The Challenging Gift of the Sabbath

by Carly VanDewark

All eyes are on me as I reach under the tree for the last present of Christmas morning. I remove the bow, carefully pull off the paper, and open the box. I try to hide my disappointment but my smile quickly fades. This is NOT the gift that I was hoping for. 

Presents can fall into a few different categories. While some are pleasant surprises, others are totally expected and come straight from a wish list. Funny gag gifts are exchanged between friends and quickly forgotten, while thoughtful gifts often become cherished possessions. Presents can elicit excitement and gratitude or require a feigned positive reaction. A gift can even be challenging to accept if the recipient believes they already have everything they need. In the midst of a hectic semester, I received such a gift: the Sabbath.

I was first challenged to observe a weekly day of rest after reading the creation story of Genesis. On the seventh day, God rested from His work. A trusted friend of mine pointed out that if God rested, I should too, and I could trust that the world wouldn’t fall apart in my absence. This began an adventure in discovering how to accept the good gift of the Sabbath when the job of a college student feels like it runs around the clock.

Sometimes I’m tempted to bring the gift of the Sabbath back to the store to exchange it for something else. Maybe it seems more reasonable to have one-seventh of a day of rest every day of the week. In my experience, this time has simply gotten merged into my nightly sleep or used as an excuse to pause my studying and eat a meal that I should already take the time to eat. Maybe it would be better to power through the 100 days of the semester and then catch up on sleep, restful activities, and fellowship with friends on the breaks from school. This is another common sentiment, but people simply were not made for that long stretch of work. God designed our human limits in accordance with His perfect plan for only six days of toil per week.

Sometimes I’m tempted to let the gift of the Sabbath collect dust in the back of my closet. For most of my life, this looked like believing a day of rest was for those who are less busy, those who opt in, or only the Jews of the Old Testament. Maybe a relaxing Sunday would be nice for someone in fewer AP classes. Maybe it was a good gift for me, but only an optional one. Maybe it was an outdated concept that wasn’t suited for modern society. I see my reasoning quite differently now. In high school, I desperately needed the Sabbath, as does any busy, overcommitted person. Furthermore, this good gift is a commandment for the people of God, remarkably found in the same list of the Ten Commandments as “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal.” And far from being outdated, the writer of Hebrews in the New Testament declares that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,” an invitation that still stands for us today (Hebrews 4:9).

This is not to say that the Sabbath is easy to practice; it is indeed a challenging gift. When deadlines pile up and procrastination pushes group projects into the weekend, I begin to think that I know better than God what the priorities and rhythms of my life should be. In those moments, I have found that the Sabbath is better in community, where others remind me of what is true. This Advent, as final exams wrap up and the shopping list grows, I will be meditating on Jesus’s invitation to this good gift in the Gospel of Matthew (11:28): “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Carly VanDewark is a senior at Duke University studying statistical science.

This article is part of the Duke Crux X UVA Bearings 2021 Advent Series, a collaboration between the two Augustine Collective Organizations.

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