Separation and Cosmic Love in the Tesseract

When you love someone, whether that someone is a child, parent, friend, or spouse, suffering will sometimes come in spurts, other times all at once, but it is a raw, inevitable reality. And needless to say, an obvious cause for suffering is explicit harm that hurts the lover or the beloved. I do not make light of that kind of suffering, especially when patterns of abuse and co-dependence trap two people in a stasis that only the grace, love, and forgiveness of God can break. However, and in my 27 short years that I’ve walked this beautiful, broken world, I am led to believe that separation from one’s beloved is a much deeper suffering—often plunging both the lover and beloved into a pit of despair and irresolution.

Yet, the Judeo-Christian story should at least give us pause and ideally a living hope on which we can stand and from which we can stare brokenness and separation in the face and shout, “You will not have the last word; this is not the end!” Across the pages of Scripture, an epic drama unfolds in which we encounter a loving Creator God who relentlessly pursues His beloved to minimize the cosmic separation created by the beloved’s chronic unfaithfulness—ultimately at the cost of Himself being beaten and brutally executed on a Roman cross. That first Good Friday was anything but good, for the very Tri-unity of God was cosmically and violently ripped, with the Father and the Son experiencing a harsh separation infinitely more intense than we can ever fathom.

With this in mind, I cannot help but think that God cannot and will not sit idly by as the separation between Himself (lover) and fallen humanity (beloved) dis-integrates into chaos, apparently sealed by the finality of death. With God Himself being a relation of three Persons, any ruptures in the relationality of the Universe must go against His very nature and His intentions for this Universe to reflect the inherent relational nature of his being. So, what is God’s answer to reconciling humanity to Himself and people to one another?

Love.

Specifically, the incarnate love in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel accounts there are events and utterances that repeatedly shock us with the radical, inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more illustrative example of love than Jesus’s reaction to the death of Lazarus. It was haunting, beautiful, and so…human:

“….Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her sobbing and the others with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

“Master, come and see,” they said.

Jesus wept. [And they] said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

-The Gospel of St. John

The combined anger and heart-rending pain Jesus expresses here is not only a signal of how much He loved Lazarus, but also of how much this death-induced separation is an affront to the Ever Living God, in whom every creature lives, moves and has being. We know that despite the grief and loss that was keenly felt by Lazarus’s family, friends, and Jesus Himself, that is not the end of the story. Christ, in the privileged position of having both human and divine natures, was and is not limited by the patterns and constraints of biological and physical laws, to which any other human being must accept and succumb. Fueled by his deep love for Lazarus and the goodness of life, Jesus resurrects him from the cold, lifeless abyss of death. This kind of love has true power, power to effect changes in our spatio-temporal realm because it points to the God of Love, who, in and through Jesus “upholds the Universe with the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

*          *          *

Where else do we see this kind of love that is cosmic in scope, yet so real and palpable as once-dead human flesh that has been revitalized and restored? Funnily, I think we get a picture of it in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Nolan paints a not-so-distant, future earth where most natural resources have been exhausted and the surviving humans lead a frugal, fearful existence marked by a “just get by” mentality. Humanity’s days are numbered, at least on earth. The protagonist, Cooper, along with a team of scientists leave our solar system to probe the feasibility of colonizing other worlds. Their precise mission is incredibly daunting: after a two-year journey from earth to Saturn, a wormhole will take them to a distant star system where there are several candidate planets. One catch is these planets are proximal to a dying neutron star that is being consumed by a black hole. This black hole distorts the surrounding space-time, creating intense time dilation effects. In turn, Cooper and the rest of the crew will not age as quickly (normally) as everyone else on earth.

Cooper is depicted as a devoted, loving father who holds out a promise to his daughter (Murph) that seems awfully difficult to keep: that he will survive this epic, intergalactic journey and return to her. Of course, he’s probably consumed with great fear and doubt as he faces potential eternal separation from his daughter, should the mission face any setbacks or mishaps. When her father makes this promise, Murph protests fiercely. She is enraged and feels that her father is abandoning her.

*          *          *

Although the movie is visually stunning and sets a new bar in the space science fiction genre, Nolan uses human elements as the engine to drive the plot forward. In doing so he asks the audience two key questions: (1) What if human beings, in their current state, are limited by their experience of four dimensions (3 space, 1 time), and are maybe meant to experience and pass through others? (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); and (2) What if love is the mechanism by which we may be able to access and ascend to higher dimensions?

