What is Sabbath and how do we practice it today? I was personally convicted of the absence of Sabbath in my life in the summer of 2019. I was given a 3 month sabbatical from my full-time work at Hope, and in that time, I became painfully aware that the way I had been choosing to rest was not at all the way I was created to rest. More about that later, but I’ve spent the last 10 months thinking and praying about the idea of Sabbath and seeking to create a day of Sabbath rest in my own life each week. In the following pages I will attempt to share my journey through Sabbath with you in the sincere hope that you will do the same in your own life. Genesis 1:31-2:3 says,
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
This is the first example of rest in the Bible, and though we don’t see the word “Sabbath” mentioned here, it is the cornerstone verse on which the command of Sabbath would hang. God worked for six days and on the seventh, he rested. This day of rest is the first thing that God pronounced as holy. Not animals, not us, but Sabbath. The command for humans to observe Sabbath comes later in the Bible in Exodus 20:8-11, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…you shall not do any work…for in six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Sabbath is holy. The definition of holy is to be set apart, sacred, separate, and morally excellent. This day should be different than the other six days of the week. We know that we are made in the image of God, and we see in Genesis that God Himself rested on the seventh day. When He calls us to rest on the seventh day as well and to keep it holy, He is not just giving us a day off of work; He’s commanding us to be like Him. God rested – we should rest. He is Holy – we should be holy. We see the Israelites practice Sabbath in Exodus 16. In verse 4, God says, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.” Each day when manna rains from heaven, they are to collect enough to feed their household for the day. No more, no less. Only what they need. On the sixth day, they are to collect two days worth so that they can observe the Sabbath. When they collect more on the days they are not supposed to, it rots. When they don’t collect enough on the sixth day, there is none to gather on the Sabbath. God gives them this test, not so that they can practice their listening skills, but so that they trust in Him alone. God gives them their daily bread. By taking more than they need throughout the week, they are communicating a lack of trust in Him to provide each day. By not collecting enough on the sixth day to feed themselves also on Sabbath, they are communicating that they don’t trust God to keep their food from rotting like it does on all other days and they’re communicating a felt need to work every day rather than rely on Him. What does God want them to see about Sabbath in this? That they need to trust in Him. It’s interesting to note here that the command to rest one day also includes the directive to work for six. Being diligent throughout the rest of the week is an important part in observing Sabbath as well. In Ezekiel 20:12, God says, “Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” This passage shows us that Sabbath is a gift from God. Not just a day for resting from work, but a day to know that He is the One who sanctifies us. What does our sanctification mean? It means we are moving toward the perfection that God has designed for us in preparation for eternity in heaven. Sanctification and Sabbath are foretastes of heaven. Sabbath isn’t just a day of rest. It is a reminder of our covenant with God, His promise to redeem us to Himself and bring us into an eternity in a world where there is no more sin, no more death, no more striving. Sabbath is a foretaste of our eternal blessing. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come…The essence of the world to come is Sabbath eternal, and the seventh day in time is an example of eternity.” Observing a Sabbath day gives us a little taste of eternity each week. In Isaiah 58:13-14 God says:
“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; 14 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This passage speaks to the fact that Sabbath is meant to delight us. Of course we all have things that bring us pleasure and joy, but if it is not God who provides our Ultimate pleasure and delight, we will be unable to delight in the practice of Sabbath. God desires that our delight be in Him and on the Sabbath day, that we step away from the things towards which we strive every day and draw nearer to Him. In Psalm 23:1-3, we see that, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” When thinking through the idea of Sabbath, it is important to remember who does what. God is my Shepherd, He makes me lie down, He leads me, He restores. God is the one who acts, we are the one who responds. In Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What does Jesus want from those who labor and are heavy laden? For them to come and find rest in Him. Later