Four Keys to Experiencing a Biblical Sabbath
One of the great dangers of faithfully observing Sabbath is legalism. What about pastors, nurses, doctors, police officers, and others who must work on Sundays? Jesus observed Sabbath but he also healed the sick and preached sermons on that day. What might be work for you may be different for someone else. Some people will have to choose another day besides Saturday or Sun- day (depending on your church tradition) if it is to be a day without work.
The key is to set a regular rhythm of keeping the Sabbath every seven days for a twenty-hour block of time. Traditional Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends on sundown Saturday. I know many Christians who begin their Sabbath precisely at 6:00 PM or 7:00 PM on Saturday until the same time the following day. Others, like myself, choose a day of the week. The apostle Paul seemed to think one day would do as well as another (see Romans 14:1-17). What is important is to select a time period and protect it!
The following are four foundational qualities of biblical Sabbaths that have served me well in distinguishing a “day off” from a biblical Sabbath. A secular Sabbath is to replenish our energies and make us more effective the other six days. A “day off” produces positive results but is, in Eugene Peterson’s words, “a bastard Sabbath.”4 I commend them to you as you develop a biblical framework for Sabbath that fits your particular life situation, temperament, calling, and personality.
Sabbath is first and foremost a day of “stopping.” “To stop” is built into the literal meaning of the Hebrew word Sabbath. Yet most of us can’t stop until we are finished whatever it is we think we need to do. We need to complete our projects and term papers, answer our e-mails, return all phone messages, complete the balancing of our check books to pay our bills, finish cleaning the house. There’s always one more goal to be reached before stopping.
On Sabbath I embrace my limits. God is God. He is indispensable. I am his creature. The world continues working fine when I stop.
I have hated stopping my entire life. When I was a college and seminary student, I had too much homework to stop for one twenty-four-hour period. When I taught high school English, I had too many papers to grade to stop. When I was learning Spanish in Costa Rica, I couldn’t stop if I was going to learn the language. If I was going to be responsive to the needs of the people in our church and still have time to pray and study, I needed to work at least half of my Sabbath, didn’t I?
We think, Maybe I will stop when our children grow into adults and are on their own, when I have enough saved to buy our first home, when I retire and . . . The list goes on.
We stop on Sabbaths because God is on the throne, assuring us the world will not fall apart if we cease our activities. Life on this side of heaven is an unfinished symphony. We accomplish one goal and then immediately are confronted with new op- portunities and challenges. But ultimately we will die with countless unfinished projects and goals. That’s okay. God is at work taking care of the universe. He manages quite well with- out us having to run things. When we are sleeping, he is work- ing. So he commands us to relax, to enjoy the fact that we are not in charge of his world, that even when we die, the world will continue on nicely without us. Every Sabbath reminds us to “be still and know that [He] is God” (Psalm 46:10) and to stop worrying about tomorrow (see Matthew 6:25-33).
The core spiritual issue in stopping revolves around trust. Will God take care of us and our concerns if we obey him by stopping to keep the Sabbath?
The story is told of a wagon train of Christians traveling on its way from St. Louis to Oregon. They observed the habit of stopping for the Sabbath during the autumn but as winter ap- proached the group began to panic in fear they would not reach their destination before the snows began. A number of members of the group proposed they should quit the practice of stopping for the Sabbath and travel seven days a week. This caused an argument in the community until it was finally de- cided to divide the wagon train into two groups. One group would observe the Sabbath day as before and not travel. The other would press on.
Which group arrived in Oregon first? Of course—the ones who kept the Sabbath. Both the people and their horses were so rested by their Sabbath observance they could travel much more
efficiently the other six days.5 When I trust God and obey his commands, he provides. Jesus
takes our loaves and fishes that we offer him, even though they are insufficient to feed the multitudes, and somehow miraculously and invisibly multiplies them. We can trust him enough to stop.
Once we stop the Sabbath calls us to rest. God rested after his work. We are to do the same—every seventh day (see Genesis 2:1- 4). What do we do to replace all we are now stopping during our Sabbath time? The answer is simply: whatever delights and replenishes you.
For example, in my case work relates to my vocation as pastor of New Life Fellowship Church, along with writing and speak- ing. For this reason, Saturday rather than Sunday is my Sabbath. I purposely engage in ideas and people that get my mind off even the thought of work! That includes napping, working out, going for long walks, reading a novel, watching a good movie, going out for dinner. I avoid the computer and cell phone.
For me to enjoy Sabbath rest on Saturday, however, requires I have another day of the week to do the tasks of life that consume my energy or fill me with worry. For example, planning my week, paying bills, balancing our checkbook, cleaning the house, fighting traffic and crowds to shop, doing loads of laundry are all work I need to do a different day of the week.
The following list gives you nine possibilities to consider replac- ing with rest. The primary one, of course, is rest from work. But you may want to also consider picking one or two of the others over the next couple of months as you develop your practice of Sabbath-keeping.
