Friday, August 4, 2017

Sabbathing, Part 1--Why You Should Break Up With the Sabbath List

Everyone knows about as the Sabbath List. Oh, it's not uniform. It's never written down, which means not everyone has the same one (maybe the GC should check into this), but we all have one.  We learn it in childhood, when people explain what we can and can't do on Sabbath.  For those who didn't grow up in the church, the evangelists try to be helpful and get them started on their own Lists.

Here are some of the rules I've heard:

1. No swimming. But wading is okay, because it's a nature activity.  But to keep it separate from swimming, you have to stop when the water gets to your knees.  Of course, if you come from the tropics, you can go for a "Sabbath afternoon nature snorkel," because this is the equivalent of the "nature hike" elsewhere, plus you see pretty fish.

2. You must stay dressed up all day.  Or, you may change, but only after a formal Sabbath lunch.  Or, you may change, but your afternoon clothes must be semi-dressy.

3. No sports.  Or, no sports with balls (but Frisbees are okay). Or no sports with teams or competition. (In an interesting combination, you may be allowed to play a ball-centered team sport like volleyball, as long as you stay in your suit from church.)

4. No buying anything, including your meal.  Or, you may buy your meal, as long as it's not from an Adventist source, in which case you must pay before Friday sundown. Or, you may buy a meal but only if you are traveling and/or conducting church business.  You may take up an offering for charity, even if that charity is your own ministry, but you can't sell your books or music. And we'd really prefer you didn't look at the bills as you put them in the plate, because Sabbath is the day we pretend money doesn't exist.

We're working on our own version of the List here.  Last Sabbath, I told my kids they could watch VeggieTales, or they could watch YouTube videos of kids playing with actual toys, but not regular cartoons.  I can't really explain why any of it might be bad to watch on Sabbath (if it were bad, I wouldn't let them watch it the other days), but I felt the need to make some kind of distinction.

I confess, this is a struggle for me right now.  I want to teach my kids to enjoy Sabbath for itself.  I figure the first step is not to tell them everything they enjoy is bad on Sabbath, or to spend the whole day telling them no. And I certainly don't want to get them started on their own Sabbath guilt.

But there are things I'm just plain-out not comfortable doing on Sabbath.  And it's not because I think it's a sin to do them.  It's just that controlling my outward environment signals my brain that this day is different.  Certain habits make me feel Sabbath-like. (At least they used to, before the kids started creating a uniform chaos that doesn't vary from one day of the week to another.)

And here we have the Sabbath's dirty little secret:  the List has no relationship to the command.  Actually, the Sabbath command is pretty easy--you and your household have to stop your work for a day. That's all. So the List isn't about sin, it's about tradition.

This is the first step in untangling your Sabbath guilt.  Most of the stuff we feel guilty for about the Sabbath isn't actually Sabbath-breaking.  It isn't commandment breaking, and I am never an advocate of stretching the meaning of sin beyond what the Bible itself gives.*

But that's not the end of the story on Sabbath keeping.  If it was, my life would be a lot simpler.  I can just tell my kids they don't have to do their chores on Sabbath, and we're good. They certainly won't think that Sabbath is boring or oppressive.  But they won't have all the joy of Sabbath I want for them, either.

I don't approve of making new things into sin.  But I also don't approve of thinking the Christian life is about avoiding sin. If the point of our faith was "make sure you don't sin," then Christianity would be about sitting very still, and we'd all be better off as atheists. If the point of Sabbath was "make sure you don't break the command," then Jesus' words are reversed, and man is made for the Sabbath--not the Sabbath for man--after all.**

I believe his promise to give us life "to the full."*** The reason we cut out the bad from our lives is that we're busy chasing the best.  And Sabbath itself--the command not to provide for ourselves or chase profits for one day--is evidence that the best isn't what we can make with our own hands. There is something more meaningful, more exciting, more life-giving in the Sabbath, than what we're getting on the other days.  So sometimes we also cut out the good from our Sabbaths, still chasing the best.  Not because it's on the List, but because we're looking for more.

No List, no matter how well kept, can give you real Sabbathing.  That's probably why God didn't give us one.  We just have to make choices ourselves.****  So don't waste your time on the List, or the guilt.  Instead, chase the best.  God didn't give us a Sabbath List, but he did give us a promise:

" 'then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.' The mouth of the Lord has spoken."


*Yes, I know someone will be worried about Isaiah 58:13, where God says to honor the Sabbath by "not going your own way, and not doing as you please or speaking idle words." But it's a logical stretch to say this verse means that doing the things that please us constitute breaking the Sabbath, especially since God promises they will "call the Sabbath a delight" and "find your joy in the Lord" if they keep it.

I suspect this "doing as you please" actually means ignoring God's commands, particularly the ones about fair treatment of others. It appears to mean just that in verse 3 of the same chapter: "Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers."  In fact, the entire chapter is about social justice, fairness to workers and kindness to those in need, and how God values it above going through the motions of worship.  So really not an argument about swimming vs wading here.

**Mark 2:27

***John 10:10

****That can be freeing for an individual, but it leaves all of you parents and teachers, and even church administrators muddling through, one YouTube video or Sabbath meal card at a time.


  1. Nailed it. That's been the results of my studying, too.

    Don't work.

    But it's not really even about work in terms of levels of effort, I believe. If you focus on that, you quickly get back to the old Jewish rules about how far you can walk in a day. It's about what work represents: benefit to yourself.

    I'm comfortable with volunteer "work" that benefits the church or the community, but not with undertaking that same effort to benefit myself on the Sabbath.

    We'll probably never get completely away from some of the list items with which we were raised, but it's good to talk about them together.

  2. You forgot a very important one about buying food on the Sabbath: it is okay as long as it is AT an Adventist institution such as camp meeting or from a university or academy cafeteria.

  3. Right on! The Sabbath comes to us from the first one in Eden, where the actual work refrained from wasn't man's work at all, but rather the ceasing of God's creative 'work'. God rested because it was perfect, and the crowning act was the communion of Man with the Creator, hence Sabbath! To get to that relationship again is the sole criteria for my personal list. Yes, it's tough to shepherd our children into this ideal, but hopefully we can make Sabbath a day that is enriched with family communion. Instilling in them the desire for a deep personal relationship with God and fellow believers that can't be contained in superficial lists.

  4. The commandment is a LOT more than "do not work" otherwise it would simply say, "Don't work on Saturday". It says to remember the Sabbath Day to keep it HOLY. What ever is keeping it HOLY is what we are to do. Those who have concocted the so called "list" have truly been trying to quantify THAT portion of the commandment. To ridicule or belittle those people is very un Sabbath. Do as you will but the accounting has very little to do with work and MUCH to do with attitude.

  5. Holy means "set apart" - set apart for what? We take "vacations to" . . . (fill in the blank). On Sabbath we're counseled by God to take a vacation to Himself - "it is a Sabbath (which means "rest") unto the Lord your God.” He wants us to savor His love - for our happiness - not His self-exaltation. (We're counseled that self-exaltation is satanic).

    I didn’t suspect the author was trying to belittle people who made the lists, but trying to explore the best way to inspire our children to also celebrate the savoring of God's love after an intense week's work. We _need_ that for our physical, mental and spiritual health. Unfortunately, some material in a "Sabbath List" turns children away from a loving relationship with God. That's what we _never_ want to do to our children in spite of any traditions or social pressures we face.

  6. For those who didn't grow up in the church, the evangelists try to be helpful and get them started on their own Lists.Johnny Chen

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