COVID-19: A Prolonged Sabbath in a Culture of Productivity

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of school holidays and feeling untethered in many ways. Now, as Term 2 descends, “Sabbath” does not quite seem the right idea for what I’m facing now. The same maybe true for you — or not. I’m sure that our experiences of this time will be as diverse as we are ourselves. Even so, I’m hoping that what I was thinking about a couple of weeks ago may be encouraging to you in some way today.

I’ve got my to-do list in front of me. Today is a good day: I’m ticking off the things I’ve scheduled to do, even in the time I wanted to do them. Quarantine success, here I come. 

I’ve seen the memes, the inspirational messages, and I know what is expected. Famous people throughout history accomplished incredible things during periods of isolation. Scientific discoveries, classic works of literature — this is what is possible, I’m told, if I can only embrace the isolation, hunker down, and get to work. I can’t let this time go to waste. 

I’m not the only one expected to be even more productive than usual. In the past three weeks (for some of you, it’s been longer), I’ve scrolled through my news feed to find countless projects, virtual learning experiences, tutorials, lessons, crafts — the list goes on. Every corner of the internet has something to offer my homebound children, things entertaining and productive, guaranteed to make the most of the time we’re stuck at home. 

At the end of this, we should have something to show: a work of art, a new skill, a project completed, an intellect grown. To be sure, many of the resources on offer are fantastic. And I’m taking a deep breath because of the extra space in my weekly schedule. Indeed, as I’ve read from others, who knows what possibilities this limitation of movement will open up for us? 

Yet — can I allow myself and my children to give up being productive or educated or entertained for even a small amount of time? Can I allow us to be bored? To be unessential? To rest?

Boredom is not without risks. Even before the cancellation of much of my calendar, I noticed that unscheduled moments, empty of a specific goal or task, left me restless. Anxious, almost. Was I sure I hadn’t missed something? Wasn’t there something I should be doing? Something I should be accomplishing? Some progress to make? Aren’t I supposed to be redeeming the time?

In our present moment, it feels inevitable that if we allow our minds to rest, to wander where they will, we’ll be flooded with fear and anxiety. Better to keep busy, better to have something to distract us from the present difficulties and future unknowns. 

Focusing on a book, giving myself space and time to let my mind wander where it will, considering the things around me and looking for God’s work in them — I’m finding all of these things to be more difficult in the present moment. Some of this is the reality of facing a world that has shifted under our feet. The lack of external stability leaves us in a perpetual balancing act, trying to find equilibrium.  

Yet some of it, I have to admit, is my own weakness exposed. It’s all too clear that I resist boredom and rest. Instead, I cling to the god of productivity, hoping to demonstrate my value and secure my success. The current quarantine has only heightened my resistance and raised my expectations. I’ve got more time; more must be done. 

In this way, I’m simply a fish in water. This world, our culture particularly, idolizes productivity and success. Rather than understanding people as intrinsically valuable, we think that we must create that value. In his book Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost argues that our world “measures worth only in widgets, numbers and quantities. It has almost completely abandoned the idea that human beings transcend processes and are made for relationality and wisdom, not merely productivity.” In a world of FitBits, GoodReads, and even apps that track your prayer life, we try to measure and quantify ourselves. In this world, we can never be content to simply be; we must always be doing, making, producing, constructing. Our worth depends on it. 

The Scriptures speak of a different measure of worth and value. When God created Adam and Eve, he proclaimed, “It is very good.” He gave this benediction, not after a day of their fruitful work and production, but simply over their existence. God delighted in them because of their existence, not their work. And when the Father’s voice breaks through the clouds declaring his love for his Son, Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry. Atonement was not yet complete. God’s delight preceded  accomplishment. 

In our heads, many of us know this. We know that we cannot earn our worth, that the love of the Father is given “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8). Yet when the cultural water that we swim in says otherwise, our hearts can struggle to believe it, and our bodies can struggle to act on it. 

In his goodness, our Father gave us a gift to help us get this reality from our minds into our hearts and our bodies. By taking the gift of Sabbath, a day of rest from our work and striving, we remind ourselves that our value is not in our productivity. We proclaim our “unessential” status in the sense that the earth does not depend on our busyness to continue to rotate around the sun. God continues to uphold his creation. We are invited into his work, but we should not fool ourselves that he couldn’t do it without us. 

Perhaps, in this time of quarantine, we will finally have time to tackle the project that’s been on the back burner for much too long. Perhaps great works of literature or art will be produced during this time. If so, let’s offer our work to God, thanking him for the space and soil for these things to grow. 

But perhaps we won’t. Perhaps we’ve entered into a prolonged Sabbath — a rest from our striving to prove our own worth. If so, we can give up the false guilt that our culture puts on those who aren’t producing anything. We can rest in the love of the Father, who created and redeemed us, not because of what we are capable of doing, but because of his love. Full stop. 

Originally published at Morning by Morning