Sabbath-Keeping—It's OK to Start Small

By Lynne M. Baab 

The young woman smiled. “You mean we can start small? We don’t have to do it perfectly from the beginning?”

We were talking about the sabbath. The husband and wife had been telling me about their enthusiasm for the sabbath. They had read a book on sabbath keeping, and they were eager to begin. They wanted to institute a celebratory meal with candles and prayers on Saturday evening, with a blessing for their children. They wanted to have a peaceful morning on Sunday as they got ready for church. They hoped to teach their children Bible stories on Sunday afternoons. They were concerned, however, that they were taking on too much too fast.

The meaning of the word “sabbath” is “stop, cease, desist, pause, rest.” The first question we need to address when beginning a sabbath pattern is, “What will I cease from?” Only after we have clarified that question can we move on to the second question, “What will I do on the sabbath to nurture my ability to rest in God?”

The sabbath command in the Ten Comandments directs us to stop working one day each week. In our world, we need to think creatively about what constitutes work. Certainly what we do for pay is included in the category of “work,” but should we also include running errands and home repairs? Weeding and paying bills? Doing laundry? The Old Testament recommends celebration and worship on the sabbath (Lev. 23:3). After we decide what kinds of work we will cease from, we need to think about what helps us celebrate God’s good gifts, what helps us allow God to work in us.

We also need to think about the timing of a sabbath. When I talked with that young couple about starting small, I talked to them about two possible ways to begin keeping a sabbath.

A Sabbath Day
The Bible talks about a 24-hour sabbath. That full day of stopping was a wonderful experience for my husband and me when we lived in Israel for 18 months many years ago, so I always encourage people to begin with a full day sabbath if they can. Sunday works well because worship with others helps us draw near to God and sets the tone for the day, but other days are possible, too. A sunset to sunset sabbath follows the Jewish pattern, and we can begin with a candle-lit dinner. A rising-to-bedtime sabbath is another option, beginning as we wake up on this special, set-apart day.

Stopping comes first. We can start small by ceasing to use one appliance for a whole day, perhaps the television, the phone, the washing machine, or the car. We can identify the kinds of work we will cease from for a whole day.

We also need to start small when we think about what we will do on the sabbath to grow closer to God. A time of prayer, a blessing for children, a devotional book to read, poetry and art, or a special meal can help us celebrate God’s goodness, but no one should try everything at once. For many faithful sabbath observers, time outside in nature helps slow the pace and encourage thankfulness. Taking a walk may be a good place to start.

Sabbath Moments
Many people have started keeping a sabbath by starting small in terms of time. They choose to cease working and find their rest in God for a couple hours or half a day each week. They set aside their to-do lists, they let go of their need for productivity, and stop thinking about justifying their existence by getting things done. They stop.

During that time of stopping, they may spend some time doing something to nurture their ability to rest in God, perhaps journaling, reading poetry, looking at art, or reading the Bible or a Christian book. Many kinds of prayer are appropriate for sabbath time.

The challenge when observing a short sabbath of just a few hours is truly stopping. In a short sabbath we can engage in things for the entire sabbath that feel “spiritual” or significant. It can be tempting to fill a short sabbath with activities: spiritually nourishing endeavors that indeed help us draw near to God. While those activities can be good things, all sabbaths need to involve some moments of true stopping where nothing profound seems to be happening. That kind of stopping teaches us that God runs the universe and we don’t.

Creation Abundance and Freedom from Slavery
The sabbath commands in the two versions of the Ten Commandments give different reasons for keeping a sabbath. The first version, in Exodus 20:8-11, says that God rested after creating the world, and we should rest on the sabbath, too. God rested at creation because the world is abundantly provisioned and exquisitely made. We can evaluate our sabbath activities by asking ourselves what we can cease from, and what we can choose to do, that help us remember God’s abundance.

Many people enjoy being in nature on the sabbath, in part because it helps us connect with the abundance of God’s creation. Eating good food, giving a friend or a child a back rub, lighting a fat candle, focusing on prayers of thankfulness . . . all of these can help us remember and experience God’s bounty. Just stopping from all activity and taking a deep breath can remind us that God sustains the universe so powerfully that we don’t have to be productive every minute.

In the second version of the sabbath command in the Ten Commandments, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, God invites the people of Israel to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” We are encouraged to rest on the sabbath because we are no longer slaves. In Jesus Christ we have been freed from all possible kinds of slavery.

Do you feel like a slave to your email? For a day or a few hours each week, as you intentionally embrace the sabbath, perhaps keeping the computer turned off would help you experience your freedom from slavery. Or perhaps it would be most fruitful to focus on an attitude that enslaves you. The sabbath is a wonderful day to try not to worry, to avoid thinking about things that make us angry, or to stop wishing for things we don’t have.

The Sabbath and Grace
More than any other faith discipline I have engaged in, the sabbath has taught me grace. God has given us good work to do, steward the universe in all kinds of ways alongside God. Our work is noble and important, but even the best and most fruitful work can nudge us towards the belief that we are earning the good things we have. We can so easily fall into the trap of believing that God loves us for what we do.

Grace teaches us that nothing we do can make God love us more. Year after year of keeping one day each week free from work has helped me learn that truth deep inside. God’s love is so awesome that we can rest for one day each week – or even just for a few hours each week – in the certainty that God runs the universe competently and carefully. The freedom we have in Jesus Christ reaches into every area of our lives, so we can spend time each week relishing that freedom as we stop moving so fast and stop producing so much.

Scarcity Versus Abundance and the Sabbath
Our culture speaks to us very loudly through advertisements and all sorts of media. “More is better,” we hear over and over. We receive countless messages that we need to focus on what we don’t have, and work hard to get it.

  • The sabbath speaks to us of God’s abundance. God rested at creation (Gen. 2:1-3), and we are invited to rest on the sabbath, because God created the world so abundantly and God sustains the universe so powerfully.
  • The sabbath invites us to focus on what we have, rather than what we don’t have. The sabbath is a perfect day to notice the light in a child’s eye, to listen to the wind in the trees, to smell colorful flowers, and be thankful. The sabbath encourages us to remember who God is and who we are – God’s children and friends who have received so many gifts from the hand of a generous Giver.
  • On the sabbath we are invited to notice what God has done and what God has already given us. Nothing we can do will make God love us more, so we can stop producing for one day, or even just for a few hours, and luxuriate in grace. Resting from work on the sabbath enables us to step aside from our culture’s cry of “More! More!” and respond with joy and thankfulness, experiencing for a few brief, holy moments the abundance we have been given.

(To access six other articles I've written about the Sabbath, click here.)

Originally published in Presbyterians Today, July/Aug, 2005. Pages 22-24.