in the book of Matthew (12:1-12), Jesus has two interactions regarding Sabbath. In these interactions, which I’ll explore more fully later, we see that Sabbath is a gift of love to meet humanity’s needs, not an oppressive burden to make us miserable or proud. Sabbath is primarily a day for showing mercy and a day for doing good; a day to focus on the Lord. So what do we do with all of this? How do we take these theological ideas and make real changes in our day-to-day lives? One important thing we need to do is sincerely look at our day-to-day lives. Take some time to really examine and ask yourself, “What do I delight in and where do I find joy? Am I taking time to let the depth of my soul rest and reflect in who God is and what God has done? From what do I actually need rest? How do I feel like I’m doing with balancing the areas of working hard and resting well? Is there any balance at all?” The reality is that our culture glorifies the busy. The busier you are, the more important you seem to those around you. We experience fear and shame when we’re not doing “enough”. Oftentimes, culture and outside voices define what “enough” is for our lives. When we’re “doing nothing productive,” it leaves us feeling vulnerable and ashamed. But here’s the reality of the Gospel: your worth is not based on what you do, it’s based on who you are – a son or daughter of the Most High God. A son or daughter upon whom the living God has set his love and grace. Jesus doesn’t ask people in the Bible how hard they’ve been working or how much they’ve done. He asks them to come to Him, to have faith, to rest. Taking time to rest isn’t failure. Taking time to rest is necessary. And it serves to build our spiritual intimacy with the One who created us all. So what’s the difference between Sabbath and a day off? There are four things: stopping work, enjoying rest, practicing delight, and contemplating God. We’ll take a look at these one-by-one below and then talk more about how to implement this practice in your own life.
This is what God did in Genesis 1. He stopped what He had been doing and rested. I don’t believe that God’s rest in Genesis was for recuperation, though. He’s the God of the universe. He created everything with a word. He says, “Be,” and it is. I do believe that His day of rest was for exaltation. He sat back, looked at all He had done, and it was good. He was taking a moment to delight in all that He had made. That’s why I firmly believe that Sabbath isn’t just about taking a day off, but it has to include it. We have to set boundaries throughout the week and make plans so that when our day of Sabbath comes, we can actually step away from our work. We can trust in God and know that, while on this side of heaven, nothing will be 100% perfect, He works all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). We need to trust in Him, His timing, His plan and not put our trust in the resolution of issues that we’re dealing with at work. When we stop working, we have the opportunity to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10). Just like we can’t look in front of us and behind us at the same time, we can’t focus on how big God is when we’re focused on our circumstances. We have to stop everything else and focus on Him. But what does being still mean in today’s world? It means filling up with God first before you do other things in your day. It means turning the phone off and putting it away. It means getting your mind to stop so that you can sit. It means waiting until God decides to move and not putting our timeline on how and when things should be done. It means don’t be working when you’re not working. Stop thinking about those things constantly like they’re the most important thing in your life. Psalm 62 says, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” When your mind wants to focus on work instead of on God, try praying for those things when they come up in your mind. I believe that it’s symptomatic that your brain needs time in the day to process things if you can’t get your brain to stop thinking on things while you’re trying to focus on God. If you feel like you just “can’t turn it off,” you need Sabbath now more than ever.
Once we stop, we accept God’s invitation to rest. Sabbath is a time to engage in activities that restore and replenish us. Rest isn’t about turning everything off and shutting down; that doesn’t restore our souls. What restores our souls is engaging in activities that actually restore and replenish them. Watching Netflix for a while may do that for you. It may not. Being outside and building something may do that for you. It may not. Think through those things in your life – people, hobbies, passions – that bring you joy and make you feel refreshed, and take time to partake in those things on Sabbath. Having time to rest from those things that don’t restore us does require a bit of planning throughout the week. We can’t rest from doing things like paying bills and mowing the yard if we haven’t taken the time during the week to do them.
