I don’t remember exactly when he said it or even what prompted his comment, but I’ve never forgotten his words. Many years ago, when I was working at a church on Long Island, I was talking with the local denominational executive, a guy named Tom Castlen. As we talked, Tom looked at me with a serious air of concern in his eyes, and said. “Kennedy, you work too hard.”
And do you know what my first reaction was? I felt flattered. I thought to myself. “Really? Gee thanks.” Then I realized. Tom wasn’t giving me a compliment. He was delivering a serious criticism. And the fact that his criticism flattered me showed how right he was. To this day, I struggle with setting healthy limits on my work, a struggle that has hurt me more as a pastor than it has helped me.
But I don’t face this struggle alone. Americans have become the most over-worked nation in the developed world. A good many Americans don’t take all their vacation, and even when they do, 6 in 10 report that they work then too, even while their family members complain. So what’s the big problem? Isn’t working hard one of those things that makes America great? Here’s the problem.
Research shows that that the levels of depression, anger and resentment among workers has gotten higher than ever. Nearly one in three report feeling overworked and overtired on a regular basis. And when researchers ask children the one thing they want the most from their parents, it was that they be less stressed and less tired. And on top of all this, the overworked workers report making far more mistakes than those who aren’t overworked.
Here’s the painful truth. When work gets out of balance, it makes everything worse. Your health declines. Your family life gets more conflict and less joy. And you don’t even get better at your job. You get worse. So how do you find the balance? In these ancient words, God shows the way. Let’s hear what God has to say.
In a world that can demand more work than ever before, demands that will make you more stressed and less healthy and happy than ever, how do you step away from that madness? How do you find a path where you can work well without hurting yourself, your family, even your job? In these words, God shows you the way. God tells you. The answer ultimately lies in asking this question. Who are you really working for and why? And as you discover the real answer to that question, you will find a path to freedom that will liberate you to work with energy and passion, even as it frees you to work less and play more.
Too often when you think about these words we just read, the number 4 commandment in God’s top ten, you think about all those words on Sabbath, on taking a rest. But the commandment doesn’t start there. It starts by focusing on work. Working is actually part of the command. God doesn’t say. Hey it might be good for you to work, but no worries if you don’t. No, God says. You shall work six days. Now why is God so focused on work? It’s simple. God works. The very first thing the Bible tells us about God is that. God works. That’s what God was doing in those six days when he created the earth. God was working. And God was loving it. Every day, God finished one part of the job, and do you remember what he said? It’s good. In fact, by the end, when God got to working on us, God even moved the needle to very good.
And that should tell you something. God made you to work. God built in you a desire to do things, to create, to build, to produce. It’s why when I do a chore around the house, unloading the dishwasher, repairing something, whatever it might be, my son, Patrick, wants to help. And when I tell him how helpful he was, I can see the satisfaction that wells up. Work, when it’s done right, brings you joy. What the playwright, Oscar Wilde said is true. Work is much more fun than fun.
But here’s the problem with work. It’s the problem that led God to give the commandment. In your work, without realizing it, you start losing touch with what you’re working for. God gave you work so you could live out your gifts, so you could become everything God created you to be. God gave you work to give you life. So if that’s the case, why are so many people’s work killing them, killing their joy, their relationships, their souls, maybe even their life?
They’ve forgotten why they do it, what it’s really supposed to mean. I’d like to tell you that when I was working so hard, so hard that a colleague criticized me for it, that I was working out of joy and satisfaction. And some of that was there. But I was feeling way more anxiety than I was joy. I was anxious about looking good, about looking like the toughest, most capable person in the room especially since I was pretty sure I wasn’t. I was anxious to be successful, whatever that looked like, and I was terrified that if I stopped it wouldn’t happen. I would fail. And what would that say about me? I wanted people to like me, and I discovered, never saying no, helped with that. And finally my “work” helped me avoid the other work I really needed to do, on my relationships, on myself, work on my connection with God, work that made me feel pretty uncomfortable. To put it simply, I worked to feel good about myself, to find a way to confirm that I was good, valuable, worthy.
