What is Sabbath?
How do you practice Sabbath?
Many believe Sabbath is going to church. Some see it as a day of legalistic restrictions or a day of relaxation. Others view it as God providing a day to recuperate from a busy week.
There is truth in each of these understandings, but Sabbath is so much more. We may go to church on Sabbath. We are intentional about our activities, which will include some restrictions. It is relaxing, and it will certainly impact the rest of our week. But none of these beliefs about Sabbath encompass the full and wonderful gift it truly is.
Sabbath is a commandment, a guide for living in the kingdom of God. It is a holy day. When we practice Sabbath, our whole lives become grounded in God. Setting one day apart each week is an acknowledgment that we do not control time, and every moment is a grace filled gift. The faithful practice of Sabbath places God directly in the center of our lives.
History of Sabbath
Sabbath may be the oldest spiritual discipline of them all. We know the creation account in Genesis is an origin story. It is the beginning of the world, but it also the birth of Sabbath. In fact, you could make a case that the institution of Sabbath in Genesis 2:1-3 is the focal point of the entire creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4.
For six days God is working, creating and organizing the world. There is a rhythm to it. God speaks. Creation is ordered, and all things work according to their function. There is evening and morning. This process is repeated six times. Then, after day six, God doesn’t speak. He doesn’t create. He rests. “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3)
When a passage has as clear a rhythm as Genesis 1 and that rhythm shifts suddenly, the author is telling us something in the shift. Could it be the creation account in Genesis 1-2:4 is as much about the origin of Sabbath as it is about the origin of the world?
Fast-forward to the slopes of Mount Sinai and Sabbath is instituted formally as a discipline in the fourth commandment.
Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
Sabbath became a central practice for the Israelites. It built a rhythm into the life of the community. The calendar’s rhythm of holy days and Sabbath grounded every day, week, month and year in the reality that the Israelites were the Lord’s people and he was their God. It was so central, in fact, that many believe the practice of Sabbath helped the Israelites maintain their cultural identity while in exile.
For the Jews, Sabbath was and is a holy day. It is a day of remembering God’s creative acts and the perfect shalom of creation before the fall. Sabbath is welcomed into the home with a prayer at sundown on Friday and is observed until sundown on Saturday. On Sabbath, work of any kind is prohibited.
Observance of Sabbath for the Jews is not, however, just a matter of prohibition. Spiritual practices and joyful activities are encouraged on Sabbath. Prayers are prayed. Scripture is studied, and synagogue is attended. Fellowship with friends is enjoyed, as are meals and naps. And at the end of Sabbath, a blessing is prayed for the week to come.
Sabbath also carries a prophetic messianic element for the Jews. It is an opportunity to remember the perfect shalom of God’s creation and a reminder that one day, God will restore shalom to the world. In this way, the Jews embrace Sabbath as a taste of the coming kingdom of God.
What is Sabbath?
A divine commandment
What is Sabbath to a Christian? We need to begin with a reminder that Sabbath is a commandment. It is no less a commandment than “Thou shall not murder” or “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.” We are going to talk about it here as a discipline, but let’s remember what God’s commandments are. They are not rules for the sake of rules. They are not ways of earning God’s favor or salvation. God’s commandments are both descriptions of a life lived in communion with him and a means of cultivating such a life. In this way, Sabbath both describes and cultivate a life centered on God.
Life centered on God
Sabbath is a discipline of time. Our lives are ordered by the rhythms of time, measured by the passing of days, weeks, months and years. We are obsessed with time. Consider how much we try to control it. We seek to reclaim “the good old days” and long for the days to come. Productivity and efficiency are like gold as we find new ways to multitask and get what we want or need more quickly. When we are young we try to be adults, and when we are old we can go to extreme lengths to look and feel young again. But despite all our efforts, we cannot control time.
Sabbath is an acknowledgement that time is beyond our control. When we practice Sabbath, we release our grip on time and place it in the hands of God. It is like tithing. Tithing is a discipline in which we give a portion of our money to God as a demonstration that every bit of our money and possessions belong to him. When we practice Sabbath, we declare time is outside our jurisdiction. It is God’s to control. It is his creation and only he is Lord over time. When we practice Sabbath, we demonstrate this reality by giving a portion back to God.
The faithful observance of Sabbath is a daily practice, not weekly. For three days we anticipate and prepare for Sabbath. Then we welcome her into our homes like an honored guest, and for the next three days we remember the glorious gift of resting in the Lord. Practicing Sabbath builds a rhythm into our lives, a rhythm in which every moment is pointing toward the divine gift of God’s presence and Sabbath’s promise of shalom. The rhythm of a weekly Sabbath reinforces our commitment to build our lives on the foundation of following Jesus.
