From disorientation to reorientation: Turning forced isolation into Sabbath experiences

April 2, 2020

These are disorienting times. Due to COVID-19, our professional, relational and recreational routines as American Christians have been disrupted by quarantines and social distancing. In our typically fast-paced world, it feels strange when things suddenly come to a halt. But what if God is using our disorientation for reorientation? What if, amid the coronavirus pandemic that now envelops us, we can rediscover the importance of Sabbath?

Millenia later, the Sabbath command still has the power to reorient us in three directions: upwardly, inwardly and outwardly.

Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word “to cease” or “to stop working.” In Jewish tradition, it was a full day each week dedicated to rest and prayer. Observing the Sabbath was the fourth – and most detailed – of the Ten Commandments. In modern American Christianity, Sabbath is probably one of the least kept commandments. Many view it as legalistic and obsolete.

But Sabbath is a practice commanded repeatedly by God in the Old Testament and affirmed centuries later by Jesus in the New Testament. This raises the question: What could Sabbath mean for us today?

Sabbath as reorientation toward God and self
The commandment recorded in Deuteronomy is explicit:

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female slaves, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do” (5:12-14, NIV).

Millenia later, the Sabbath command still has the power to reorient us in three directions: upwardly, inwardly and outwardly.

Upwardly, Sabbath redefines how we are to understand God. The call to Sabbath is a call to stop, which involves deep trust. Stopping requires us to let go of our control and our belief that the world will fall apart without us, which is definitely a humbling posture. This posture challenges us to recognize that God is Sovereign, active and in control. Stopping also helps us to recognize the relationality of God – that God, our Creator, designed the rhythms of the universe to include a time of regular and intentional communion between Creator and creation.

Inwardly, Sabbath radically redefines how we are to understand ourselves. In a world that tells us that our worth is defined by our works, Sabbath serves as a countercultural command. Sabbath strips away the notion that a person’s worth is defined by their activity and instead affirms that our worth is not in doing; it is in being.

Sabbath as reorientation towards others
The outward dimension is often an overlooked part of Sabbath. Recognizing that a person’s worth is in their being and not in their doing should not only transform how we view ourselves but also how we view others. It should reorient our “outward” connection with others. It’s tempting to value our neighbors based on their ability to contribute to us, or to society or to the economy. Sabbath reminds us that all people have worth beyond their economic or social value.

This is not only true of our family (“your sons and daughters”) but also people under our care economically (“male and female slaves”) and politically (“foreigners living among you”).

God’s command is clear: We are called to promote and protect Sabbath for all those around us so that everyone can have the chance to experience God’s gift of rest. This includes, or rather emphasizes, protecting Sabbath for the vulnerable who have less control over their time due to social and economic forces.

“Sabbath reminds us that all people have worth beyond their economic or social value.”

God called the Israelites to uphold a command that required them to consider the situations of all people, not just their own. The Israelites were to be a community of justice that materially provided for the poor, destitute and vulnerable (Deuteronomy 15, Leviticus 19:33-34, Isaiah 58:6-11, James 1:27). Providing all people the physical resources they needed to survive the mandated rest from work was essential to this lifestyle.

Sabbath as a lesson from COVID-19
Many people across the globe have been forced to “stop working” in response to COVID-19. I wonder what God might reveal to us if we use this crisis to ask some deep questions about God, ourselves and others:

•In relation to God, do we truly believe that God is good, sovereign and in control? Amid the chaos, are we rediscovering ways to enter into communion with God?

•In relation to self, are we experiencing doubts about self-worth and identity now that our work has changed or even stopped? Are these doubts fed by the notion that our worth comes solely from our productivity rather than our identity as a child of God?

•In relation to others, do we recognize and validate the worth of others even when our social and economic encounters with them have shifted? In a country where minimum wage workers need 2.5 full-time jobs to afford rent, are we actively striving toward a society where others have the ability to take required time off without the undue burden of financial hardship that would devastate their livelihoods?

These are disorienting times. But in this midst of the chaos, I pray that God reorients us to actively seek a future in which our relationship with God and with others more closely resembles the Kingdom of God.
Julia Wallace
This article first appeared in Baptist News Global.