Our lives are built around calendars—whether they’re hanging on refrigerators or beeping away on phones. But are calendars more than reminders and to-dos? Could the way we order our days wield a potent influence on how we are formed as disciples of Jesus?
A curious detail we discover in Scripture is how much importance God gives to a sacred understanding of time. One of the first things He named holy was a simple day of the week, the Sabbath—a hallowed 24 hours that recentered all of life’s rhythms (Ex. 20:8). Hours, days, and years are the raw material expressing (and shaping) the way we understand the world. Time is far more than merely a neutral resource for human consumption. Our posture toward time expresses what we believe (Is God Lord of my life, Lord of my days?) as well as where we place our hope (Is God my provision, or must I cobble life together on my own?).
The concept of Sabbath was central to Israel’s understanding of God, pivotal for the practice of their faith, and essential to their identity as His holy people. One day out of every seven, the people were to stop their labor in order to rest, worship their God, and freely enjoy His abundant gifts through meals, family, and friendship. Sabbath was the day they paused, fully aware that God had already done all that was necessary for their well-being. If they trusted the Lord, they could rest. If they relied on God’s heart toward them and strength for them, their work could stop. Their life simply did not depend on their exertion and industry. This was the truth that Sabbath declared.
During the 40 years in the wilderness when God miraculously provided manna, Israel’s provisions on the sixth day doubled so that on the Sabbath, the people would have no need for toil but instead could give their full attention to God and to joy. It was a day devoted to delight. Jewish sources indicate that many regarded the Sabbath as a time to set aside practices like fasting, mourning, and even more solemn forms of prayer—and instead engage in feasting, revelry, and boisterous expressions of gratitude. This is why one of the Jewish prayers recited on certain Sabbaths asks God that “there be no sadness or trouble in the day of our rest.”
For Christians, the understanding of Sabbath has evolved, but the ways that God’s kingdom subverts our sense of time have multiplied. In the New Testament, we are told that the church met on Sunday—“the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7-8). As Saturday had been, this likewise was a day of worship, rest, and feasting during which Jesus’ followers could break bread, listen to the apostles’ teaching, and contribute to a communal life that exhibited radical hospitality and friendship. Sunday became a model for the remainder of the week, as their prayers, study of Scripture, and fellowship spilled into the other six days, creating a comprehensive, God-attuned way of life (2:42-47).
My dad has fond memories of this practice, recounting stories of how his mother would spend Saturday afternoon cooking the next day’s meal: pot roast, potatoes and carrots, green beans, and a fresh chocolate cake. That way, when Sunday arrived, she would not need to fuss in the kitchen but could simply enjoy church, her family, and any neighbors who might happen by the house.
It’s difficult though, isn’t it, to cease our labor, to simply stop from our maneuverings and machinations. If we take our hands off the wheel, what will keep us from careening wildly off course? If we take our eyes off our portfolios or resist, if even only for a stretch of hours, all those very important emails demanding our attention, what will we miss? How far behind will we fall? What will become of us?
If, however, we truly believe that God holds us (and the entire world) together, we have no need to maintain such vigilance. Our life does not rely upon us. With our first day designated for the Lord, joy, and rest, the spirit of Sabbath continues in us, offering us the gift of time secured by God’s hands, not ours.
If we truly believe that God holds us together, we have no need to maintain such vigilance. Our life does not rely upon us.
In the Hebrew world, the “day” began in the evening. With Genesis, we hear the constant refrain of evening and morning (first day), evening and morning (second day), and so on. In other words, the Hebrews started by resting. In sleep, we contribute little, and we must rely on God to carry us, and those we love, through the night. The poet George MacDonald claimed that “sleep is God’s contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake.”
This evening-first alignment was precisely the orientation in which Jesus and the New Testament writers lived. We’ve entirely flipped the pattern. Our day starts with our activity, with us waking to tasks and revving our energy for all we plan to accomplish. The Hebrew day began with God-dependence, while our day begins with self-exertion.
It is not lost on me that our culture has subtly begun to undo this “first day of rest” posture. Many of us tend to think of Sunday as the last day of the week rather than the first. Indeed, a number of new calendars actually lay our week out this way, placing Monday (when we gear up) as our starting point rather than Sunday (when we wind down). Monday, of course, is the day we recommence our labor—if we ever actually stopped at all. Our work in the world is noble and good, but only when placed in proper perspective. If we believe our week begins with our work, we become defined by what we do rather than by what God does.
We must acknowledge the Lord as ruler of all our days if we are to combat the fatigue of a life hinged on our own efforts. Our posture regarding time can orient us either toward grace and rest or toward self-effort and exhaustion. Eugene Peterson describes the process this way: “We experience this grace [of restful time] with our bodies before we apprehend it with our minds . . . We are getting our bodies into a genesis rhythm.”
The point to all this is not to draw rigid lines about how we understand or practice a God-attuned sense of time. It is, however, an attempt to remind us that Jesus is Lord—even over our calendars. It is to remind us that our lives (our days, our weeks) do not begin with our effort but with God.