Why Our World Needs the Sabbath

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy...Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” — Deut. 5:12-14

“If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” If you’ve ever heard that maddening one-liner, you may have spent some time in the flurry-fed world of service or retail. Then again, those industries don’t have a monopoly on encouraging frenzied, harried, and hectic lives. We’re all a little bit in love with the activity of looking busy. Not all busyness is fake, put-on-a-show busyness. We do, after all, live in a 24/7 consumer world. It’s all online. It’s all one click away. Convenience is king. And when you don’t have to leave home anymore to do your shopping, that gives you a couple more hours to...well, be more productive, of course. Or at least to feel more productive.

Remember Black Friday? That grim, morning-after-Thanksgiving ritual, when people routinely trampled each other in Walmart parking lots, desperate to grab a TV six inches bigger than the three they had at home? One positive fruit of our round-the-clock, lights-always-on economy is that Black Friday (and its dehumanizing carnage) has dissipated… but only because now it’s Black Everyday. Just because you don’t see a person anymore when you shop, doesn’t mean employees at Amazon aren’t working overtime during the holiday season.

It’s reductionistic, of course, to lay all the evils of our over-worked society at the feet of big companies or soulless capitalism. The fear, greed, and pride which drive our society can grip any one of us. We are all complicit in empowering the draining, soul-crushing taskmaster of overwork. We all contribute our small offerings of constant consumption, and compulsive late-night email-checking. With that being said, we can’t ignore that capitalism has a history of trampling the worker. Sweat shops, child labor, horrific meat-packing conditions which inspired Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Amazon workers peeing in a bottle so they don’t get fired—these are some of the less glamorous contributions of the industrial revolution.

This does not mean that capitalism is evil or the free market should be abolished (alternative models of top-down market control, like we’ve seen in Venezuela or Cuba, don’t exactly stand out as sterling jewels of human rights). But it does mean that we need to be conscious of the economic system we’re operating in (including its flaws), and to the extent that we have a say, look out for the dignity workers. Christians should labor to acknowledge and protect our God-given need to rest. When price is always and exclusively the bottom line, human beings become expendable resources. The Market cares only for maximizing profits driven by supply and demand. In the dynamics of this producer-consumer relationship, workers are at best a secondary factor. If market analysis is the only factor an employer uses to evaluate worth, then a person equates to so many dollars and cents. This is a direct affront against the God-given worth and dignity placed on human beings above all the rest of creation.

Businesses have the right to turn a profit, but a Christian business must have a wider concern. A Christian would not engage in false advertising simply because it makes a buck, would they? It’s that seeking of a wider concern, an appreciation of transcendence, that Christian businesses want to evoke when they brand themselves with the adjective “integrity.” As a principle for Christian businesses, integrity means more than the avoidance of price-gouging; it means adopting and implementing a highly counter-cultural policy on rest.

Corporate PR initiatives may offer platitudes promoting worker welfare, but at whose expense? If you are working in an hourly or contractual basis, the burden of taking rest falls on you, an employee who may be struggling to make ends meet. In that employee’s case, if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid. It strikes me as rather un-Christian to leave that person to worry about his own rest, and chalk it up as freedom. Obviously, no boss can force his employees to rest. God offers his people the Sabbath as a gift. We can refuse that gift to our own detriment. But God makes the offer. In fact, He pleads, enjoins, and cajoles his people to accept and honor this gift of rest.

Chick-fil-A has long stood out as downright weird in their practice of closing on Sundays, and thus foregoing one of the most profitable days of the week. That’s not prescriptive, and it wouldn’t work for many companies. But what if employee rest was a higher priority? What if part-time workers accrued one hour out of seven as paid time off? Or for that matter, even one hour out of every ten, or fifteen? What sort of difference would that emphasis on rest, and honoring of the Sabbath have in a corporate culture? What might that do to develop company loyalty and wellbeing? What sort of witness might that have to our God-given human rhythms, finitude, and the message of rest which Jesus came to proclaim?

Christian leaders have an opportunity to offer a taste of God’s grace by offering a taste of rest, something central to His character and purpose.

Read previous articles in this series here.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.

Related Links

Podcast: "Keep the Sabbath Holy"

"A Weekly Honeymoon" by Stephen Spinnenweber

"Through the WCF: Chapter 21.8" by Derek Thomas

"The Exception and the Rule" by Nick Batzig

Entering God's Rest by Ken Golden 
(also available digitally here)