I work I physical exhaustion I hurriedness I multitasking I competitiveness I worry I decision-making I catching up on errands I talkingI technology and machines (e.g., cell phones, TV, computers, etc.)
When we stop and rest, we respect our humanity and the image of God in us. We are not nonstop human beings. Sadly, it often takes a physical illness such as cancer, a heart attack, a flu, or a severe depression to get us to rest. We don’t serve the Sab- bath. The Sabbath serves us.
A third component to biblical Sabbath revolves around de- lighting in what we have been given. God, after finishing his work of creation, proclaimed that “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God delighted over his creation. The Hebrew phrase communicates a sense of joy, completion, wonder, and play. This is particularly radical in a culture like ours, both secular and Christian, that is “delight deficient.” Because of the way pleasure and delight has been so distorted by our culture, many of us as Christians struggle with receiving joy and pleasure.
On Sabbaths we are called to enjoy and delight in creation and its gifts. We are to slow down and pay attention to our food, smelling and tasting its riches. We are to take the time to see the beauty of a tree, a leaf, a flower, the sky that has been created with great care by our God. He has given us the ability to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, that we might feast with our senses on the miraculousness of life. We are, as William Blake wrote, “to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower.”
I will never forget the first time I took pleasure in warm water running over my hands in a McDonald’s restroom on a Sabbath. I slowly dried my hands, rubbing them together under the drier as the water dissipated. I did not run out of the restroom, drying my hands on my pants as I walked to the car. I did not skip putting soap all over my hands.
I relished the present moment and tasted the Sabbath gift of simply washing my hands!
On Sabbaths God also invites us to slow down to pay attention and delight in people. In the gospels, Jesus modeled a prayerful presence with people—whether it was a Samarian woman, the widow at Nain, the rich young ruler, or Nicodemus. He seemed “into” the beauty of men and women crafted in God’s image. This has become a spiritual discipline for me. I try, for example, to walk slowly, leaving lots of free space and time on Sabbaths so I can stop for unexpected conversations with neighbors, family, and shopkeepers. I ask God for the grace to leave the frenzied busyness around me and be a contemplative presence to those around me.
Finally, Sabbath delight invites us to healthy play. The word chosen by the Greek Fathers for the perfect, mutual in- dwelling of the Trinity was perichoerisis. It literally means “dancing around.” Creation and life are, in a sense, God’s gift of a playground to us. Whether it be through sports, dance, games, looking at old family photographs, or visiting museums, nurturing our sense of pure fun in God also is part of Sabbath.
The final quality of a biblical Sabbath is, of course, the contemplation of God. The Sabbath is always “holy to the Lord” (Exodus 31:15). Pondering the love of God remains the central focus of our Sabbaths. Throughout Jewish and Christian history, Sabbath has included worship with God’s people where we feast on his presence, the reading and study of Scripture, and silence. For this reason Sundays remain the ideal time for Sab- bath-keeping whenever possible.
Every Sabbath also serves as a taste of the glorious eternal party of music, food, and beauty that awaits us in heaven when we see him face to face (see Revelation 22:4). On every Sabbath, we experience a sampling of something greater that awaits us. Our short earthly lives are put in perspective as we look forward to the day when God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness and we will enter an eternal Sabbath feast in God’s perfect presence. We will experience his splendor, greatness, beauty, excellence, and glory far beyond anything we ever experienced or dreamed.
As with stopping, resting, and delighting, we will need to prepare in advance how to do this. Is it any wonder that the Jewish people traditionally had a Day of Preparation for the Sabbath? There was food to buy, clothes to wash for the children, and final preparations to be made.
What will it mean to prepare yourself for worship, to receive the Word of God? What time do you need to go to bed the night before? When might you have times of silence and solitude or prayer during the day? What final items do you need to resolve so you can have an uncluttered Sabbath?
Devout Jews today have numerous customs related to their Friday Shabbat meal as a family. They maintain various tradi- tions, from the lighting of candles to the reading of psalms to the blessing of children to eating of the meal to the giving of thanks to God. Each is designed to keep God at the center of their Sabbath. There are an amazing variety of Sabbath possibilities before you. It is vitally important you keep in mind your unique life situation as you work out these four principles of Sabbath keeping into your life. Experiment. Make a plan. Follow it for one to two months. Then reflect back on what changes you would like to make. There is no one right way that works for every person.
Sabbath is like receiving the gift of a heavy snow day every week. Stores are closed. Roads are impassable. Suddenly you have the gift of a day to do whatever you want. You don’t have any obligations, pressures, or responsibilities. You have permis- sion to play, be with friends, take a nap, read a good book. Few of us would give ourselves a “no obligation day” very often. God does—every seventh day.
Think about it. He gives you over seven weeks a year (fifty-two days in all) of snow days every year! And if you begin to practice stopping, resting, delighting, and contemplating for one twenty- four-hour period each week, you will soon find your other six days becoming infused with those same qualities. I suspect that has always been God’s plan.