The command to keep the Sabbath is not a reasonable one. This command made no sense to the ancient Romans and it makes little sense to us modern people—we who are enveloped in the pursuit of the next best piece of technology, addicted to the opinions of strangers on social media sites, and hell bent on doing whatever it takes to preserve our sense of financial and personal comfort. The command to keep Sabbath is offensive to our nature and to our inclinations. Why would I stop doing things and simply sit for a day to listen to God’s word and be with people to develop life-giving and supportive relationships? Why engage in that most radical act of quietly sitting and not being productive? The answer is: I will not do so until I understand that rest and virtue are the focal points of Sabbath keeping.
When it comes to Sabbath keeping we who call ourselves Christians are indistinguishable from our unbelieving neighbors. The reason for this is because so many Western people have adopted for themselves substitutes for true rest—religious activities and commitments, devotion to physical exercise, workaholism, secret addictions to sexual behavior of one kind or another, dependence upon chemicals (drugs—illegal and legal), raging with anger, embracing political ideologies that continue to stoke one’s ego and prejudices. For those who have turned away from the true God there is no rest and there most certainly cannot be true virtue. For in the Kingdom of God rest and virtue go hand in hand.
The Apostle Paul exhorted the believers in Corinth regarding many of their practices and the false ideas they had accepted. What is most remarkable to me is that his primary antidote to their errors was an exhortation to understand and practice love for one another. Thus he pointed them toward God’s primary concern of right relationships with each other (see 1 Corinthians 13). What is even more remarkable is how this famous chapter concludes. “But now remains faith, hope, love, these three; and the greater [one] of these [is] love. All of you pursue love, and desire earnestly the spiritual [gifts], but especially in order that you all may prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1, my translation)
These three have been called the “theological virtues” because each of them requires one to do more than give intellectual accent to doctrine or decide to conform to religious ritual. Rather they summarize the whole of the life of the disciple of Christ and the aim of life in Christ. And the greatest of these, love, is always intended to be expressed toward other people and for their genuine welfare. And so Paul makes a direct application to the Corinthians praiseworthy desire to excel in God’s grace-gifts and how they are to be used for the common good of all believers in community (see chapter 14). The practice of faith, steadfastly holding to hope and actually loving God and other people requires the development of virtue and progressive reformation of one’s character.
I would suggest that strengthening believers’ hearts by doing the “theological virtues” is necessarily intertwined with the command to keep the Sabbath holy. For the Lord plainly connected them:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NRSV)
The picture he painted of people being weary and carrying heavy burdens refers to not only sin but also a mindset which presumes we must perform for God by keeping his commandments to receive his grace and mercy. We are rather to stop trying to carry these heavy loads of religious or ethical sin management. We are to cease from striving to be a “good person” and simply come to the Lord as we are and then he will give us the rest we need and also work true virtue into us. Then from this position of spiritual rest we can actively learn from him to learn to walk with him and carry his teaching (yoke) upon us in all that we do. (The rabbis spoke of the “yoke of the Torah” and so the Lord speaks of the “yoke” of his way/teachings.) This is true Sabbath rest and it cannot be separated from the inward growth in virtue and the progressive character reformation of the Lord’s disciple. For in Christ rest and virtue always go hand in hand.
This is why people do not think that the command to keep the Sabbath holy is reasonable. For it challenges our identity and our presumptions about all that is good and worthy of pursuit in this life. These kinds of virtues do not suit worldlings’ nor can the Lord’s words align with their worldviews. And the truth is that there are many who claim the name of Christian who actually live in such a way that they deny that the “theological virtues” are necessary or even desirable. I would suggest that this is possible because of the general illiteracy of most people today regarding Scripture, their warped understanding of its central teachings and the many teachers who are willing to confirm that ignorance by telling them what they want to hear.
As is so often the case regarding many topics, G.K. Chesterton has a remarkable comment regarding virtue and the “theological virtues.”
“The real difference between Paganism and Christianity is perfectly summed up in the difference between the pagan, or natural virtues, and those three virtues of Christianity which the Church of Rome calls virtues of grace. The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity. Now much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact (in marked contrast to the delusion of the dancing pagan)—the first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay [happy] and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be.” (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics; cited from G.K. Chesterton Collected Works, Volume 1 [Ignatius Press:1986], p.124.)
And then Chesterton clarifies what he means by applying the term “unreasonable” to the three “theological virtues.”
“As the word ‘unreasonable’ is open to misunderstanding, the matter may be more accurately put by saying that each one of these Christian or mystical virtues involves a paradox in its own nature, and that this is not true of any of the typically pagan or rationalist virtues. Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.” (Heretics; cited from G.K. Chesterton Collected Works, Volume 1, pp.124-125.)
I think that Chesterton’s point stands well on it own. There is not much more I could add except to assert that his point here about the differences between pagan and Christian virtues is decisive and must be understood. Did not our Lord claim to do the most extraordinary (indeed, incredible) things? Is this not offensive to the normal human sensibilities, as they are dependent upon the limited scope of human perception through the five senses? Given the normal inclination of humans to discover what constitutes the minimal levels of ethical behavior needed, is that not mortally challenged by the Lord’s teachings? Does his words not pierce through the shallowness of the best in human speculation and “motivational” teachings?
Even those among us who want to live according to moral excellence and with integrity end up compromising between ethical bare minimums and seeking self-satisfaction as much as possible. Such is the bent of human nature. I think this can demonstrated if we give careful reflection to our own lives and that of others. Yet to those seasoned in walking by faith in Christ this perspective reflects sin, smells of carnality and even concealed hostility to God’s word. The reason is because those in the Lord have learned that the Lord’s ways require righteousness and holiness in truth (see Ephesians 4:17-24). And to be a practitioner of God’s righteousness and holiness is only possible through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling Presence and power.
This point of tension that we all sense, at some point and to some degree, between our aspirational desires to at least live up to our own standards (if not God’s) and our inability to fulfill those desires to do what is good, should point us to sabbath. How else are we to find an answer to our own inability to be good? Yet we resist true rest because the need for that is an affront to our self-assured smugness and desperate attempts to convince others that we are competent to live well. The command to keep the Sabbath holy shows us all up as being ethical and religious charlatans. For we resist doing the only truly necessary thing that God requires of us—to live by sincere faith and to depend upon the Anointed One for and in all things.
Ancient and modern pagans sensed the need to strive for moral excellence and they have presented their own theories about how to work toward those ideals. The highest ideals they came to recognize were justice and temperance. The Christian person recognizes the relative value of these virtues, and indeed their importance in the exhortations in Scripture, but can see beyond them into the very depths of God’s character as revealed in our Lord Jesus. This is why the theological virtues are so much more excellent than the highest aspirations of the pagan philosopher: The practice of them reflects the Presence of the living God dwelling in believing persons. And for a human being to reflect the characteristics of God requires God’s Presence and power to be operative in that person.
The paradoxes inherent to faith, hope and love challenge the faithful person to trust in God rather than in himself or herself. To practice these virtues requires the abandonment of self-will and offers one the ability to rest in God’s mighty arms—in a way that the mind cannot comprehend. In order to know this experientially we must let spiritual rest and virtue walk together hand in hand within our souls. For the virtues which the Holy Spirit gifts to and grows up in redeemed people reflect the beauty of God’s character and are designed to give the holy Triune God all glory.