© Judson Press, Valley Forge, Pa 1983. Revised by the author 2001



You gotta work before you play!"You gotta work before you play." This is one of the first lessons most people learn — or are supposed to learn early in life. Before you can ever express it in words, you know there is a big difference between work and play. The difference is harder to define than many would suppose. It certainly has nothing to do with being paid for the activity. Many people get paid for playing — for doing things they would gladly do for nothing. And there are others, poor slaves, who are paid nothing for their drudgery.

One way to distinguish work from play is by defining "play" as "work you don't have to do." Why do it then? Because you want to do it. And you want to because the activity is in agreement with who you are. It is consistent with your interests, gifts and talents. Work, on the other hand, is any activity that is in conflict with who you are. Regardless of your interests, gifts and talents, you have to do it anyway.

"Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work…" (Exodus 20:9 KJV). Long before God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai he revealed the worth of work. In Genesis 2 before the first humans sinned, God commanded that Adam cultivate the Garden of Eden. Work was not a penalty but an honorable activity.

Alan Richardson, in The Biblical Doctrine of Work, wrote, "Unlike the Greeks, who thought that working for one's living was beneath the dignity of a gentleman, the Hebrews looked upon daily toil as a normal part of the divine ordering of the world, and no man was exempt it." The writer of First Samuel sees no reason to hide the fact that King Saul was a common laborer (1 Samuel 11:5). The title "servant of the Lord" was a prestigious title (Genesis 26:24; Exodus 14:31).

Although work was ordained by God as an honorable activity, it soon became corrupted by sin. One of the consequences of Adam's fall into sin was that now he and his descendants have to work instead of doing what they wish. "Because of what you have done," God said, "the ground will be under a curse. You will have to work hard all your life to make it produce enough food for you. It will produce weeds and thorns, and you will have to eat wild plants. You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything" (Genesis 3:17-19 TEV).

Some might assume from this passage that the difference made by the curse of sin is in the amount of exertion humankind had to put forth. Yet it is hardly reasonable to suppose that Adam's muscles before the fall into sin were flabby from disuse. Rather, the difference is more likely to be that before he sinned, what he did was in agreement with who he was, i.e., play. After he sinned, what he did was in conflict with who he was, i.e., his work became toilsome and compulsive. Before sin, perhaps Adam approached his work like an enthusiastic pheasant hunter who eagerly arises at dawn for a day of hunting and returns home sweaty, happy, and exhausted at the end of the day. But after he sinned, his work became the daily grind of the thistle puller who forces himself from his bed utterly contrary to his inner nature.

Work ultimately becomes not only irksome but also compulsive. It gives dreary structure to an otherwise meaningless life. During the 1982 recession, Diane Sawyer reported on the CBS morning news that for every 1 percent rise in unemployment, there is a 4 percent rise in the suicide rate. Your very survival depends on doing things you would rather not do. No wonder there is so much dissatisfaction and unhappiness in this world!

There can be intemperance in work just as there is in drink. Workaholics sacrifice their wives, husbands, children and even their very soul on the altar of professional achievement.

Whether an activity is work or play depends not so much on what you do but on your attitude. A fisherman's work can be the gardener's play and vice versa. Work is anything you do when you would rather be doing something else. Play is the "something else." It flows spontaneously from the kind of person you are.

Play is an important part of worship. Moses' sister Miriam led the women of Israel in a celebrative dance after Israel's miraculous deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20). When the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem, the scriptures tell us that David "danced with all his might to honor the Lord" (2 Samuel 6:14). In its highest form worship can't be spoken. When words fail, people sing and dance. Even the Weeping Prophet Jeremiah pictured the new age as one of play: "You shall adorn yourself with tumbrels, and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers" (Jeremiah 31:4 RSV).

Worship that is contrived labor is not worship but sacrilege. True worship, like play, flows from your heart. Jesus said, "Whoever believes in me, streams of life-giving water will pour out from his heart" (John 7:38).

"The seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work" (Exodus 20:8-10). To our compulsive generation the Lord, in effect, says, "Don't just do something. Stand There! Stand there regularly enough and long enough to discover and reaffirm who you are in relation to your Creator."

Leisure means freedom to do something. It also means freedom to do nothing. In a society driven by a compulsion to work, freedom to do nothing may be the most rare and precious of all.

