Quiet. It’s a rare thing for me these days, especially as a father of three. And not only for that reason. Our world is filled with noise: voices, music, TV, computers, traffic, crowds, appliances, phones. Unusual is the moment in the course of an average day that our environment is empty of sound. Even now as I sit typing, I hear at least one of my four year old sons waking. The serenity I enjoy is temporary, soon to be interrupted by the sound of kids playing—something done only occasionally at low volume. So, at the very least, this gives me ample motive to take full advantage of such tranquility when it’s available. Learning the value of stillness is important, maybe all the more in a culture where sound is virtually ubiquitous.
Tuning our ears to quiet is also a challenge. We’re used to noise. Becoming accustomed to the sound of our own thoughts isn’t easy. And nor is it always something we want. When alone with our thoughts, we might not like what we hear. The constant background hum of our computers and the chatter of our workplaces and homes can shield us against what’s going on in our own heads. Maybe we prefer this. We’d rather our existence within the world of work, home, and social media be the sum total of what we are—ignoring our inner-life altogether. Facing ourselves is, at least sometimes, much less desirable than updating our Facebook status.
But even if we want quiet, it’s hard to come by. Lives busy with activity make time alone seem like an indulgence if not an inconvenience. Sometimes we even feel guilty for taking it. Such moments are unnecessary interruptions. Think about it this way. When someone asks you how life is going, how often do you say, “Pretty slow, actually. Lots of time on my hands,” vs. “Oh, we’re keeping busy”? Busyness implies importance. It signifies that we’re responsible. We manage our time well. That abundance of tasks that fills our schedules lends significance and meaning to our lives. Taking a break from that means waste. It means being irresponsible. It means—heaven forbid—that the world can get along without us.
And this, in part, is what Sabbath is all about. The Hebrew word we translate “rest” in the Old Testament is the verb form of the word Sabbath. And it doesn’t mean to rest because we’ve grown weary or tired from our labours. Literally, it means to “stop or cease.” Sabbath is not about working to the point of exhaustion and then crashing. It’s a break from productive activity, whether you’re tired or not. Work six days, then stop.
And to stop, we require some quiet. We need to separate ourselves from tools, toys, and environments that tempt us to busyness and activity. It means instructing our computer to shut down. Only when we do so will we have the quiet we need—yes, need. We might very well be wired for sound and activity; but we’re also wired for rest and quiet. This is why the first six days of creation activity in Genesis 1 is capped off with a seventh day, a Sabbath day, a reminder of our need for rest.
But it’s not just about taking a break. Sabbath ultimately speaks to the purposes of God for us, that ultimately he is interested in our placing our relationship with him first above all else. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee,” prays Saint Augustine. “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him,” we hear in Psalm 62.
Eugene Peterson, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, says this about Sabbath: “Whatever you are doing, stop it . . . Whatever you are saying, shut up. We must stop long enough to hear what he has said and is saying . . . without silence and stillness there is no spirituality, no God-attentive, God-responsive life.”
Sabbath is about paying attention to God. Of course, this might very well be the reason some avoid quiet. There are those who want to ignore that “still, small voice.” Life is easier, it seems, without it. Our preference for texts and tweets reinforces the tyranny of the urgent in our lives. God becomes peripheral, rather than a priority.
In the Bible, rest is another way of talking about salvation, of being made whole and right, firstly and especially in relation to God. It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus gives the following invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest” (Matt. 11:28) Jesus offers more than rest for our bodies; he offers us rest for our souls.
But to hear and respond to this invitation, we require quiet, a reprieve from the noise that normally fills our days. To listen we need to be in a position to hear. Our ears to be open, waiting. And this is what Sabbath is truly about. It’s not about only not working. It’s about what not working allows us to hear. It’s what being still rather than busy helps us be aware of.
My advice? Take a few moments alone this week—today even—and turn to Isaiah 30:15 where it reads: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’” Understand that this invitation to rest is for you too. Jesus’ invitation—given two millennia ago—is given to us today: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” The invitation is there; the rest, as they say, is up to us.