Pastors seem to think that “Six days you shall labor but the seventh day you shall do no work” (Ex. 20:9–10) has an asterisk: Unless you’re a pastor, in which case you must work seven days a week. No, this is a divine command for all, not an optional suggestion for some. God designed this pattern of six days of work and one day of rest for perfect people in a perfect world. How much more do we need it? As Jesus said, he designed the Sabbath for our good (Mark 2:27).
We may think that doing without a weekly Sabbath will increase our productivity but, as Wayne Muller notes in his book on Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives, “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath—our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.” Similarly, pastor J.R. Briggs warned in Fail, “I have yet to meet a burned-out pastor who practiced Sabbath religiously.”
According to the Institute of Medicine, just one week of sleeping fewer than six hours a night results in damaging changes to more than seven hundred genes, coronary narrowing and signs of brain tissue loss. The latter is partly because sleep activates the brain’s garbage disposal system, cleaning out toxins and waste products. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with increased risk of infection, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and infertility. In short, sleeping is not a useless waste of time, but an essential biological need that prevents infection and helps us maintain healthy bodies.
And it’s not just the body that benefits; sleep improves our brains, strengthens our resolve, increases self-discipline, elevates our emotions, improves our finances and enhances our spiritual lives. As John Piper said, “For me, adequate sleep is not a matter of staying healthy. It is a matter of staying in the ministry.” Sleep is a gift from our gracious God to be received with gratitude and used for his glory and our good (Ps. 3:5; 4:8; 127:2).
The theological root of so much burnout is a failure to believe in the sovereignty of God. We simply don’t trust God to do the work that only he can do. We may subscribe confessionally to the sovereignty of God but practically we are living as if we are sovereign. I don’t think it’s a stretch to measure our functional belief in the sovereignty of God by counting the number of times we take seven to eight hours of sleep a week and the number of weeks in which we observe a weekly Sabbath. If we refuse these divine gifts, we are effectively preaching these two sermons:
- I don’t trust God with my work, my church or my family. Sure, I believe God is sovereign, but he needs all the help I can give him. If I don’t do the work, who will? Although Christ has promised to build his church, who’s doing the night shift?
- I don’t respect how my Creator has made me. I am strong enough to cope without God’s gift of sufficient daily sleep and a weekly Sabbath. I refuse to accept my creaturely limitations and bodily needs. I see myself more as a self-sufficient machine than a God-dependent creature.
So, when conscience accuses, “There are souls to be saved, how can you rest?” our answer should be, “Because there are souls to be saved, I must get rest.”
This was originally published at 9marks.org and has been reprinted by permission.