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The One Commandment We Quietly Ignore

Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, would agree that we should follow the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-21). In fact, the Ten Commandments are often referred to as foundational for all civil and moral law. Edwin Louis Cole once wrote, "The Ten Commandments have never been replaced as the moral basis upon which society rests." An atheist might dismiss the first three commandments, since they directly tie to one's belief in God, but the other seven are rather fundamental for the ongoing durability of society.

We know we should honor our father and mother. We know we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. And for those of us who do believe in God, we know we should have no other gods before the one, true God, and we know we should not have any idols in our lives.

But there is one commandment we very quietly ignore and hope that God doesn't notice: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). Perhaps we believe that since the Ten Commandments were given specifically to the Hebrews, Sabbath keeping was intended for Jews only. Fortunately, for the good of society, we don't apply that logic to the rest of the Commandments.

In the Hebrew, the verb form for sabbath, shabat, is almost identical to the noun, shabbat, and it means "to cease, stop, be at a standstill." So the Sabbath is a day set aside to cease and desist. But do we? The Sabbath is not the same thing as a "day off." I don't know about you, but when I take a day off, that's when I catch up on my "honey-do" list, run errands, and work on other projects. That's a far cry from what the Bible calls a sabbath rest.

The biblical context for the Sabbath is found in the creation story where "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested [shabat] from all his work that he had done in creation" (Genesis 2:3). Why would God rest? Not due to fatigue but due to completion. God completed His creative work, and He ceased. In the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, the reason given for observing the Sabbath is consistent with the creation account. We are to cease our work as a reminder that God ceased. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the reason to observe the Sabbath is different. We rest in celebration as we remember how God delivered the Hebrews from slavery.

Both reasons to observe a Sabbath are still needed in our own spiritual formation. We may not observe the Sabbath on Saturday (although some might), but setting a day aside to cease and celebrate connects us to the very structure God orders in the rhythm of creation and freedom. In Romans 14:5-6a, the Apostle Paul writes, "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day [whatever day it may be], observes it in honor of the Lord." Whichever day it may be, Sabbath keeping reminds us that our lives are not defined by our work. Our identity is not in our activity. Through Sabbath keeping we enter a weekly rhythm that requires intentionality in our action (work) as well as our inaction (cessation/celebration).

In describing the high value of Sabbath keeping, Eugene Peterson writes, "[The sabbath] is uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week we take ourselves far too seriously." Sabbath keeping affords us the opportunity to "quiet the internal noise so we can hear the still small voice of God" (Peterson).

So how do we "keep the Sabbath"? By keeping it simply. Don't make it complicated and wearisome. If you do, you're not going to be keeping it for long. Notice that the two biblical reasons for Sabbath keeping (to cease and celebrate) form the parallel sabbath activities of praying and playing. In Exodus, the Sabbath directs us to the contemplation of God which leads us to pray. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath directs us to the celebration of God which leads us to play. That's right, Christians can and should play! Unfortunately, if we do keep the Sabbath, we either become puritanical and eliminate play, or we become secular and eliminate prayer. Both are needed.

Here's the good news. There is no legal prescription of how to set aside a day in order to keep the Sabbath. What I challenge you to consider is to get into a weekly rhythm where you commit a half-day (and eventually a full day) where you pray and play. Don't make it complex. Once you set time aside--weekly--then PROTECT it, because your instincts and habits will try to force their way in to your emptied time and space. You will feel unproductive and wasteful, because we are taught that time is money.

There are no rules to preserving the sanctity of time. There is only a commitment to set aside time for being, not using. Enjoy the God-ordained rhythm of work and rest, and in your rest don't worry about "getting things done," only be responsive to what God has already done.


Working Out What God Works In

I don't see much written on the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude. More importantly, I don't see these disciplines practiced often in our busy culture. And I'm guilty as charged. Perhaps I'm a little more cognizant of this since we're in the season of "peace on earth," even though peace can be hard to find.

Years ago I read Richard Foster's classic book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. A few years after that, I came across Dallas Willard's book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Both books are excellent studies on how we work out what God works in. God works, produces, and provides us His grace that transforms us by the power of His Spirit, and we are to work out, grow up, and develop His gift of grace through our determination of the will. The Apostle Paul teaches us to "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). This is not "works salvation" as though we somehow earn favor with God by being good little boys and girls. No, the Apostle of Grace goes on to write that "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).

