August 5, 2010

Sabbath for Me

Category: Ethics,Family :: Permalink

This morning, I finished reading Keri Wyatt Kent’s Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity.  I read it because I was interested in any suggestions she might make for making Sunday a restful and enjoyable day, but also because I was interested in seeing her approach to and defense of a Sabbath.

She talks a bit about the Fourth Commandment, though she stresses that she doesn’t want to fall into legalism and often seems to equate rules with legalism, which would surely be strange in other areas of life, wouldn’t it?  “‘Thou shalt not murder’ gives us a good impetus to avoid taking other people’s lives.  But we don’t want to get bogged down in all sorts of rules, such as ‘Don’t pull the trigger when the gun is pointing at your wife.’  We don’t want to be legalistic.”  Why are modern evangelicals so scared of commandments?

Most of her book, in fact, seems to me to ground a practice of “Sabbath-keeping” in the benefits such a practice has for us and for our families.  I suspect that’s an approach that many books on Sabbath take these days (as opposed to older books that grounded Sabbath keeping primarily on God’s command).  So she talks about the dangers that come from a lack of rest, the way in which even a workout coach tells you that your muscles have to work and then rest again and again to grow strong, how taking a day to rest can empower you for the week to come, and so forth.  A lot of that is good and true, but I wonder about this whole approach.

Sometimes you find the same approach taken in defenses of other things that Scripture requires.  For instance, when asked to justify “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” a Christian might go on to say that God knew, when He gave the commandment, all the bad consequences of such behavior.  Fornication and adultery lead to all sorts of misery.  They damage us and they damage other people, for generations to come.  The implication is that God decided to forbid such behavior because He knew that it would be bad for us or for others.

But it is God who so rules the world that there are such consequences — and not just consequences, but outright judgments.  Imagine telling a child that he shouldn’t backtalk.  “Why not?” the child asks.  “Well,” you say. “I’m telling you this for your own good.  Backtalking leads to all sorts of bad consequences.”  “Like what?”  “Well, like a sore bottom.”  “Wait a minute,” the child might respond.  “If I have a sore bottom as a consequence of backtalking, that’s only because you’re going to spank me.  How about this?  I backtalk and you don’t spank me.  Now is it okay to backtalk?”

It’s not as if God is locked into a certain world He doesn’t control, a world in which fornication automatically hurts people, so that the best He can do is warn people not to commit fornication because of those consequences.  The consequences don’t just happen; they happen because He sends them.  He rules things so that there are consequences.  He could have done otherwise, but He doesn’t want to.

And so, when He forbids something or commands something else, He doesn’t do so because He foresees that the one behavior will lead to misery and the other to happiness.  It is not the consequences that make adultery evil; adultery would be evil even if there were no consequences.  And there are consequences only because of He so rules that there will be.

So with the Fourth Word.  God didn’t command His people to “remember the Sabbath” because He knew that if He didn’t they’d get all tuckered out.  After all, God Himself “Sabbathed” on the seventh day of creation, and it wasn’t because He needed a break from His hard work.  Nor did Adam, who had been around for a little less than a day at that point and hadn’t done any real work yet.  That Sabbath wasn’t about catching your breath after a hard week’s work; it was about drawing near to God at the center of the world to say “Thank you” and to be nourished by Him before going to work.

If we want to defend “Sabbath keeping” today, we need to present a biblical argument, not a pragmatic one.  If we replace “Do it because God says to” (which requires us to discuss whether Sabbath keeping really is required in the New Testament and if it is, in what form and what the divinely mandated rules for Sabbath keeping are — the very topics you don’t find in Kent’s book) with “Do it because it’s good for you,” don’t we end up making the Sabbath — or any other obligation we defend that way — really about ourselves and our own sense of personal fulfillment?  It’s good to go to church and take part in the service, this book says, but sometimes you might end up skipping church if your son has soccer — that is, if you’ve determined something else is just as or even more fulfilling for yourself than church would be today.  And then who really is the authority in our lives?

I’ll add quickly that I have a couple more beefs with this book.  First, it’s disconcerting to me to hear Eugene Peterson’s The Message quoted as if it is Scripture. No, Jesus did not say, “Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest” (Matt. 11:28, cited on p. 9).  Nor did He says, “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions” (Mt. 6:33, cited on p. 201).

Second, I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s approach to Scripture, which seems to find new meanings by drawing on (likely post-AD 70) rabbinic interpretations or … from who knows where?  For instance, it simply isn’t the case that (as Kent cites Bell as saying) the name YHWH is “actually four Hebrew vowels” (200).   Those are consonants.  It isn’t the case that “the name was so sacred, it was actually unpronounceable” (200).  True, the Jews stopped pronouncing the name, but we have no reason to think that it wasn’t pronounced by Moses or David or Malachi or any of the Jews in the Old Testament.  The failure to pronounce the name wasn’t a matter of obedience or because it was really too sacred to say.  God taught Israel to say it.  And where in the world does Bell get the idea that “the name of God … is the sound of breathing” (200)?

Third, several times in this book, Kent cites Jewish writers, as if the Jewish understanding of the Torah is really the correct one.  In the light of the things Jesus says about the Pharisees and their traditions and understanding that Judaism after AD 70 was quite different from anything Moses taught, I find this approach generally unhelpful.  Of course, the rabbis may shed light on Scripture as they expound it.  But I don’t assume that an interpretation is correct because it’s a Jewish interpretation.

That said, there are some suggestions for making Sunday a special day in your home, which Christian families might benefit from, as well as some practical tips on rest throughout the week.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:47 pm | Discuss (0)

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