My first mature understanding and experience of Sabbath happened while teaching English in China. My husband of two weeks and I had just arrived in the city of Tai’an in Shandong province to teach at a local university for a year. While we were still adjusting to our new marriage, surroundings, and teaching duties, our first Sabbath in China arrived. We had been advised to avoid the state-sanctioned churches and were not aware of other Christians in the area, so we were alone for our Sabbath. I remember waking up that morning with the delightful awareness that I didn’t have to be anywhere, do anything, or look particularly good. The hours ahead were not merely free time, but sacred time—hours for rejuvenation.
As subsequent Sabbaths came and went, I became more intentional about how to use the Sabbath hours.
I began to notice where I was in most need of regeneration, particularly in my marriage. My husband and I found what was most beneficial to our relationship was to spend time together outdoors and that this contributed not only to our sense of connection to each other but also to God. Upon returning to the U.S.A. and resuming more traditional Sabbath observance and church attendance, I was determined not to lose the insight into Sabbath I had gained from my experience in China.
What Does Sabbath Rest Mean?
As a fifth generation Seventh-day Adventist, I had grown up in a very traditional Adventist home with the understanding that Sabbath was about going to church and adhering to strict rules about what is and is not permissible on Sabbath. While as a child I remember enjoying Sabbath well enough, the end of Sabbath came as somewhat of a relief at finally being free of so many restrictions. My experience in China was pivotal in changing my orientation toward Sabbath from being focused only on what is right and wrong to do on Sabbath to also include what is restful and rejuvenating. I then became intrigued with understanding what all was meant by the term Sabbath rest and what others had discovered in their own study and experience. In particular, I was interested in what effect Sabbath observance has on relationships, because in my own experience I felt that it was essential to the health of my marriage. Of course there are many lenses through which to view the Sabbath—my interest led me to explore it through the lens of how it can help marriages.
The need for Sabbath rest in relationships is obvious. It has been argued that lack of shared time and experiences is the most significant contributor to the breakup of marriages.1 The high rate of divorce and its rippling effects on larger society brings a sense of urgency to the need to find ways to protect and nourish healthy marriages. While we have more free time available to us than in past generations, as a society we are less likely to use that time in ways that restore us spiritually and relationally. Rather than spend free time building up our relationships, we are more likely to use that time for personal or home upkeep.2 Sabbath provides the opportunity to spend time together without the distraction of daily obligations and preoccupations.
We know that time together is important for a healthy marriage, but it is not only the aspect of time that Sabbath can help us with. Sabbath can also help us with our spirituality by providing a context to affirm and strengthen our relationship with God. Research demonstrates that healthy spirituality contributes to healthy marriages.3 So when we combine these two aspects of Sabbath—spirituality and time—we have a powerful resource available to us for maintaining relationships. Sabbath thus provides a unique opportunity for couples to engage in important shared time and experiences that can contribute to marital quality.
The religious aspect of Sabbath provides both a boundary around the time, and gives the time unique significance as sacred time—a time for valuing our connection to God and one another. But when it comes to the actual observance of Sabbath, we often have questions. Does it matter why you keep Sabbath in order to receive benefit from it? In other words, what if one observes Sabbath out of habit, guilt, or for legalistic reasons as opposed to it being kept out of a sense of personal meaning and commitment? Does it matter how it is observed—is there a list that should be followed? What role does a spiritual community play? Social science research provides some interesting answers to these questions.
Spirituality and Sabbath: Why Do We Keep Sabbath?
One might ask why even look beyond the biblical or theological reasons for keeping Sabbath. As Seventh-day Adventists we have a good understanding of the importance of Sabbath through the story of Creation, the Ten Commandments, and God’s redemptive plan. However, both during Christ’s time and in the more recent past Sabbath was made to be a burden by too much emphasis on the doctrine or theology of Sabbath and not enough on the experience of Sabbath. Isaiah counsels us to “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isa. 58:13). This would seem to indicate that how we experience Sabbath is important. How we experience Sabbath is influenced by why we keep it. Social science research can provide insight into understanding this connection between motivation and experience.
