Work and rest and being human

August 22nd, 2022

As the pandemic wound down, The Great Resignation showed no signs of slowing. In 2021 over 47 million people walked away from their jobs voluntarily. In March of this year 4.5 million more told their bosses to take this job and, well, “I quit.”

During the pandemic, tech companies emptied out their office spaces in favor of remote work. Using laptops and mobile phones, employees labored away at home on their individual projects and met with their teams using Zoom. Once the covid numbers declined, corporations called people back to their cubicles. Workers rebelled.

There are lots of reasons for this. A desire for better work environments. A demand for higher wages. The appeal of flexible schedules. And I would like to think that there’s a deeper reflection going on. What does and should work mean in the life of a human being? How can our work be a part of being the human we yearn to be?

It’s the sort of question we’ve needed to ask for a long time. Let’s face it, too many of us derive our sense of worth—and respect the relative worth of other people—on the basis of work. I am what I accomplish, the kind of job I hold, the career success I’ve achieved, the salary I draw. You are too. At least, that’s the toxic lesson that many of us absorb from our social, economic ecosystem.

As it turns out the Bible imparts a radically different message about what it means to be human and the healthy, holy place of work in human existence. 

For starters—that is, in the first chapter of Genesis—humans are created in the image of God.

And what we see about God is that God creates fish and birds, sun and moon, lions and tigers and bears and people. God does all of this just so that those creatures can enjoy being precisely what they are designed to be. To put it another way, God is love.


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Love is hard work. It takes lots of energy. So it only stands to reason that, after six days loving everything into being, God would rest. And since we human beings are created in the image of God, we’re supposed to follow God’s lead on this rest thing. As you may know, this is the origin of the idea of the Sabbath.

Unfortunately, we’ve mostly misunderstood what Sabbath is all about. If we slow down at all, what we mostly do is take a day off work. And this leads us to one of two basic misconceptions about the Sabbath.

The first misconception is that we’re taking a day off in order to recharge our batteries. In other words, what makes life meaningful is the work we do on all those other days. We get a break only because it makes us more useful earners and achievers and producers. Cosmically speaking, each of us has to earn our keep. Without work, we’re nobody.

Second, we just work for the weekend. Any work we do is toil for the sake of the pleasure we can have when we’re not back in the salt mines. Sabbath, in other words, is basically me-time. My ultimate goal is pleasure. Work is a necessary evil. A more or less dreary time suck. All things considered, I would rather be on the golf course, in the bass boat, or collecting sea shells.

None of this is what the Sabbath is about. As the image of God, we do have work to do. That central work is love. But what we tend to forget is that the love we have to give has been freely given to us by God. 

We are the image of God. Not God. We are radically dependent upon a the source of our very existence at every instant. That’s what it means to be a creature. A being who has been created by and is sustained by a being greater than ourselves. 

So, as Walter Brueggemann tells us, “[Sabbath] is a pause that permits us to reflect on who we are.” (see Sabbath as Resistance) Or, as a spiritual director once told me, “Remember that God is God and you are not.”

Crucially, this is not an insight meant to put us in some diminished place in the universe. On the contrary, it reminds us of our infinite worth. As Anita Amstutz puts it, “The Sabbath imperative is to not accomplish or initiate anything, refuting the belief that you have to “do something” to be worthy.” (from Soul Tending: A Journey into the Heart of Sabbath)

Observing the Sabbath sets us free from the world’s economic hamster wheel, from the demands of achievement culture, from our own control needs, and from the siren call of hedonism.

Jesus was clear that Sabbath practice is liberating. On a Sabbath day at synagogue Jesus healed a woman who had been suffering a disabling back ailment for 18 years. Importantly, Jesus tells her, “You are set free.” (Luke 13:10-17)

A religious leader objected. In his view, Jesus was violating the Sabbath by working. He told the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

Jesus responded, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

In other words, you’re missing the point. We observe Sabbath to remind ourselves that we are the beloved creatures of God. That reminder liberates us from the bondage of our everyday forgetfulness of who we are and what our lives are all about.

As my friend Lauren Winner reminds us, the Christian practice of Sabbath is not so much about a day as it is about a person. We find our rest in friendship with Christ. She puts it like this in Mudhouse Sabbath:

“I am not suggesting that Christians embrace the strict regulations of the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. Indeed, the New Testament unambiguously inaugurates a new understanding of Shabbat. In his epistles, Paul makes clear that the Sabbath, like other external signs of piety, is insufficient for salvation. As he writes in his letter to the Colossians, ‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you . . . with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.’”

In our friendship with Jesus we receive the love that empowers us to do the work we were created to do. Whether we are teachers or metal workers, priests or doctors, janitors or bankers, that work is the same. It’s the work of love.


This essay originally appeared at Jake Owensby's blog, and is reprinted with permission.

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