We are stressed out, time-strapped people, living in a world that is filled with suffering and injustice. Perhaps unexpectedly, one aid to improving the psychological health of individuals and the social, economic, and spiritual health of our communities and world may be the commandment least attended to by modern-day Christians: keeping the Sabbath.
Part I: Why We Need Sabbath
A State of Being
René Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am.” As Americans, we are more likely to believe “I do, therefore, I am.” Or perhaps: “I do, therefore, I matter.” But, the truth is, all these statements are inaccurate.
“There are two reasons the Ten Commandments instruct us to observe the Sabbath,” said PLNU professor of Old Testament Dr. Brad Kelle. “First, the worth of people does not come from work – life is a gift, not what we can produce. Second, the systems and structures of our world do not give life; God does.”
The Sabbath helps us realize that our true identity and value come not from what we do but from who God is and what He has done for us. Our identity lies in the fact that we are children of God, not in what we have or have not produced.
Theologian Marva Dawn also expresses this sentiment in her book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly.
“One of the ugliest things about our culture is that we usually assess a person’s worth on the basis of his or her productivity and accomplishments,” she writes. “One of the first questions we ask when meeting a stranger is ‘What do you do?’ as if the data in the person’s response will help us really know who he or she is.”
“Think about what observing the Sabbath is grouped with in the Ten Commandments,” Kelle said. “It’s grouped with honoring our parents. Even when our parents age and can no longer work, we are to honor them. Life is worth more than producing.”
When we observe the Sabbath, we commit one day in every seven to ceasing our productivity and finding our identity in God alone.
Restoring Value to Time
Progress and time are often at odds in our society. In The Sabbath, Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel observes that, for the most part, humanity has chosen to spend time, even to its own detriment, in the world of things and in the conquest of space.
Our enslavement to consumption and production robs us of time, leaving us feeling stretched to the breaking point. And our enslavement is due to our tendency to forge our sense of self, our very identity, through what we do.
“The need to accomplish also leads to a terrible frenzy about time,” adds Dawn. “The criterion for everything in our society has become efficiency… The root of all of these yearnings to produce is the struggle for security.”
“Sabbath reorients time, and thereby all of life, as a gift from God,” said PLNU professor of cultural anthropology Dr. Jamie Gates.
Heschel asserts that Sabbath provides a powerful course correction to our subjugation of time.
“The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time,” he says. “But time is the heart of existence… There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”
For Heschel, the pervasiveness of technology and materialism (and not just the egregious kind) that are hallmarks of our era have come at the cost of time to think, to be, to give, and to fellowship.
Sabbath provides freedom from the tyranny of things and the need to achieve. It restores value to time. Setting apart one day in every seven to focus on our relationship with God and to recall His provision reroutes our thinking and shifts our priorities. It’s not simply that having time to be recharges us to do more (though this is often a byproduct). It’s more that Sabbath enables us to find our worth in being God’s children, which means being becomes our reality and our identity. Suddenly space and things matter less. Doing and achieving are less onerous because the stakes are much less high.
Sabbath reorients time, and thereby all of life, as a gift from God.
A World in Need
From the beginning, Sabbath was intended to be inclusive. In both of the biblical accounts of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), God specifically commands the Israelites to not only abstain from work themselves, but to also grant rest to servants, foreigners, and even animals.
Implicit in God’s Sabbath is a deep concern for those without power; they also must be allowed to celebrate Sabbath. It is a reflection of God’s justice. This is further emphasized by Sabbath’s connection to the Jewish Sabbatical year (meant to be practiced every seven years) and the Year of Jubilee (to be kept every 49th year). During these years, the land itself was to be allowed to rest, property was to be returned to its original owners, and debts were to be forgiven.
“Today there tends to be a psychologizing of Sabbath,” Kelle said. “It has become viewed as a break instead of as a prophetic opportunity.”
“A Sabbath faithful to God demands inclusion of the widow, orphan, and stranger,” added Gates. “If what we do during the rest of our week contributes to economic disparity and oppression, then we are not keeping the Sabbath holy.”
In fact, most of Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees’ Sabbath practices stemmed from their tendency to place their own rituals above the needs of others.
In Luke 13:15-16, after healing a woman in need, Jesus says, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for 18 long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
Similarly, Mark 3:4 says, “Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.”
Part II: How to Keep the Sabbath
If we long for a deep, restorative Sabbath rest – the kind that reorients identity and includes those in need – we might be vexed by practical questions: what would reclaiming the Sabbath actually look like? Should we adhere to the same practices as Jews, lighting candles, avoiding specific categories of work, and reciting ancient prayers? Should we create or discover new guidelines for a more uniquely Christian Sabbath? Should we throw rules out the window completely to avoid Pharisaism? And how, in our overloaded lives, can we possibly set aside one day in every seven for worship and rest alone?
