Not Sick (Just a Sabbath-Breaker)

Keeping the Sabbath isn't just about following the rules—it's about remembering what part we play in God's narrative.

Gillian Lynne likely suffered from some form of attention deficit disorder. But she was born in 1926 when no such diagnosis existed. To her teachers, she was simply a problem child. Gillian’s mother took her to a doctor. He examined Gillian and then led her mom out of his office so they could speak privately. On the way, he flicked on the radio and music played. Gillian rose from her seat. She danced.

“Your daughter’s not sick,” the doctor said. “She’s a dancer.”

Her mother enrolled Gillian in dance school. She thrived. A few years later, when her mother was killed in a car crash, Gillian found healing and solace through her art. In the ’40s and ’50s, she was recognized as a top British ballerina, and 20 years later she became one of the world’s foremost choreographers. If you have seen Cats or Phantom of the Opera, you’ve seen Gillian Lynne’s work.

I think of that story whenever I remember what my life was like 15 years ago. I was heartsick. I was listless, evasive, resentful, short-fused. I was pastoring but poorly, just trying to get through the day without flying off the handle or crashing into a wall. Anger edged my every sermon. Impatience marked all my dealings. But I kept misdiagnosing myself. I thought the job was making me sick and that quitting would be the cure. But I wasn’t sick. I was a Sabbath-breaker. Or, if I’m honest, I was sick precisely because I was a Sabbath-breaker.

The whole story is captured in the Ten Commandments. The more I sit with this ancient text, the fresher it gets. It is pure truth. In it, we find a picture of the godly life—communion with the Lord opened to us by His faithful and loving initiative, and His divine power to “take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:19).

He is the God who gives the commands as well as everything we need to carry them out.

And Sabbath-keeping is central to that life. Let me explain.

At its root, the Decalogue (another term for the Ten Commandments) is a revelation of God’s character. Here God shows Himself as the One worthy of our entire devotion, the God who frees us from bondage and misery and ushers us into worship and community. He is the God who gives the commands as well as everything we need to carry them out.

This is richly captured in the prologue to the commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). I am yours already, God says. I have saved you already. Now let Me show you the life I’ve set you free to live.

We often miss this because of the stark form most of the commands take: Thou shalt not. It’s stern, brusque, and forbidding. But there’s a way to understand this tone that will change how you hear it: Each commandment stands for an entire way of life.

Let me illustrate. No man is a good husband if he’s an adulterer. Yet no man is a good husband if he is sexually upright but otherwise cold, mean, and abusive. “Thou shall not commit adultery” is an absolute command, but it’s also a doorway into nurturing the kind of marriage where adultery becomes unthinkable—a marriage rich in tenderness and laughter and honesty and sexual enjoyment. In other words, underneath each stark commandment is an invitation to a whole new way of life.

But the fourth commandment requires no such interpretive approach. The new way to live is right on its surface. While most of the commandments come to us as prohibition, telling us what to avoid, the Sabbath commandment comes to us as invitation, telling us what to enjoy. Its very language—remember, keep— welcomes us into something inherently beautiful: deep, abiding, restoring rest. Who doesn’t want and need that?

Add to this four other observations about the Sabbath commandment:

Its placement. It stands between the first three commandments, all of which deal with our relationship with God, and the last six, which are focused on our relationship with people. In effect, as our relationship with God goes, so goes our Sabbath; and as our Sabbath goes, so goes our relationship with others. True worship leads to true rest, and true rest leads to true community.

Its generosity. It commands that everyone—sons, daughters, servants, livestock—receive the gift of rest. No one is excluded. All are invited.

Its wordiness. Most of the commandments are concise phrases. The Sabbath command, depending on the translation, is over 100 words long. It occupies a full third of the entire Decalogue. Clearly, God is trying to get our attention.

Its rationale. This is perhaps the most compelling thing about the fourth commandment. Only three of the 10 commandments (the second, fourth, and fifth) have a rationale, a reason why we should obey. The Sabbath, however, has not one but two. (See Ex. 20:11,  Deut. 5:15.) Two stories converge in the act of Sabbath-keeping: one of creation and the other of redemption.

Simply put, Sabbath-keeping draws you afresh into God’s huge and beautiful narrative. It reminds you that you are God’s handiwork, made in His image, filled with His breath, inhabiting His world. And it reminds you that you are God’s chosen one, rescued from death and sin and slavery by His mighty hand and outstretched arm. Sabbath is a weekly act that places you again in this sweeping, breathtaking drama and catches you up anew into the greatest story ever told.

And if you don’t keep it? You’ll forget. You’ll live a different story—a much smaller one. Ironically, tragically, the Sabbath is the only commandment most of us view as optional. But don’t you wish someone would insist that you stop, play, worship, and remember who you are and whose you are?

You’re not sick; you’re a Sabbath-breaker. The good news: You are 24 hours away from getting your heart back. Stay tuned. In the next issue, I’ll write about what that looks like.


Next month, Mark Buchanan will conclude his series on the importance of rest in the life of a believer.

Related Topics:  Obedience

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19 storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.

2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.

15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

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