This is the third post in a series about the role of Sabbath-keeping in dealing with burnout, in the context of my work as a teacher. Do check out the rest of the series.
In my second post in this series, I discussed how self-care is not enough for us to heal fully from burnout, and propose that the real answer is to keep the Sabbath. In fact, one can even say that Sabbath-keeping is the ultimate form of self-care, paradoxically because the self is not at the center.
But what is the Sabbath, and why is it so important in our burnout recovery?
To answer these questions, I will be referring extensively to Marva Dawn’s classic book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing and Feasting. Marva Dawn (1948-2021) was a Teaching Fellow in Spiritual Theology at Regent College, and her insightful work on the Sabbath left an indelible impression on me.
As suggested in her title, this book looks at the Sabbath in 4 dimensions:
In this post, we will be looking primarily at the first dimension, i.e. Sabbath as Ceasing, and relate it to coping with burnout.
Sabbath as God’s Command for his people
Those of us familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition will know that keeping the Sabbath is one of God’s Ten Commandments:
Exodus 20:8-11 8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The name Sabbath comes originally from the Hebrew verb shabbat, which means primarily “to cease or desist.” Sabbath ceasing is “to cease not only from work itself, but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and our enculturation, and finally, from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all.”
Keeping the Sabbath is to put God at the center of our life, to realign our priorities and desires to Him. In doing so, we find true rest for our souls, and thus achieve the ultimate ‘self-care’.
How Do We Start Keeping the Sabbath?
Most Christians think of ‘going to church on a Sunday’ as Sabbath-keeping, but the spirit of Sabbath goes far beyond a religious observance. We have forgotten that it meant setting apart a day as holy to cease work completely.
To “keep the Sabbath holy” means to recognize that there is a rhythm, an order that is graciously commanded by God – six days of work and one day of ceasing work – and that this is written into the very core of our beings. When we observe that order week by week, it creates in us a new kind of wholeness.
Must we only observe Sabbath on a Sunday (or Saturday, for Jews and Seventh Day Adventists)? Not necessarily. Marva Dawn wrote, “The key to experiencing the Sabbath in the richness of its design is to recognize the importance of its rhythm. Which day is used to observe the Sabbath is not as important as ensuring that the day of ceasing occurs every seven days without fail.”
It is not about being legalistic as to when we keep the Sabbath. Jesus Himself taught that, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Our attitude and orientation towards the Sabbath is far more important. Mark Buchanan, another excellent writer on the Sabbath, described this as the “Sabbath heart”, which is restful even in the midst of unrest and upheaval, and it is attentive to the presence of God and others.
Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, you don’t have to feel pressurized to keep every strict Sabbath rule. That was never the intention of God. Instead, you can take baby steps (like me) to cultivate a Sabbath attitude on a day set aside in the week, and try some of the ideas below.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”– Jesus (Mark 2:27)
How I apply Sabbath principles to manage my burnout
Firstly, this is not the first time my family and I have tried to keep the Sabbath. As a Christian family, we have always known it to be important for our spiritual health. We avoided excessive work and stress on Sundays, attended church, and spent carefree hours with our brothers and sisters in the afternoon.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Last year in 2020 with the sudden lockdown measures and disruption to our daily routine. Sabbath-keeping fell out of our radar. My daughter was also taking her PSLE, a major examination for her before entry to secondary school. Sunday becomes a day when we rushed all our last-minute work and studies, to make sure that things run smoothly Monday through Friday. This seriously disrupted our Sabbath routine and possibly contributed to my depression and burnout as well.
Now that life is more adjusted, I took the June holidays to rethink and apply some of the Sabbath principles in Marva Dawn’s book. I will summarise each of the following 4 principles, and share how we try to apply them as a family.
Ceasing Productivity and Accomplishment
Part of the reasons behind our burnout is our incessant need to produce and perform. This drive for productivity actually masks our inferiority complex – we are deeply insecure about our worth to society.
The practice of Sabbath keeping sets us free by the delight of quitting this endless cycle of trying to produce. When we intentionally set aside one day in every seven, it changes our attitudes for the rest of the week. It frees us up to worry less about how much we produce on other days.
Most importantly, it helps us to know that we are truly loved by God for who we are. We don’t have to prove our worth to God for Him to love us. Sabbath reminds us of that, week after week, and grounds us so deeply in His love that we can love others in the same way.
On Saturday night during our family prayer time, we will signal to the children that the next day is a Sabbath day and we will focus on our relationship with God and with one another as a family. On Sunday night, we will end the day giving thanks for the relational time we have enjoyed, and look forward to the next Sabbath.
As a father, Sabbath is a time I remind my children that they are valued and loved for who they are. Not their results, behaviour, or talents. Giving them such reassurance also reminds me of God’s unconditional acceptance of me. I am His child.
There is something powerfully restorative in that realisation.
Sabbath reminds us that we don’t have to prove our worth to God for Him to love us
Ceasing Anxiety, Worry and Tension
Consider another one of the main causes of burnout: stress. Dawn wrote, “One of the main causes of modern stress is that we have too much to do. Consequently, Sabbath days – when we don’t have to do anything – can release us from the anxiety that accompanies our work … Furthermore, our false need to be productive (even in the church) builds stress, especially when we find ourselves unable to meet our exorbitant expectations… Thus, our ceasing productivity and accomplishment on Sabbath days is another great stress reliever.”
How is this different from taking a short trip to relieve stress? Aren’t we just running away from our problems? Won’t they be there to bother us the day after the Sabbath?
Before Dawn began to practice Sabbath-keeping seriously, she too thought that would be the case. But later, she discovered that the longer she enjoyed her Sabbaths, the very customs of that day gives her not only refreshment, which makes the tension much less powerful in the days that follow, but also new perspectives, new priorities, and a new sense of God’s presence, which all cause the tensions themselves to assume a less hostile shape during the weeks to come. The Sabbath is not a running away from problems, but the opportunity to receive grace to face them.