This is my favorite part. This just means being intentional to enjoy and delight in God’s creation and the gifts he offers us. God created the world and called it very good, and He celebrated completing that work by taking time to delight in it. He invites us to do the same through Sabbath. Delight in who God is, in who you are, in what He has done for us, and in what He has promised us. Laugh. Enjoy. Live. Love. Play. Most of us take ourselves much too seriously in our day-to-day lives. Take time on Sabbath to play and be silly as a way to enjoy and delight in God. Find those activities that you just love to do and people that you love spending time with and enjoy them! Maybe even find something new that you’ve wanted to try. Just delight. Psalm 37 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s easy to read this and think that when I delight myself in the Lord, I’ll get that new car, or that job, or a spouse, or whatever thing I’ve really been desiring; but it’s not about that. When we delight ourselves in the Lord, He is the desire of our heart. He gives Himself to us. A heart set more on the pleasures of this world will view Sabbath as a burden. When we have to stop striving for the worldly things we desire in order to set our hearts on God, we will be miserable if God isn’t our Ultimate desire. Setting aside time to take a Sabbath in your week will be uncomfortable and disruptive to normal life. That’s the point. When we rest in God instead of ourselves and delight in Him instead of specific outcomes in our lives, we can truly rest in Christ’s words “it is finished.” We know we don’t need to do anything to make things work – He has already done the work for us. Rest should interrupt our striving. Sabbath was meant to be disruptive. It’s always been countercultural to stop and rest in the Lord, but it’s even more countercultural to truly delight in Him.
This simply means to draw nearer to him, to intentionally look for his hand in everything, and to look for evidence of God’s love in all the things He has given us to enjoy. When we’re taking a Sabbath day, our rest should be to focus on God, not just to stop work, enjoy rest, and delight in things. There are natural times built into our other days that allow us the opportunity to rest and play in that way. But Sabbath is about a different kind of rest. A holy kind of rest. Ask yourself, “What are my motivations to rest? Am I wanting to honor God or am I just not wanting to do anything? Am I wanting to delight in God, or just spend time doing my favorite activity?” Once you’re clear on your motivations to rest, you will find it easier to set aside those things which hinder your soul and focus intimately on God. So how do we do this? For my husband, Ben, and I, it was important that we spend time studying the Biblical idea of Sabbath. I didn’t want to just take some author’s word for what my Creator had asked of me. I wanted to spend time studying, praying, and seeking God’s word on the subject. Most of what you see in this paper is the fruit of that time spent seeking God’s will on Sabbath. I would encourage you to start there as well. Don’t take my word for it, don’t just read the books I suggest to you, but spend time seeking the will of the Lord for Sabbath in your own life. Next, it was a matter of setting boundaries. First, the boundary of time. When did we want to do Sabbath? We chose to pick a 24 hour time period because we were personally convicted on that time frame, but pick a time frame that works for you. You’re going to have to move things around, and it should be a sacrifice in your life, yet there are some days that just won’t work. I can’t tell my boss that I won’t be working on Tuesdays because I picked that as my Sabbath day. So Ben and I chose Fridays. It was the one day of the week where neither of us had work or school. Second, the boundary of work. What types of activities are considered work in our lives? Clearly our jobs are work but what about school work, social media, cooking large meals, doing bills, mowing the lawn, chores, and all the other things that take time in our lives? We sat down as a family and decided what things we would and wouldn’t do on Sabbath. For us, we decided against mindlessly looking at our phones and being on social media. Not because that’s work necessarily, but because it can easily pull our focus away from God and each other. We initially had decided against doing house projects, but as our ideas and convictions around Sabbath evolved, we realized that some house projects are energizing and refreshing for us. For me, working in the yard makes me feel closer to God. I enjoy nature as a way to connect with my Creator. Pulling weeds in the gardens might be work for you, but for me it’s a time to connect with my Savior and enjoy His creation. Third, we set the boundary of delight. We asked ourselves, “What things bring us joy as individuals and as a family, and what things help us to focus our mind’s attention and affection on the Lord?” For us, worshipping through music is a large part of that. We spend time every Sabbath singing and worshipping as a family. Another way that we delight in the Lord is through loving others. Having people over dinner, spending time with friends, donating our time and money, spending time in nature, bringing cookies to our neighbors, serving in our city – all of those things both bring us delight because we enjoy doing them and help us to delight in who God is. Fourth, we set the boundary of planning. In order to set aside a full day each week, we needed to plan. Things that normally happened on Friday that weren’t part of the Sabbath boundaries we had set got moved to another day of the week. I communicated to my supervisor at work that I wasn’t