“More than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel.” This is a Jewish saying that likely goes back to the Babylonian exile. Imagine for a moment living in a culture opposed to your identity as God’s chosen people. The temple is destroyed, the sacrificial system gone. Sabbath, however, is a practice you can still continue as a community. At sundown on Friday, you can refrain from work and welcome Sabbath rest into your home.
Sabbath united the Jews in exile. It helped them maintain a distinct identity and avoid being absorbed into a foreign culture. There are some similarities between the life of a disciple and the life of an exiled Israelite. We live in a culture that does not understand our practices; at times it can even be hostile toward them. As it was for the exiled Israelites, Sabbath is a helpful practice for disciples, keeping us from being wholly assimilated into a culture that is out of step with the life we are created to live.
Sabbath removes us from culture for a time. It reminds us who we are, what our lives are centered upon and from whom we receive value. Culture has an incredible influence on us. It is a quickly flowing river that can easily carry us away. Sabbath allows us to step out of the current for a moment. On the banks of Sabbath, we gain perspective. We see culture for what it is, where it is good and where it is not. On the banks, we also find rest, so when we return we have the strength to choose our direction, with or against the flow.
Because of its countercultural nature, Sabbath may be the most difficult discipline to practice consistently. But when we step out of the fast moving stream of busyness and productivity, we connect with God free from distraction. And we find the true source of our value.
How to practice Sabbath
In high school, I told my employer Sunday was Sabbath, and so I was unavailable for work. My typical Sunday involved church and lunch with friends. After lunch, I would plop myself on the couch and take a little nap while watching baseball or football the entire afternoon. After dinner, I would get back on the couch and watch more television. That, I thought, was Sabbath.
There was nothing wrong with this day. I was resting and doing things I enjoyed, but something was missing. It is true I took a day off from bagging groceries. And the first half of the day was great, connecting with God and others in church and at lunch, but the second part of my day was lacking. The problem was not the activities, but the heart behind them. My afternoon and evenings were times of checking out. Rather than resting and engaging God, I was escaping. There was a distinct lack of intention.
Sabbath is highly intentional. Without intention it too easily becomes just another day. If you don’t believe me, try Sabbath for just one day. You won’t believe how opposed your practice will be. All those chores you avoided during the week become oddly attractive. You’ll suddenly find a handful of tasks task that must be done now. You will find yourself drawn toward all kinds of productive activities.
Sabbath is a discipline practiced in two intentional parts, rest and joy. We are intentional about what we rest from as well as what we do. Jews look at the two descriptions of Sabbath in Exodus and Deuteronomy to describe this. The Exodus command to remember the Sabbath is a direction to do certain things on Shabbat, and the command in Deuteronomy to observe or guard the Sabbath is a direction to refrain from certain activities.
On Sabbath we are intentional about all our actions, the activities we rest from and the ones we engage. Sabbath is a day of rest, and a day to do those things that bring us life. Sabbath is a day of intention.
When we think of Sabbath, the first things we often think about it are prohibitions. But what activity should we refrain from on Sabbath? Scripture directs us to rest from melachah. Melachah, which we translate as “work” does not only mean paid or even physical labor. It refers to all kinds of productive activity.
According to the Jewish website chabad.org it refers to all “constructive, creative effort, demonstrating man’s mastery over nature. Refraining from melachah on Shabbat signals our recognition that, despite our human creative abilities, G-d is the ultimate Creator and Master.” At its core, this command is to relinquish control and let God be God.
Resting from productive activities
Sabbath is a day to intentionally rest from producing anything; this includes material and immaterial productivity. Our work – in the office or store, with the hammer, wrench and machinery, or in the home – is the natural starting point. Put down the phone. Don’t check emails, voicemails or texts from your employer or employees. Leave the tools in the truck and the vacuum in the closet. Keep the lawnmower and trimmer in the shed. Sabbath should be a day free of chores.
The definition of productive work is subjective. I am a beginning gardener. In the past year I have been working to improve the non-existent landscaping at our new home. I find some pleasure in it, and one day I hope to graduate to amateur gardener status, but at the moment, gardening is labor. It is not rest. It is about productivity, not joy. So I should not be working the soil on Sabbath. But many find great joy with their hands and knees in the dirt. For them the garden is not a place of productivity but of peaceful engagement with God’s beautiful creation. For someone with this perspective, gardening is not only appropriate, but should be encouraged on Sabbath.
