I wish I could say I was a particularly spiritual child, but I wasn’t. In fact, I basically hated Sundays. It wasn’t the morning and evening church services I didn’t like—it was the in-between. My parents were quite strict about that time of the week: no play dates, no school work, no sporting events, no television, no eating out, required naps, etc. These Sabbath day practices felt unbearable to me. So as soon as I was old enough to make my own decisions, I dropped all of those Sabbath rules.
Once I got to college, I quickly recognized that I was studying and working seven days a week. I wasn’t taking any time to rest or breathe. Through various sermons, teachings, and books, God began to open my eyes to the Sabbath again, in a new way. I started to consider that, perhaps, my parents were on to something in the Sabbath practice that I once loathed.
Fast forward to adulthood and parenting littles, and I am painfully aware of the need for Sabbath. In the 24/7 nature of this season of life, without regular moments of pause, rest, and worship, it can quickly feel like things are spinning out of control. Add to that the frenetic, hurried pace of our society and the pressure to keep up, and it’s easy to be consumed by the things of this world. In practicing Sabbath, we create space to respond to the invitation of Jesus, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
So what is Sabbath?
Simply put, Sabbath is a time set apart for rest and worship. It is taking a break from work—paid and unpaid—for the purpose of connecting with God and others and finding “rest for our souls."
The origin of Sabbath goes back to the very beginning of time, literally. The Genesis account of God creating the universe in six days concludes with, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2). God could have created a six-day week in accordance with how many days He worked. Instead, he specifically made a seventh day—made it holy--to rest from His work.
Sabbath appears again in God’s instructions to the people of Israel after He rescued them from slavery and delivered them into freedom, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God…” (Exodus 20:8-10b).
When is Sabbath?
The when of Sabbath is long-debated. For Jews, Sabbath was (and is) Saturday. For most Protestants, it’s Sunday. The holy day in Islam is Friday. For followers of Jesus, it might be easy to get caught up in what day it is and lose sight of the bigger picture: setting aside time to intentionally rest and commune with God. Many pastors and church leaders have very hectic Sundays, so this might not be their ideal day for Sabbath. Depending on your work schedule, Saturday or Sunday might not be realistic options for rest and worship. Finding a time that works for you and your family is what matters most.
Why keep the Sabbath?
There are a myriad of reasons to observe a Sabbath, but it is first worth mentioning an important non-reason. The apostle Paul makes it clear in Colossians that in Jesus, “the written code, with its regulations,” was taken away and nailed to the cross. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:13-18). As followers of Jesus, we are no longer bound by the law, including the Sabbath. Jesus is our Sabbath rest, and we are headed toward an eternal Sabbath with Him.
Until then, though, we are in this world. We work, we parent, we strive, we schedule, we plan, we make decisions, we stress. Unless we dedicate time to stop those things, they will begin to consume and define us.
Influential Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am said, “More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Sabbath cannot save our souls, but it can keep us grounded in what matters the most. Observing Sabbath is like a regular reset for our minds and souls. Christ fulfilled the shadow of Sabbath, but the ancient wisdom and example established by God Himself remains. It’s not a requirement for faith; it is a gift of being free.
American pastor and author Peter Scazzero has spent much of his ministry focusing on slowing the pace of life in an effort to be both emotionally and spiritually healthy as a Christian leader. In one of his podcasts, he briefly discusses ten reasons Sabbath is essential for Christian leaders (and all believers). One of the points he discusses is that practicing Sabbath breaks our addiction to doing and it reminds us that the world still goes on without us (definitely worth taking 33 minutes to listen to the full discussion).
For parents and families, there are some additional specific reasons why Sabbath is important. J.R. Kennedy, NextGen pastor at Life Community Church in Hilliard, Ohio, offers encouragement for parents. He says of practicing Sabbath in a hurried, over-scheduled society, “It is good to model what stopping looks like.” In sometimes stopping, we show our kids that there’s another way to do this life and that it is okay to say no. He also asserts that if parents set up a rhythm of Sabbath for our children, this gives them the opportunity to re-define what “normal” is and how they view life.
How do we keep the Sabbath?
The how of practicing Sabbath, especially for followers of Jesus, is where things can get tricky. Certain religious groups, particularly within Judaism, have clear-cut regulations—do’s and don’ts—on how to observe Sabbath. It is human nature to want to make a list of what can and cannot be done on Sabbath. In some ways, a list would simplify the endeavor, make it easier to figure out. But as Paul made clear in Colossians, we cannot judge or let anyone judge us “with regard to a Sabbath day.” We are under grace.
John Mark Comer, a Washington-based pastor and author, encourages anyone interested in practicing Sabbath to stay away from asking questions like “What can I do on Sabbath?” or “Is __________ ‘allowed’ on Sabbath?” What rest and worship look like for different individuals varies greatly. He challenges people to ask two main questions in regards to what to do on Sabbath: Does this bring rest to my soul? And does this bring me closer to God? Reading and exercise might be life-giving and rejuvenating to one soul, and exhausting or labor-intensive to another. It’s important to attune ourselves to how God has made us and how we feel most connected to Him.
Pastor Comer’s advice to someone intrigued but intimidated by the idea of taking a regular Sabbath: start where you can. If four hours once per week is what you feel you can carve out right now to rest and re-connect with God, start there. And keep in mind that Sabbath doesn’t happen perfectly overnight. It’s a learning process, part of our journey with the LORD. It’s also important for families to keep in mind that Sabbath might actually hurt a little, in the sense that it is not always easy to say no to activities and may require tough decisions. Yet as Christian philosopher and author Dallas Willard said, we must “ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives” in order to move toward spiritual and emotional health. Keeping Sabbath helps us do that.
Sabbath during quarantine?
In the new normal in which we are all living, it might feel like we are under a bit of a forced (and perpetual) Sabbath. Most or all of our activities are cancelled, we’re spending tons of time with our families, and we’re likely being more creative with how we spend our time and resources. At the same time, work life and home life and family life are also blending together in a way that may feel messy and exhausting. I think it’s possible for many elements of our lives to be on pause or even cancelled, but we may still be missing true Sabbath—rest and worship.
Now, perhaps more than ever, do our souls need Sabbath. As we face fear, activities on hold, blurred lines between work and home life, and many new changes, our souls need to disconnect from this world and re-connect with our Creator, our Savior--our true rest. This forced slowing down might be the perfect opportunity to consider a new way of Sabbath. Not just of being home more or taking more walks or consuming less, but of intentionally attuning our hearts and minds to God so that we daily experience His life. Now might be a good time to practice getting into a new rhythm of rest, and when life returns to “normal” (whatever that will look like), we will be able to choose what is best for our families moving forward.
A Life-Long Journey
While Sabbath continues to look different for me with each new stage of life, I can say one thing for sure: I don't hate Sabbaths anymore. I actually crave them. I'm so thankful that my parents instilled in me an idea of setting a Sabbath apart from the rest of the week. I pray that I'm able to do the same with my own kids.
Together, as individuals, as families, and as the Church, may we enter into His rest.