From the earliest pages of the Bible, a very interesting principle emerges – a reality-check which shaped and continues to inform the practices of the nation of Israel (and others) until this very day.
Even those who disbelieve the Bible as a source of divine revelation are often compelled to acknowledge that a day of rest – one day in seven – is a pretty sound idea. We’re not designed to push non-stop through life. Those who cannot or will not rest often pay a steep price in their health, psychological well-being, and family relationships.
But the biggest challenge of the Sabbath principle is not the observance of a calendar day. As with so much in the Bible, God uses external realities to point to deeper spiritual truths. To stop working for one day in seven is one thing. To have a heart at rest is quite another.
The movie Chariots of Fire was based on the true story of two Olympians in the Paris competition of 1924. One of them, Eric Liddell, was a Christian, and he refused to run on the Sabbath. As a result he lost the chance for a gold medal in a race he was favored to win. At one level, taking a day off for rest is what the movie is about. But the movie added another level and contrasted Harold Abrahams with Liddell. Abrahams and Liddell were both trying very hard to win gold medals. But Abrahams was doing it out of a need to prove himself. At one point, speaking of the sprint event in which he was competing, he said, “I’ve got ten seconds to justify my existence.” Liddell, on the other hand, simply wanted to please God who had already accepted him. That’s why he said to his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” Harold Abrahams was weary even when he rested and Eric Liddell was rested even when he was exerting himself. Why? Because there’s a work underneath our work that we really need rest from. It’s the work of self-justification. It’s the work that often leads us to take refuge in religion.
Religion – external works and rituals – is a poor substitute for God Himself. It only leads to greater weariness, when not accompanied by heart-rest.
What makes our hearts rest-less? Fear of the future (or past). Unbridled ambition. Hyper-responsibility. A craving to be noticed. Unresolved guilt. Loneliness. Unfulfilled expectations (our own, or those of others). Doubt. Distrust. Anger. We can take a day, a week, or a month off from every form of work, and none of that will tame a rest-less soul. The Sabbath we crave is, ultimately, peace with God. Until our hearts are at rest in Him, we’ll continue to seek our fulfillment from religious acts, irreligious acts, other fallible people, and our own mental gymnastics. All of that is like trying to recover from a marathon by hopping on a treadmill.
I freely confess that I have struggled long with a rest-less heart. Unlike Eric Liddell, I have not well learned the lesson of living, and feeling His pleasure. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t have 10 seconds to justify our existence. In fact, we don’t have to justify ourselves at all. God is the one who justifies us.
*Highly recommended book by Tim Keller, for both believers and skeptics: The Reason for God.