As a general rule of thumb, if I find my greatest joy comes from what is produced or accomplished in an activity, I leave it for one of the other six days. However, if I enjoy the activity itself not just the outcome, if it fills my soul it is a worthy Sabbath practice. What productive activities will you rest from on Sabbath?
Resting from busyness
Dallas Willard once suggested, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life, for hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our world today.” John Eldredge has said busyness is the single greatest substitute for significance. Hurry and busyness are hugely influential but unspoken values in our culture.
Think about how driven we are to busyness and how we assign value to ourselves and others based on what we do. To our culture busyness equates to importance. But the noise of busyness makes it incredibly difficult to remain connected to the vine, to discern the presence and direction of the Spirit in our lives. Because busyness is both an unspoken value in our culture and one of the primary obstacles to being disciples, we should intentionally rest from busy activities on Sabbath.
What activities contribute to a sense of busyness in your life? Some of this will be obvious, others less so. For example, driving is high on my list of busy activities. There is nothing like sitting in a bucket seat with hands at ten and two to inject a sense of hurry in my life. So I don’t do a lot of driving on Sabbath. And the driving I do is intentionally unhurried. It took some practice, but I can now drive without getting upset at the pokey puppy in front of me. And there have been times, we have chosen to cancel plans and stay home when we would be forced to rush in the car.
This also includes any practices that incite a desire for more stuff. Part of our busyness is a drive to acquire more things. It is an assumed reality that we need more to be happy. It doesn’t matter how much we have presently, we do not believe we will be happy unless we have just a little bit more.
What activities feed your longing for more stuff? Is it the Internet? Is it an afternoon at the mall? Television? I like to watch HGTV and the DIY Network. I enjoy watching people transform a home and learn how I can do the same, but these channels remind me of all the work I want to do on our house. I find myself thinking of the tools I “need” and all the projects I want to take on in the next ten years. So I stay away from these channels on Sabbath.
There is one more category of activity to be aware of on Sabbath. We should not practice anything that allows us to mentally, emotionally, or spiritually check out. Checking out is not in the spirit of Sabbath. It is an escape, not intentional rest. Sabbath rest should help us become more attentive, not less. If we are going to be intentional about Sabbath joy, we will need to be aware of practices that allow us to check out. I love story, so television or movies can be joyful Sabbath practices, but I have to be careful what I watch. Some movies and shows are nothing more than a way of checking out. So I must be intentional about what I watch on Sabbath.
Many of us have seen Sabbath as a strict day of prohibition. But it is also a day of great joy. We don’t often think of Sabbath this way, although more and more writing on Sabbath these days is focusing on this area. We would do well to remember Sabbath is participation in the kingdom of God. It reminds us of the way things were in the garden and is a glimpse into life after God restores the peace of Eden to the world. On Sabbath we are intentional about the activities we rest from. We are also intentional about what activities we engage.
Rabbi Evan Moffic suggests we take time on Sabbath to do the joyful things we normally wouldn’t have time for. Dan Allender says Sabbath becomes holy the moment “we are captured by beauty, and a dance of delight swirls us beyond the moment to taste the expanse of eternity in, around, and before us.”
The Sabbath is an invitation to enter delight. The Sabbath, when experienced, as God intended, is the best day of our lives. Without question or thought, it is the best day of the week. It is the day we anticipate on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – and the day we remember on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Sabbath is the holy time where we feast, play, dance, have sex, sing, pray, laugh, tell stories, read, paint, walk, and watch creation in its fullness. Few people are willing to enter the Sabbath and sanctify it, to make it holy, because a day full of delight and joy is more than most people can bear in a lifetime, let alone a week.
Joy is more than a gift from God; it is a fruit of the Spirit. We bring glory to God when we engage joy on Sabbath. Consider our senses as one example. A functional perspective of food says it is nourishment, energy for the body. But is that all we experience when we eat? Heavens no. When we dine on a fine meal, our senses come alive! The smells build anticipation and even trigger memories. When we take a bite, the sweetness, heat, or savory flavors can hold us captive.
God created the senses. They are not arbitrary. They are not a mistake, and they serve more than a simple utilitarian purpose. Our senses were created for joy, and when we engage them joyfully, we honor the one who created them.
What brings you great joy? I love to read, both fiction and non-fiction. It is more difficult for me these days with two young boys, but when I can, I spend time reading on Sabbath. I also love to see my boys having fun. So our family’s Sabbath often includes time in a park or at the zoo. What brings you a deep sense of joy?