In an incredibly trippy but nonetheless poignant scene in the film, Cooper finds himself in an awe-inspiring three-dimensional structure called the tesseract, which affords him the ability to perceive time as just another spatial dimension. The confines of the tesseract are tantalizingly transparent and reveal Murph in her bedroom at a multitude of time points. Just like Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus, Cooper is angry because he is separated from his beloved daughter and wants nothing else but to be with her again. Also like Jesus, Cooper is in the privileged position to access multiple dimensions of reality to which humans aren’t otherwise privy. In a final desperate act, he attempts to reach her by shrieking her name and pounding at the edge of the tesseract, which in Murph’s room is the back of her bookshelf. He is able to successfully manipulate the gravity in the room to communicate with her, and she realizes that it is not a gravitational anomaly but her father reaching out to her from another realm. By the end of the film, we learn that the love between a father and a child has saved the human race.

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds.

-Fr. Richard Rohr

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Christ and Other Sheep: Reading the Gospel in Iraq

Most journalists I meet in the Middle East are disenchanted with religion. They are spiritually cynical, agnostic at best. Many are unusually humane, intently aware of our world’s wounds, yet invariably critical and distant from any organized faith.

I can see why. I’ve just spent 6 weeks reporting from Iraq, where faith seems saturated in hatred and blood. “Christians are not Arabs. Arabs cannot be Christians,” a displaced Chaldean from Mosul tells me. “We can never live with Muslims,” a widowed Yazidi cries. “Watch these Shi’a bastards,” a Kurd says as he sends me videos of elite militias abusing Sunni civilians. “You dog,” the soldiers in the videos laugh as they kick and beat a cowering man.

Religion starts to hurt. “In the name of God” becomes the sound of sectarianism, the anthem of a thousand gleaming daggers cutting lines and boundaries across the broken earth: I’m in, you’re out. I’m a believer, you’re not. I am good, you are bad. You dog. I could never live with you. You could never be like me. In the name of God, the merciful, the beneficent, you heretic! You infidel, in the name of God, go to hell. In the name of God, the merciful, burn.

As a reporter, I tread the lines between Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis and Shias. I see giant crosses and green flags demarcating different neighborhoods of Beirut. I see Jewish stars graffiti-ed on the staircases of Amman with “Al-Mot, Death” scribbled underneath. I see overflowing refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and I am seized with an urge to damn religion. To hell with this hell, I want to say. To hell with the institutions and social constructs that give men self-justified license to rip other human beings apart. To hell with the lines, the walls, the moral police and everyone judging everyone else as unrighteous. To hell with God, I almost think.

But LORD have mercy, I cannot pray this. I almost curse the name of God, but then I stop, I cannot, I don’t.

I read the Bible in Iraq out of desperation. I needed to know that God is good and understand how that could be true when our world is as poisoned as it is. I couldn’t understand how God could be loving and exclusive at the same time. “Christ is the only Way,” I thought, “But what does that mean for all those who don’t know Him? Shall I condemn them, as other religions will condemn me?” Deuteronomy reads like an instruction manual for ISIS, I thought[1]. I spent my days collecting testimonies of genocide and my nights fearing that God was pleased to see this happen. I reported on violent religious extremism and feared: what if God actually condones this?

This fear paralyzed me for a while. Then I picked up the Gospel and read.

It’s much easier to picture Christ now that I live in His neighborhood. I picture Him coming to a land under oppression and celebrating life. Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine.[2] He walks around healing, casting out spirits, multiplying food and telling tantalizing parables. He shows Martha that being with God is better than doing anything for Him. He weeps with Mary when she tells Him, My brother has died, and if you were there, it wouldn’t have happened. But she still calls him Lord as she says this. Jesus weeps- and raises Lazarus from the dead.[3] The next day, Mary pours expensive perfume on Him, worshipping, and small-hearted Judas says, “What a waste.” Think of the food distributions, cash programming, and hygiene projects that money could have funded. But Judas is a thief who’s been helping himself to the disciples’ moneybag. He’s really thinking of himself, selfishness twisted with self-righteousness, and Jesus sees right through him.[4]

I picture Jesus coming to historic Palestine, where the Israelites are under Roman occupation. Surely our LORD will save, his disciples must have thought. Our people worship the One True God and now the Messiah will break these chains of oppression, they must have hoped. FREEDOM, I imagine them whispering to one another, the way my Syrian friends tell me they spoke in 2011 for the first, daring, dangerous time. The word tingled on your tongue, they say, then grew until it grabbed your whole being, flung you into the street and had you yelling, roaring, electrified in sudden exultation with brothers and sisters and countrymen: FREEDOM, we stand and claim our humanity. Freedom, we protest and demand.

