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Resting is hard work

I’m reading the book, Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman. It’s subtitled “Time and How to Use it”. Burkeman is a Guardian columnist and has written a number of books on productivity. In this book, he’s not pushing particular time-saving “techniques”, but trying to stand back and think about what time itself is. He’s not a Christian, and I’m struck by how little he engages with the Bible and how it’s influenced our view of time. He’s channelling much more Buddhism than Bible! 

But Burkeman puts his finger on how hard we find it to rest. He describes the internal pressure we feel to constantly be “productive”. Amos describes this too, with people at church, thinking to themselves: “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5). In that context, Burkeman quotes a Jewish writer, who explains part of the rationale of the Sabbath: 

“Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not to work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily, the way you might slip into bed at the end of a long day. As the Cat in the Hat says, ‘It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.’ This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional, requiring extensive advance preparation – at the very least a scrubbed house, a full larder and a bath. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of the will, one that has be bolstered by habit as well as social sanction.” (p.152). 

Burkeman points out how we need social pressure to get ourselves to rest. Thirty years ago that social pressure was still there. The shops were still closed on Sundays, and the office was locked. People would raise their eyebrows if you skipped church. But now the pressures all push us in the opposite direction; “the shops are open all day, every day (and all night, online.) And thanks to digital technology, it’s all too easy to keep on working at home.” (p.154).

It’s striking that this secular, Buddhist-dabbling author can see part of the significance of Sabbath-keeping better than many of us. Resting is hard work, and when Sabbath-keeping is done properly, the moral pressure of keeping the TV switched off (say) isn’t to spoil our fun. It’s to allow us to find “rest for our souls” with Jesus (Matt 11:29). It’s because resting is hard work, that God’s given us the pressure of the Sabbath. He gets lots else wrong in the book, but that’s a very helpful insight.