One way I apply this principle is to finish as much work as possible by Saturday, and putting away any unfinished work to Monday. This exercise trains me to be more disciplined with my time during the week, and more intentional about Sabbath-keeping.
Then, on Sunday itself, we opt for life-giving activities instead of mind-depleting ones. Playing smartphone apps and surfing Netflix mindlessly can actually be quite depleting, if we are honest. So we try to avoid excessive playing, and instead go to the park or a nature reserve, or simply spending time with one another doing a leisure activity.
I found that when I do that, going back to work on Monday becomes more enjoyable. Refreshed and energised, I look forward to engaging my students and seeing my colleagues.
The Sabbath is not a running away from problems, but the opportunity to receive grace to face them.
Ceasing Our Trying to be God
I mentioned in my first post that sometimes, our burnout is trying to tell us something. Maybe we have been trying to do more than what we were meant to. Maybe we were trying to play God in our lives.
Dawn wrote that a major blessing of Sabbath-keeping is that it forces us to rely on God for our future. On that day we do nothing to create our own way. We abstain from our incessant need to produce and accomplish, from all the anxieties about how we can be successful in all we have to do to get ahead. The result is that we can let God be God in our lives.
“A great benefit of Sabbath-keeping is that we learn to let God take care of us — not by becoming passive and lazy, but in the freedom of giving up our feeble attempts to be God in our own lives.”– Marva Dawn
By trusting God to provide for all our needs, we can be liberated to take breaks and rest from our labor.
Let me share something personal: I used to (and still do) fuss over the financial management of the household. ALOT.
And that caused alot of worry and stress during the early months of COVID last year. For those of us invested in the stock market (either through stocks and shares or mutual funds), we went through a sharp drop in March. I remembered panicking in front of my screen every day checking the market, and ended up making tweaks and changes to my portfolio.
On hindsight, those actions added unnecessarily to my anxiety, and revealed something darker within myself: I was trying to play God, in the way I tried to achieve security by my own efforts.
Keeping Sabbath intentionally this year means that I will not use Sunday to read any financial news, articles, or to plot my next investment moves. I will surrender this area of my life to God, trusting that He and not the market will be the ultmate Provider for me and my family.
Doing so does not mean I ignore the market during the week. It means that I put the gyrations into perspective and not let it determines my self-worth. It also means I can make sounder and more long term decisions without letting fear and greed get in the way. This way, I don’t let financial worries exacerbate my burnout.
Ceasing the Humdrum and Meaninglessness
“Okay,” you may say. “I get it: Sabbath is very effective in helping us get over our burnout. But so can self-care. I don’t see why you must insist that Sabbath-keeping is the answer?”
“The ironic thing is that these attempts [‘to get away from it all’] usually cannot be successful because most of those trying to run away from the pressures of their work aren’t actually doing anything to relieve those pressures or lessen their anxieties. Merely to run from work, productivity, tensions, striving to be in control, the hassles of buying and selling, and the prevailing cultural values doesn’t work because one must come back to them again.”
In other words, many of the things we do in the name of self-care may be nothing more than running away from the stressors at work. If we do not change our whole approach to work or our whole person fundamentally, it won’t work in the long term. Sabbath-keeping is a practice where that fundamental change happens.
There are 2 ways to think about the purpose of rest: is rest for the sake of work, or for its own sake? In our productivity-driven society, most people would take the first view. Even Aristotle once asserted that relaxation is not an end in itself, but is for the sake of gaining strength for new efforts. That reminded me of the Chinese saying, “休息是为了走更长远的路” (to rest is to go a longer distance). With all our preoccupation with self-care, many of us still see it as a necessary step to recharge in order to go back to work more effectively.
Sabbath shows us a different view to think about rest: it is rest for its own sake. As Abraham Heschel states, “Labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest… is not for the sake of recovering one’s lost strength.” Instead, “the Sabbath is a day for the sake of life”!
This radical reorientation towards rest and time is crucial for me to break away from my mentality (to rest is for the sake of work). Under my old mentality, I feel guilty about taking long breaks and extended sleep. As a result, my ‘rest’ never truly feels restful.
Learning to truly rest on the Sabbath is like learning how to swim freestyle under a skillful coach. You first have to unlearn some of the wrong habits you have – breathing, strokes, kicks – and relearn the right way. After that, it takes less effort for you to propel forward more powerfully. As I relearn what it means to rest on the Sabbath, rest becomes something I can enjoy.
When I first started on this project of keeping the Sabbath intentionally, I was not sure if I could pull it off. And after 3 weeks, we are only taking baby steps in this direction. There were also mistakes we made along the way, such as the first week when I was got flabbergasted while buying packed lunches for everyone, or when our decision to visit a distant nature reserve proved more stressful than liberating. However, knowing that these baby steps are worth it and we can always learn from our mistakes, set our hearts at rest, and look forward to the next Sabbath.
It is important that we don’t get legalistic about Sabbath-keeping. When an urgent work request came in, or when one of the kids has an unfinished assignment, we learn to respond to it without getting ourselves too worked up.
At the end of the day, Sabbath-keeping is really to set our hearts on God. As long as we keep our eyes on Him, we can learn to do all things even on the Sabbath with a restful heart. And this rest goes far deeper towards restoring us from our burnout than any self-care technique I know of. In fact, one can say that Sabbath-keeping is the ultimate form of self-care. It is taking care of our real physical, emotional and spiritual needs in the way that only our Maker knows how.
This post is part of my column on Called to Teach, which primarily discusses the joys and challenges of teaching as a calling. Feel free to check out my other blog posts on teaching and other professional-related topics.