One of my aims in pastoral care is always to see beyond a person’s circumstances and, by God’s grace, to peer into their soul and see if any sickness is present. Pastors throughout the ages have been referred to as Physicians of the Soul, and increasingly I understand that title (though I certainly have far to go in my own practice of such a role). Just as a physician would place a patient through a series of tests in order to discern what may be wrong with their physical body, so does a faithful pastor ask questions of their flock to discern what may be harming their soul’s delight in God. There are of course the simplest and most basic questions around the reading and meditation on Scripture, prayers, meaningful engagement in community, participation in the Sunday gathering, etc. These are some the ‘low hanging fruit’ of questions of discernment that will often pave way to greater insight into a person’s soul health.
But there is another question that I have discovered often is as indicative of a person’s true health with the Lord as the others listed above. That question is whether or not the person is truly taking and enjoying a full Sabbath once a week. Many Christians mistakenly believe that we are not bound by God’s command to keep a Sabbath any longer. They believe that the Sabbath was a law underneath the Old Covenant, but is no longer applicable to a New Covenant Christian. This is a grave mistake that has caused many Christians to lean, often ignorantly, towards a lack of concern with obedience to God’s commands.
The great systematic theologian Francis Turretin wrote that there is a three-fold Sabbath mentioned in Scripture. The first, which he calls a Temporal Sabbath which was prescribed to Old Testament believers and which included both a weekly day of rest and worship as well as other annual or multi-annual (every seven years for the land and every forty-nine years for the Jubilee) types of Sabbaths. The second type of Sabbath is a Spiritual Sabbath which is described in Hebrews 4:1-3 and outlines, “that peace of conscience enjoyed by believers and cessation from sinful works which they ought to seek after through the whole course of their lives.” It is the spiritual inward ‘sabbath’ of the soul that has been made right with God through the death of Christ. Third and finally, is the Heavenly Sabbath which we will ultimately experience when we enter into our final heavenly state with God (Hebrews 4:9). This distinction is helpful in shaping how we interpret the various texts and think about applying the Sabbath in our own lives.
For the purposes of this post I want to focus in our practice of the Temporal Sabbath, as New Testament Christians underneath the New Covenant. The command to keep the Sabbath is fourth of God’s ten commandments. These ten commandments are often referred to as the Moral Law, and they are unchanging, for God Himself is unchanging. What God has prescribed as morally good flows from His nature. As Turretin says, “the moral law… is indispensable because it contains the intrinsic reason of justice and duty; not as proceeding from the law, but as founded on the nature of God…” While some particular ceremonial aspects of how Old Testament saints obeyed God’s moral law have been fulfilled by Christ and are no longer applicable, the moral component of the law (in this case to keep one day a week as a Holy Sabbath unto the Lord) is still in effect. In other words, it is not optional. To love God is to desire to obey God, and to desire to obey God is to take a Sabbath. As the Westminster Confession says,
“…the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible re presentation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy scripture.”Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11.
In other words, we are not free to simply decide that keeping a Sabbath is unimportant to our soul. It is part of God’s prescription of our duties if we are to honor God.
Living in a big, fast paced, city like Chicago, keeping the Sabbath can seem almost impossible. For many, if they are to continue to chase their corporate dreams, the Sabbath commands of God will need to be fudged. At best, a Sabbath-lite, can be expected, which may include rushing to attendance at Church on a Sunday and slightly less checking of the emails. This is not a Sabbath. It is a seventh day of work.
I have learned to delight in my Sabbath day. I know that I have far to go in truly understanding and making the most of my weekly Sabbath. When I read some of my heroes of the faith, they had a diligence about their Sabbath that I certainly do not live up to. And yet, by the grace God has afforded me thus far, I have learned to guard my Sabbath with vigor. I am healthier because of it. My family is healthier because of it. And I believe our Church is healthier because of it. Further, I do not believe that a few more distracted hours of work squeezed in on my phone while trying to be at home, would benefit anybody.
So, what might a Sabbath look like. First, it is not a day of rush or hectic activity. On our Sabbath we,
“observe a holy rest all the day from [our] own works, words, and thoughts about [our] worldly employments and recreations…”Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11.7
In other words, those things which are associated with the other six days days of the week, we put to the side. And we have one full day to rest from work, to invest in our relationship with God, and pursue holiness and contentedness with our families. It is not a day of slothful vegging on the couch and gorging on Netflix. This is no help for the soul.
While the specifics of how you practice a Sabbath rest will certainly be between you and the Lord, I offer a few guides that have been helpful to me. These are not some attempt at legalistic Phariseeism. They are rather Pastoral wisdom, offered to bless your soul.
- First, prepare for your Sabbath well the evening before. If there are last minute emails or work on your mind, make sure it is done by Saturday evening.
- Second, do not arrive late to Church, but be there early. Plan to join the pre-service prayer meeting. Have your whole heart and mind prepared to hear from the Lord and to enjoy every second of the gathering of the Saints. Consider extending your time of Christian fellowship through meals and time with other believers on this day. Stir each other up to love and good works.
- Third, refuse to scroll. Put technology away for the day. I have a box that sits in our kitchen into which I place my phone. Occasionally throughout the day I will check for missed text messages or phone calls that may be from family, but I refuse to be on my phone. No social media. No news scrolling. Just be present wherever you are.
- Fourth, set aside an increased time for presence with God. This might be a prayer walk in the afternoon, or a time of journaling after dinner. It may be an hour where you decide to outline a book of the Bible. It is the Sabbath, and the primary point of it is intimacy with God.
- Fifth, if you have a family, enjoy them and be there with them. Our children need to see undistracted parents when they are at home. They need to see that they are more important to us than our work. They need to be invested in. Play with your children for an extended time. Draw with them, paint with them, enjoy them.
I’ve written this post, knowing that many who will read it, are currently not practicing a full Sabbath every week. My prayer is that you will be stirred up to consider God’s command with fresh eyes. His ways are good. They lead to life. Disobedience always comes with consequences. Getting from wherever you are to where you ought to be may take time. Perhaps this post is the first knock on the door of your soul that something is out of order. Submit this to prayer, and be willing to choose obedience to God, over other possible successes in your life. You will not regret it.
We need this reset more than we might like to admit. Our sinful thinking and the ungodliness of the world around us too often conspire to warp our perception of the way things really are. Thankfully, God provides us a gospel reset, and he does this every week. Like Asaph, we come to remember what we nearly forgot. We see our weakness and emptiness in light of God’s strength and provision. We get a clear view of who God really is when we draw near to him. What could be more refreshing? Let us not only observe but enjoy the Sabbaths God gives us, until he brings us into that future and final Sabbath rest that Christ won for us, where “there is fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).Guy Prentiss Waters, The Sabbath as Rest and Hope for the People of God, 142.