Reflecting on… Sabbath—Escapism or Strategic Withdrawal

“One might wonder, isn’t sabbath religious escapism from the responsibilities and troubles of this world?  An atheist once described his biggest problem with Christians: because they think of heaven as much as they do, they have essentially become useless on earth.  I do not disagree with him.  Does this mean that we stop thinking and hoping for heaven?  Heaven is why we stay in the world to serve the world around us.  Heaven is not escapism.  Neither is the Sabbath.  Sabbath, if desired, could easily be used as an escape hatch from reality.  But it is not an escape from the chaos of our lives; it is finding God in the chaos.  It is a day to cease our work of trying to fix or control our world.  We cannot ‘save’ the world.  To sabbath is to crucify our desires for control over the world.”

A. J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Non-Stop World, p. 58.

In Christian ministry, it is so easy to confuse the means with the end.  Think of all the heartache and broken relationships attached to what consultant Will Mancini calls lower room identities like programs, place, people and pastors.  These means are meant to serve the end of making disciples to the glory of God.  We so quickly lose sight of the end to worship the means.  Ever been in a church that went to war over a beloved, once fruitful program that was facing change or elimination to refocus on the end?  It happens in churches, but also families, communities, governments, etc.  It can happen with any good thing.  If something is good and pleasing we are prone to worship it.  So, it is with the practice of sabbath!

In introducing and coaching people in the practice of sabbath, I have stressed the importance of place—a location free of distraction.  My office—with reminders of all that needs to be done—is not a place for sabbath.  The same goes for most rooms in my home.  Even Rock River Retreat—a ministry I helped found—isn’t a sabbath place for me because I’m aware of all that needs to be done to make a sabbath for others.  This is why in my extended times of sabbath, I have used other retreat centers as my sabbath place.  If you’ve been on an extended retreat in the right place, one can easily see how sabbath can become escapism.  The peace, rest, connection with Christ through the word and communion with the Spirit is so rich and restorative, you grieve the thought of leaving.  If you’re not careful, you can begin to live for retreat instead of through retreat.  Living for retreat amounts to changing little about how we live between Sabbaths.  Sabbath or retreat is a gasp for air in striving to manage and control life from day to day.  A sabbath from living life on our own terms can become rest on our own terms—self-focused and self-indulgent.

In contrast, living through the practice of sabbath keeps the end in mind.  The term I prefer for sabbath is a strategic withdrawal.  We see this practice in the life of Jesus in both real time and in his faithfulness to regular sabbath observances (i. e. feasts) in the Jewish calendar.  A strategic withdrawal is both rest from the challenges and temptations of life in this world AND preparation to stay engaged with it.  In over twenty-five years of ministry since rediscovering the value of a strategic “break,” I have found one consistent fruit from these times—recalibrating my means to the end.  Sabbath has kept the events and practices of weekly living connected to the higher outcomes of being a disciple, husband, father and pastor.  A good sabbath invigorates me to run towards the mess and chaos of life, not from it.  Sabbath keeps me connected to the truth of my gospel identity—who I am in Christ—and not my performance-based identity—I am what I do, control or accomplish.  Sabbath reminds me that love of Christ for me is my motivation for loving broken and difficult people.  Sabbath reminds me that through trust in Christ and the power of the Spirit, I can be responsible without being controlling. 

Can sabbath become an escape mechanism?  Sure.  That is why I encourage people to practice with others or another more seasoned in its pursuit.  Done well, this strategic withdrawal yields good fruit in a chaotic world to the glory of God.

Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath, grant us the grace to neither resist sabbath with the excuse of escapism or to run to sabbath as escapism.  Both are responses to seeking to control our lives and not live out your will in it.  Bring us mentors and companions in practicing sabbath to the good end of bearing much fruit in your name!  Amen!