While there have been a variety of approaches to religious practice that have been identified in research, two in particular seem helpful for exploring the motivation for keeping Sabbath. One approach is that of intrinsic religiosity, where one is motivated in their religious practices by personal meaning and conviction (i.e., I keep the Sabbath because I find it meaningful, and I believe that this is what God wants for me). The other approach would be extrinsic religiosity, where one is motivated by social pressures, fear, or a sense of control (i.e., I keep Sabbath so I can earn salvation or because my family would be disappointed if I didn’t).4
It would seem that the intrinsic approach would be good and the extrinsic approach bad in terms of the benefits for marriage from keeping Sabbath. However, in my research of married Seventh-day Adventist individuals, I found an interesting interaction between these two approaches. Those who keep Sabbath from an intrinsic motivation experience enhanced marital connection and are less involved with more secular leisure activities during the Sabbath hours (i.e., shopping, going to a movie, attending a sports event), activities that were not found to contribute to marital quality. Extrinsic Sabbathkeeping was found to lead to more involvement in what have traditionally been considered “Sabbath activities” (i.e., interaction with family and friends, enjoying the outdoors, religious services), activities that do contribute to stronger marriages. So it would seem that a balance between both motivations for keeping Sabbath is not only helpful but ideal. Being intrinsically motivated provides the right orientation to Sabbath while the extrinsic motivation provides the structure and support to follow through on good intentions.6
So why you keep Sabbath is important in terms of how it can affect your marriage. The theological or doctrinal reasons for keeping Sabbath can help in building a sense of personal meaning and commitment, and the social pressures (church, family, friends) can assist in supporting regular observance. However, what if these things are in place and yet the experience of Sabbath is still not rejuvenating spiritually or relationally? This is where it is worth looking at the actual practice of Sabbathkeeping.
Sabbath Rest: How Do We Keep Sabbath?
The word “Sabbath” is of Hebrew origin and means simply to rest or cease from work.7 It is used in the Bible to describe the seventh day as the day God set aside for rest at Creation (Gen. 2:2) and the importance of its observance is reiterated in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8-11). In the Creation account, one commentator points out that it is mentioned three times that God rested from His work of creating, and the reason this day is holy is because God rested. This repetition of God not working on that day seems to indicate the importance of His example in modeling for humans how to participate in the image of God by resting.8
As much as I appreciate the idea of Sabbath rest, I have often struggled with how to do it, particularly as a wife and mother. Usually when I think of rest I think of sleeping or at least minimal activity. However, while taking a nap may feel good, it does not do much for my relationship with my husband, and my children certainly do not appreciate it. In fact, at times we can have competing needs and ideas about what is restful. This is why I have found the term “rejuvenation” helpful, as I believe this is actually the goal of “rest.” So when I consider what will be rejuvenating physically, spiritually, and relationally, it is easier to identify activities that will meet these needs.
While worship has typically been an integral part of the Sabbath experience, I want to encourage looking beyond worship to a broader understanding of Sabbath rest. For the most part, we are already well socialized to the worship possibilities for Sabbath. Ellen G. White affirmed that part of the Sabbath should be devoted to communal worship, but she felt that the remaining time should be spent with family, preferably out of doors.9 Regarding Sabbath worship, she writes that “long sermons and tedious, formal prayers” are to be avoided.10 She even writes, “Church members are not to expect a sermon every Sabbath.”11 This advice suggests that White recognized the tendency to place more emphasis on worship and not enough on unstructured rest. We seem to struggle with what to do with “nonproductive” time. Perhaps God foresaw our difficulty with allowing time for essential reconnection and restoration and knew that it would take a religious sanction in order for us to take rest seriously. There are numerous examples throughout Scripture and in the present times of how difficult it is for us to fully accept the gift of Sabbath rest.