It is an important commandment. Although the sabbath is only one seventh as long as the work week, it is the only day that God blessed and hallowed. This implies that humankind's chief end is not labor but, rather, rest and worship. Jesus picked up this theme in the home of Mary and Martha when he commended Mary choosing the "right thing," that is, enjoying him, rather than laboring in the kitchen with her sister (Luke 10:38-42).

There are three considerations involved in truly restful rest. Rest is not just inactivity. In modern times much work is not physically demanding and, consequently, does not require physical rest. Rest is something that contrasts pleasantly with what you do most of the time. Rest is something you do because you enjoy the activity itself, not just the results. Golf becomes work if the only thing about it that interests you is lowering your score.

The writer of Hebrews describes Christian life as a perpetual sabbath rest. He begins by quoting Genesis, "God rested on the seventh day from all his work" (Hebrews 4:4). He reminds his readers, "Those who first heard the Good News did not receive that rest, because they did not believe" (4:6). Then he argues "There are, then, others who are allowed to receive it… there still remains for God's people a rest like God's resting on the seventh day" (4:6-9). Finally he includes, "Let us, then, do our best to receive that rest (4:11). In none of these references does the sabbath mean a calendar day, nor does rest mean mere inactivity.

Rest is not quitting
The busy career;
Rest is the fitting
Of self to its sphere.
'Tis loving and serving
The highest and best!
'Tis onwards, unswerving,
And that is true rest. (John Sullivan Dwight)

One of the best descriptions of rest was given by Jesus who said, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." What kind of rest? "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:28-29).

The sabbath is not just a day of the week but a life-style. It is how life works. God rested not because he was tired or couldn't think of anything else to do. He created you and the world with built in rhythms. Just as the timing of its parts must be right for an engine to run smoothly, so there are timings that must be observed if you and the universe are to run as they ought. The fundamental cycle that God built into things alternates between doing and being, work and rest. The fourth commandment says that even animals need and deserve rest (Exodus 20:10).

Oxford/Cambridge professor, C. S. Lewis, wrote: "You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it… The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop."

The sabbath was originally the seventh day of the week, Saturday. But it was changed by the early church to the first day of the week, Sunday. This significant change did not come about through any specific command but through historic circumstances. Sunday was the day on which Christ arose to begin a new creation. Until he arose, believers worked toward the sabbath. After he arose, believers worked from the sabbath. The faith-rest life of the Christian is the beginning point, not the end. Consequently, the sabbath was celebrated on Sunday instead of Saturday.

To neglect the sabbath makes living a task, a job, work. God doesn't need a holy day; you do. "The Sabbath was made for the good of man" Jesus said (Mark 2:27). He "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38, KJV). Without the Sabbath people just go about. They must learn to stop in order to let their souls catch up with their bodies. People who don't keep the Sabbath are like a freeway without off-ramps.

Don't confuse busyness for blessedness; activity must not pass for spirituality. What you are is more important than what you do. In filling your life with endless activity, you empty it of meaning. You end up working your head to the bone!

We may joke about the strict sabbath rules of pilgrims and Puritans, but the joke is on us. They did not live in such an age of unrest like ours. They were not as vexed as we with mental illness, alcoholism, nervous breakdowns and suicide. We are the most entertained and least happy people on earth. The fact is we can't break the sabbath; we can only be broken upon it.

To observe the sabbath is to make living play. Remembering that we are children of God pushes the boundaries of life infinitely beyond the dull, monotonous routine of toil and transforms it. Two brick layers were asked, "What are you doing?" The first said, "Laying bricks." The second answered, "Building a cathedral." For some people life is laying just one brick after another — a lot of work! But for others life is cathedral building, i.e., play. Before you can build a cathedral, you have to know who you are and what your place is in life's master plan. The Sabbath is the time when you discover these things.

Years ago, an NBC radio announcer received a letter from an old sheepherder in Idaho. "I enjoy your programs," he wrote, "but I want to ask a favor of you. It is rather lonely up here in the hills and I have not much to amuse me except my radio. I used to play my violin, but it has gotten badly out of tune. Would you be so kind to pause on your next program to strike "A" so that I could tune my violin and enjoy its music again?"

Is your life out of tune with God? How long has it been since you heard "A"? Don't just do something. Stand there until you hear "A." Then retune your life to play in harmony with God's great cosmic chorus.


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