How to Practice Sabbath

As a church community in San Francisco, one of the ways we want to form people in their discipleship to Jesus is by helping them cultivate intimacy with God. One way that value is expressed is through a commitment to practicing a regular Sabbath.

What Is Sabbath? 

We find this definition helpful:

“Biblical Sabbath is a twenty-four-hour block of time in which we stop work, enjoy rest, practice delight, and contemplate God. The traditional Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown Saturday. In most Christian traditions, Sabbath has been observed on Sunday. The apostle Paul considered one day for Sabbath as good as another (Romans 14:1-17). So the particular day of the week doesn’t matter. What matters is to set aside a twenty-four-hour period and protect it.”

 Pete Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader

Why Do We Sabbath?

Another quote:

“Of the Ten Commandments, Sabbath is the only command originally expressed directly to Adam and Eve… Genesis says we Sabbath, first, because God kept a Sabbath and, second, because God built it into the DNA of creation, and it is therefore something creation needs in order to flourish… [and] as H.H. Farmer once said, ‘If you go against the grain of the universe, you get splinters.’” 

A.J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath

How Do We Sabbath?

In observing Sabbath, we have found Pete Scazzero’s above framework helpful: stop work, enjoy rest, practice delight, and contemplate God.

Stop Work: Sabbath is the day to embrace our limits and cease work, whether it be paid or unpaid. It’s a day to sit and realize that we will never finish all our goals and projects. And, we will all die one day with things undone. Sabbath is the day we practice the true reality that it’s God who’s on the throne running the universe, and not us. And — because our hyper-connectivity, tendency to work through our phones, and image management via social media, Sabbath is a day to turn off our phones. Not only is this healthy for our minds and hearts, it is a prophetic act by which we say to our city, “My identity is not found in what I do, what I know, or how I manage my image.”

Enjoy Rest: Sabbath is most clearly described in the Scriptures as a day of rest when we let our bodies and minds fall into peace. Rest includes everything that it sounds like: going slow, not being in a hurry, napping, contemplative walking, in which you observe things you don’t normally get to observe, and play (among other things). You may find the practice of Eucharisto lifegiving on Sabbath, in which you go through your previous week with friends or family and thank God for moments and conversations you had, finding how God was present throughout.

Practice Delight: The climax of the creation account in Genesis is not the creation of humanity, as many may assume. Rather, the day of rest, Sabbath, is the climax, when all creation comes together in peace and harmony, and God declares everything He has made very good (Genesis 2:1-2). Isaiah 58:13 instructs us to “call the Sabbath a delight.” Notice that Isaiah doesn’t say that the Sabbath is “useful” or “necessary” (though that’s true), but rather that it is a “delight.” Sabbath is good in and of itself; it’s not something we use to get into the next work week. 

However, many may experience a phenomenon that could be called “Sabbath depression.” At first, the practice of Sabbath is new, fun, exciting, and effortless. But a few weeks or months in, you may find yourself getting depressed on Sabbath. Don’t be discouraged; this is normal. What may be happening is something like to a detox, where you’re experiencing withdrawals from the “toxins” of work addiction, constant activity, productivity, and connection to technology. If you experience any of these withdrawals… we encourage you to stay the course. On the other side, there remains a deeper delight.

Contemplate God: Sabbath is a day that is to be “holy” to the Lord, meaning set apart to be with God all day. It’s a day we train our bodies, minds, and spirit to be in constant union with God. Lofty? Yes. But it’s a day of the week to practice and train in that contemplation. There is no one way to do this, but silence is very important. Sit before God in silence, hands open and heart open to receive from Him and be in union with Him. Remember, don’t turn being God into work. Don’t try and “get” something from God during this time. Production is not the goal of Sabbath; abiding is. So just being with God is enough. At the end of your day, you might not have a powerful encounter, profound journal entry, or fresh revelation about who God is. And that’s okay. Just being with God is the hope and goal.

A Suggestion of How to Start Sabbath

We suggest starting Sabbath in the evening of a particular day and ending it on the evening of the next day with as much ritual as you can incorporate. This helps your heart and mind make this day different, special, and weighty. You could do any number of different rituals to start and end your sabbath. 

Here is an example from a traditional Shabbat dinner. The woman of the house:

  1. Lights two candles (symbolizing the two Sabbath commands in Exodus 20:8 and Deuteronomy 5:12)
  2. Waves her hands in a circular motion over the flames three times (as to invite Sabbath rest into the home)
  3. And covers her eyes as to not look on the flames
  4. Then she recites this Hebrew blessing:

ָבּרוּך ַא ָתּה אַד ֹנָ-י ֱא-ל ֵהינוּ ֶמ ֶלך ָהעוֹ ָלם ַא ֶשׁר ִק ְד ָשנוּ ְבּ ִמ ְצוֹ ָתיו וְ ִצוָנוּ ְל ַה ְד ִליק נֵר ֶשל ַש ָבּת קו ֶדש

English Transliteration:

Baruch a-ta A-do-nay Elo-hei-nu me-lech ha-o-lam a-sher ki-dee-sha-nu bi-mitz-vo-tav vi-tzi-va-noo li-had-leek ner shel Sha-bat Ko-desh.

English Translation:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to light the candles of Shabbat.

You could perform this Sabbath ritual or something like it with friends, family, roommates, or whomever you choose to intentionally Sabbath with.

Is It Okay to Serve on Sabbath?

You may be reading this and want to Sabbath on Sunday. But perhaps you also serve on Sundays and you’re wondering how that will work. Is serving the church on Sunday breaking the Sabbath? It depends. Jesus was accused by the religious leaders of “working” on the Sabbath when He healed someone (Luke 13:10-17). Jesus responded by saying that the Sabbath was the perfect time to heal people and set them free from infirmities! Elsewhere in disputes with religious leaders about the Sabbath, Jesus said, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12), and “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). So, if your serving on a Sunday is an expression of healing, setting right, and blessing, then your Sabbath can completely be done on the day you serve.

In all our considerations and questions about how to Sabbath, there is abundant grace. Because we are brought into true rest through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Sabbath should be treated with grace as well. Rest well.