The dance of grief and sabbath

I’ve been reading a book that my sister in law got me a few years ago when I went back to visit her and my brother and his family. I had put it in my nightstand, intending to read it, and then life went on. It got packed and moved and unpacked, and I found it again looking for my wireless headphones to head to the gym.

It is a book about living a resurrection life in the here and now, and it is the right book for me to be reading before I dive back into deep theological stuff in my last semester soon (because as much as I love the deep theology stuff, my soul needs to come up for air every now and then and remember its not just about explaining it right)…

The author, Eugene Peterson, spends the first part of the small book recounting the stories in the gospels of the resurrection accounts of Jesus, and of the women and men that first encountered the empty tomb. The reality is, we know very little of what they really did those first 24 hours, other than grieve, be together, and wait to come back and embalm their beloved teacher. We also know that, being observant Jews, they would have observed sabbath for a full 24 hours. I love that Peterson includes in his description the Jewish candle lighting and blessing that would have been said – and is still said all over the world by observant Jews today:

“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by Thy commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights” (p32)

Peterson goes on to say that keeping the Sabbath, which was a purposeful day of abstaining from work for the entire household (animals included), not only gave them rest but allowed them to “be free to see and respond to who God is and what he is doing” (p36).

I know we are nowhere near Easter, but it got me to thinking about how devastating the death of Jesus was for those who knew him. To them, he was not only the one they believed to be the Messiah – he was also a friend, someone they had loved and walked with for the past few years. They probably grieved the same way we would if we lost someone close to us – because, after all, they were human.

Yet they still practiced Sabbath, in the midst of grief, believing and trusting God was God and sabbath was good for them. Practicing what they had done all their lives even in the midst of their grief gave them time to remember who God was and declare their ongoing trust and belief by their obedience to this simple command…. even though their world had just been shattered.

As I think about the recent devastation by the fires last week in Colorado, just a few miles from my house, I realize with a somber heart and a holy quietness that this is exactly what many had to do last Sunday, at the start of the new year. They sat, like the disciples, in grief and loss, perhaps questioning and asking God to make sense of it all for them. Their world, just like the disciples in that moment, had shattered with no clear path of how it would be better any time soon.

I am sure many did the same right before Christmas when the tornado ripped through Kentucky. Or when perhaps people had to say good-bye to their loved ones this holiday because of covid, or cancer, or a shooting, or other untold and un-announced tragedies.

What I realized in reading this passage by Peterson is something I don’t think I ever noticed was there, in black and white, right on the pages of scripture.

What do we do when we grieve, when we lose, when our hearts are sorrowful and life comes crashing in on us?

We practice sabbath.

Not because its the “religious” thing to do. Not so much as an antidote, or to try and run away and escape, but because we must. We must resist the temptation to get lost in staying busy to avoid our grief or sadness, or because we must take care of untold bills and insurance paperwork, handling of a loved ones estate, or other sundry things that consume our day-to-day…

The intention of Sabbath is that it be a day that reminds us who God is.

It’s a day to let him restore us, remind us of his love, and to gain strength when we focus on our rest in him.

It’s counter cultural, I know. It’s much easier to use the extra day (whenever your day off is, because we all know with jobs its not always Sunday) and do whatever chores need to be done. Or if you are in a hard season of life, its much easier to just fill it with something to avoid how you are feeling.

Sabbath is resistance to the constant pull of the world to produce, to solve, to have the answer for everything. It is resistance to the voice that tells you to “suck it up and get on with life”, or ignore your emotions (or get so lost in them that you can’t get out of a funk).

I think practicing sabbath is critical for us to heal, individually and collectively, in the face of tragedy. It allows us to bring our questions and laments to the God who has promised to never leave us. It allows us to remind our soul that we are his, and that because he is God, we will be ok. He is our anchor (Hebrews 6:19), he holds things together (Colossians 1:17), and he is a good shepherd. He knows how to take care of us (John 10:14), even when we do not know how to take care of ourselves.

So, my brothers and sisters in the Lord. When – not if – you find you are walking through a season of loss, I want to encourage you not to run and hide. Do sabbath, and invite God’s rest to your sabbath. If days are too heavy that you cannot be around people, be sensitive to that and sabbath quietly in a way that will restore you, but don’t forget to let the life of God be breathed back into you.

His shalom, his light and life will sustain you!

Book Reference:

Peterson, Eugene H. Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life. NavPress with Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

By Tama Nguyen

I'm an avid reader, tea drinker, and outdoor adventure seeker. I am convinced that God is still out to fix this broken world, and He uses us to do it. Chasing after things that matter...


  1. Interesting that you’re reading a book on Sabbath…I recently heard a podcast by Kelly Minter on Sabbath, and one of my pastors went through a series on the 10 commandments, & dedicated a whole sermon on Sabbath (not just “the” Sabbath, but “Sabbath”) Seems to be popping up everywhere for me – maybe I should pay attention! Hope you are well.

    Liked by 1 person

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