Diagnosing and Confessing “Sabbath Dread”

This past Friday, my wife and I took some time off from “our normal lives” and drove down to St. Louis to attend a Christmas dinner hosted by Covenant Seminary. Sitting at our table was a bright, friendly young man who is in the fourth year of his M.Div program, just a few credits shy of obtaining a degree that will qualify him to pastor a church, were he so inclined.

As it turns out, he is not so inclined. As we talked and got to know each other a bit, it became readily apparent that he and I had both been suffering through a chronic case of “Sabbath Dread.” To put it another way, he and I were both able to confess that we had been spending far too much time studying Jesus and not nearly enough time being in relationship with Jesus.

In an undated article published on the99percent.com, author Scott Belsky contributes his voice to a rising chorus of thoughtful individuals who have become increasingly alarmed at our culture’s growing unwillingness to “unplug” from any and all sources of information and take part in times of silent, thoughtful meditation. Belsky’s article, “What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking,” contains several memorable quotes and much of what he says – though clearly not intended to be a biblically-grounded argument – easily could be preached from the pulpit of most Bible-believing churches with just a bit of polish and perhaps a few verses cited. For instance, while he does not “thread the needle” by citing Exodus and/or the New Testament book of Mark, he nevertheless puts his finger squarely on the idea that humankind has been running from the commanded Sabbath rest throughout recorded history:

Why do we crave distraction over downtime? Why do we give up our sacred space so easily? Because space is scary. During these temporary voids of distraction, our minds return to the uncertainty and fears that plague all of us. To escape this chasm of self-doubt and unanswered questions, you tune into all of the activity and data for reassurance. But this desperate need for constant connection and stimulation is not a modern problem. I would argue that we have always sought a state of constant connection from the dawn of time, it’s just never been possible until now.

Belsky ends his article with a five-point list of things that we readers can do to become more intentional about unplugging from outside information sources and allowing our minds to wander. He also suggests that we make a commitment to being “intentional about creating non-intentional space,” i.e. that we do not destroy our created sacred spaces by attaching specific intents to those times. Put simply, it may not be enough to turn off the radio while driving to pick up the dry cleaning if you then plan to use that mental space to organize the rest of your day’s activities in your head.

Personally, I find it fascinating that so much “modern” truth is merely a recapitulation of something that God told us long ago in His Word. Of course, the modern prophet of wisdom is more or less obliged to cut his or her words free of their root in Scripture, effectively asking us to rely on the credibility and intelligence of the human author rather than on divine revelation, so it doesn’t surprise me that, in this example, Belsky does not ask us to turn to the book of Exodus (20:9-11) to discover why God ordained Sabbath rest for His created image-bearers. One of Belsky’s more revealing sentences, “Perhaps those in biblical times knew what was in store for us when they created the Sabbath,” wrongly credits our ancestors – not an all-powerful Creator God – for the establishment of Sabbath rest.

Perhaps, like me, you know plenty of people who struggle to take any sort of mental break throughout the course of their day. Perhaps you yourself are one of those people. The telltale signs are not hard to spot. The TV is always on. The computer is constantly humming and the Internet is forever bringing new pings, beeps, and dings of updated news and urgent information. The cell phone/smart phone is always at hand, either for incoming calls or (more commonly now) for text messages from our own personal army of friends, loved ones and even casual acquaintances. The individual with a serious case of Sabbath Dread cannot even bear to think about the possibility of briefly traveling through areas of the state that offer spotty – let alone nonexistent – cell phone service.

When confronted with a clear, unmistakable reluctance to unplug and follow the Lord’s commandment (not advice) that we take our rest, the question we should be asking ourselves is probably something along the lines of, “Why does silence and alone time feel so very threatening?”

Now let’s go back to me and my bright young friend getting to know each other at the Covenant Christmas dinner on Friday evening. As I have moved deeper into Christian ministry and met more and more people who serve the Lord vocationally or are on their way toward doing so, I have discovered that a failure to make time for silence and prayerful meditation is actually quite common among God’s devoted servants. One of my best friends summed it up nicely with the seemingly-contradictory statement, “I’ve been so busy reading about Jesus and serving Jesus by ministering to others that I hardly have any time to talk to Him anymore.”

Could it be that our collective fear of quiet time is a tacit admission that we all instinctively know Who the Lord of the Sabbath is, and that we are all, to varying degrees, running as hard and fast away from the Lord as our pathetic little legs can carry us? Does silence terrify us not so much because we are afraid of a silent, uncaring universe, but because we know full well Who is waiting to receive us, should we ever acquiesce to give Him time and space in our busy, frenetic lives? I can think of no better time of year than Advent for all of us to self-diagnose our tendency to fill up every waking moment of our lives, repent of crowding Christ out of our schedules, and give ourselves over to the very thing we secretly fear, getting to know Christ Jesus…and then resting and abiding in Him (Matthew 11:28-30, John 15:5).

Mark 2:23-28 (ESV)
“Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath”

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples (1) began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, (2) why are they doing (3) what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, (4) “Have you never read (5) what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of (6) Abiathar the high priest, and ate (7) the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, (8) “The Sabbath was made for man, (9) not man for the Sabbath. So (10) the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

1. Deuteronomy 23:25
2. Matthew 9:11
3. Exodus 20:9-11
4. Matthew 21:16
5. 1 Samuel 21:1-6
6. 1 Chronicles 24:6; 1 Samuel 21:1; 2 Samuel 8:17
7. Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5-9
8. Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14
9. Colossians 2:16
10. Mark 2:10

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