Surely Jesus’ followers thought this way as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Hosanna, they cried, save us now.[5]
Surely they thought he would lead them to social and political release.

I imagine how the earth must have shattered beneath the disciples’ feet when they found their leader had no intent of rebellion. No uprising, no overthrow, no victory – rather, death. I see photos of ISIS crucifying people in Raqqa and I picture Christ, then I picture his dearly beloved wracked with heartbreak and fear. So injustice continues. The world wins. All things are broken and we thought you’d fix them, but you’re gone, we’re lost, LORD -[6]

What the hell is this Gospel? Why would the disciples believe it, as Jesus died and Roman rule continued? Why should I believe it, as I stand in front of a Yazidi woman whose daughter is enslaved, counting atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Sudan, feeling like the smallest person in the world, taking notes and knowing they’ll do nothing but elicit some fleeting public sympathy and exert a featherweight bit of pressure on military and political powers?

In Iraq, I consider this unlikely message: Jesus did not end suffering and injustice, but He will end them. He did not fight the way the world fights, with swords and guns and drones and jingoistic anthems. He did not win an ethno-nationalist victory for the Jews. He did not stop Lazarus from dying, nor did he heal every person or raise every Beloved from the dead.

Christ rejected Pharisees and went to the sinners, even to the Gentiles. He was like a Palestinian going to the Israelis, a Sunni going to the Shia, a Kurd going to an Arab, a Yazidi going to an ISIS fighter. He crossed all the lines.[7] He didn’t form a new club to supersede all the others. He said, being in a club won’t save you. Nothing you do will ever save you. Stop trying to be good. Seek God, repent and ask to be saved.

He washed feet.
Then He died.

There’s a trick of the devil that says, God hates the world because it’s sinful, so prove that you’re righteous and maybe you can be saved. Everyone else will burn.

The Liar whispers poison-thoughts of revenge, fear and self-pity in our heads. They bleed into systems of greed, power and money that rip the world apart. Then he stands at our ear and sneers, “The world is damned and you are damned with it. God hates you. Hate Him back.”

But the Gospel speaks the opposite. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

I read headlines from Kobane, Jerusalem and Darfur, and turn this over in my mind. We are not condemned. The world is burning, but those who believe are not condemned. “The prince of this world stands condemned,” Jesus says in John 16 – then He goes to the cross. He dies, then rises again. The Liar is condemned, Christ said, so don’t despair or bow before him. He is the condemned one, not you, Beloved.

There’s a secret message in Christianity that doesn’t make sense unless you believe in Christ not just as a teacher and moral example, but really as God giving Himself for Man: life comes through death. Everyone thought Christ was losing, but He won through loving sacrifice. His shocking call is this: “Follow me,” not to kill unbelievers, but to die for them.[10]

Lay down your life, Christ said: love those who hate you, pray for those who hurt you, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, and speak Jesus’ name.[12] Follow Him, not toward comfort, privilege or resettlement to suburban America, but to wash feet and tell people that God loves the world. We may be killed in the process. But He is victorious. We are not condemned, darkness is. Nothing can separate us from our Father’s love.[13]

I don’t want to be religious anymore, I prayed in Iraq, recoiling from the vortex of exclusion, revenge and sanctimonious hate. At the same time, I feared the real cost of following Christ. I didn’t want to burn. I didn’t want to see any more of our world’s self-destruction. I’ll vomit, I cried. God, I’ll fall apart.

Religious people are like candles who don’t want to be lit. We’re adorned with gems and carvings, standing high and proud. We think our decorations make us good. Christ says, Forget your self-righteousness. The smallest scrap of paper that blazes from my Presence is more useful than a thousand pieces of regal unlit wax. I’m going to set you on fire and send you into the dark. You’ll melt, Beloved, but do not fear. You’re surrendering to a Light that will never go out.

The Gospel does not ask its followers to form a club and hate everyone else. The Gospel is a feast in a refugee camp, a banqueting table set before our enemies, an engagement party as the world breaks. It says: by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ, come to our Father’s table. Eat, drink and be filled. Don’t kill for the Gospel! Die for the Gospel. As you die, you live. Your Shepherd has loved the hell out of this earth.[14] Follow Him, and invite others to do the same. [15]
[1] Deuteronomy 20.
[2] John 2.
[3] John 11.
[4] John 12.
[5] John 12:12-19.
[6] “They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’” – John 20:13, Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
[7] John 4: Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman.
[9] Romans 3:23, John 3:16-21.
[10] Matthew 10:38-39.
[11] “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” – John 12:24-26.
[12] Matthew 5.
[13] Romans 8.
[14] “He tends his flocks like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” – Isaiah 40:11
[15] John 10.

