by Charles Eaton

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

We Adventists love talking about the Sabbath. It is our most obviously unique feature which identifies us as Adventists.  But for all our talk, we all have vastly different conceptions of what it means to keep the Sabbath and for good reason.  The Bible is very clear when it says “don’t work”.  It even extends this command out to anyone under your authority at the time, presumably even if they aren’t Adventist themselves (“stranger within thy gate”).  But after this, things get muddy quickly.  What does it really mean to keep the Sabbath?  I’ve been on a mission to discover exactly that.  Consider the following schedules:

Normal/Family Routine
Sunset Friday – Family worship ushering in the Sabbath.
Evening Friday – Reading a Sabbath book, or going to an AY program, or playing with the kids, or trying (successfully or unsuccessfully) to not watch the NBA playoffs, or perhaps just hanging out with friends.
Sabbath morning – Church
Sabbath afternoon – Dinner, either a large corporate affair, or perhaps a small family lunch.
Sabbath late afternoon – Sleep until Sunset
Sunset Sabbath – Family worship to close the Sabbath.

Or the busy college/work schedule.
Sunset Friday – Sleep
Evening Friday – Sleep
Sabbath Morning – Church or sleep or both
Sabbath Afternoon – Dinner
Sabbath late afternoon – Sleep until sunset
Sunset Sabbath – Quick worship

These represent how my own personal Sabbaths look in general from week to week.  At a first glance, though both are “keeping the Sabbath” in the traditional sense, one is a lot more active than the other.  Perhaps you may see some of your own Sabbath schedule in one of my own.  The question I am considering, and what I would like you to consider is this:  Do these schedules keep the Sabbath or break it?  Does play keep the Sabbath or break it?  How about sex?  Social interaction?  Eating?  Personally, I think they can all do both, and I think we do a great disservice to tell our young people that any specific activity keeps the Sabbath or breaks it.

When I was a very young, my friends and I would sometimes play “Bible Basketball”, a game where the only time my basket would count is if I accurately said a Bible verse just after scoring.  This was, in my excited mind, an absolutely ingenious method to combine basketball with the Sabbath.  But was that keeping the Sabbath holy?  Was I “resting”?  I thought so.  My dad didn’t, and I couldn’t see why.  In my mind, the only conceivable way to rectify the situation was to add more stipulations to scoring, perhaps reciting two verses instead of one, or a verse and a disciple etc.  None satisfied my dad, and the game was eventually banned.  Needless to say, I was crushed.

When I was a little older sometimes I would go to the beach on Sabbath with my family.  While there I had to always appear like I wasn’t having too much fun, because then I wouldn’t be “resting” anymore, but would have instead crossed into the dangerous enemy territory called Play.  I can’t even count how many times I heard some such line from an aunt or uncle:  “You can put your feet in the water but you can’t go all the way in.”  “Why?” I would ask.  “Because” they would answer, “You would be breaking the Sabbath.”  “How? Why are feet ok but not my head?  Who made that rule?” No answer.

Even lately, when the school year gets very difficult, I am almost as likely to simply sleep the entire Sabbath away as I am to adhere to my normal routine.  A good sermon from Pastor Pillow and an inspiring communal prayer by Deacon Sheets was always enough to get me through whatever job stress and fatigue my week had put me through.  And I was perfectly justified in doing so because, after all, God said to rest, right?

All my life I thought I was keeping the Sabbath.  Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t.  Or maybe my honest and sincere intention to keep the Sabbath through my activities meant I was even if I wasn’t.  But I think that we have made the subject of Sabbath activity much too complicated than it needs to be. 

Here is how I see it now (and if I am wrong than I defer to the judgment of more learned believers than I):  God set the Sabbath up to be a weekly date, in the literal, relationship sense of the word, with man.  Sunset Friday to Sunset Saturday was, from Eden, a specific time when God would want to come and hang out with His creation in much the same way as I might set a time every week to hang out with my girlfriend. 

I am going to take this analogy a bit further.  Very quickly in my dating experience I discovered the key to a successful date.  No matter what activity she and I participated in, but especially if it was something that I already enjoyed doing, I had to pay specific attention to ensure focus was to be on her and on growing our relationship and not on the activity.  It really didn’t matter what we did together, as long as we were closer when the day ended than when the day began.  The activity we were involved in was simply a medium to get to know her better.  Once, though, I wanted to play Halo with the girl I was dating.  It was a game I was good at, and I soon killed her character.  Many times.  Easily.  Quickly.  After the game she was upset, and it took me a second to figure out why.  I had forgotten my purpose.  Playing and winning Halo became, for an instant, more important than growing our relationship. 

This is why it is absolutely imperative that we don’t judge people, because only God knows their heart.  But I understand now that this is what my dad and family were trying to teach me when I was younger.  They were concerned that in the midst of my enjoyment of basketball and of the beach, that I would confuse the medium for the purpose. 

I’m not going to tell you what is good to do on the Sabbath or not.  Because, ultimately, whatever you and I do on the Sabbath should be done to increase our relationship with God, and  only you and God know if your medium accomplished your purpose.  However, for me, and to my inconvenience, I’ve discovered I get no closer to God if I simply sleep the Sabbath away as in the second schedule.  Further, and even more surprising, I discovered that I can get so caught up in the social interaction in the first schedule, that that may not be keeping the Sabbath for me either.