Admittedly, reclaiming the Sabbath is no clear-cut, easy task, but that doesn’t mean we should cease trying. Other vital spiritual disciplines and practices contain ambiguity and choice as well. Prayer, for example, can be practiced in community or in solitude, aloud or in silence, at regularly scheduled intervals or at will, in recitation (such as the Lord’s Prayer) or spontaneously. Perhaps with the celebration of Sabbath we should also consider a range of possibilities (within an ultimately bounded space).
First Things First
It’s easy to get things backwards. For example, people sometimes observe that they don’t have enough money left at the end of the month to properly tithe. God provided a remedy for this problem: our tithes are meant to be the first fruits of our labors, not the leftovers. If we tithed first, we might not have enough money left for something, but it would be something other than tithing (and for many of us, that something would not turn out to be a basic necessity after all).
Keeping the Sabbath is a bit like making an offering of time. The Sabbath should be set aside first with the work we need and want to accomplish fitting into the other six days. When we set aside time for Sabbath keeping first, we may find that the rest of our time is better spent as well.
Author and pastor Mark Buchanan in The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath recalls of his past, “Though my work often consumed me, I was losing my pleasure in it – and, for that matter, in many other things besides – and losing, too, my effectiveness in it. And here’s a secret: for all my busyness, I was increasingly slothful. I could wile away hours at a time in a masquerade of working, a pantomime of toil – fiddling about on the computer, leafing through old magazines, chatting up people in the hallways. But I was squandering time, not redeeming it.”
To keep the Sabbath surely has a redemptive quality. To think of time not only as a commodity to be spent but also as valuable in and of itself certainly has great appeal – especially in a society where perhaps no complaint is so frequent as not having enough time.
A Community Approach
A common misconception about Sabbath is that it is observed primarily by individual people for their own individual benefit. In truth, according to Kelle, Gates, and Dr. Rebecca Laird, PLNU associate professor of Christian ministry, Sabbath is very much about community.
“Sabbath is about restoration of our core community,” explained Laird. “Sabbath in Judaism isn’t personal. As Americans, we tend to reduce everything to self-help, but Sabbath-keeping is really meant to be done in community.”
Sabbath is about restoration of our core community.
Kelle echoed this point. “Mostly, we see an individual approach to Sabbath today. In the Bible, it’s more outward. We’ve turned Sabbath inside-out.”
Of course, a primary aspect of remembering the Sabbath is gathering for worship. But solely going to church does not fulfill the community aspect of Sabbath. According to Laird, writer Elizabeth O’Conner suggested that Sabbath was an ideal time to pen letters of encouragement to others. Early Methodist preacher Mary Bosanquet Fletcher believed the Sabbath ought to be used to visit the sick, saying we ought to honor the Sabbath by “doing no business but for piety or charity tis [decent and well] to do good on the Sabbath day.”
Laird’s own suggestion is to consider “offering simple hospitality to others on the Sabbath – with an emphasis on simple.”
Whatever the method of fellowship, the point is that Sabbath is not meant to be observed in isolation – it’s not a mere break, a time to soak alone in the tub and forget our worries. It’s time to join together as a community to remember others and to affirm who we are as God’s people and children.
What, Then, Shall We (Not?) Do?
One thing Jesus made clear is that the Sabbath ought not be defined by legalism, especially when rules come at the expense of mercy. In addition, having a to-do list for the Sabbath violates the intention of Sabbath to refocus our identities on being rather than doing. Still, it’s difficult to keep the Sabbath without any set of guiding principles or ideas for marking one day each week as holy.
Gates, Kelle, and Laird, along with Dr. Norm Shoemaker, director of PLNU’s Center for Pastoral Leadership, and Ron Fay, PLNU director of church relations, feel Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly offers one of the best, most balanced approaches to Sabbath keeping. We will examine her ideas at some length here.
Dawn suggests four multi-faceted approaches to keeping the Sabbath: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting. These principles help her celebrate the Sabbath neither as duty nor as ritual but as a joy.
“Our Sabbath keeping is also truly delightful especially because the very process of ceasing from work uncorks our spontaneity and frees our childlike ability to play,” she notes.
Dawn believes we ought to cease not only from work but also from “productivity and accomplishment”; “anxiety, worry, and tension”; “trying to be God”; “possessiveness”; and “enculturation.”
Sabbath practices such as cleaning and preparing our homes beforehand, putting work and unfinished projects away, writing down and physically setting aside concerns, and spending time in fellowship with God and others relieve daily life stress and the strain that comes from trying to control our own lives. Dawn sees this shift in focus and authority as vital to being agents of mercy and justice in the world.
“Thus, our Sabbath ceasing from our striving to be God invites us instead into positive action as God’s servants to confront the materialism of our society, which causes so many in our world to be destitute,” she says. “Our own materialism is challenged by the importance of trusting God instead of ourselves for our future.”
