By Mark Dance
Officer Paul Burnett was a good cop. As a motorcycle patrolman, he didn’t hesitate to work long, hard shifts. Paul was also a committed husband and father of three young children. When he was not in a police uniform, he was usually in a coach’s uniform.
Paul was in his late 30s and very active, so I was shocked to get a distressed call from his wife: Paul had a mini-stroke that temporarily left half of his body numb. God took mercy on Paul and he fortunately got off with a warning this time (pathetic police pun, I know). Paul in my opinion, is a hero; but he is not a superhero. Those mostly only live in comic books.
The only real superhero I know is Jesus, and in Matthew 8 we see Him sleeping heavily—right through a life-threatening storm. “Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping” (Matthew 8:23-27).
That might be hard for you to absorb—Jesus needing a nap. His body was designed to sleep every night and to rest every week, just like ours. I think that Jesus was in such a deep sleep because He was fatigued from several days of intense ministry. Maybe you are in the same boat.
On a different occasion, we see the same ministry fatigue setting in on Jesus’ disciples. He instructs them to “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while” (Mark 6:31 KJV). Vance Havner used to say that Christians should imitate Jesus and, “Come apart, before you come apart.”
Never has there been a more timely solution to a timeless problem. Jesus called a ministry timeout, for Himself and His crew. Guess what? We are His crew now, and sometimes we need a timeout too.
Driven pastors often convince ourselves that we cannot afford to take a break. Yet wouldn’t you agree that, as important as we think we are, we are not more important than the world-changing Messiah? Storms will come and go, but God’s gift of Sabbath is all the permission we need to rest, even when all of our work is still unfinished.
Although the Fourth Commandment is on God’s Top Ten list, even before stealing and adultery, it often seems like a luxury for the rich, retired, or relaxed. Besides, driven pastors are applauded for their extra efforts by their peers, and rarely rebuked for working too long or hard. If we are not careful, well-meaning people will unknowingly applaud us to our graves! Why don’t friends and family join the ovation? Because they can see up close the price tag of success.
I’ve come to realize that my diligence can also become my disobedience. Sometimes in my attempts to change the world, I find myself changing the rules. It may be easier for a pastor to break the Sabbath than anyone, because we hold the “God-card.”
There will always be more ministry than we can fit into a workweek, so why even try? Is that why the divorce rate among ministers is as high as the rest of society? Maybe the overused God-card excuse is why 80% of pastors believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively. Or why 45.5% of pastors say they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry. (Pastor’s at Greater Risk, H.B. London).
Sabbath is a principle that we can and should apply every day when we go to bed, and every week when we choose to rest and worship, instead of work. We are serious about Sabbath when we refuse to check our voicemail, email, or any work correspondence on our day(s) off. Resting sounds easy, and it is for some. But for the busy pastor, rest is actually a bold, counter-cultural resistance to the American obsession with success. Sabbath literally means to “stop,” and that is not easy for us to do.
Every time we choose to step away from the job after hours, we walk a little further away from the line that separates the driven from the terminally driven. How often do we forget that Sabbath is not a suggestion to consider, it is a command to obey? The fourth (and longest) of the Ten Commandments is, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20: 8-11)
Sabbath keeping not only takes courage, but also a generous amount of humility. To take the Sabbath seriously, we will have to right-size the importance of our roles at work, home, and church. If you are among my many pastor friends who are eager to become emancipated from their crazy calendars, know that you are not alone and that God will empower you to do what He instructs you to do.