How to Keep the Sabbath, part 4: The Gray Areas

Exodus 24:12-40:38, Isaiah 58:13-14, Colossians 2:16-23

The Bible is a big book with a lot of words, but it still doesn’t spell everything out. How could it? Detailed instructions for every moral dilemma that a person might encounter would fill up more books than have ever been written. This is not to say that the Bible doesn’t have something to say about every question in life–it does–but primarily it informs rather than dictates.

The purpose of the Bible, at least as it pertains to our daily behavior, isn’t to make our decisions for us, but to give us guidelines and principles by which we can learn to make sound decisions for ourselves. Like any child, we need to have some things spelled out for us, but we shouldn’t remain as children. Eventually, the rules need to be internalized and understood so thoroughly that we are able to navigate moral obstacles for which we have no prior experience and no direct instructions.

Most Christians have been taught all their lives that the Sabbath was thrown out with our sins, that having been forgiven by God for not following his rules, we are free to…not follow his rules. Despite the logical absurdity of such a doctrine and despite the total lack of any Biblical support, this is the assumption of almost all Christians in America today.

Those of us who have begun hearing the Spirit’s call to return to God’s ways of life over the last few decades are like infants just learning to walk. Fortunately, we can get some guidance to those who have more experience keeping the Sabbath, like Jewish rabbis and Seventh Day Adventists, and there can be no doubt that they have much to teach us. However, their teachings–especially those of the rabbis–are heavily weighted toward tradition over commandment. Rabbinic teaching on the Sabbath can be quite helpful from a philosophical standpoint, but it frequently lacks something on the practical side…or perhaps I should say that it doesn’t lack enough. We won’t gain any ground if we simply replace one set of man-made traditions with another.

I wrote more about that issue as well as about the major positive and negative commandments of Sabbath in previous articles in this series:

Those articles discuss God’s explicit instructions about the Sabbath as they were given through Moses and the prophets, but we are separated from the cultural context of the Bible by a very long span of time. There were no computers, no automobiles, and no emergency rooms when the Scriptures were written. Today we don’t live in a culture that recognizes the Sabbath, let alone honors it.

We have some gray areas, to say the least. I can’t address them all, but I can discuss some common questions and provide some guidelines for helping you to make your own decisions in your peculiar circumstances.

Before we can see clearly enough to judge shades of grays, we need to consider the nature of Sabbath and why God wants us to rest on the seventh day of the week. This will give us more light to push back that fog.

The Positive and Negative Commandments

God never said, “Here’s the real deal behind the Sabbath.” He gave us patterns and stories instead. He said, “I rested, so you will rest too. You were slaves in Egypt, so you will let others rest with you.” And he gave us explicit rules, some positive and some negative, to tell us how he means for us to rest.

The Positive Commandments

  1. Keep the Sabbath holy for God’s sake
  2. Assemble on the Sabbath
  3. Rest and allow others to rest
  4. Perform essential Temple and Covenantal duties

The Negative Commandments

  1. Don’t provide for yourself or others through labor or trade
  2. Don’t place burdens of any kind on yourself or others

The specifics of what God told us to do and not do on the Sabbath tell us much about the day’s purpose.

The Nature of Sabbath

There is a large literary structure in Exodus that links the weekly Sabbath to the wilderness Tabernacle.

  • 24:12-18 – The glory of God on the mountain
    • 25:31-11 – Construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings
      • 31:12-17 – The Sabbath
        • 31:18-34:35 – Stone tablets, the golden calf, commandments, God’s glory
      • 35:1-3 – The Sabbath
    • 35:4-40:33 – Construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings
  • 40:34-38 – The glory of God on the Tabernacle

The events surrounding the golden calf are walled off from the rest of the Torah, first by the Sabbath and second by the Tabernacle.

There are two reasons for this:

First, the Tabernacle and the Sabbath are both places set apart for interacting with God. The Tabernacle is set apart in space, while the Sabbath is set apart in time. Our interactions with God aren’t restricted to these places–we ought to pray and serve him in every place and on every day–but these places are especially holy, reserved for God’s purposes and not our own.

Second, both the Tabernacle and the Sabbath were given by God to restore his people to a healthy relationship with him. The Tabernacle separated us from sin and death because those things are anathema to God’s presence. We were created to live in harmony with God’s order. The Sabbath separates us from worry and oppression because these too are not how God wants us to exist. He wants us to live in faith and freedom.

Consider that, no matter what day of the week you believe Yeshua was crucified, we know for certain that he was in the grave for the whole seventh day. It seems to me that the Sabbath would be the perfect day to restore a person to life, and that’s exactly what he did. But he didn’t restore himself to life on that day; he restored us! He remained in the grave on the Sabbath day to show that all of our spiritual burdens were crucified with him and permanently removed from our souls. When he rose at the start of the first day, he left those burdens behind so that we could remain free.

