Give Yourself a Break!
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 11, 1998


Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy
Matthew 12:1-13 It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath
Doctrine of the Lord #65 "Rest" means peace after temptations

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work. (Exodus 20:8-10)

It seems strange that God would have to command us to take a break. Don't we all want to take a break?

At this time of year especially, we think about taking a break. The holiday season is over, with all its hectic shopping and cooking and entertaining. By now most of the Christmas decorations are put away, and we can all sit back a bit and take a breather . . . until we start thinking about this and that project that we put off "until the holidays are over." During the holiday season, when we have so many things that have to get done, other things that aren't getting done build up. And up. . . . And up. . . . Before we know it, there isn't much of a break after all, because as soon as the rush is over, those other undone projects reassert themselves, and we keep right on going.

At least that is my experience--and I suspect it is the same for many people. During the fall, I kept talking about "after the New Year" this and that was going to get done. Now I'm saying "After I get back from Florida," or "Maybe by February things will calm down." But I have a sneaking (and sinking) suspicion, based on years of past experience, that things will never calm down--at least, not by themselves. In the past, every time I have looked forward to some future time that there wouldn't be so many things clamoring to get done, when that fabled time came there were just as many things that needed doing. There certainly were just as many bills that needed to get paid!

The more I think about it, the more I realize why the Lord commanded us to take a break! We humans tend to work ourselves very hard. Even if we are not doing something that society considers to be work, we tend to push our bodies and our minds too far. Sometimes we work long hours. But sometimes we also play long hours. Far into the night, or just plain too much visiting and too many activities. Whether we're young or old, whether we have a lot of energy or a little, we tend to want to do just a little more than our bodies can comfortably do. Sometimes we really overdo it.

The Lord knows this about us. And the Lord knows that when we overdo it, we actually get less done, because we end out making ourselves too tired or too sick to do a really good job at whatever it is that we happen to be doing with our lives. It is largely an illusion to think that by overextending ourselves, we will get more accomplished.

The Lord does have to command us to take a break, because too many of us, left to our own ways, will rarely go easy enough on ourselves to give ourselves a break as often as we should. And this commandment is not put in some obscure footnote buried somewhere in the Levitical laws. It is placed squarely in the Ten Commandments--one of the Bible's most basic distillations of the core and essence of religious and spiritual law. In other words, the Lord is not just saying, "You know, it would really be a good idea to give yourself a break regularly." He is saying "GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK REGULARLY!!!"

For many of us, the literal meaning of most of the other commandments is not such a big problem. Killing doesn't appeal to us; we got over stealing not long after we got over childhood; our lies are mostly confined to little white lies--not the "false witness" sort of lies that really damage another person; not being jealous of other people who are better off than we are . . . well, that can sometimes be a challenge!

But taking regular time off from the activities of our lives to rest, recuperate, and especially to develop our spiritual life--for many of us that is a really difficult thing to do. There are simply too many things that have to get done. Our bills always seem to outrun our paycheck by just enough to keep us continually looking for that little extra bit of income. There's always something that needs fixing around the house or shop, always some job to do around the yard. And of course, there are always new toys (the grown-up variety) that we'd like to get our hands on, or new handwork projects that we're itching to do. If we have young children, that is a built-in all-day project--and older children and teenagers, for all their cherished independence, give us plenty of work to do as well.

This command to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy turns out to be quite a challenge. That is why the Lord made it a commandment, not just a suggestion.

Of course, many people these days don't go to church because they have to work that day, or it interferes with their other activities, or because they have taken to heart the resting part of the Sabbath, but not the part about it being a Sabbath to the Lord our God. Those of us who do make it to church on a regular basis have taken one valuable step toward keeping this commandment literally. And if we are genuine in our worship and eager in our desire to learn more about the Lord's teachings for our lives, we are taking a valuable step toward keeping this commandment spiritually as well.

That spiritual meaning of the Sabbath day of rest leads us to a different level of keeping this commandment; a different level of giving ourselves a break; a level that is often even more difficult than keeping it literally.

In Old Testament times, this commandment was largely interpreted on the literal level. The ancient Jews were forbidden to do any work on the Sabbath on pain of death. Even in earlier centuries in the Christian era, it was easy to have Sunday services that lasted for hours because most Christians weren't allowed to do much else on Sunday anyway.

