I remember lying on my bed, staring at my freshly painted green walls and talking to my aunt on the phone. I had recently moved back to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to start my first year on InterVarsity staff, and we were discussing my transition into post-college life. She reflected on her own experience. “The first change I really enjoyed was Sundays,” she said. “I felt freedom without any papers or exams hanging over my head.”
I understood completely. My pattern for Sundays in college was to go to church, eat lunch with friends, and then throw myself into studying for the following week. Though I had grown up in the church and had heard of the Sabbath, I thought maybe it was one of those Jewish laws that was no longer required of Christians. Didn’t Jesus fight with Pharisees about easing up on the Sabbath restrictions?
The Truth About the Sabbath
The truth is, the Sabbath is in the Ten Commandments, and we haven’t decided that any of the other nine are now obsolete. What is unique about this command, however, is that it’s the only one in the list that doesn’t start with a “shall not.” Instead, it says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (emphasis mine).
What does it look like for the day to be “holy,” or set apart? In Judaism the Sabbath is equally about what you can’t do (work) and about what you can do. It’s essentially a holiday that happens every week, with traditions and meals you only do on that day. For example, Jews eat challah on the Sabbath, which is a special bread that helps them rememberGod’s faithful provision of manna in the wilderness.
I’m not saying that we need to follow all the Jewish traditions to obey God’s commandment about the Sabbath. But their practices help us see that the Sabbath is about feasting, not fasting, and remembering, not distracting.
Getting Serious About Celebrating the Sabbath
I started taking the Sabbath seriously a couple years into my staff life. It came less out of a joyous revelation about the gift of Sabbath and more out of a recognition that I was burning out, and Sabbath was the cure. The law of inertia ruled my life at that time. I was in motion and it was easier to keep saying yes to things than choose to stop. Maybe there was a fear that if I stopped, I wouldn’t start again.
In addition, being a perfectionist was a huge barrier for me to truly practice the Sabbath. I couldn’t let go of what wasn’t done at any given time: The house isn’t clean, the paper I’m writing could use some more work, I should catch up on a missed training run . . . I’ll stop working when things are finished; I just need to do one more thing . . .
In contrast, when Sabbath began (on the seventh day, after God’s work of creating the world), God rested because he looked at all he had made and declared it good. I wasn’t resting because I was constantly looking around and thinking, Not good enough.
What Sabbath Is Really About
Thankfully, I’ve come to view the “shall not work” of the Sabbath as a blessing rather than a curse. Deciding that I’m going to quit working Saturday night means there is not guilt about what I “should” be doing with that time.
Freed from focusing on the incomplete, I can focus on what God has created and declared good. So, I can take my time eating a meal with a friend and really listening to what is going on in her life, for example. I can go on a leisurely walk, not for exercise but to enjoy the nature around me. Sabbath for me can even mean going out dancing and not comparing my moves to those around me, but just enjoying dancing—even off-beat—to my favorite song.
Don’t misunderstand me: This isn’t about feasting because “I deserve it.” Rather, celebrating Sabbath is feasting because God created relationships, nature, my body—and these things are good. Having this attitude is part of what helps us set the Sabbath day apart. We’re reminded that it’s not about entertainment. It isn’t about distracting ourselves from things in our life that we would rather not do or contemplate. Rather, the day is about being thankful and remembering God’s role in our life.
And we are not meant to celebrate Sabbath alone. When I lived in Jerusalem, I rarely saw my roommate on Saturday until the Sabbath was almost over. She usually had plans for Friday dinner with friends, then Saturday lunch with others. Lunch would often extend for hours as people sat around and talked or played games with children. The Sabbath was meant to make a community holy.
If you want to start celebrating the Sabbath, invite some friends to join you. Meet on Saturday night for a ritual of turning off your phone’s email and Facebook alerts and go to dinner. Instead of blessing the food, pray blessings over the people at the table or take turns remembering places during the week where God provided.
Feast! Celebrate! Remember! Rest! These can be difficult to do in a culture that tells us to keep moving and to keep ourselves entertained. But they are commands from God for our good, so we should obey. And you don’t have to wait until after college—or till Labor Day next year—for the freedom of Sabbath. You can start this very week.
Jennifer Hagin is the Blue Ridge Regional Evangelism Coordinator for InterVarsity.