going to be available. The “phone off, computer put away,” kind of unavailable, not the “I’m not working but you can reach me if you need me,” kind of unavailable. We had to identify the work that we typically did on Fridays and create space in other days of the week to do that in order to protect our Sabbath days. Fifth, we set the boundary of flexibility. I know that idea of Sabbath has a very legalistic connotation to many people, and there’s good reason for that. The Jewish people were very good at taking a command from God, setting up lots of walls and boundaries around it, and then making that command more about their adherence to their own created laws than what God had actually commanded them to do. Plot twist: we do the same thing. It was very important to us that whatever boundaries we set on Sabbath were not more important than what God was calling us to do on any given day. In Matthew 12, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were watching and waiting to see if He would so that they could accuse Him. So Jesus heals the man and then asks this question: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” In Mark 3, the same interaction is recorded and Mark records Jesus’ words as, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” The Pharisees were silent because they knew the answer, yet didn’t want to say it. They should do good. They should save life. Of course they would reach into the pit for that sheep. But they upheld their own laws over God’s intended purpose for Sabbath. They were more concerned with keeping their own created boundaries than keeping God’s heart in mind. Ben and I don’t want to do that. Therefore, we make sure we’re willing to be flexible and rely on the Spirit’s guidance for what our Sabbaths should look like. For example, we moved our Sabbath day from Friday to Saturday because Ben’s work situation changed. We have changed some of things we do each week because we’ve learned that some of the things we originally set out to do weren’t working for us. That’s okay. Realize that when you create a Sabbath for yourself, your primary goal is delighting in the Lord. He’s going to be okay if it takes you a while to figure out how to do that. Just keep trying. There will be times when the boundaries you have set forth for your Sabbath seem to cause conflict for you, or the people you love, or how you would normally love them. In those instances, it’s okay to know that we’re all fumbling through how to obey God every day. Sometimes we make choices that we think are best and then later realize that we messed up. It’s important to realize that God gives grace to you in those moments and you need to give grace to yourself as well. It’s not a failure – it’s a learning opportunity. If you choose your boundaries over a person and that person gets hurt, learn from it, communicate openly with them, seek forgiveness, and ask the Lord for wisdom. Maybe your choice was good, but you went about it the wrong way, or maybe you chose poorly. I personally think that, when establishing boundaries for Sabbath, it’s more important to try to keep them firm for a while so that you can make sure you’re really prioritizing it and not just moving that time around as if it’s not important. In Mark 2:27 Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” His point is that God gave Sabbath as a gift to people, to restore and replenish, not as a burden of rules for people to have to follow. If you’re feeling burdened more than you’re feeling refreshed, try loosening some of those boundaries. As you learn your boundaries and seek to establish them throughout weeks and months of practicing Sabbath, you’ll start to see where you’re flourishing and what’s not working. Ben and I learned that we need a plan for our Sabbath days. We have a very short list of the things we do every Sabbath, and a much longer list for things we can or might do if we have the time and ability to do so that day. Our short list includes: We spend the day delighting in the Lord, each of us spends 1 hour in the word alone while the other has special one-on-one time with our kid, and we spend time worshipping through song and reading Bible verses as a family in the afternoon. That longer list includes: Having friends over for a meal, celebrating communion as a family, having intentional conversations as a family and with friends, investing in relationships with others, intentionally serving others, spending time in nature, etc. If those lists change for you over time, that’s okay. They probably will change as you learn what works best for your family. If you do better without a plan, awesome. If you need a plan, super. Whatever you’re doing, though, make sure it’s not more important than listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For example, Ben and I have a desire to spend time worshipping as a family in the afternoons, but if a friend is in a time of need and we feel we should spend time with them in prayer instead, we would feel good about making that call rather than feel trapped or burdened by our own boundaries. Someone recently told me that the people around you can see what brings you joy. Those who have a window into your personal life can often communicate the things that you aren’t able to see for yourself. People like your roommates, spouse, kids, parents, best friend, etc. are the people that see your heart the most. Ask those people what brings you joy. What things do they see you delighting in throughout the week? Does God make the list of things that people are seeing you delight in on a regular basis? Are you willing to step outside of your patterns and habits to make the countercultural decision to delight in God on a regular basis through the practice of Sabbath?