Forgoing our daily bread

“As the deer panteth for the water

So my soul longeth after thee

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship thee”

– As the Deer (first two lines from Psalm 42:1)

Last night, I cooked myself a pretty homely meal: a lettuce and chicken noodle soup. While it tasted fine and certainly filled me up, upon reflection, I can immediately come up with at least five things I did wrong while I was cooking it. 1) Stove was too hot when I put the lettuce in. 2) Didn’t chop the lettuce into even pieces. 3) Didn’t sear the chicken first to create more flavor. 4) Boiled the chicken way a tad too long. 5) Let the noodles get stuck together. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Now, I won’t bore you with the 20+ more things I should’ve done differently, but it suffices to say that I wasn’t really treating my final food product with love and care. I would not have cooked in such a haphazard way if I were serving a friend or trying to impress a girl. And I certainly would have been more careful if I were cooking for God (more on cooking for God in a literal sense in a future blog post). So why did I lower my cooking standards? Well, because I was hungry … really hungry.

Is it really that bad that I “lowered my cooking standards” so that I could create my meal faster and eat it? Perhaps it’s not “bad” per se, but it is an indication that when I’m hungry, I’ll make compromises. I’ve certainly seen many people and been one of those people who will put other priorities aside when feeling very hungry. When particularly hungry in a group setting, I’ll sometimes completely zone out my friends’ conversations and just scarf down my food. During times when I want to commit to eating healthy, if I’m starving and can’t find a healthy place to eat, I may just resort to fast food. I’ve also seen many many instances in church settings where people shamelessly rush through saying grace whether it’s out of self-hunger or feeling the pressure of other people’s hunger. And certainly, I know that we all have those female friends who go completely “om nom nom nomz” when hungry and end up receiving the sarcastic “wow, you’re so lady-like when you eat” comments (just to clarify, I’m not trying to be mean, in fact, I think it’s endearing for a lady to break those social norms of “being lady-like” when eating).

These sorts of compromises are pretty representative of the gravity of the consequences we face when most of us allow our hunger to dictate what we want; these consequences simply range from being mildly rude to pretty amusing. And I suppose that makes perfect sense. Very few of us have truly experienced hunger in a despairing and life-threatening way. A hunger that’s so painful it consumes your every thought no matter how hard you try to focus on something else. A hunger that would lead you to forgo all dignity and beg on the streets. A hunger that would push your moral boundaries such that you steal or harm others for food.

I believe that there are two keys to truly appreciating the hunger (and thirst) metaphors in regards to how we should desire God: 1) to remember that the physical hunger we experience for food points us to our ultimate hunger for God

“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 3:8)

and 2) to actually experience and appreciate the sensation of deep physical hunger through intentional, God-centered fasting. There are multiple reasons to fast, but the one I want to focus on for now is just the most straightforward one: fasting restricts our physical nourishment and causes us to desire it more. When we experience the pain and weakness of not having our physical sustenance, it gives us a glimpse of the pain and weakness of not having our spiritual sustenance. When we feel the overwhelming desire to consume food to restore us, it gives us a glimpse of just how overwhelming our desire to consume God’s Word should be.

If our hunger for earthly nourishment can drive us to make the “compromises” I listed above, should not our hunger for God, the ultimate nourishment, cause us to set aside all other priorities that we have? In light of that, I have two more thoughts on fasting:

  1. While fasting is often associated (at least in my mind) with times of either deep sorrow or need for reorientation to God, I believe the practice of fasting is just as, if not more important, during the good seasons. So often, we are reminded of our deep spiritual need when things are rough, when tragedy strikes, when we really feel like we can’t make it without God. Fasting reminds us of our weakness and how we ought to hunger after God.
  2. While there are various types of fasts in regards to time and what foods to actually abstain from, and it’s really between you and God to know what is right at different times, I strongly suggest considering a fast that will physically challenge you. I am certainly not saying this in the sense of trying to “prove your Christianity” through “more sacrifice.” Rather, as mentioned above, experiencing the physical weakness and deep desire for food serves to give deeper appreciation of our need for spiritual food and teaches how we deeply we should desire spiritual food.

