I think of Sabbath as a time when things fall off of me, renewing me for a life of mission in the world. Cares, worries, frustrations, obsessions. I imagine the Holy Spirit coming with a spatula and prying things off of me, since I’m standing still enough at last. We all get carried by the drift of life and we easily lose our sense of God’s nearness. It’s easy for the skin of our hearts to get covered by bruises and scars and growths, which make our spiritual sense of touch dull. And we often get compulsive in order to deal with the aches and pains of life.
Compulsion is an urge to behave in a certain way, even if we don’t want to. Compulsion is ultimately about comforting ourselves—we check our smartphone or we buy something or we eat something—in order to take the emotional edge off. But comfort is not the same thing as delight. Compulsion is often just a medium meant to distract us from pain. However, it’s better to have these pains peeled away than to constantly soothe them with a comfort that doesn’t actually balm them. Comfort is about numbing out, but delight is experienced when the heart is wide awake.
It may be helpful, then, to think of Sabbath as an opportunity to train your soul out of compulsion. So, for example, if you are compulsive about checking your email, fast from email during your Sabbath. In my own life—whether on Sabbath or any other day—I noticed that I was using any free moment to pick up my phone and see if it was my move in Carcassone (an online game) or to checkFacebook or to check sports scores. None of these are bad things, but it didn’t feel quite right. Or rather, it didn’t feel like it was leading me into more life. Every moment was taken up checking in, filling my mind with stimulation. So I started setting limits, not only for my Sabbath day, but for every day. No phone during certain hours. No email on my Sabbath day. Through setting up limits, I learned to practice freedom.
Our souls really do need training. The Slow Life is something we learn. We have to learn to flex our muscles of self-control and restraint until we have vibrant souls who know they don’t need to be compulsive. Spiritual life is about forming habits that align our lives and hearts with the Spirit of God. Remember that as you set up limits, you are practicing freedom. You are rejecting the lie—“have it all, be everywhere, do everything, please everyone”—and instead saying, “No, actually; I am not unlimited; I have weaknesses; I am incomplete; I need rest.” In making the declaration “I have limits,” you are aligning yourself with reality, which is only place where we can encounter Jesus. You are trusting that the important things will get done. (In fact, there’s good science behind this: we are actually more productive with a weekly period of intentional recreation.)
This means that there are things to which we must say “no.” There are meetings that we’ll miss. There are invitations to which we’ll say, “I’m sorry, I have another appointment” (even if it’s an appointment with ourselves). When I came back from a church trip to Zambia recently, I was asked for an appointment by no less than twenty people. The reality is that there are ministry appointments—all of which are good things—that I simply cannot attend, because I have limits. We have to learn to say “no,” or at the very least, “not right now.” Or we have to get creative in how we meet the demands of life (“Hey, Bill, I’m driving to the hardware store. Want to come with me and we can talk?”). When we do, we are celebrating the fact that we have clear limits; we cannot be everywhere at once. This is honoring to God, honoring to ourselves, and ultimately, honoring to others.
For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'
As an example, see “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive” in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/opinion/sunday/relax-youll-be-more-productive.html [May 9, 2016]