Thus, we work out what God works in. Spiritual disciplines are mere tools or practices where we align our actions (the physical) with our spirits (the spiritual) in order to become more like Jesus. We utilize the physical through activity (worship, serving, giving) or inactivity (silence, solitude, fasting) in order to grow spiritually. God often uses elements of the natural world to help us connect with the spiritual world. We eat bread and drink wine as earthly reminders of our spiritual reality of salvation through the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We are immersed in water as a visible sign of being buried with Jesus in His death and being raised to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). We participate in a physical, local expression of the church as part of the spiritual, universal church.

Silence and solitude work the same way. We intentionally become silent in order to listen. We intentionally withdraw from others in order to enter deeper communion with the Triune God. Both disciplines, reflective of all spiritual disciplines, require effort. I can't tell you the number of times I get in my car to go someplace, and I immediately turn on the radio or a CD. Rarely am I somewhere without some level of decibels. Rarely do I find myself alone, and when I am alone, it's typically not for the purpose to commune with God. The spiritual discipline of silence is not just the absence of noise. It is purposeful stillness to quiet one's spirit in order to listen to "the sound of a low whisper" of the voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). The spiritual discipline of solitude is not just the absence of people. It is purposeful seclusion in order to commune with the living God.

Sometimes when I think about spiritual disciplines like silence and solitude, I get intimidated. I feel like only spiritual giants practice these disciplines, and I'm still a spiritual gnome. When I find myself silent, I miss noise. When I find myself alone, I miss people. So rather than continuing to swim upstream, I give in to the current, go with the flow, and find myself adrift in spiritual indolence. I want to grow spiritually, but when I realize that growth requires effort and change, I often tell myself that my faith is developed enough for now, thank you very much. Ever been there? The task seems too daunting, and the effort too exacting.

If you've "been there, done that," I'd like to make a few suggestions. I have found, through trial and error, that I need a strategy to develop purposeful silence and solitude as a means for spiritual growth. Maybe this strategy will help you as well.

*Schedule times of silence and solitude in your weekly calendar. If you don't schedule it, you won't do it. Eugene Peterson writes about a weekly Sabbath which is not a day to catch up on projects at home. Protect these times as you would a scheduled meeting with an important person, because, in fact, you are.

*Start small. Don't bite off more than you can chew. If you want to run a marathon, and you've never run anywhere except up a flight of stairs, you begin with a quarter mile, then a half mile, then a mile, etc. I suggest you start with fifteen minutes a week where you are alone with God in silence. After a few weeks, build up to thirty minutes, then an hour, and on to a half-day or more for a weekly Sabbath experience. The key is not how long you are still before the Lord (Psalm 46:10), but how consistent you are in keeping your weekly appointment with God.

*Keep it simple. This is not a study time. Scripture reading and meditation may be helpful, but this is not the time to work on your Beth Moore Bible study or, in my case, write sermons. This is a time to listen. I found this very awkward at first--sitting in a room by myself with no noise. My mind drifts, and there are times when I actually fall asleep. In Brother Lawrence's book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he writes a letter to a friend who apparently struggled with a lack of attentiveness to God in prayer. Very pastorally, Brother Lawrence responds, "You aren't the only one to be distracted from the presence of God; I understand completely. Our minds are so flighty…. If your mind wanders at times, don't be upset, because being upset will only distract you more. Allow your will to recall your attention gently to God. Such perseverance will please Him." In pre-marital counseling, I take couples through an exercise called, "Active Listening." Do we really listen to what our spouse, or soon-to-be spouse is saying, or do we think we know what he or she is saying, and so we stop listening and start formulating our response? Listening to God is a discipline where we train our minds "on the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8:5). For, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6).

*Don't give up. As the old adage goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Keep your appointments with God. If you sit in silence and solitude and don't always feel the presence of God, don't walk away thinking, I tried this, and nothing happened. My son Luke recently started doing push-ups every day. He wants to grow his muscles, but when he stood in front of the mirror the other day and flexed, he said, "Dad, it's not working." Sure it is. Slowly, gradually, imperceptibly at first, Luke's muscles are developing, and so will our spiritual muscles, if we don't give up.

My hope is that you will begin to practice the presence of God through silence and solitude as you concentrate your "soul's attention on God, remembering that He is always present" (Brother Lawrence).

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1).

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