-air ballooning and cyber-gaming – each consumption activity promises more and more bang for our leisure dollar. When one thrill loses its lustre, another replaces it.

Rather than allowing leisure to be rest, an empty bit of space and time from which we can survey all other activities of life, we have allowed leisure to become yet another activity in our overcommitted schedules. As such, leisure is no longer used to reflect over work; it is now just an escape from work.

The result of this misappropriation of leisure is predictable. We want the most from our leisure and we spend the least to get the most. We buy units of activity to fill our leisure, expecting more excitement than before. Sameness is passé; variety is in. On this score, Christians are not immune. We often spend our leisure in a frantic pursuit for excitement just like our unbelieving friends do. In fact, we end up being so acculturated into the modern preoccupation with leisure that, as Os Guinness claims, we now “worship our work, work at our play, and”¦play at our worship.”[11]

I write all this not to condemn the varied activities in which we engage during our spare time. The truth is that many modern leisure activities can be enjoyed by Christians in all good conscience. My point is that such leisure time does not equate with practising a personal sabbath. If we do engage in such leisure activities, we still need to schedule other time as a sabbath.


Sabbath Keeps Us

We would do well to meditate on Psalm 127 and the role of rest in our working lives. If nothing else, such meditation will teach us to trust God more. All work, if done in God’s name and through his strength, is good work. Correspondingly, all work, if done without God, is vain.

It makes no sense for us to worry about the project presentation tomorrow or the impact oil prices or terrorism will have on our business. These matters are simply beyond our control. We can only pray that God will take care of these matters in his own wisdom.

Meanwhile, God will continue to bless those whom he favours, even to the extent of making those whom he does not favour gather and collect so that he may give to the one he favours (Ecclesiastes 2:26). Martin Luther was right when he remarked that God’s blessings:

“¦at times come to us through our labours and at times without our labours, but never because of our labours; for God always gives them because of His underserved mercy”¦ He uses our labour as a sort of mask, under the cover of which He blesses us and grants us what is His, so that there is room for faith.[12]

Viewed from this perspective, sabbath is as much a part of the spiritual life as is work. Not only does it give pause to our activities and re-invigorate us physically, but it also helps us gain a deeper understanding of our own growing personhood in Christ. As Paul Stevens says so eloquently, “In the deepest sense, we do not keep the sabbath; the sabbath keeps us.”[13]

© Wordjoy Pte Ltd, 2005. This excerpt is from Chapter 3 of God on Monday: Reflections on Christians @ Work by Benny Tabalujan, PhD. Order copies from: or for North American orders contact Christian Studies Press ( and (512) 476-2772).

Benny Tabalujan has worked in Austrailia, Hong Kong and Singapore. A commercial lawyer by training, he later became an award-winning lecturer, active in corporate consulting work. Currently, Benny is a corporate consultant and adjunct faculty at the Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, Australia.


[1] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951) 23.
[2] R Paul Stevens, Seven Days of Faith: Every Day Alive with God (NavPress, 2001) 214.
[3] Watchman Nee, Sit, Walk, Stand (Tyndale House Publishers, 1977).
[4] Abraham Heschel, ibid, 5-7.

[5] Kenneth Leech, True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (Harper & Row, 1980) 60.
[6] Robert Banks, The Tyranny of Time: When 24 Hours Is Not Enough (InterVarsity Press, 1983) 163.
[7] Leland Ryken, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure (Baker Book House, 1995) 153.
[8] Stanley Parker, The Sociology of Leisure (International Publications Service, 1976) 12; Charles Brightbill, The Challenge of Leisure (Prentice Hall, 1960) 4.
[9] R Paul Stevens, ibid, 222.
[10] Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation, trans Margaret Kohl (SCM Press, 1985) 286.
[11] Os Guiness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (W Publishing Group, 1998) 152.
[12] Luther, exposition on Deut 8:17-18, as quoted by Leland Ryken, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure (Baker Book House, 1995) 164.
[13] R Paul Stevens, ibid, 217.