At a conference many years ago I heard the late Dr. Howard Hendricks, who was a professor at Dallas Seminary, tell a story of being picked up from the airport for a speaking engagement by a local pastor. This pastor, in the course of conversation in the car, droned on about how he worked hard for the Lord. He bragged about laboring seven days a week because, as he put it, “the devil never takes a day off.” Dr. Hendricks’ was known for his pithy comebacks, and so he calmly replied to the over-functioning pastor: “Gee, I didn’t know Satan was your model for ministry!”
Somehow pastors and committed church leaders and servants have gotten the wrong-headed idea that working long hours and doing ministry every day of the week with no break is godly. Needless to say, burn-out among church leaders is common. Every day pastors walk away from their churches never to enter vocational ministry again. Loyal church members might put so much effort into their ministries that eventually they quit, unable to do any more due to sheer overwork. The pressure of responsibility, fear of failure, perfectionist impulses, and the just plain stress of dealing with people and conflict can all contribute to crack-ups and breakdowns, both emotionally and physically. Those in leadership find the shame of failure too unbearable to let up on the gas pedal, and so keep going day after day worried that they might be letting someone down. But the irony is that the constant movement only leads to an eventual and abrupt stop.
There is, however, a very biblical answer: observe the Sabbath. And there is a clear theological reason for it: God himself rested from all his work. It sounds easy. It is anything but easy. Our society prizes hard work and self-sufficient behavior. To need a day, an entire day of Sabbath rest is counter-intuitive to our current Western cultural sensibilities. Some months back I asked my church to help me in keeping a Sabbath each and every week by contacting me and calling me, if at all possible, on the six days of the week that I am working. To be honest, it wasn’t easy for me to say. Furthermore, some of my parishioners didn’t like what I said. They mistakenly thought I must not like my job. People who don’t like their jobs have no problem staying away from work. But most pastors, including me, love what they do and enjoy being ministers of the Word. It is hard to stay away. Yet, if we are to take the Scriptures seriously, all of us, whether preacher or parishioner, pastor or pew-sitter, will avoid loading up our Sabbath day with all kinds of work. Instead, we will rest – really rest! We will use the time to restfully connect with and worship God, take leisurely walks with family, enjoy good friends over a meal, and, of course, delight in a well-deserved nap.
It is time to stop making excuses, engaging in ridiculous hermeneutical gymnastics, and offering crazy rationalizations for neglecting a very clear scriptural command: obey the Sabbath. For many a church leader, finding hope in the midst of darkness and seeing a light at the end of the tunnel begins with putting in the planner a weekly Sabbath to the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Wise and rightly ordered priorities come from well-rested Christians. The Sabbath affords an opportunity to know God in ways that we cannot on the other six days. So, may you rest well and know God better.