As disciples, we are constantly cultivating an awareness of God’s presence, and Sabbath is an especially fruitful day for this. We can be intentional on Sabbath to practice certain disciplines that are more difficult during the rest of the week. Is there a discipline you wish you had more time to engage? Maybe you want to dig deeper into scripture or carve out more time for contemplative prayer.
Another valuable Sabbath practice is engaging your “spiritual pathway.” We all connect to God deeply through different means. Some encounter God in community. Others experience him in worship, serving others or in silence. These are called spiritual pathways. Because they cultivate an awareness of God’s presence, I believe these are spiritual disciplines. Where do you naturally have a greater awareness of God’s presence?
I find God intimately in his creation. I cannot experience the beauty of nature without reflecting on his amazing creativity. The night sky reminds me of how small I am and how crazy it is that God cares for someone so insignificant. A simple walk in nature is a deeply connecting activity for me, so it is a great practice for Sabbath. How do you most deeply experience the presence of God?
Crafting an intentional Sabbath
After some reflection, you will want to craft your Sabbath practice. In order to be intentional, you will need to consider what you will and won’t do. If you are like me you will bristle at the idea of a list. But I have found a list is an important place to begin. Without the list, I struggled to be intentional. I needed the firm boundaries. Without them, I found myself rationalizing certain practices that robbed me of Sabbath rest. But once I had that in order, I was able to free myself to simply enjoy Sabbath.
The list of activities to rest from will be pretty specific. These are things you will not do on Sabbath. Your list of joyful activities on the other hand, will be more fluid. You won’t be able to do all these things on Sabbath. Filling your day with too many good things can choke out Sabbath rest. Create a day that brings peace and space to your life. Engage God. Do things that bring you joy, and be aware of the how the joy points you back to God.
Then you need to determine when to practice Sabbath. It doesn’t have to be Sunday. Traditional Jewish Sabbath is sundown-to-sundown Friday to Saturday. Will you plan on sundown-to-sundown or a calendar day? What day works best for you and your family? I do think it should be the same day every week. If that is impossible because of your schedule, a floating Sabbath is better than none, but the rhythm that comes from a regular day is immensely valuable.
Keep in mind Sabbath requires preparation. Its intention extends beyond the day of Sabbath. Make sure you are thinking about it on the days before. Do you need to change the oil this weekend? Does laundry need to get done? Do you need to help your son with a school project? Plan ahead to enter Sabbath rest without tasks hanging over your head.
Hold your Sabbath practices loosely. Your practice will be different from others. As uniquely created people, we will all have different things that drive us into busyness and different practices that give life. This is good. And we don’t want to become too regimented in our own activities because they will likely change. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find Sabbath uncovering new idols and activities from which to refrain. It is helpful to reassess your practice every so often.
Above all, let God guide your Sabbath practice. Listen to his direction. Is he directing you to do or rest from something this coming Sabbath? Did you struggle with your last Sabbath? What does that tell you; what can you learn from your struggle? Don’t let your Sabbath be an empty activity. Stay engaged. Practice Sabbath with God.
A word on opposition and legalism
You will be surprised when you begin Sabbath just how opposed this practice will be. The tasks you ran from during the week will suddenly sing an unexpected siren song. Pay attention to this. The things we are tempted to do on Sabbath can be very enlightening. Why does the quiet rest bother us? What are we grasping for during a time of rest? What are we afraid of in the silence? Why are we drawn to the things we are drawn to? What do we expect to receive from these tasks? These are important questions to take to God.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about your Sabbath is to beware of legalism. Remember Jesus taught Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around. Sabbath is not a task to complete. It is an opportunity to enjoy a taste of the kingdom as we rest in God. But don’t confuse intention with legalism. Legalism is about the activity itself. It is about earning. Intention simply creates a boundary to protect our Sabbath practice.
If the list makes you break out in a cold sweat, be as intentional as you feel is right, and reflect on your Sabbath at the end of the day. Did it feel special? Was your day holy, set apart? Or was it a regular day? If you are truly seeking Sabbath rest, it should not be difficult to assess your day. In fact, when I began, I regularly had days that disappointed me. I wished I had or hadn’t done something. These feelings did two things for me. They helped me refine my practice, and they made me look forward to the next Sabbath all the more.
When you commit to the consistent practice of Sabbath, you will find your life more intentionally grounded in God’s kingdom. You will find freedom by releasing your attempts to control time and joy as you build space to connect with God. And you begin to look forward to Sabbath as the best day of your week.
Other Sabbath Resources
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting by Marva J. Dawn
Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann
Sabbath: The Ancient Practices by Dan Allender
Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner
New Life Fellowship Sabbath Resources by Peter Scazzero
Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God by Gary L. Thomas