David Wilkerson once said that “Breaking the Sabbath is simply carrying your burdens that belong on his back.

On just this one day of the week, God wants us to trust in him. Yes, we could make more money if we worked that extra day, but we earn more where it really counts–in God’s ledgers–by trusting him even when we don’t see the point. Through obedience and faith, we are brought back just a little bit closer to our origins in the Garden of Eden, where we walked with God in harmony with one another and with his Creation.

The Sabbath is a day for restoring life, for easing burdens, for building trust in God, for repairing what has been broken, and for rebuilding the relationship between Man and God.

Standing in God’s presence on the weekly Sabbath is as close to Eden as we will ever get in this life.

So on the seventh day of every week, we leave labor and business behind. We refrain from doing those things that increase burdens, provide for ourselves, or cause others to have to work for their own futures. We rest our bodies, minds, and spirits, and we refresh ourselves in worship, Bible study, and fellowship.

Can I Do This on the Sabbath?

With all of this in mind, let’s consider some activities that can be difficult to judge.

Business-Related Activities on the Sabbath

The impact of Sabbath on physical labor and business are fairly easy to understand, but what about activities that are related to business, but don’t directly affect your bottom line? Business conferences, professional education, and reading professional publications, for example.

Even though we might not be paid directly for our time spent on these activities, money isn’t the only capital at play. Time, connections, and knowledge are also business resources that can be traded and used for material gain.

Maybe you find technical manuals and trade journals relaxing. That seems unlikely to me, but it’s possible. However, if you’re doing something primarily for your economic well-being, no matter what it is, I don’t see any way around it being “business”, and God said not to do business on the Sabbath.

Entertainment on the Sabbath

God wants the seventh day to be different than the other six days of the week. He wants our minds primarily focused on him.

Isaiah 58:13-14 says we should call the Sabbath a delight instead of doing our own pleasure on that day.

Does that mean we can’t do anything fun on the Sabbath? No, it means that we shouldn’t do what we want instead of keeping the Sabbath. It does not mean that we can’t do anything that gives us pleasure. It’s fine to play games or watch a movie, depending on the game and the movie.

Watching television is potentially a more complicated matter. Modern technologies like digital programming and Internet streaming certainly require fewer people to be at work for you to watch television on the Sabbath than it used to, but what about the technicians that monitor the equipment and the power company employees who maintain the electrical grid?

This line of inquiry could be endless. Exactly where you end it is up to you. I would discourage you from watching live events, like sports, that require many people to be at their occupations on the Sabbath, but I wouldn’t worry about power company employees and others who maintain the infrastructure of civilization. Even if everyone turned their televisions off, most of those people would still be at work. (That raises another question about job requirements, but I’ll get to that below.)

To know whether or not a fun pastime is compatible with the Sabbath, ask yourself if it involves strenuous physical activity or work, if it requires anyone else to work, and if it dishonors God. If you can answer no to those questions, then it’s probably alright.

Sports and Athletics on the Sabbath

I know that what I have to say about athletic activities on the Sabbath will be unpopular, but I’m not here to validate your desires. I’m writing to help you see God’s will for your life.

If you are you a professional athlete, this question becomes much simpler. Your sport is your occupation. If you are paid to play basketball, then don’t play basketball and don’t do any of the drills and other activities that you might otherwise do to train on the Sabbath.

If you don’t make money from playing a sport, whether or not it violates the Sabbath depends on the sport and on your physical condition. The primary questions become:

  1. Is it physically strenuous? Rest is a positive commandment. We are required to take it easy on the Sabbath, but what “rest” means will vary from one person to the next. If you’re a triathlete, then a bit of badminton probably isn’t much work, but that won’t be true for everyone or every activity. What is casually relaxing to one person might be more demanding on another.
  2. Does it cause anyone else to work? Are you going somewhere that requires paid staff on site? Golf might not be hard work, but if playing requires other people to engage in their occupations, then you will be causing them to violate the Sabbath.

You will have to consider these questions carefully, for yourself and for anyone else who might want to join you.

Housekeeping on the Sabbath

Housekeeping might not seem like a gray area to many people, but it’s not as simple as it seems.

For some people, a cluttered and dirty space can be very stressful. It could also be unpleasant for guests. What if your congregation shares a building with a Sunday church and the youth group left a mess the night before your meeting? Should you clean up or ignore it? Like other gray areas, this can be a very personal issue and difficult to judge, so let me give you some guidelines, and I’ll leave the details to you.

  • If housekeeping is one of your responsibilities during the week, avoid it on the Sabbath as much as possible.
  • If it’s only a matter of personal comfort, consider changing your location instead of cleaning.
  • If it’s a matter of making guests feeling welcome and being a good host, do what you have to do, but no more than you have to do.
  • Many hands make light work. If your shared space is dirty or cluttered, working together will minimize the work for everyone.
  • Straightening up and putting the dishes away might not be work. Scrubbing definitely is.
  • Ask yourself, does this really need to be done right now? Are you absolutely certain it can’t wait until after sunset?