That’s what happens. The goals may be different for different people. Some may work to make money, to achieve security, to provide for their family. They may work for recognition or fame. Heck, you may not even know what you’re working for. But whatever it is, in that motivation, something goes seriously wrong. You stop working out of the joy or satisfaction it gives you. Instead, you work out of fear, out of insecurity and anxiety. You work to fill a void that you feel aching inside of you, and if you can’t fill it, at least your work helps you ignore it’s there.
That’s why God gave this command. The word, Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, has a simple meaning. It means stop. Stop. Why? It’s because when you don’t stop, you lose perspective. You lose who God created you to be. You become less human, and in doing so, you make people you don’t even know less human too.
When I was growing up, it was the strangest thing. Lots of stores had a day that they closed. I mean, they closed all day, and they did it once a week. And lo and behold, you hardly had any stores that stayed open 24 hours. And somehow people still got food, clothes, all sorts of things. But it meant a lot of people weren’t working hours that took them away from their families; that hurt their health; that made their lives miserable. When God talked about the whole slavery in Egypt thing, he wasn’t just taking a walk down memory lane. God was saying to the Israelites. Don’t become the Egyptians. Don’t do to others what your slave masters did to you.
But God isn’t just giving this commandment because of that. God is giving it to remind them of two things they desperately need to remember. First, God is saying. You’re not God. You didn’t get yourself out of Egypt. I did that. That’s why I’m God and you’re not. So if you stop for a day, the sun is still going to rise. Life will continue on. You’re not that important. And that’s a good thing. You can let go for a little bit, and not everything will collapse. And if you practice that one day each week, you might start believing it.
And second and most crucially of all, God is reminding you. You have value. You have worth, not because of how useful you are to me or to others. You have worth and value simply because you are. God didn’t intend Sabbath to be a day off, a day to run errands or catch up on laundry. God made Sabbath as a day for you to do nothing, to play. That’s why you worship on the Sabbath. Worship is playing. It’s doing something that has no obvious productive or practical purpose. That’s what play is.
Strangely enough, researchers are discovering that we need it. One researcher, Stuart Brown, put it this way. “The opposite of play isn’t work – the opposite of play is depression.” Basically, God created you to play as well as work. And if you stop playing, then your work will stop working so to speak. Or as Brown put it: “In the long run, work does not work without play.”
But God is saying more than that. God is saying. One day a week you have to stop and play, because one day a week you need to remember who you are. You’re my creation, my child, and my love for you has nothing to do with what you do. It has everything to do with who you are.
That’s why God wants us to baptize babies. Because, let’s get real, what do babies do? They don’t really do much of anything but eat and poop. You pretty much have to do everything for them. And that’s the point. All of us come into the world, doing nothing of value but simply existing. And guess what. That’s enough. That’s enough for you to be loved and valued and cherished. And one day each week, God orders you to remember that, that simply existing is enough for you to be loved by the creator of the universe.
But if that’s true, why didn’t the Israelites get it? Why does our world not get it? Why do you maybe not get it? It’s because you don’t yet believe it, really believe it. But if you look at the cross, if you really look at what God in Jesus did for you, then more and more that belief will break through. God went through that cross when you had done nothing for him, when in fact your screw ups put him there. God went through the exhaustion of it, the agony of it, the humiliation of it, why? God didn’t do it out of duty or even so you might like him. God did it out of joy, the joy of loving you, of bringing you home. God entered into that slavery to free you from a bondage to proving yourself that drives you with fear and shame. On that cross, God endured the most brutal work of all to give you the rest you desperately need, a resting from proving yourself, from hiding from yourself, from restlessly seeking love when the love you need has been waiting for you all along. And the more that love rests in you, the more your work will become work rather a place to prove your value. And you will find the freedom to work joyfully, and to play joyfully, and to rest in the love that loves you no matter what. So in the name of God, stop, cease your work, and remember who you are and believe it.