Sabbath and Surrender

Jan 30, 2024

About Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel

Before joining Western’s faculty in 1994, Dr. Bechtel taught at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. She has also served as a teaching fellow at Yale Divinity School and as interim pastor of Turn of River Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Connecticut. Dr. Bechtel preaches and teaches widely and is a General Synod Professor of Theology in the Reformed Church in America. She served as President of the RCA’s General Synod from 2009-2010. She also serves as the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society.

Dr. Bechtel grew up on a farm in Fulton, Illinois. She attended Hope College and Western Theological Seminary and received her Ph.D. in Old Testament from Yale University in 1992. She now lives with her husband, Tom Mullens, in Holland, Michigan. They have four children and ten grandchildren. Her hobbies include singing, cooking, gardening, and playing the Celtic harp.

Dr. Bechtel preaches and teaches widely and is a General Synod Professor of Theology in the Reformed Church in America.

By Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel

Professor of the Old Testament

Scripture: Exodus 16

“What’s Your Excuse?”

The manna story in Exodus 16 is a story about God’s provision, but it is also a story about our tendency to make excuses. Even when God tells the people not to gather the miraculous manna, some of them sneak out and try to gather some anyway (Exodus 16:26–29). It doesn’t work out, of course. But we humans always seem to be able to find an excuse to do things our way.

What were they thinking, I wonder? What excuses did they give for ignoring God’s invitation to rest on the Sabbath day? Maybe they had trust issues. Who knows. Since the Bible doesn’t elaborate, we can only guess. But I wonder if it might be more productive to ask that same question of ourselves. What excuses do we give for ignoring God’s invitation to rest and delight?

Here’s a list I put together some years ago. It’s based on what I have caught myself thinking and on what I have most often heard from others. In the style of “top ten” lists, it starts with #10 and works its way up to #1. See if any of these excuses sound familiar:

Top Ten Excuses for Not Celebrating Sabbath

#10. I’m only worth as much as I can get done.

#9. People are depending on me.

#8. I’m doing this work for God.

#7. It’s just too much work (!)

#6. It’s just a bunch of rules.

#5. It’s a Jewish thing.

#4. Jesus set us free from all that.

#3. I can’t get all my work done as it is.

#2. No one else is doing it.

#1. I’m going to, but first I need to do one more thing…

What’s your excuse? You may have your own list in your own order, but the simple act of making such a list can tell you a lot about yourself. Let’s pick a couple of the excuses from my list as examples.

What does the “I’m doing this work for God” excuse tell us? First, it suggests that we are serious about doing God’s work. Hurray for us! But if God asks us to take a break, shouldn’t that outweigh our good intentions? And are we really that indispensable? Do we think God can’t get by without our help for 24 hours?

The reason I put “I’m going to, but first I need to do one more thing…” as my #1 Sabbath-avoiding excuse is not because it is the most profound. In fact, I would argue that the “I’m only worth as much as I can get done” probably says the most about both me and the misplaced values of our culture. Even so, it’s the “I just need to do one more thing” excuse that trips me up most often. Perhaps it’s the snowball effect of this one that makes it so insidious. You know how it is. One thing leads to another and then another—and soon, you’ve missed your Sabbath.

Whatever excuses we may use for avoiding Sabbath, they say a lot about us. And at the heart of all of them is a lack of trust. What would it take for you to trust God to provide for your needs? To surrender an unhealthy striving for more wealth, more stuff, and more success? To recognize when it is time to say, “Enough”?

Bonus quotes:

“Given the opportunity, we—and all humans—will eventually transgress the boundaries God has laid out for us.” Judy Fentress-Williams, Holy Imagination (Nashville: Abingdon, 2021) p. 11 (re Genesis 3).

“The one who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.” Lao Tsu (ancient Chinese philosopher)

Suggested hymn: “All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly,” Glory to God 509.

*This material was originally created as an online supplement for the Presbyterian Women/Horizons Bible study, Celebrating Sabbath: Accepting God’s Gift of Rest and Delight by Carol M. Bechtel, a nine-lesson Bible study published by Presbyterian Women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Learn more or order the study (available in multiple editions) at www.presbyterianwomen.org/bible-study/celebrating-sabbath.

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