Excerpt from Living the Sabbath

The following is an excerpt from the second chapter of Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba.

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The Israelites knew as well as anyone that people can declare God’s goodness with their lips but then with their hands and feet manifest the preeminence of self. For this reason their Sabbath teaching included well-developed social and economic directives, beginning with the clear command that all work stop on the seventh day. It is easy, especially in our culture, to underestimate the significance of this injunction. But if we remember that the Israelite economy was predominately agricultural, then this command takes on special significance.

When I look back at the farming community in which I was raised, I am astounded by the fact that family members and neighbors stopped work on Sundays. At most times of the year this was not a big deal, but during harvest seasons it most certainly was. In a farming economy the produce of the land, and thus the lion’s share of the farmer’s sustenance
and income, comes in at specific times of the year. The window in which harvest can occur is limited, due to changing ripening and drying conditions. Every day during harvest is
thus precious and not to be squandered, for whatever is not appropriately harvested spoils and registers as lost income, as lost livelihood for the family and sustenance for livestock. If the farmer gave up work to rest and bad weather set in and spoiled the remaining harvest, the costs were truly high.

One would think that Sabbath rest would thus be the occasion for considerable anxiety, especially in an agricultural economy. But in our community worry and fret did not overcome the Sabbath aim of rest and refreshment. To be sure, the farmers might worry about whether they had made the right choice by not going into the fields on Sunday, but such worry would reflect a distrust in God’s ability to provide and take care of them. Worry and anxiety would be byproducts of a fundamental doubt of the goodness of God, a suspicion that maybe God’s grace is limited or not enough. My experience of farmers at that time, however, is that they experienced daily multiple examples of God’s goodness and power, most basically in the germination and growth of crops and the birth and health of livestock. To be sure, crop failure and disease, as well as painful death, were perennial possibilities, but the experience of farming overwhelmingly taught the beneficence of grace. (It is no accident that as farming has turned into agribusiness, the practice of Sabbath rest for farmers, animals, and the land has come to an end.) If the farmer is honest, and thus appropriately humble, he or she will recognize that there is much more to be grateful for than there is to fear. Authentic rest becomes possible, even in the midst of harvest time, because it is informed by the palpable, concrete understanding that God provides. The means of divine care, whether in plant and animal cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death or in the kindnesses of kin and community, are ample and clear for those who care to notice.

Rest is not simply about stopping. When we stop from our work, what we are really doing is exhibiting a fundamental trust and faith in the goodness and praiseworthiness of God. Of course faith is not a guarantee of special divine favor. But we cannot delight in God’s provision for us if we are at the same time worried about whether or not God cares for us. Sabbath rest is thus a call to Sabbath trust, a call to visibly demonstrate in our daily living that we know ourselves to be upheld and maintained by the grace of God rather than the strength and craftiness of our won hands. To enjoy a Sabbath day, we must give up our desire for total control. We must learn to live by the generosity of manna falling all around us.


©2006 by Norman Wirzba. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.