On the Divine Injunction to Just Relax

Was delighted to be asked to contribute a guest post to Amy Julia Becker’s Thin […]

David Zahl / 6.30.14

Was delighted to be asked to contribute a guest post to Amy Julia Becker’s Thin Places blog over at Christianity Today last week, something dealing with the topic of Sabbath rest. Those who read the whole thing may notice a few, er, congruencies with past Mbird posts, but I was pleased with how it turned out. Here are a few paragraphs from the second half:

wKP5fd8Talk to a member of the “greatest generation” about their childhood Sundays and they will invariably relate youthful frustrations about Sabbath prohibitions. They will tell about blue laws. About no baseball on Sunday. No movies. No shopping. To most of them, Sabbath did not represent an oasis of inactivity—it represented a resounding No, an inflexible Law put there to confound fun and frivolity. They describe an environment where what was intended for good had hardened into a mode of control and repression—legalism, if you will. The spirit had been lost, as it often is.

Today, the zeitgeist has shifted. What was once prohibition might now be heard as permission: to stop, take a breath, and remember that we are more than what we produce, more than our job title or bank balance. Sabbath, in this light, does indeed represent resistance to the dominating paradigm of more more more, an invitation to, well, the experience of grace. As Brueggemann writes,

The alternative on offer [in the Sabbath] is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God. To be so situated is a staggering option, because we are accustomed to being on the initiating end of all things. We neither expect nor even want a gift to be given, so inured are we to accomplishing and achieving and possessing.

As if we needed more proof that God is not an American! But seriously, there is something beautiful and true and deeply reorienting about the Sabbath. We should all take more advantage.

And yet, lest we mistake Law for grace, [the Fourth Commandment re: the Sabbath] is still a part of the Decalogue. The Law cannot engender what it commands. That is to say, as tempting as it may be, a louder, more articulate expression of divinely mandated rest will not inspire repose in those for whom work and ‘doing’ has become integral to their self-justification—which is all of us.

I can’t help but think about all the times when I’ve been told to “just relax.” Suffice to say, relaxation was not my first reaction. I mean, try telling a workaholic to stop working so hard. Often, they’ll give you a litany of reasons why scaling back isn’t an option. They may even do what many well-meaning Christians do: embrace the Sabbath while dodging its existential punch, i.e. find another, more ostensibly holy (or pleasurable) pursuit to occupy them on their day off. We replace one form of self-justification with another. Instead of making a contribution at our desk, we make a contribution on our bicycle, or with our kids, or at our church. Anything but “sit still and know that I am God”!

Perhaps the late, great Episcopal theologian Robert Capon put it best when he wrote, “if the world could have lived its way to salvation, it would have, long ago. The fact is that it can only die its way there, lose its ways there.” As much as we might wish it were so, the answer to internal restlessness—mine and yours—cannot be found in a new (or old!) recipe for godly living. Our hope lies in the same place it always has, not just in the God of Rest, but in the God of the Restless, the God who welcomes the weary and heavy laden, and whose glorious passivity on the cross justifies inveterate lawbreakers of all stripes.


P.S. While we’re self-promoting, there’s also a nice article about our work in the new issue of The Virginia Episcopalian (page 7).


4 responses to “On the Divine Injunction to Just Relax”

  1. Ken says:

    Roger (erstwhile Jim) McGuinn! Leave it to Mockingbird to find the perfect old nugget of a song for illustration.

  2. the Old Adam says:


    “die it’s way there”

    Baptism. There it is.

    And then…relax…in Christ.

    (doesn’t that bug you? – it still does me…and I sort of believe it…on my good days)

  3. Michael Cooper says:

    It is interesting that the French, not known for their Christian fervor of late, still for the most part cling to the idea of Sunday as a day free of much commercial activity, because they recognize that it is a protection for workers. Like the other nine commandments, it was given for our good. On the other hand, while shopping at my local Walmart, I once asked one of the broken-down old “associates” if Walmart was going to be open the following day, which was Easter Sunday. He looked at me with a smirk and said “Son, this is Walmart, we’re open every damn day of the year except Christmas day.” Of course, that is only because Walmart has already wrung all the dollars it can out of Christmas before Christmas day anyway.

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