One at a time, I lit two tall candles, with a prayer to the King of the Universe. My husband hesitantly offered a blessing over each child’s head, and then one for me. We tore bread from a braided loaf that was passed around the table, and we shared grape juice from child-sized goblets.
My kids and I were learning about the history of the Jews, and one suggested activity was to share a Sabbath meal, as described by Martha Zimmerman in her book Celebrating Biblical Feasts. It felt like a tangible exhale in the midst of life’s hectic busyness. We had hardly finished when one child asked, “Can we do that again sometime?!”
In the Old Testament, God gave the Israelites very specific rules to follow, about the Sabbath and about a whole host of other topics. Keeping those rules perfectly proved to be impossible, but at least they were straightforward. You knew what was expected.
The Sabbath began at sundown on Friday evening with the Shabbat meal, and lasted until sundown on Saturday. Sabbath was the seventh day of the week because in the fourth commandment, God tied Sabbath observance to his own rest after six days of creating the world.
Christians generally observe and celebrate a day of rest on Sunday, the first day of the week—presumably because Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week. Very early Christians gradually switched from celebrating the Sabbath to making Sunday their day of rest. So technically, Sunday is not the Sabbath—but we still incorporate the principle of Sabbath rest. For various reasons, some people (for example, pastors, nurses and doctors) are unable to take Saturday or Sunday as their day of rest. They can still take a Sabbath rest on a different day of the week.1
For Christians, Sabbath rest-keeping is a norm, a principle valid across time and place. But our situation is different from that of the Old Testament Israelites, who lived in a largely agrarian society and who wove Sabbath into the fabric of their communal life. What might Sabbath rest look like in practice for us, here and now? This is an area where Christians are often prone to legalism, following strict rules for the sake of those rules. Forbidding certain activities on Sunday is an attempt to enforce “rest” from the outside; Old Testament rules and regulations did the same thing. Generally speaking, the intention behind the rules has been good. Writing about the Jewish Sabbath (but also applicable to some of the prohibitions made by Christians), Judith Shulevitz has shared, “The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will…” But rules are not enough; entering a true Sabbath rest is a matter of the heart.
The fourth commandment bids us to “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Something holy is something set apart. Clearly Sabbath is meant to be different from other days. Sabbath was meant for rest, for remembering, for reorienting.
As I think about faithful modern-day Sabbath observance, I find it helpful to think in terms of two categories. Perhaps you will find them helpful, too.
Let Go. What activity or mindset has hold of me in an unhealthy way that I can and should let go of for the Sabbath? In a sense, this is a form of fasting (active avoidance of something for a set period of time). You’ll be most successful with this if you establish habits around your self-imposed limits. Here are some things to consider letting go of:
Work. This is the obvious one, though far from easy. It includes paid work, but also schoolwork, housework, etc. When it comes to school, a decision to not study on Sunday might mean that your grades will take a hit—or you might be surprised like my husband, who found that his grades actually improved in university after he made this commitment. If your day of rest is Sunday and you face Monday deadlines, you will need to work ahead and/or consider your “day of rest” to be Saturday evening until Sunday evening. The latter option leaves some time on Sunday evening to prepare for the week ahead.
If you hesitate at the idea of stopping work for a whole day, consider these words from Tim Keller: “God liberated his people when they were slaves in Egypt, and in Deuteronomy 5:12–15, God ties the Sabbath to freedom from slavery. Anyone who overworks is really a slave. Anyone who cannot rest from work is a slave—to a need for success, to a materialistic culture, to exploitative employers, to parental expectations, or to all of the above. These slave masters will abuse you if you are not disciplined in the practice of Sabbath rest. Sabbath is a declaration of freedom.”
If it truly seems impossible for you to set aside work and other responsibilities for a day each week, you might need to reevaluate your schedule and commitments. Chris Schoon has pointed out that sometimes, “Sabbath begins with a sustained pruning.”
Screens—computers, smartphones and other electronic devices. Consider committing to no screens for the duration of the Sabbath. If that seems like too much, take a smaller step and omit just games, or e-mail, or Facebook.
Productivity. Put down the “to do” lists, take off the Fitbit, and leave the day unscheduled.
Efficiency. Many of us tend to be careful and even miserly about how we spend our time. Sabbath rest gives an opportunity to spend time freely and at whim!
Reorient. What can help bring me back to right relationships—with God, others, nature and myself? In a blog post, Chris Schoon shared, “In order to Sabbath well, our emphasis needs to land on the joy aspect of Sabbath more than on the ceasing aspect….The emphasis of Sabbath is on receiving and enjoying life – our lives and life in the world around us – as a gift from God. Sabbath is primarily about joy.” Again, some possibilities to help us reorient:
Corporate worship. For most Christians, this is an already-established part of their day of rest. It’s important.
Physical rest. For ancient Israelites, whose labor was primarily physical and agrarian, rest meant physical cessation of labor. My husband, by contrast, spends most of his work days sitting at a desk. For him, tending the garden is a restful activity, both restorative and rejuvenating. For me, a long slow run relieves stress—and thus is more restful—than sitting or napping. If you don’t sleep well at night, or are physically tired, a nap might be just the thing for you.
Slow your mind. Mental rest is important, too. (Easier said than done, I know.)
Practice being present in the present. When we fixate on the past or worry about the future, we risk missing life right now.
Work on a hobby. Do an activity you enjoy, that rests and refreshes you.
Take a hike, with or without friends, and drink in the beauty and peace of your surroundings.
Spend time in solitude and silence.
Spend time with friends and family.
Celebrate! The Sabbath is a gift, and we can bear witness to that in very concrete ways. Add something small but special to the day. Growing up, a weekly treat in my husband’s family was the addition of a boiled egg at breakfast on Sunday. My mom used to make caramel cinnamon rolls. My grandmother baked her special pound cake for coffee times after church.
Any of these ideas will require discipline to implement. At times you might dislike the limits you chose. That’s okay. Remember Hebrews 12:11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” And don’t wallow in guilt if plans don’t work out. Jesus declared Himself Lord of the Sabbath. In a very real sense, He is our Sabbath. Rest in Him.
Also, as you slowly develop a Sabbath rhythm, do not assume that others should live by the exact same one (again, see Colossians 2:16). We won’t all agree on what it looks like to observe Sabbath rest faithfully, but humble and loving dialogue can help us all see more clearly how we might frame a faithful response. Also, the “why” piece is important! I grew up in a church that had a lot of traditions, many of which seemed random. When I asked why we did things the way we did, and when someone took the time to explain, I generally had no problem participating. If you have children, explain why you do—and don’t do—certain things on your day of rest.
God gave us the Sabbath for our own good. As with other laws, when God gave this one, God wasn’t being a killjoy, or trying to set us back. Sabbath is a reminder that, despite our burdens and brokenness, our birthright is joy and freedom. God gave us a gift when He gave us the Sabbath—a gift we can unwrap again and again, if we but recognize it for what it is.
see Colossians 2:16 ↩