Sabbath-Stealers: Why People (Like Me) Can’t Say No

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:15

Two thousand six hundred and seventeen.

According to a recent study, that’s the number of times that the average American touches their cell phone in the course of a day. 2617. Among the top 10% of users, the number leaps to nearly 5400 taps, swipes, and pinches.

No icon is more emblematic of our modern hurriedness than the smartphone. In possession of our iPhones and Galaxies, we are always connected, always available. As Linda Stone has stated, many of us – breathless for the next buzz, chirp, like, or share – live in a state of continuous partial attention”.

And it’s not what God had in mind.

There is a reason that Sabbath observation is a Biblical commandment, not a suggestion. God created human beings with an off-switch that needs to be pressed from time to time.

The ancient Israelites understood that all work and no rest is self-destructive.  To refuse Sabbath is to accept enslavement, since slavery looms any time an expectation overpowers our ability to say no. Deuteronomy 5:15 makes this connection explicit. The command to observe Sabbath points back to – and safeguards against – the forced labor under which the people of God suffered in Egypt.

God’s directive toward rest, then, is a mnemonic device, reminding the nation of the dehumanization of slave-work and pointing the people toward liberty. The commandment to sanctify rest is an emancipation proclamation.

It’s also notable that that the word “sabbath” functions as an adjective. That means that living fully into the commandment includes – but is not merely limited to – taking a one-day-per-week break. Sabbath means a practice of ceasing. There shall be rest. Thou shalt say no.

Why, then, do we struggle to live in Sabbath freedom? Why do we fail to to practice this liberty?

As someone who historically – and especially recently – finds himself violating the commandment to rest, I present my Sabbath-stealers. These are the dynamics that keep me enslaved. This is why it is hard for me (and people like me) to say no:

Fear of Consequences. I can believe that bad stuff will happen to me if I throttle down my work.

Chief among these consequences: a blow to my work-ethic reputation. Many of us want others to look at us and see “unflappable mom” or “superstaffer” or “never-sleeps tough guy.” As much as we like to say “I don’t care what people think about me” or “It’s not important for me to be liked” – those things do matter to our hearts.

As someone who works in a church, I’ve discovered this: Many people understand that pastors get busy. What they don’t understand is why a pastor would be too busy for them. They get that leaders need to say no. They don’t always understand why a leader has to say no to what they need. That’s a hard one for me to negotiate.

A Misguided Theology of Work. There are parts of the Bible that, taken narrowly, seem to indicate that unless you are working your tail off you aren’t trying hard enough. Ever read Proverbs 6?

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
and scarcity like an armed man.

I read that and I think…I don’t want to be the sluggard! I want to be the ant, man! No folding of the hands for this guy! 

Colossians 3:23 is another one that gets me: Whatever you do, Paul writes, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says the same: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

And then there are those verses in the gospels where Jesus lets the disciples off at the end of a long day while he stays back to wrap things up with the crowds (eg, Matthew 14:22). And I think, “Well, I’m going to be like Jesus, not like Bartholomew and his weak sauce.” I’ll keep going a few minutes longer.

All of these can feed into the extrabiblical mantra that “God helps those who help themselves”. Little by little, I can think that God wants me to work myself to the bone and then expire. So it feels justifiable – almost theologically noble – to press through the breaks and get more done.

Addiction to Measurables – Have you ever heard this leadership axiom: What gets measured gets done?  It really is true. But it is also the case that we can become unhealthily fixated on measureables. I can feel depressed if, at the end of the day, I didn’t get done what I thought I needed to get done. If the checklist isn’t finished, I’m discouraged.

It begins to look like addictive behavior for me. A difficult task, done well, allows me to taste a certain spiritual high. Maybe it even feels something like closeness with God. But not long afterward, I tumble back down. The batteries inside lose their charge, and I need to find another effort-based spiritual high to get me back to where I was. I have to do one more thing or one bigger thing than I did yesterday in order to feel that God is really pleased with me.