No Catalogue Approach
So what does a rejuvenating Sabbath rest look like? Eugene Peterson describes what he views as the biblical approach to Sabbathkeeping as the interaction between “praying and playing.”12 He points to the imagery of joyful play and prayer evident in Psalm 92, a song specifically written for Sabbath, and comments that “Puritan sabbaths that eliminated play were a disaster. Secular sabbaths that eliminate prayer are worse.”13 I like viewing Sabbath observance in this way because play and prayer are helpful counterbalances to each other in preventing unhealthy extremes. So the challenge in deciding what to do on Sabbath may not be only about what is right and wrong, but also what activities allow for joyful play and meaningful prayer. This is where it seems difficult, and perhaps even undesirable, to establish a list of Sabbath do’s and don’ts, because what may be enjoyable and rejuvenating prayerful play for one person may be no such thing for another. For someone who spends their workweek in an office, being able to be outdoors with family may be most restful. Someone who works primarily out of doors may enjoy spending some less active time indoors.
The process of deciding how to spend Sabbath effectively requires some intentional effort on the part of couples. It begins with having a discussion about what kinds of activities each partner experiences as “prayful play”—how they feel most connected to each other and God. This conversation is not only important but will probably need to be ongoing, as needs change over time—sometimes even week to week. We all bring our own experiences, biases, and expectations to what Sabbath should or should not look like. It can be challenging to find common ground, but well worth the effort. In addition, it may be helpful to do some reading about others’ experiences of Sabbath—not only to get ideas, but also to help shore up intrinsic motivation.14 Finally, the importance of a spiritual community cannot be overemphasized. Not only will a good spiritual community contribute to your Sabbath experience; it will also support you in making it a regular part of your life by providing the extrinsic motivation.
There is another aspect of Sabbath rest that points to its amazing role in relationships. Eugene Peterson points out that it is only in a state of rest that we are able to appreciate ourselves and those around us for who we are rather than for what we do.15 This has profound implications for relationships, as Sabbath allows partners to view and affirm each other differently than we tend to throughout the week. As spouses we are usually more aware of our specific roles within the relationship rather than of our inherent worth. Sabbath allows us to view each other outside of our roles. We are given the space in time to focus on who God created us specifically to be.
I marvel at the simple yet complex gift we were given in Sabbath rest. Sometimes we hardly know how to use it, yet when we do allow ourselves to enter into God’s rest, we find we are restored, our relationships are strengthened, and we are more connected to the God who created and loves us.
1P. R. Amato, A. Booth, D. R. Johnson, and S. J. Rogers, Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007).
2J. Jacobs and K. Gerson, “Overworked Individuals or Overworked Families? Explaining Trends in Work, Leisure, and Family Time,” Work and Occupations 28 (2001): 40-63.
3See J. Orathinkal and A. Vansteenwegen, “Religiosity and Marital Satisfaction,” Contemporary Family Therapy 28 (2006): 497-504; N. M. Lambert and D. C. Dollahite, “How Religiosity Helps Couples Prevent, Resolve, and Overcome Marital Conflict,” Family Relations 55 (2006): 439-449; M. R. Wilson and E. E. Filsinger, “Religiosity and Marital Adjustment: Multidimensional Interrelationships,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1986): 147-151.
4 Richard, Rice, The Reign of God: An Introduction to Christian Theology from a Seventh-day Adventist Perspective (Berrien Srpings, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1985), p. 375.
5G. W. Allport and J. M. Ross, “Personal Religious Orientation and Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5 (1967): 423-443.
6Jana K. Boyd, “An Analysis of the Relationship Between Sabbath Meaning and Leisure, Marital Intimacy, and Marital Satisfaction Among Seventh-day Adventists” (Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Psychology). For an abstract see Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering 59 (1999): 5616.
7Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, F. E. Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), vol. 2, pp. 423, 424.
9Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p. 584.
10Ibid., p. 583.
11Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, p. 19.
12Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 75. Here Peterson is addressing the principle of Sabbath rest and not the specific day that Sabbath is to be observed.
14 Among the many good books on the Sabbath, I found two particularly helpful. See A. J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951) and Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, by Wayne Muller (1999).
15 Peterson, p. 71.
Jana Boyd, PH.D., is a licensed marriage and family counselor who lives in Forest Falls, California, with her husband, Kendal, and their three children, Alec, James, and Grace. This article was published August 19, 2010.