Theology, Society & Culture

Letters to Kanyaganyago: A Sabbath Rest is More than Doing Nothing

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Dear Kanyaganyago,

I hope you have been well. Since you came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, we have not been able to catch up and talk.

The global pandemic has also not helped the situation. But I promise to send you an occasional letter to address some of your concerns as a new believer.

Before I talk to you about what Christians call the ‘Sabbath’, allow me to tell you how I have been lately. For the last two months, I have been studying Biblical Greek or Koine Greek. This has been an intensive class where courses that generally take three months are covered in four weeks.

As a slow person, I don’t work well with intensive classes. Even worse is that my relationship with biblical languages is terrible.

My fear right now is the uncertainty of what things will look like in the next two or three weeks. Even when I do well on the exam, for some strange reason, my heart starts to race. I begin to ask questions like: “What if I don’t pass the class?” “What if I don’t get a good enough grade?”

Here in seminary, they tell us grades are not that important. It sounds like a relief, especially when it comes from a professor, but the reality of the statement is that there is not much truth in it; otherwise, grades would be eliminated altogether.

Now to the topic at hand.

Why it is Hard to Observe the Sabbath

You have been wondering why you should stop working at least once a week to take a sabbath rest. You are right when you say that we should do it because God commands us so. But I want to take some time and make a few things clear to you regarding sabbath. This is just a letter, I may not be able to talk about everything that I have to say about the topic today, but I will in subsequent letters.

When most older people, especially men, approach their age of retirement, they complain about losing a sense of purpose. They have been working for over forty years, and now all that is left to do is wake up in the morning and do absolutely nothing.

Part of who they are is the job they have been working for decades.

It is even harder to tell someone to rest for a day when all they can see is a laundry list of tasks, responsibilities, and obligations begging to be taken care of.

Isn’t it a sign of irresponsibility to neglect work of a day in the name of a sabbath rest? Doesn’t rest somehow lengthen the task at hand? I mean, a two-hour job may not be completed until the next day. All these are legitimate questions, but the problem is that these questions miss the point.

Kanyaganyago, your problem is not that you are not as efficient as you want to be; instead, it is this: you are allowing your work to tell you who you are, and what you can or cannot be. You are turning to your job to tell you something good about you so you can feel good about yourself.

Most people will not admit that they spend their entire life thinking that everything is fine so long as they work. They believe they can be something if they do something. Their whole assurance of being who they hope to be is invested in work. In fact, some will say that they will rest when they die.

The challenge, my friend, is that the work you do was never meant to tell you who you are, intrinsically. It may say to you that you are a hardworking person but reducing your inherent worth to subjective qualities like hard work is tantamount to devaluing who you are as an image-bearing child of God.

Now, the question is, how does rest solve this problem?

Well, it doesn’t. Rest, like work, is not intelligent enough to tell you who you are. In fact, it can be as damaging as the work you are avoiding. The key, therefore, is to look at rest as a vehicle used by God to focus you on him.

Let me give you an analogy.

Look at your Smartphone

I am aware that you recently bought your first smartphone five months ago. Unlike the old feature phone, you had, smartphones require a certain level of care as you will find out. My smartphone occasionally heats up, and then the applications start to freeze. This happens typically after extended usage.

I then restart the phone to try and remedy the situation. You see, because several applications can run simultaneously in the background, they leave the phone exhausted since it was made to accommodate just a handful of active applications at a particular time. Therefore, when I restart the phone, it destroys all those background operations so that its system can breathe again.

It may say to you that you are a hardworking person but reducing your inherent worth to subjective qualities like hard work is tantamount to devaluing who you are as an image-bearing child of God.

Nuwamanya Mategyero

On restart, the phone will be faster and more efficient. But that is not the point of the analogy.

Here is the point: when the phone is switched off, when its phonebook, or camera, browser, email app cannot work, at that moment, the phone is of no use. Its usefulness is in its ability to carry out all the functions that are expected of a phone. So, to any regular human being, that phone is useless—until it is switched back on.

