The Sabbath Swimming Lesson

When unemployment threatens to sink us, God keeps our heads above water.

When I was a swimming instructor, I spent a lot of time trying to get little kids to float. I would tell them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons out of it, and I'd say, "When I count to two, you won't feel my hands underneath you, but they're there."

As soon as I'd say "two," most of the children would frantically jerk their knees towards their chins and flail their arms, dropping their full weight into my hands. Almost all people float when they assume a posture of rest, but people who think they'll sink don't keep that posture for long.

Faith is about a posture of rest, too. Many of us are terrified by the life of faith, needing always to feel the support of steady jobs, steady relationships, and back-up plans. God, knowing that, signed us up for swim lessons. The swim lessons are the Sabbaths.

Sabbath Is For Everyone

Imagine the Israelites' first experience with the Sabbath. They had just been called away from everything they knew to live in tents. And in the middle of nowhere, where life-and-death emergencies seemed to come frequently, God was training them to worship him. God worked a steady stream of miracles that must have made the Israelites' hair stand on end.

The people got hungry two months into the journey. So God began to send them manna. Every day of the week but one, the Israelites gathered bread from heaven.

But on the seventh day—the day of the week that God had set apart as the holiest—he did not send the daily miracle. Nor did he want the people to work. Instead, they were to eat what they had gathered the day before, and to rest. It was the Sabbath, the day God's people didn't wake up to manna.

Sabbath always points to God's all-sufficiency. To use one illustration, it demonstrates that we do not live by labor alone. To use another, it shows us that God is still there when manna isn't. We are to place our faith in God, a surer bet than the predictable patterns of sowing and reaping.

If Sabbaths are times when we push away from our labor to practice the posture of faith, then Sabbaths are for busy people. They're for parents. They're for graduate students. They're for everyone who fears that God might let them sink. They're for all of us who believe disaster will strike if we stop doing things. They're for me.

When The Bottom Drops Out

In the past, Sabbaths have been viewed as either onerous or something Christians don't need. But the Sabbath isn't an unnecessary burden any more than swim lessons are a waste of time for future swimmers.

After all, a Sabbath is an act of both worship and preparation. Preparation for what? For living in faith when the bottom drops out. Observing voluntary days of rest can lay the mental and emotional foundations for enduring involuntary seasons of joblessness. Those of us who have lost jobs during the economic downturn have observed those Sabbaths of unemployment.

Like at least 12.8 million people in the United States last summer, I was unemployed. And like 14 million people the summer before. And like 15 million in the summer of 2009. And like about 7 million in the summer of 2006. And like about 9 million in the summer of 2003.

Each new release of monthly labor statistics is just a snapshot of people who are actively looking for jobs. (As 2013 began, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that about 12 million people were jobless and applying for jobs.) But there are lots of people who have given up.

If you don't know it firsthand, you can still imagine how unemployment can wreak havoc on your future. As you spend money without making it, you borrow from your future supplies. You will be older than ancient when you have enough money to retire. Your mortgage or student loans take on nightmarish proportions. If you fail to pay, your low credit score will make for years of financial misery.

Those aren't problems that unemployment insurance can solve. It won't cover the high-fixed costs of "investments" in education or houses. Going to the unemployment insurance office can make you feel like you're the straight man in a Marx Brothers film. Even if you've had only white-collar jobs, you start to realize that you're an illness or a car wreck away from moving into a relative's basement.

Crueler yet, some employers reject applicants who don't have a job. They may assume your former employer thought you were a liability—you were near retirement, or you were a stress on company health-care costs, for example. Every now and then, I still encounter someone who suggests that losing your job is just deserts for poor work or bad social skills.

But the money part isn't the worst of it. Unemployment shreds your self-respect. It leaves you with oodles of time to wonder why your colleagues or supervisors thought you weren't worthwhile. Workdays at home are like nice damp soil for mushrooming bitterness and anxiety. Volunteering for anything and everything helps, but only during the day.

You might expect joblessness to always be discouraging. But I've seen Christian friends who were strangely at peace while unemployed. They became wiser, humbler, and more prone to talk about God. I think I've become more grateful. God's hands are always supporting us, my friends and I have told each other. It hurts now, but all our anxiety will seem silly in a little while, we've told each other. Isn't this what a real Sabbath does to God's people?

Remember His Faithfulness

When I first wrote this, I was entering my last week of a seven-month job. I hadn't had an interview for a long time, and I assumed that I would also go through the three- to four-month period that was the current average length of unemployment. I didn't think it was possible for this essay to end on a triumphalist note, let alone a triumphant one. But two days after I left the office for the last time, I got a completely unexpected and delightful job offer. Praise God!

I can't go out and gather manna during times of unemployment. Those are the days when I open the cupboard and draw from God's stored-up provisions. I'm trying to act on what he told the Israelites, who were not yet in the land of milk and honey: Remember my faithfulness, which I already demonstrated in the times you were desperate.

"Oh, you'll do fine!" people tell me, when I talk about my once and future job search. "You've got a strong résumé." I suppose most people say these things because they somehow still believe the world is fair. This kind of optimism isn't real encouragement. It's like telling kids to doggy paddle to the edge instead of taking them through the lessons that would help them swim for hours. I know my joblessness was not a cosmic glitch; it was meant to mold me into the posture of faith. God intends to make a swimmer of me, and he was teaching me to rely on him through what seemed like a disaster.

I hope someday I won't be terrified when my career drops out from beneath me. For now, I can look at my situation and tell the truth: Our labor and our circumstances fail to take care of us. God makes their failure holy to us, holiest on the days without manna.

This article was originally published in Christianity Today and can be found there online.

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