I feel there is so much more to say on the topic of fasting, but this is where I’m leaving it for now. Perhaps in the future I’ll examine other aspects such as learning self-control through fasting, some simple suggestions for how to fast, and more.

Online and Anonymous

“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.”

Ephesians 5:11-12

I want to share some of my thoughts about the celebrity photos which were leaked in late August of this year and the more recent Snapchat leaks from mid-October. As a bit of background, a group of colluding hackers broke into the digital lives of hundreds of celebrities, and in the case of Snapchat, thousands of teens, and then published compromising photos of them on the Internet for worldwide consumption. This was all done completely against the wills of the women and men involved.

Pause and reflect for a moment about how truly messed up this is. On the Internet, nothing can die: data, unlike human memory, is immortal and incorruptible. Files are replicated again and again, with passionless, studied precision. Thanks to the work of a few people, the leaked photos, along with those victimized by it, have passed into a kind of perpetual sexual slavery, available for the viewing of whoever decides to reach out across the net with only the slightest effort.

And so many, many of us – hiding behind the anonymity of a “free Internet” – looked.

It’s so beyond me…Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame. Even people who I know and love say, ‘Oh, yeah, I looked at the pictures’.”

   ~Jennifer Lawrence, Vanity Fair 2014

It’s easy to demonize the hackers who published the photos, but at some point you have to ask yourself, are leaks like this really the fault of a lonely few? Or are all of us somehow part of the injustice that we’d so much like to distance ourselves from?

Part of the price of a more connected world is that increasingly, there are concentric circles of injustice that radiate outwards around events like these. With each widening circle, the distorting effects of an anonymous Internet manifest themselves in different ways, but the injustice remains.

Let’s take a look at a few of these circles.

The First Circle: The criminals

The inmost circle is the easiest to understand and point a finger at. It’s clear that the criminals involved in breaking into private iPhones, Snapchat accounts, or websites in search of profit are carrying out injustice. These hackers are new-age thieves, plain and simple.

But interestingly, anonymity has an unexpected side-affect here: it not only enables more online crime, but also encourages the notion that the harm done is somehow not as real as its physical corollary. That those who are hurt are ambiguously “out there,” and that they are somehow less than fully human because they are beyond our immediate physical space. Under the cloak of anonymity, people will hurt others in ways they wouldn’t even consider doing if they had to face their victims. Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that even crimes that never escape the heart or mind are considered sins. Digital distance is similarly no excuse.

The Second Circle: The distributors

This round of photo leaks was released on a website called 4chan. As a content distributor, it prides itself on anonymity for its posters, as well as its relatively loose policing of the content on the site. 4chan is emblematic of a school of thought that has coalesced around the idea of the Internet as an information equalizer. Under this line of thinking, there is moral virtue in being a neutral conduit for information. They are not responsible for other’s choices to use information inappropriately, and that preserving anonymity is worth any price. This is true, by the way, at least to a limited extent. I think the most classic phrase from this camp is “information wants to be free.” In the post-Snowden era, it’s a captivating idea. But there are enormous issues when data is distributed indiscriminately, with no judgment or regard for the consequences of the distribution.

The problem is that, just as information itself has power and meaning, so does the act of distributing it. If you, as a neutral distributor, pass on terrible images, for example, you are making a statement about that information’s worthiness, a tacit approval (whether you view it that way or not). When people view those images, you have assisted them in finding that data. We have a meaningful role to play in each other’s moral lives, and there is a moral responsibility that comes with distributing information.

An interesting corollary is that if information itself and the act of distributing it have meaning, then there is also meaning attached to who transmits that data. Online anonymity, while valuable in some cases, can strongly dampen the impact and power of information. Imagine for a moment a world where Martin Luther, the Founding Fathers, Gandhi, or more recently the protesters in Hong Kong, had remained fiery, highly eloquent, but completely anonymous Internet users.

The Third Circle: You

Ah yes, you the anonymous user are that widest-reaching circle. Our individual anonymity online, again, presents the illusion that our actions are somehow morally firewalled off from reality. But it is an illusion (and not only from an intellectual perspective either – you really don’t have true anonymity, thanks to the amazing technical capabilities of the Internet’s big players).

But every action you commit online, whether anonymous or not, is filled with meaning. In fact perhaps the most powerful weapon you wield online is what information you choose to reach out and consume. You, and I, have a responsibility to not be part of injustice. In cases like these leaks, that means to not click. Given that responsibility, aren’t we remarkably loose and flippant about our online choices? I know I am.

