Rest Works: For Matthew Sleeth, Sabbath-Keeping furthers both our happiness and holiness

We're overworked, stressed, constantly on the move. More than 90 percent of Americans stay connected to their mobile phones—which is to say, to their office—24/7.

Old news. In 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life (Tyndale), Matthew Sleeth, M.D., dashes off a prescription that is 3,500 years older: a return to the fourth commandment ("Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy").

As someone who has taken the dose, I have unexpected news to report. Halfway through, I felt so convinced of Sleeth's arguments for rest (and so exhausted from my previous Sabbath), I took a nap. Without guilt. My testimonial, then: 24/6 works!

Sleeth makes a winsome case for a return to Sabbath "rest, renewal and reverence." As the director of Blessed Earth and the author of Serve God, Save the Planet, he brings his dual expertise in eco-theology and medicine to the subject. A Sabbath, after all, is given to the land itself, and who would know more about workaholism than a former ER physician?

His diagnostic skills are on full display. We take comfort from our work obsession, he notes, because "[i]f work is the meaning of our lives, then more work equals more meaning." To balance hard work, we engage in hard play. But there's a biblical solution to our collective freneticism: work hard—then stop, a rhythm where "the work takes on more meaning and the stopping takes on holiness."

God's holiness is the very ground of the fourth commandment, the longest and most detailed commandment of the ten, Sleeth reminds us: "He rests because he is holy and everything that God does is holy …. Rest shows who God is."

He does address the usual issues around Sabbath-keeping: Which day? What constitutes work and rest? Does Jesus' grace nullify the commandment? He sketches these issues helpfully without getting stuck in the usual ruts of legalism or, on the other side, a casual libertinism that reduces the Sabbath to any personal moment of diversion.

For all this good, I confess to a few queasy moments along the way. The subtitle itself threatens a Joel Osteen-like "live your best life now." The vibe continues in the preface, which highlights a business owner who closes his store on Sunday and ends up, yes, a multimillionaire. Thankfully, Sleeth makes few prosperity promises beyond that lapse, but he clearly knows it will take some pragmatism and marketing to sell the Sabbath to a horde of workaholic pragmatists. Overall, though, the theologian in me is slightly disappointed. More should have been done to address the sacred/secular divide that the fourth commandment appears to establish and sanctify. The seventh day is named holy; does this imply the other six days of work and commerce are not? It's not until the last third of the book that the author enlarges the Sabbath from a single day to a "sabbatical way of life," but even to the last, I sense a dualism that isn't fully reconciled.

Admittedly, it's easy to find gaps in a small book that tackles a weighty topic. In the end, Sleeth made the right call. In resting on the seventh day, he notes, God showed restraint, which is "not doing everything that one has the power to do." The doctor has shown a similar restraint. Would an exhaustive theological treatise on the Sabbath urge fatigued readers toward a fuller life of reverence, balance, and faith? Not likely.

I expect and hope the doctor's prescription will lead to ditched cell phones and outbreaks of walks, family dinners, naps, and a furious shuffling of to-do lists, which may feel a lot like work at first. But not for long.