What Does A Sabbath Year Look Like?
For 2017 I challenged myself to define & launch a sabbath year. This is a concept I’ve been thinking on for the past ~6 years but as the start date has been getting closer, my need for a clear definition been increasing.
In the last month I’ve been talking with other people a lot about this upcoming sabbath. Two people have poignantly asked me, ‘what does success look like for you?’ Though I had a rough idea, I realized I needed to think on the concept more. Endeavors a squandered less frequently when they have a clearly defined and measurable goal defined before they start. While I can’t say I do this with every endeavor I undertake, it sees particularly important for one that will cost a year of time and over $100,000 between opportunity & actual costs.
Here I want to explore the general concepts of a sabbath period as could apply to any period in my life, or really that of anyone else as well. In the next blog post I will discuss my plans for this year’s iteration and how I plan to apply these principles.
Why a sabbath year?
The concept is Biblical – it dates back thousands of years. The verse that most explicitly discusses the concept is from Leviticus 25 – it says:
25 The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3 For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4 But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5 Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. 6 Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7 as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.
That was part of the law of the Jewish people, something they were supposed to follow precisely. Some still do, many don’t and some practice compromises with varying levels of ridiculousness.
For a contemporary Christian, the old testament law is interesting. Most, if not all of it, is no longer considered the law, the same way an updated contract supersedes an old one (which is why Christians are ok wearing polyester and eating shell fish). I don’t believe the sabbath year stands as a law to contemporary Christians, but I do believe that much of the Old Covenant still contains great wisdom. As a child I wasn’t allowed to eat candy for dinner, as an adult I now can, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Many of the laws of the Old Testament, even if they stop being a law, continue to provide value today because of the fact that people still struggle with the same basic things we struggled with thousands of years ago; greed, anger, jealousy, false idols, sloth, etc. These are the things that law was designed to protect against and so we can learn from that law in order to find ways to protect ourselves from the same things.
I think there is a reason that God would tell His people to rest their fields. The simple argument is that this is a good agrarian principle to replenish the soil. I think it goes beyond that. If you are a farmer, as the majority of people were between when this was written and today, resting your fields inherently means a lot of things about how you spend your time that year and the years preceding. The full depths of which I believe lay beyond speculation and require experimentation to understand.
Did they still labor at all during those years? What did they do about multi-year crops? What about their animals? How should my rest relate to the work and rest patterns of people from the past? What should I be doing and how much of it should I do? These are some of the questions I started with as I built my principles.
Sabbath Year Principles
What is the purpose of a sabbath year?
- A Sabbath to the Lord – At the heart of the sabbath is the concept that it is set aside and holy. It is not supposed to be aimless, but God-centered. The sabbath rest is not its own foundation, but rather it is a rest designed to allows us to focus on the foundation of everything else in our lives.
- Rest – Rest is good. It is good in itself and it is also good for productivity. Just as we rest some hours of every day, some days every week & some weeks every year – we should have restful years every so often as well.
- Enjoying This Chapter – I plan to retire eventually – to have the means to longer need to work for an income. Thinking about my life as a single unit, I realized that I don’t want to save all of my retirement years for when my body is old, my mind is less sharp, many of my friends are dead and my kids have moved away. Given the chance to have N years of retirement, I would rather spread them around and enjoy various phases of life – some when I’m young, some when I’m middle aged and some when I’m older.
- Pausing Things – A year set aside for rest creates a natural chance to stop doing many things. Some of those things might be sustained only on momentum, some of then might be things we realize we do not need to resume after the year concludes.
- Living without – The extra time I will have during a sabbath year comes at the cost of not having extra money. Because of that, we will have to learn to live without certain luxuries. This contrast creates room to learn and grow. It is a natural defense against hedonistic adaptation – the tendency to get used to what you have, however nice and new it is, until you eventually take it for granted. Living without certain things will teach us where we have room to become more efficient & highlight where we need to be more grateful.
- Evaluating – Planning something large usually involves three levels of thinking – visionary, strategic and tactical. It is hard to be in more than one mode at any time and truth be told, it is really hard to get out of tactical thinking when every day seems overwhelming. Taking a year to step back from many day to day tactical concerns will help create room for more strategic and visionary thinking. It will help to evaluate priorities, understand how our life aligns with what we value, and, if needed, make adjustments. It is a check-in to make sure we do not head down a slightly askew path for too many years, only to realize that we are not living the life we desire.
- A Year Set Aside – The time spent in sabbath should be observably different than normal periods in the way time is spent and attention is focused. No year is without any rest or any evaluation, but the sabbath year should be filled with it to the point of overemphasis in order to increase our affinity with it. Over time, practices from sabbath periods will make their way into normal periods, but that simply gives opportunity to further differentiate the next sabbath year.
What is NOT the purpose of a sabbath year?
- This is not a long, photogenic, vacation full of expensive trips, exciting activities and endless consumptive fun.
- This is not our family’s only chance to try new things, like; living in a new country, experimenting with a new career, etc. Those are things we can do any time. Though we will certainly have extra time during a sabbath year, trying new things often requires a lot of work and thus go against the goal of resting. If trying something new is a priority, we should make appropriate room for it during a normal year.
- This is not our chance to rebalance investments in our priorities. It is hard to invest in everything appropriately when urgent matters push aside important ones, but saving the sabbath year as a time to rebalance will likely create the wrong effect long term. Balance should be continual.
- This is not our only way to implement big changes in life. We can at any point make big changes – we do not need to wait for a sabbath year.
- This is not a time to take on big projects that we weren’t able to do during other years. This is not a chance to write a book, build a house, start a business, train for some new big race, etc. Through the process of rest and evaluation, we might be inspired to a new idea – if so, we should plan to start off the first year of the next cycle pursuing that goal.
What does failure look like?
- Rest that is not God-centered – To neglect the top item on the list, even while satisfying the others, would defeat the core principle of the year. The purpose of the rest and reflection is align our lives more fully with our faith.
- Neglecting rest – This is the one I will most easily fall into. Given a vacuum of space, I will attempt to fill it with accomplishments and projects. Doing fun or interesting things that are a lot of effort will result in time that isn’t actually restful. If that happens I might end the year tired, which is not the right way to start the next six years.
- Not making the year different enough – If the year looks like any other year, it has not been set aside properly.
- Failing to evaluate – If we do not take the opportunity to realign with our priorities and think about how we can best achieve our long term goals over the next six years, we have wasted an opportunity. If we simply return to the same life without having explicitly decided to do so, we have not appropriately reflected. This is the lowest concern, because if we have accomplished the other three, we have done well, just not as well as we could have.
What does success look like?
I want to enter the next six year period like a coiled spring, planted on a firm foundation, pointed towards the priorities our family values the most.
The rest will give us a chance to wind the spring up and ensure the coils are tight. Our foundation in faith and values will be fortified, giving us a stable launching pad to depart from. The pausing of the unnecessary and lean living is a shedding of weight that would hinder our flight. The evaluation & reflection will allow us to calibrate our aim towards the proper target.