But not to its owner.

You see, Kanyaganyago, what that phone is, and what it can become is a reality present and active in the mind of its owner. It may be switched off, but the owner knows, even when the apps are not running, that it is her phone; that it is indeed a phone capable of all things a phone can do.

What that phone is, is not in its ability to function but in the fact that in the mind of its owner, it is still a phone even when it is not functioning.

The same is true of you and God—your owner. When you rest, you are rebelling against an entire culture which looks to things like work, money, girls—yes—girls, boys, technology etc. to tell them who they are or what they can be.

To rest is also to decide that work, however important it might be, cannot be the thing that informs your very existence. Because, in the mind of God, you are known, loved, and secure—minus your work. You don’t have to work to be, you already are, without any work.

Rest is a Gift from God

The preacher in Hebrews chapter four draws on the salvation history of the people of God, Israel, to show that rest—what he calls the ‘Sabbath Rest’—was a promise from God. He also says that it takes faith to enter that rest.

This, my son, is not the way we look at rest. We do not consider it a promised gift from God that we take in faith. It is not something we do when we have nothing to do. Instead, it is an act of worship in reverent obedience to God. The preacher draws on the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 95 to show that the children of Israel did not enter God’s rest [for them] because they still doubted a God who had (literally) moved heaven and earth to prove to them that they were secure in him. They chose to disregard his presence among them by doubting his ability to keep them safe.

That anticipation is an endeavour of faith.

Nuwamanya Mategyero

When you think about it, you will notice that the children of Israel did not just fear the giants they saw. They, in admitting that they stood no chance against these giants, were saying that the God who led them out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, giving them free-oven-fresh bread from heaven, etc. would not deliver on his promise of giving to them the land he had promised to their ancestors. They were making God a liar.

Kanyaganyago, think of it this way: this Eternal God who created this world, and redeemed it from sin in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ has called you in faith to find life in him. Praise the Lord that you have heard him and now know him. But this is not the end. He promises to come again and make all things new (see Rev 21:1-8). This means that you are being saved; that you are on the journey to that Sabbath rest and that God who started this work is committed to completing it (Phil 1:6).

This is where the Israelites were at when they stopped to believe that God would complete “the good work he had started in them.” As the scriptures say, So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” (Ps 95:11).

I want you to know, my son, that the only thing that will ever have anyone cast away from the saving presence of God is unbelief. The failure to trust in God’s redeeming grace is what Jesus called “blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matt 12:31). In future, I will write to you addressing this topic. Remind me if I forget.

You may now be wondering how this relates to what I said to you earlier in this letter. Well, first of all, the Sabbath Rest which the preacher of Hebrews talks about is our eternal rest. The rest which I am recommending that you consider as an integral aspect of your faith is an anticipatory exercise which portends the final [R]est in Jesus, which is also the culmination of our salvation.

That anticipation is an endeavour of faith. It is the business of trust alone in the saving ability of God, even in your regular sabbaths. Do you now see the implications of taking a sabbath every week?

Going back to the analogy of the phone that I told you earlier: when you stop working and refuse to have your work tell you who you are, you are in faith saying that you will only listen to God’s view of who you are, and what you can be. That even when it is hard, and the giants are before you, you will look at him who is saving you.

I know that this is a long letter, Kanyaganyago, but I trust that it has clarified a few things for you. I also want to encourage you that while taking a sabbath is hard—and it will be for a long time—take comfort in the promise that you are “a sheep under his care” (Ps 95:7). You will occasionally fail, but don’t let that discourage you. There is new mercy for every morning. That mercy also covers your failure to rest.

Until next time, endeavour to live a restful life.

Grace and peace to you my friend, and son in the Spirit,

Nuwamanya-Mategyero

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About the author

Nuwamanya Mategyero

D. Nuwamanya Mategyero is a Ugandan Public Theologian, blogger, and social critic.

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