As far as ceasing our enculturation, Dawn sees the need for a “radical reorientation” of our thinking. Sabbath is not intended to build up our reserves so that we will have the strength to work again; it is an end in itself. It is intended to foreshadow our eternal rest and worship in heaven. Sabbath is not preparation for real life. It is life, she argues.
When the Jews criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, they misunderstood the meaning of rest. Just as they would not deny their animals water or leave their fallen ox in a ditch on the Sabbath, so Jesus did not deny healing. Healing and rest are both about restoration.
Dawn and Heschel both emphasize the myriad forms of rest the Sabbath can and should provide – spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual, and social. Heschel equates Sabbath rest with peace of the kind described in Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters; He restores my soul.”
The spiritual rest and peace of the Sabbath are not defined by worldly circumstances. For as the psalmist observes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
A day focused on being still and knowing that God is God brings a rest that can’t be matched by things that are “weekend” without being “Sabbath.”
“Sabbath and holiness go hand-in-hand,” observed PLNU’s Fay. “Different people connect to God and creation differently, but regardless of the method, Sabbath has a lot to do with creation and making contact with God as Creator.”
Dawn suggests a number of aids to rest that we might consider using in our own Sabbath practices. In addition to participating in worship and Scripture readings, we can engage with beauty in ways such as listening to music, observing nature, viewing art, smelling fragrant candles, snuggling under soft blankets, or partaking in Communion. These activities should not be done merely for our own enjoyment but as ways of appreciating the breadth and beauty of God’s creation. Mild exercise such as walking may provide a better contrast to our often sedentary working lives than the physical inactivity that was more necessary during biblical times when work often meant intense physical labor.
Dawn enjoys gentle pastimes such as reading uplifting literature or fairytales, napping, having a lingering meal with friends, using a rocking chair, or sitting by a fire. While we ought to refrain from being “productive” on the Sabbath, Dawn distinguishes this from being “creative.” She finds that making music or dabbling in art is restful for her. This list of ideas is not meant to be prescriptive but suggestive.
When we cease so many of the tasks that require our attention on the other six days of the week, we find we suddenly have space to embrace other things. For example, on the Sabbath, we can embrace giving instead of requiring.
“The proclamation of the gospel, the faith that God’s love frees us to love, is made more credible when it is tangibly accompanied by works of love and obedience to God’s covenant instructions to care for the needy,” Dawn writes.
When we offer prayers for the people and ministries we support financially through Sabbath giving, we develop meaningful bonds with Christians around the world.
Dawn also suggests making the Sabbath a time to give gifts of appreciation to friends and family – flowers, letters, cards, baked goods, and other simple gifts can convey love to the people in our lives.
During the Sabbath, we can also more fully embrace Christian values, our calling, wholeness and peace, and the larger world.
“[Sabbath] plunges us more deeply into the world and its needs because it carries us more deeply into the heart and purposes of God,” Dawn says.
It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that on the same day we ought to remember the hungry, we should feast ourselves. But Dawn views the Sabbath as “a weekly eschatological party” in which we experience delight in the present in anticipation of the eternal joy that is to come.
She suggests that we feast on music – worshipful, uplifting, and beautiful; on beauty, especially in God’s creation; and on time with others, sharing thoughts, prayers, fears, longings, and deeply held values.
When it comes to food, we might save special foods for the Sabbath and contrast our Sabbath “feast” with simpler eating during the week. Less daily indulgence, Dawn points out, frees up our resources to share with the hungry. In order to reserve the Sabbath for rest, special meals can be prepared or set up the day before and shared with others, especially those who cannot return the favor, Dawn notes.
Feasting might also include spending time with children and in play.
Marking the Day
In addition to the broad themes and ideas offered by Dawn, we might consider borrowing Sabbath practices from Jews. For example, Jews begin and end the Sabbath day at sundown. We might consider observing this tradition. They also begin and end the Sabbath by lighting special candles and praying.
Is It worth it?
Buchanan puts it well, “[There are] facets of God we discover only through stillness. ‘Be still,’ the psalm instructs, ‘and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46:10). Only Mary, Martha’s sister, sitting wide-eyed and open-eared, truly hosts Christ in her home. Only those who wait on the Lord renew their strength. Only those who are quiet and watchful find God’s mercy that is new every morning. Only those who join Him in His love for the contrite and broken in spirit recognize Him hidden among ‘the least of these’ (Matt. 25:40).”
Buchanan also points out a most insightful thing about Sabbath. It can only do so much. It is only intended to do so much.
“Take anything you delight in here on earth: Your children. Your craftwork. Your hot tub. The dewed green of a fairway on a July morning. The sweet corn from your garden, butter-drenched. Enjoy them all. Find rest in them. But imagine how much more awaits you,” he writes.
Sabbath is intended to redirect our thoughts toward our ultimate rest, our ultimate peace, our ultimate fulfillment. Then will our rest be complete and the suffering of this world ended. Our ultimate Sabbath will be eternal life with Christ.