I’ll leave you with these verses:

At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”

Genesis 3:7-10 [NLT]

“Cowering with shame,” as Jennifer Lawrence put it, is apparently one of our oldest traditions.

Sabbath Rest

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and 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.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

My pastor has been giving a sermon series on the Ten Commandments and a couple of weeks ago, we learned about the 4th (or 3rd, depending on how you’re counting): Remember the Sabbath day. It was a great message and I figured I’d write out my notes for this post.

I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. (Psalm 3:5-6)

In this psalm, David shows us an example of what it means to rest. He lies down to sleep before going into a battle where he’ll be surrounded by thousands of people who want to kill him. Many of us have trouble sleeping the night before an exam, a presentation, or a romantic date; how much harder would it be to sleep if we knew that the following morning, we would wake up to thousands of guns pointed at us?

While David’s example may be hard to follow, the Sabbath rest commandment is not one we can ignore. Many Christians often misconstrue this commandment as a mere “suggestion,” one that is no longer applicable to our busy lives today. That sentiment cannot be further from the truth. Because God rested on the seventh day and we were created in His image, we were designed by God to rest on the Sabbath.  So when we ignore this commandment (and any other commandment1), we are inherently violating our design and destroying ourselves. The Sabbath rest commandment is given to save us from our own destruction.

We have to define rest Biblically. To rest doesn’t mean “to be inactive;” we can be weary even if we’re inactive and we can be deeply at rest even if we’re busy. Instead, to be at rest means to be utterly satisfied with what’s been done. Genesis tells us that God saw everything that He had made and declared it “very good,” so on the seventh day God rested from all His work.

Unfortunately for us broken human beings, we can never be at rest in this way because we can never look at our work and be completely satisfied like God was. It feels like our work is never done because we can always do better. Similarly, we can’t shut off our “internal” work because we’re always trying to earn a favorable verdict or prove ourselves; this is what makes us weary. Even the most successful people struggle with this:

This doesn’t just apply to people who try to “succeed” in the most conventional societal ways, but also to those in callings that serve the world more humbly, such as nonprofit work, social work, teaching, etc. In the end, everyone can have the attitude of trying to prove ourselves in some way to the world or even to God.

However, we have to understand that this verdict is already set because of Jesus’ death on the cross. We may never be completely satisfied with our work in the sense that we cannot be perfect like God, but we also have nothing to prove to anyone or to God because of His overflowing grace in sending His son to die for our sins.

How do we apply this Sabbath rest commandment in our lives and encourage ourselves to rest, knowing that Jesus has already finished the work for us?

  1. If we’re asking ourselves how much time to take to rest for the Sabbath, then the answer is most likely more.”
  2. Sabbath is for others. If we do not rest, we’ll begin to see others not as persons but as “equipment” to help us with our work; we will treat others for what they do, not who they are.
  3. When we are sleeping, God is working. This is shown in Genesis 1, where a day is defined as beginning in the evening and ending in the morning (“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day”). While we are sleeping, God works to redeem the mistakes we make during daylight hours.
  4. Also when we’re sleeping, we relinquish control and trust God to be in command, reminding ourselves that we are not God.
  5. We need to balance our Sabbath time in a structured way to include all forms of rest. Avocational time is when we are not working in our jobs. Contemplative time is when we reflect and grow spiritually. Inactive time is when we sleep, rest, and relax in conventional meanings of the words.
  6. There are times in our lives when work/life is busier and we’ll naturally have less time to rest. We have to be accountable and when the busy period is done, stop and rest.
  7. Invite community into your Sabbath time, both to rest and also to keep each other accountable.
  8. Inject Sabbath time in your work if it takes a large portion of your week.

At the end of the sermon, my pastor said these encouraging words to the young adults in the congregation: “The people who are ‘ahead’ of you…. You know where they’re headed when they don’t rest. At least you’ll be sane and whole at the end of it all. What you take into God’s kingdom is not the works you’ve done, but the person you become.”

Then we all repeated at the end of the service: “My work, my parents, my friends’ expectations, my love life, and my money do not define me. Christ defines me.

1   In the opening sermon of this series on the Ten Commandments, my pastor talked about how these laws are for freedom not bondage. This kind of freedom is defined as living the life that we were meant to, i.e., freedom comes as a result of honoring our design. For example: a bird that flies is free, but if it wants to learn to swim, it’s not acting in accordance to its design.