But Jesus gives a very different interpretation of what the Sabbath is all about--and through his references to the Hebrew Bible, he showed that the seeds of this interpretation were present in Scripture all the time, if we had only looked for it. When some Pharisees saw Jesus and his disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath, they challenged Jesus: "Aren't you breaking the Sabbath by doing this?" Jesus responded by pointing out that if the law were interpreted in this literalistic way, then their most revered king--David--was a lawbreaker. Further, their own priests--who are supposed to be the most religious people of all--broke the Sabbath every week by doing their regular work on the Sabbath. (We ministers do appreciate being allowed to work on Sunday. . . .)

However, Jesus did not take away the old, overly literal interpretation of the Sabbath law without putting something deeper in his place. He was again challenged when he was ready to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath day. "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" they asked him. The question was not posed in order to learn something from him, but in order to accuse him. Once again, Jesus used their own practices to demolish their literalistic interpretation of Sabbath law. "If one of you has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath, won't you pull it out? Don't you realize that a human being is much more important than a sheep!" He concludes with words that hugely broaden the meaning of the Sabbath: "So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

The Sabbath is not primarily about literal resting from labors, Jesus teaches us. It is about doing good for other people. And yet, if we take a deeper look at the meaning of "rest," this does not change the meaning as much as we might think at first glance. Spiritually speaking, "rest," says Swedenborg, "means a state of peace when there is no temptation." This we can understand. After we have been struggling against some inner foe; after we have had some victory over one of the flaws in our character, over some hurtful way we act toward other people, we have a sense of rest and peace similar to the calm that descends after a battle is over. I remember how nice it felt when, as a teenager, I finally got over that insistent urge to argue every point with everyone whether the issue mattered or not. I had a new sense of peace within myself. It certainly was more enjoyable to have a conversation with other people . . . and I suspect that feeling was mutual!

But after he speaks of rest as inner peace after temptation, Swedenborg says something more cryptic. He says that this period of rest "represents a state of peace when goodness and truth join together within us." He seems to be talking about the same thing Jesus is when he says, "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Let's explore this a little further.

To put Swedenborg in more contemporary terms, when we are having our inner "six days of labor," our head and our heart are struggling both with each other and with the negative parts of ourselves that cause us to hurt other people and ourselves by the way we think and act. When we are in the throes of temptation, we have a divided mind, a mixed mind, a mixed-up mind. Our head says we shouldn't do that thing anymore--it's wrong! Our heart says that we love to do that thing. Or our heart says we're hurting someone, we should stop, but our head makes excuses for our unkind words and actions. We're really not together within ourselves, and the result is that we are not particularly effective in doing good and useful things for other people. We are too conflicted inside.

It is only when the part of ourselves that is pushing us toward what is good, right, and loving prevails that we able to have a unified mind--to be single-minded in doing the work that is in front of us. It is only when our hearts, minds, and spirits are working together that we feel the restfulness of peace within ourselves. And it is only when we have this inner peace of single-mindedness that we are able to seemingly effortlessly serve the needs of our fellow human beings in the way that the Lord teaches us. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, because it is only when we are spiritually at rest in following the Lord's path from our hearts, through our heads, and with our hands that we can genuinely do good things.

All of this may seem far removed from where we started--giving ourselves a break from the incessant demands of this earthly life. But we are not as far away as we may think. I have come to believe more and more strongly that we will not even be able to follow the Sabbath law of rest literally unless we make the effort to follow it spiritually as well.

Let me explain. As long as we are divided and conflicted in our spirits, we are never really at rest inside of ourselves. Even when we accomplish something that we believed would give us a great sense of achievement, the inner unrest continues; instead of feeling peace and contentment at our accomplishment, we feel a sense of let-down. We have finally achieved what we always thought we wanted to achieve, yet we still aren't happy! This, I believe, is behind the incessant demands that we put on ourselves to keep working, working, working. If that didn't satisfy us, then the next achievement will--the next raise, the next car, the next house, and so on. But we never will be satisfied, because we can only be at rest when we are at rest within ourselves. So we will continue to drive ourselves, never giving ourselves a real break from our labors, physically or spiritually.

However, once we have settled our minds and hearts on a unified path of following where the Lord leads us, then we can have our periods of rest--our periods of genuine inner Sabbath. Of course, we will still have our six days of labor. After all, we're not perfect, and there will always be more work to do on ourselves. But when we have chosen to follow the Lord, and have, with the Lord's help, overcome some nagging flaw in ourselves, we can know the true inner rest that comes from having our minds and hearts working together in loving and caring for those around us. And then, we may just give our bodies a break as well. Amen.



Music: The Meadow
1999 Bruce DeBoer