This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
Nearly ten years ago, as a college pastor, I toiled nearly eighty hours a week doing the “work of the Lord.” Every crisis was my crisis. Every complaint my problem. Everything and everyone came to me. No boundaries. No rhythms. No intention. No rest. I knew there was a problem when I started hoping I would burn out. Burn out offered a way out to all the insanity. Though I had never thought it possible, I was, in Paul’s words, beginning to “weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). I constantly got sick, my marriage was struggling, and my ministry became misery as I went frantically from crisis to crisis.
Flannery O’Connor has this little throwaway line where she speaks of a priest who is “unimaginative and overworked.”* That was me. There was only one problem: the ministry was thriving. People were getting baptized. Students were repenting. The group was growing. It all came to a head one Saturday morning. After an eighty-hour workweek, I scheduled an appointment with a student in our college ministry for 10am that Saturday. Having not slept well for over a month, I missed my appointment, not even hearing the sound of my alarm. I woke up to a voicemail on my phone:
“How could you miss this appointment? Pastors shouldn’t miss appointments. You have failed me.”
I had become a need filler—a Christian handyman, available to everyone and everything but the Lord my God. Standing there, I nearly broke my flip phone over my knee and threw it against the wall. I had been working tirelessly only to let one more person down. I couldn’t go on like I had been. By the sovereign grace of God, I had been reading a book by pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson. In the book, I discovered something I had completely ignored in ten years of Bible reading—this thing called the Sabbath. Peterson discussed how one day a week he would say no to ministry demands, and go on hikes, eat good food, read poetry, and meet with God. I was intrigued. Was this not a waste of time? Was he not wasting his time on selfish endeavors? Then it clicked.
Up until this time, I had thought Sabbath-keeping was selfish. And I thought that if I did it was a sign of weakness. Then, I had the epiphany of a lifetime: in helping everyone else, I had forgotten myself. I had become the preacher of the gospel who needed the gospel himself. Or, worse yet, I subconsciously thought God wanted me to forget about myself so I could serve others. But that is not the gospel. Jesus loves me too. I could love others only to the extent that I could recognize God’s love for me. I could only see to the needs of my community to the extent to which I admitted my own needs. I could only care for God’s people to the extent that I would allow Him to care for me. In forgetting all this, I had neglected to care for the body God had given me, the spirit He breathed into me, this soul which He molded with His own hand.
Wisdom prevailed; I admitted my limits. It was one of the first “not goods” in my life where I recognized I had a deep, human, God-created need. In living for everyone else, I had been trying to be omnipotent and omnipresent; God had never intended me to be either. Jesus himself went into the mountains and prayed to the point that even his disciples could not find him. Jesus ate. Jesus drank. Jesus slept. He took care of himself. And never once was Jesus hurried from place to place, controlled by a busy schedule. Jesus lived a rhythm completely different than anyone around him. The rhythm of his life was, in itself, a prophetic act against the rhythms of the world.
I became a workaholic chiefly because I hadn’t allowed the grace of Jesus to reside in the depths of the caverns of my soul. As I read Peterson, one question came back to me over and over again: How can I preach salvation by grace when my life is built on an altar of workaholism?** Sabbath is God’s eternal way of helping us worship our good God, not to worship the good work he has given us to do.
Sabbath protects us from what Hilary of Poitiers called irreligious solicitudo pro Deo—”a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”*** Thus the Sabbath dissipates our desire to take ourselves too seriously by rightly taking God seriously in worship. Sabbath is that day we are reminded that we are full of God’s Spirit, not full of ourselves.
My family started to practice the Sabbath. In the years since taking this first step, my family and I have become avid, albeit imperfect, Sabbath-keepers. One day a week, my family turns all the screens off, lights some candles, prays, and invites the God of Sabbath to bring us rest. This practice, which we do far from perfectly, has saved my marriage, my ministry, my faith, and I might even say, my life.
Once you get a taste of Sabbath, there is no going back.
* Quoted in Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg (United States: Orbis Books, 2003). 86.
** This is a question Eugene Peterson asks.
*** As defined in Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 109. I appreciate the words of Walter Brueggemann who connects God’s Sabbath with his own confidence: “The celebration of a day of rest was, then, the announcement of trust in this God who is confident enough to rest. It was then and is now an assertion that life does not depend upon our feverish activity of self-security, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us simply as a gift.” Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2010), 35.
Dr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at Portland and Fuller Seminaries, including a number of other universities and Bible colleges. He is the lead mentor of a Doctor of Ministry program on the Holy Spirit and Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He is the director of Blessed Earth Northwest, a center that helps think creatively and strategically around creation care issues in the Pacific Northwest. He also serves as director of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance—a consortium of Christian higher-ed schools that are thinking strategically about Christian training in creation care. A.J. is the author of The Dusty Ones (Baker), Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology (JPTSup, Deo), and Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker Academic). You can find his website and blog at www.ajswoboda.com, or follow him on Twitter @mrajswoboda.