Cooking on the Sabbath

It seems to me that cooking is very much like athletics and housekeeping, at least on the Sabbath. Whether or not cooking a meal is a violation really depends on what’s involved in the process and how you feel about it. Avoid big, complicated productions, and if cooking is one of your daily responsibilities, then you should avoid it on the Sabbath as much as possible.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see how scrambled eggs and toast is work unless you’re cooking for the whole family or a large group. Whenever possible, have food prepared ahead of time, and if you have to cook, keep it simple and easy. Distribute the workload by letting someone cook for you or letting everyone fend for themselves.

Intellectual Activities on the Sabbath

I don’t know of anyone who would say Bible study breaks the Sabbath, but there must be some point at which mental activities become real work. As with physical activities, that point is subjective. What strains my brain might not strain yours.

There are some intellectual exercises that clearly cross the line, though. Homework, accounting (even if it’s strictly personal finances), scientific research, computer programming, professional studies… All of these things require significant brainpower, are usually done as part of a professional occupation, and serve to take our minds far from the purpose of Sabbath, which is to restore spiritual balance and enhance our relationships with God and man.

Everything that a person might do requires some amount of thought, so there will always be a gradient between what is and is not appropriate. Intellectual activities are no different than physical ones in that respect. Referring back to the positive and negative commandments of Sabbath will help you clear up most of the questions.

What If My Boss Wants Me to Work on the Sabbath?

Most people work for employers who do not keep a seventh day Sabbath as God commanded, and very few are able to quit their jobs whenever they want. We have families and financial responsibilities and losing a job could be catastrophic.

We should do what we can to be off of work on the seventh day. Explain the situation to your boss. Tell him how important it is to you to have that day off, but if you are ultimately faced with a choice between working and losing your home or letting your family go hungry, then keep going to work while you look for another job. It’s important that you don’t give up and assume you can’t change your situation. Until you find another source of income, go to the office or shop or job site cheerfully. Don’t be resentful, but use it as an opportunity to bring a little bit of Sabbath to the people you work with. God provides for those who believe in him.

If your job involves maintaining critical infrastructure or providing medical or other vital services, then don’t feel bad about working on the Sabbath. You don’t necessarily need to look for a different job, either. Preserving life and treating the sick and injured takes precedence. These are good things to do on the Sabbath. Rest on another day and try to rotate the Sabbath with coworkers so that no one person has to be at work every weekend.

Gradients of Gray

I can’t address every possible scenario. The specific circumstances that any person might encounter are infinite. Fortunately, after going through the general categories of activities above, some helpful patterns and questions should become clear. If you can answer yes to any of the following questions, then you should seriously consider not doing that activity on the Sabbath.

  • Does this activity materially benefit me or my family today or in the future?
  • Does this activity involve strenuous physical activity?
  • Does this activity involve doing business or engaging in my occupation or does it encourage anyone else to work?
  • Does this activity put unnecessary burdens on myself or anyone else?

Since nothing we do is one dimensional, we also need to consider mitigating factors. If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then it might be OK to keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Does this activity preserve life or maximize the rest and restoration of myself or others?
  • Does this activity facilitate the gathering of believers to worship and study together?
  • Would not doing this activity cause severe consequences to anyone’s well-being?

Many things that we find ourselves wanting to do on the Sabbath (cleaning, cooking, fueling the car, etc.) would have been done ahead of time. These are habits that we need to work on. Don’t beat yourself up about getting some things wrong now and then. Just keep moving in the right direction.

Ultimately, I can only tell you what the Bible says. Everything else is just my opinion. You are the one living in your own skin and in your own house. You have to weigh all the factors and weight your priorities in order to decide for yourself what is acceptable and what isn’t.

If someday you discover that you need to change your behavior, then change it. Repent and move on. God is faithful and eager to forgive those whose trust is in him. Don’t waste time feeling guilty about honest mistakes, and don’t let other people judge you over matters of tradition and opinion. (See Colossians 2:16-23.)

If someone wastes time and energy accusing you of violating commands that exist only in their personal interpretation of Scripture, then they are putting unnecessary burdens on people and disrupting the restoration that ought to be their focus on Sabbath. They are putting themselves squarely in the camp of the Pharisees who replaced God’s commands with their own traditions, and they are aligning themselves with Satan, whose primary function is to falsely accuse the faithful.

Don’t argue with them. Bless them, pray for them, and then ignore them.

Many questions will not have clear answers. God doesn’t draw big, neon signs in the air to point us in the right direction, and this is part of his plan for our growth. Maturity comes through friction and hard choices. Pray, study the scriptures for yourself, ask for advice, and move forward in your own spiritual development.

Shabbat shalom!

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