Inside: Are you in desperate need of rest and renewal? Here’s a complete Christian guide on how to keep the Sabbath in modern times.
It’s Sunday morning after church, and you’re corralling the family in the parking lot. Wrangling three kids is no small feat, and they’re still bouncing off the walls once in the car. You’ve still got errands to run. And you’re out of milk. Sigh.
For most of us, Sunday is a day off from work—but is it really? Sundays are just as busy as any other day of the week, just without the paid work. It’s the day to go to church, after which we complete our “life admin.”
When our heads hit the pillow on Sunday night, we wonder why we’re so tired.
Sunday Sabbath—Or Sunday Scaries?
Four out of five workers suffer from the Sunday Scaries. They dread the upcoming workweek or regret wasting the past weekend. As a result, Sundays are the unhappiest day of the week for many Americans. (If you’re wondering, Fridays are the happiest.)
What a sharp contrast to God’s original plan! Part 1 and Part 2 of this series examined why we as Christians need a Sabbath amidst our busy lives. Here in Part 3, we’ll explore how to keep the Sabbath in modern times.
What Day Should the Sabbath Be?
On the Sabbath, we stop all of our work to engage in activities that help us rest and delight in God.
When it comes to spiritual practices, the Sabbath is the most misunderstood. It’s associated with a lengthy list of prohibitions, or else rarely spoken of. The reality is that the Sabbath is not a legalistic obligation to dread, but one of God’s most gracious gifts to us.
Traditionally, the Jewish Sabbath was observed on Saturdays, the seventh day of the week. Over time, Christians began to celebrate it when they gathered to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Sundays, the first day of the week (also known as the Lord’s Day).
According to the New Testament, Christians are no longer required to observe the Sabbath because we aren’t under the law. (I explain this further in Part 1). Because of this, there’s no right or wrong day to keep the Sabbath. It’s more about incorporating the principle or spirit of the Sabbath into our lives.
I work every other Sunday as a nurse, so I choose a day in the middle of the week. Pastors and people in ministry might choose Mondays. For people who work 9 to 5 jobs, Sundays are the most natural day of rest.
If a 24-hour period seems unfeasible right now, start with a “mini-Sabbath” for a few hours.
Preparation for the Sabbath
Whichever day you pick, keeping the Sabbath will require intentionality. Rest doesn’t simply happen when we stop working. It must be protected like any other commitment, perhaps even more so in our productivity-driven society.
Recall your last trip out of town. You had to set up an out-of-office autoreply and wrap up loose ends beforehand. The Sabbath is the same—think of it as a weekly mini vacation. Basic preparation at work and home helps you enjoy your time off.
So, take care of the tasks that would normally hang over your head. Reply to last-minute emails, stock your fridge, and vacuum up those pesky dog furballs on the floor.
You could also spread out your current Sunday chores throughout the week so that you avoid an epic laundry marathon. The day of, cook simple meals with minimal dishes. Even simpler, order your favorite takeout or eat out with your family.
What Should You Not Do on the Sabbath?
Before we get into what to do on the Sabbath, let’s examine what not to do. The Sabbath isn’t about a legalistic set of rules, but making a personal Not-To-Do list will help differentiate this day from the rest of the week. It’ll also help define what rest looks like for you.
The Sabbath day should be radically different from your typical day. Here are some ideas to put on your Not-To-Do list:
1. Paid Work
You have permission to stop checking off your work to-do list on the Sabbath. If possible, disconnect from work e-mails and communication. If something pops up in your head, write it down for Monday.
2. Household Work
The Bible doesn’t distinguish between the labor done at our jobs and home. In Genesis 1:28, God gives this description of work to humankind: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (NIV). Managing a household involves the hard work of bringing order out of chaos.
It’s work from which we should rest—not do more of—on the Sabbath.
3. Draining Activities (or Obligations)
A draining activity is anything that makes you groan like Marge Simpson. If you could, you’d avoid them like the plague (and delegate them to your spouse). It’s not considered procrastination to avoid these on the Sabbath. You can get around to them on Monday.
5. Digital Noise
The American Psychological Association found that our digital lives are making us more distracted, distant, and drained. Digital distractions will look different for you and me. But the more that you unplug from digital noise, the more you will reap the benefits of the Sabbath.
Striving is that inner pushing to do more and to be more—in our own strength. Jesus says that there’s a far better way in John 15:5: “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
Refrain from anything that causes you to strive. Learn to abide in Jesus on the Sabbath, and it will help you do the same the other six days of the week.
How to Keep the Sabbath in Modern Times
Now that you’ve compiled your Not-To-Do list, here are some suggestions on what to do on the Sabbath instead.
1. Linger in God’s Word (and presence).
Even if you have a regular quiet time routine, you’re most likely limited to a brief reading of the Bible before your weekdays begin. On the Sabbath, we get to dig more deeply into God’s Word and spend time with Him in an unhurried manner.
We get to linger.
One dictionary definition of this word is “to remain or stay on in a place longer than is usual or expected, as if from reluctance to leave.” Another is “to dwell in contemplation, thought, or enjoyment.”
In the Bible, Martha was distracted with responsibilities, but Mary lingered at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:38-42). When Moses returned to camp after speaking face-to-face with God, his assistant Joshua stayed on and “did not leave the tent” (Exodus 33:11).
David described his wish to linger in the presence of God in Psalm 27:4: “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”
Let’s follow their examples on our day of rest.
2. Relish God’s blessings.
On the Sabbath, we also get to slow down to savor all the good things God has blessed us with. First Corinthians 10:31 says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
Spend time with your family and friends. Light a candle and catch up with your spouse on the week’s happenings. Pull out that dusty board game with your kids. Take a much-needed nap (or at least try!). Feast on your favorite foods together with thanksgiving—and without guilt.
