On the seventh day, God rested. He’d had a big week—you know how it goes. You just get one project wrapped up (light, maybe, or one of those darn firmaments) and all of the sudden it’s the next day and you have to invent photosynthesis. So he’s really earned a day off. Did you see the relaxing morning he had with a cup of tea on his heavenly front porch? #iloveweekends, #summersaturday, #soblessed. In the afternoon he might read a book, take a nap, grill some vegan burgers, catch up on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Well, unless it’s one of those weeks, when he’s still got stuff to finish up over the weekend. All-day meeting on Day Five, so toes and earlobes and that other end-of-Day-Six stuff had to wait until Day Seven. And there’s that retreat in a few days, so best to get started on the next batch of cosmic light before Day One. God, he hates Day Ones.
If you took the way many Christians today spend their Sundays as evidence for the Bible’s description of Sabbath, this is what you might expect Genesis 2:2-3 to look like. Our days of rest need to be productive, either by catching up on our work or by charging up so we can get more done during the coming week. We think of rest primarily as rejuvenation—literally “re-youth-ing”—that cranks our little wind-up dials just enough to bumble about our real lives until we run out of potential energy and grind to a halt sometime late Friday afternoon.
But if Sabbath rest was just about rejuvenation, it would make no sense for God to rest. Even if he did have to run off to create another cosmos next week, he’s got that omnipotence thing going for him. God’s inaugural Sabbath is not an exhausted crash onto a celestial couch—it’s more like running out of the last day of school before summer break. Sure, you’re proud of the work you’ve done, but mostly you’re thrilled at the chance to explore the world’s measureless magnificence without the burden of papers and tests. Or if your dad has a “vacation mode” like mine does, I picture God’s seventh-day rest as something like that: enthusiastic, relaxed, almost giddy. The point of this rest isn’t rejuvenation but rejoicing. It completes the goodness of creation.
So where does our rest-as-rejuvenation model come from? I think it’s at least partially from America’s real established religion: capitalism. David Foster Wallace compares us to fish who are completely unaware that they’re swimming in water. We get along just fine without noticing it, but our hearts and minds are embedded in social norms and customs, and there’s more capitalism in our water than there is salt in the Dead Sea. We’re a school of consumers constantly swimming through millions of markets.
And here’s what we breathe in through our theological gills: if you want something, work for it. If you have something, you’ve earned it. If you’re resting, it’d better be so you can work harder tomorrow or because you busted your butt yesterday. (You might want to post on Instagram about what you’re doing to prove you’re making good use of your time off.) If you need more rest than others, something’s wrong with you.
We might not think we believe these things, but we act like we do. We evaluate ourselves and others by our material acquisitions and economic success. We feel guilty for resting when we could be getting stuff done. We raise our eyebrows in silent judgment at people who spend more time resting than we do. We rest so that we can work, earn, buy, brag. We spend our time of rest still worshiping Mammon.
And is acting like you believe something any different from believing it?
Believing differently, then, means acting differently. And the practice of Sabbath—spending time in joyful rest that is aimed not at increased productivity but at communion with others and with God—is one way to do this. Resting the way God rests trains us work the way God works: not for personal gain but for peace and justice.
Sabbath doesn’t carry a hammer and a sickle or require that you call your fellow congregants “comrade.” But it does say “no” to each one of the lies capitalism tells us. Sabbath sounds less like a self-help book by a recent MBA grad and more like Jesus: if you want something, ask. If you have something, it’s not yours. If you’re resting, rejoice. If you need more rest than others, rest more. Rest so that you can pray, laugh, give, serve.
But it’s not enough to try to do this on your own. Capitalism is a social phenomenon, and it interferes with our need to rest by unevenly distributing access to rest. Middle- and upper-class Americans can afford to take weekends (and week-long vacations) off without suffering financially. People working for minimum wage or cobbling together part-time jobs cannot. We see rest as a reward for work, but only for the right kinds of work.
But the Bible doesn’t treat Sabbath as a privilege for those who can afford it but as a gift and a command for all of humanity So just as we should fight for every single human being to be able to enjoy the gift of life and obey the command to worship God, we need to fight for universal access to rest. Sabbath must transform not only our individual lives but our communal value system. Politically, this might mean increasing the minimum wage, supporting unions that bargain for better work hours, and changing our rhetoric about those who can’t make ends meet. Personally, it means giving yourself and those around you permission to not be productive.
This isn’t about tearing down one economic system and replacing it with another. Any system invented by humans, from feudalism to communism, is going to be just as broken as humans are. Instead, observing an anti-capitalist Sabbath is about rejecting the metrics that capitalism uses to define our worth and the worth of others. It’s about insisting that rest is an intrinsic good, not an instrumental one. And it’s about tearing down the idols of work, worth, and wealth to whom we so often sacrifice our souls.