The actor Hume Cronyn was making a movie once with Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was notorious as a fussbudget, so it was a surprise what happened one day. In Cronyn’s own words: “We were working on a problem with a scene. There were a lot of things to consider- lighting, staging, pacing and the like. We were up very late struggling to find the right way to do it. Finally, when we seemed close to the solution, Hitchcock…started telling jokes, silly, junior-high-type stuff, and got us all lost again. Later, I asked him why, when we were so close to solving the problem, did he choose that moment to get us off track by joking around. He paused, and then said something I’ll never forget. He said, “You were pushing. It never comes from pushing.”
It never comes from pushing.
That might serve as a good general principle for the life of faith. It never comes from pushing. There are some things that only grow in stillness, only flourish in rest. No one plants a garden and then keeps plowing the ground. You must wait. You must allow earth and sky and rain do what only they can do. It’s no different with us. Most of the things we need in order to be most fully alive never come from pushing. They grow in rest. Kindness, joy, compassion, friendship, courage, hope, trust, understanding. These are essential to character and community. Yet none of them takes root in busyness and striving. They tend, rather, to wither in that. Endless busyness disturbs the roots of virtue, and instead breeds suspicion, anger, frustration, despair, cowardice, loneliness. Without some way of replenishing the virtues, we easily become weary in doing good.
God made a man, Adam. He put him to work in His creation, pruning, harvesting, naming it. All was good and very good. Except one thing: Adam was alone. It was not good for him to be alone. It was, in fact, the first and deepest problem in the universe, a personal crisis that marred the whole creation. How do you solve a problem like that? Read Genesis 2:21. The solution is within Adam yet not accessible to him by his own efforts. The answer to his deepest need and longing emerges from within, but God can only draw it out through the man’s sleeping.
It never comes from pushing.
Sabbath is for stopping, for resting, for breathing. Sabbath is also for becoming. God has given us Sabbath so that we can be replenished in God’s purposes for us, freshly embrace our calling in Him. Sabbath is for becoming the person God designed you to be. Sabbath should change us. God’s intent in Sabbath is that we emerge from it changed. When we keep Sabbath well, we bear a little more the image of our creator and redeemer. Often our attempts to imitate God go in the wrong direction. We try to be God, when the command is to be like him. And so we attempt to mimic the Almighty’s almightiness. We strive after omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence: to know all things, do all things, be all places. And we damage ourselves and often those around us. It’s the wrong way to imitate God. Sabbath is when we stop, we rest, and we remember that God is God, and we can’t be like him in omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence. But if we rest in Him and trust in Him, we will become like Him in character: in grace, patience, justness, mercy, goodness. The irony here is that we imitate God most closely when we become most child-like – not when we strut and swagger and bellow, but when we are smallest, weakest, most dependent. It is only when we stop trying to be God that the possibility opens for us to become most like God.
It never comes from pushing.
Sabbath-keeping is the act of being child-like long enough to become Christ-like. It is the act of ceasing and resting deeply enough for the hand of God to draw out of us that which we need most, which is paradoxically in us already yet inaccessible by our own efforts. Be still, and know he is God. Sleep, and let Him give you that which you need most. But make no mistake: Sabbath is meant to change you. The Hebrew prophets flung burning criticism against the Israelite people concerning the Sabbath. Jesus hurled stinging rebuke at the Pharisee’s about the Sabbath. Paul spewed fiery denunciation on the legalists over the Sabbath. But none of them accused the people of failing to keep the Sabbath. Indeed, the people were often fanatical and excessive in keeping it. The rebuke of the prophets, Jesus, the Apostle Paul distilled to this: you don’t look any different on the other side of it. God has given you a day for rest and rejoicing, intending that you gain more of His heart and grace and compassion. But dawn breaks on the new day, and nothing’s changed. You’re just the same as when you started.
That’s the Prophet Amos’s complaint. Read Amos 8:4-6…”Hear this – the Sabbath ought to break your heart for the poor, and instead you come out just as greed-driven and slave-driving as ever.” And that’s Isaiah’s complaint. Isaiah denounces the Israelite’s practice of fasting, saying that they had failed to truly fast because they didn’t change. A true fast, Isaiah says, teaches us to “loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free… to share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe him…” (Isaiah 58:6-7). A true fast makes us more Christ-like. But then Isaiah, concluding the matter, suddenly shifts from fasting to Sabbath-keeping, and through him God makes this remarkable promise: Read Isaiah 58:13-14.
True Sabbath-keeping releases the fullness of God’s promises to us. How? Why? Because resting in God and in God’s provision is a primary means through which God makes us more like Him. Jesus’ complaint against the Pharisee’s is that they missed this and so missed the whole purpose of the Sabbath. Read Luke 13:15-16. Sabbath is intended to set us free from that which binds us, from the devil’s snares, from that which keeps us from being what God intends us to be.
The Apostle Paul weighs in as well. Writing to the Colossians, he warns them about those who keep the Sabbath rigorously but miss its true purpose. Read Colossians 2:16-17. Strict Sabbath observance, or any religious practice, is not the point. These are only shadows: they capture in a rough way the shape of the thing itself, but lack the substance, and by definition exist only by a canceling-out of the light. Don’t devote yourself to the mere form, the rules, the shadow. That’s like thinking you can have a relationship with someone by relating to their shadow. The Sabbath is the shadow; the real thing is Jesus Christ. Sabbath-keeping is never for the sake of Sabbath-keeping. It is for the sake of knowing Christ, of growing in intimacy with and imitation of Him. There’s a very simple test about whether we are truly keeping the Sabbath or not. The test is this: Sabbath should change us. It should change us more into God’s intention for us. It should make us more like Jesus.
I heard the story of a mother whose son was hyperactive and attention-deficit. She tried everything to change him, to calm him. Drugs. Therapy. Discipline. It all failed. Finally, in utter desperation, she grabbed him one day in the mayhem of one his eruptions, and held him in a tight and loving embrace, singing, speaking words of consolation and affection to him, pressing his head to her chest, rocking him. He thrashed, twisted, squirmed, then quieted. He rested in her arms. And, when she set him down, he was changed. Now, every time he trips out, that’s what she does. She explains: “I do it long enough for him to remember who he is.” Sabbath is this: God holding you long enough that you remember who you are. You’re His, and you shall be like Him.