On this day, we’re reminded that life is more than our work and that we’re much more than what we do.
3. Head outside.
Spending time outside is one of the most refreshing activities you can do, even if you live in the city like me. Surveying God’s creation gives us perspective into our problems and reminds us of who God is. As the Psalmist David writes,
“When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?” (Psalms 8:3-4)
The health benefits of getting fresh air are well-documented: lowered stress, better sleep, and improved mood. One study showed that spending two hours in nature a week is associated with better health and well-being.
No green kale smoothie can compare.
4. Engage in a hobby opposite from your usual work.
Another way to rest is to find a hobby that’s the opposite of what you usually do. In his classic book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes “If you work with your mind, sabbath with your hands, and if you work with your hands, sabbath with your mind.”
If you work a sedentary job, engage in a hobby where you create with your hands or move your body. Think about creating art, cooking, gardening, hiking, or sports.
Likewise, if your job involves mostly physical labor, challenge your mind by reading, writing, playing a game, or practicing a musical instrument.
The best hobbies help you lose your sense of time and enter a state of flow. Determining what activities leave you feeling the most refreshed might take some trial and error. A weekly Sabbath is a perfect time to explore these activities.
5. Read a book about rest.
Eugene Peterson says that on the Sabbath, “We wait for our souls to catch up with our bodies.” In addition to stopping work, we must also slow down our minds.
Reading (or listening to) a book on rest will help you enter into an unhurried space. You might even save books like these for your days off. I’ve included a list of suggested reading at the end.
Unexpected Challenges You Should Know About
Sabbath is considered a spiritual practice because it takes just that—practice. Keeping the Sabbath requires preparation beforehand to clear out a whole day’s schedule. It takes discipline to protect that time. And it takes practice because the concept of the Sabbath is so counterintuitive.
The goal is not to keep the Sabbath perfectly but to draw closer to God and find deep rest for our souls. Here are three challenges that may arise and how to deal with them.
1. The Energy Dump
Many people experience an energy dump on their days off because they worked hard during the week. I know I do. One way to counteract this is to start your Sabbath earlier the evening before for a 24-hour period. If possible, go to bed early and sleep in (if your family will allow it!).
But sometimes this energy dump can’t be remedied with a longer period of sleep. You might be too fried to read the Bible on your day off. Maybe all you can do is plop on the couch. Or bury yourself under the covers in a pitch-black room.
Accept where you are because God does. Just as our bodies tell us we’re hungry and thirsty when we need food or water, our bodies signal to us when we need rest. Too many of us ignore and plow through this signal for rest during the week, leading to an inevitable energy crash.
It can be discouraging, though, because you want to enjoy your Sabbath, not spend it in a zombie-like state of recovery. Use this time to physically rest and ask God to minister to you. There’s nothing that you must “do.” Remember Jesus’ words: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
But the energy dump can be a helpful gauge—perhaps it’s a sign that you’re overcommitted during the week. Taking a weekly day off is a great start. As Sabbath becomes a regular practice, you’ll find a more balanced and sustainable rhythm.
2. Unprocessed Negative Emotions
Sometimes, when we haven’t hit pause in a while, negative emotions surface when we do stop. For some of us, this is the reason we’re reluctant to slow down in the first place. We’d rather tackle a daunting work project than face those unpleasant feelings.
During your first few attempts at observing the Sabbath, you might feel bored, empty, lonely, anxious, or even depressed. You might discover that you still feel the ache of missing a family member who passed away years ago. Or realize that you’re disappointed with a friend who betrayed you.
You might want to throw in the towel, giving up on the Sabbath practice altogether.
God isn’t surprised, even if we are. Take these painful feelings to Him without covering them up in activity. Journal about it and pour out your heart.
Don’t be afraid to sit with these feelings. They were always bubbling beneath the surface. You were just too busy to recognize them. Let Him speak tenderly to you.
3. Too Much Unplanned Time
Most of us plan out our workweeks, only to arrive at the weekends without a plan. If you’re asking on Friday night, “What are we going to do this weekend?” you’ll end up wasting time trying to figure it out.
Develop a loose plan for your day off beforehand. Consider picking one fun or out-of-the-ordinary activity that you’ve been wanting to do. Or make plans to get together with extended family or friends.
If you dislike making plans, make a list of potential Sabbath activities and pick from there spontaneously.
The goal isn’t to fill up the Sabbath day with more activities. It’s good to have downtime—and lots of it. But a loose plan will help prevent the free time from being inadvertently wasted (I’m looking at you, iPhone!).
The Forgotten Gift of Sundays
Timothy Keller once said, “Because the world is full of ugly things, we need the Sabbath to feed our soul with beauty.” The Sabbath is a day we can drink deeply of God’s presence and blessing. In doing so, we receive the rest and renewal we so desperately long for.
May Sundays be the best day of your week.
Recap: How to Keep the Sabbath in Modern Times
- Pick a weekly day and time.
- Prepare beforehand to clear out the day’s schedule.
- Compile a Not-To-Do List.
- Engage in spiritual practices that help you draw close to God.
- Plan soul-restorative activities that help you rest and delight in God.
- Celebrate together with your family, friends, or community.
How would you keep the Sabbath in modern times?
For more on this topic:
Part 1: Why the Sabbath Matters So Much
Part 2: Why a Day of Rest Can Save Your Sanity
Recommended Reading for the Sabbath
The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan
24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life by Matthew Sleeth
Rhythms of Rest by Shelly Miller
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer
The Art of Rest by Adam Mabry
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