There are lots of indicators that can point out that workaholism might be enslaving you. Here’s a short checklist:

  1. Inconsistent devotional life.
  2. Inability to manage your daily schedule.
  3. Medical sickness due to tiredness and lack of exercise.
  4. Lack of recreational interests.
  5. Frequent fatigue, discouragement, and depression.
  6. Regular friction with spouse, children, and co-workers
  7. Fantasizing about quitting.

Concrastination. We’ve all heard of procrastination, right? It’s always waiting until the last minute to get things done. Concrastination is the word I made up to describe the opposite – perpetually filling your free time with work as an attempt to get ahead.

I developed a tendency toward concrastination as a reaction to a long history of procrastination.

While I was in college, I was forver waiting until the last minute to get my papers done. That’s the college way, right? That’s the dorm mentality.

When I was in school very few of us had laptops. This meant that we spent a lot more time in the residence hall computer labs working on papers.

Those were interesting times. If you’ve even been in a dorm computer lab at like, 4 in the morning, you know it’s a parallel universe in there. People have become zombified. Beady-eyed, they stare at their screens, trying to scratch their way from a page and a half of decent ideas out to the 15 pages that their paper – due in 4 hours – requires.  (There’s only so much font-size inflation and margin amplification that you can get away with.)

In many cases, the authors of these essays are neck deep in Doritos and 20oz bottles of Mountain Dew trying to stay awake. On certain occasions, you’ll encounter somebody that just couldn’t make it through the night. They’ve fallen asleep, heads down on their keyboards. You look on their screen, and their document has generated 54 pages and counting of the letter J.

Once in a while I’d come across a computer and a monitor with a document open and in progress, but whose esteemed writer had gotten up to take a bathroom break or a video game break or something like that. And for a couple of us gentlemen, an untended essay represented an irresistible opportunity. We’d always scroll up a page or two in the document and add a phrase or a sentence or two of ahem, enhancement to the paper.

For instance, a sentence as we found it: The population of Dallas is 8 million people.

The sentence as we left it: The population of Dallas is 8 million people, making it the third largest city in Canada.

Sentence before: The key to appreciating DNA is understanding the unique shape of the double helix.

Sentence after: The key to appreciating DNA is understanding the unique shape of Betty White.

Sentence before: The Sahara desert is very very hot.

Sentence after: The Sahara desert is very very hot, but not as hot as you, Professor Johnson, in that argyle pantsuit you wore to class last week.

This is what college boys do.

And you just knew that 90% of the time, these papers were never proofread before they were handed in. I always wondered how these guys responded when they read the comments next to their D+. Man, I must have OD’d on Three Musketeers or something!

That’s procrastination. It scarred me, people.

Concrastination is the opposite. It’s always trying to work ahead. If you create a space, it will get filled. Work ahead on Monday so you can rest on Tuesday. That’s the idea. But when Tuesday’s window does open, Wednesday rushes in. Thursday becomes Wednesday, Friday becomes Thursday, and the downtime we’ve been questing for never happens.

Finally, The Illusion of Indispensability. In one of his earlier books, Chuck Swindoll included this little anecdote about overwork. He wrote:

Don’t blame me if I’m tired. The  population  of this country is  200 million. Eighty-four million are retired. That leaves 116 million to do  the  work. There are 75 million in school, which leaves 41 million  to  do  the  work. Of this total, there  are 22 million employed by the government. That leaves 19 million to do the  work. Four million are in the Armed Forces, which leaves 15 million to  do the work.Take from that total the 14,800,000 people who work for State and City  Government  and  that  leaves 200,000 to do the  work. There are 188,000 in hospitals, so that leaves 12,000 to  do the  work. Now there are 11,998 people in prisons. That leaves just two people to do the work. You and me. And you’re sitting there listening this. No wonder I’m tired!

You know the thinking: If it’s going to be done the right way, I’m going to have to be the one to do it. This lie is perhaps the cleverest thief of Sabbath rest.

In all of these instances, I put aside the commandment to stop. And shackles grow. And bondage begins.

In what ways is Sabbath stolen from your life? How do you become better at practicing rest and renewal?

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