Celebrating the Sabbath Shifting Our Focus From a Divine Commandment to a Divine Commitment
Story by Edwin Manuel Garcia
As a growing number of Americans have left Christianity, a surprising trend is taking place: an increased interest in the Sabbath.
“We have a secular movement in America and a resistance to anything ‘religious,’” says Martin Doblmeier, an Alexandria, Virginia-based longtime producer who makes movies about religion, faith and spirituality—including several focused on Seventh-day Adventists. He recently released a documentary called SABBATH. “Sabbath-[keeping] seems to be striking a universal chord, touching people even in the secular world,” he says, “and that is a testimony to God’s hand.”
A Remedy for the Problems of Modernity
In the past 15 years, no less than 15 books have been published, mostly by Protestants, who emphasize the benefits of experiencing Sabbath rest, says Sigve K. Tonstad, a research professor at the Loma Linda (Calif.) University School of Religion. “Sabbath is a remedy for the problems of modernity—that’s what I see in these books,” he notes.
Those embracing Sabbath are not necessarily clamoring to learn about Seventh-day Adventism or Judaism. According to theologians and other experts, they’re intrigued by the concept of setting aside an entire day to change the rhythm of their ever-demanding week.
Health professionals and theologians, Adventist and non-Adventist, are quick to note that stress and burnout have reached red-flag levels, often caused by life’s demands. Even more reason, they say, for the need to rest.
Living in today’s gotta-have-it-now culture “creates an intensity that is exhausting after a while, and I think that’s part of why we’re burned out. When we expect everything now, then we expect our work and other realities of our lives to function at a level and at a speed that is just not sustainable,” says Randy Roberts, senior pastor of the Loma Linda (Calif.) University church, one of the largest Adventist congregations in the world.
Julie Manuel and the staff she manages at Kettering Health Behavioral Medical Center in Moraine, Ohio, treat patients daily who struggle to find balance with their work, family and home life. They suffer from anxiety, depression and, in worst cases, suicidal ideation.
“For the most part, folks are coming in really physically, mentally, spiritually exhausted,” says Manuel, clinical program manager of the Adult Intensive Outpatient Program. “They’re just depleted.”
Those who get overloaded with burnout and chronic stress are putting their health at risk, warns Richard Samuel, a physician at Maryland-based Adventist HealthCare.
Health consequences, he says, can include cardiovascular disease, uncontrolled blood pressure, high blood sugar, depression, a weakened immune system, diabetes, obesity and difficulty sleeping. “Studies have shown that people who take time to rest are healthier and more productive,” adds Samuel.
“Real rest is, in fact, transforming,” says Kathleen Crowley, clinical manager for LifeWork Strategies Employee Assistance Program at Adventist Healthcare. “With sufficient rest, your thoughts are clearer, more focused, your reactions are timely and well-thought-out and your general attitude is more positive.”
Yet, even with all the proven benefits of rest, why do some people still opt out of this desperately needed weekly respite?
Manuel shares the story of a patient whose child had committed suicide. To avoid the painful emotions of the event, the patient filled her time with busyness and helping others—never slowing down to take care of herself. She felt if she kept busy, the bad memories and thoughts would dissipate. Manuel says, “But what happened was [she] was physically exhausted and discouraged,” full of fear and depression.
The patient slowly added in 30 minutes of activities just for herself—such as taking a hot bath or going for a walk with the dog. It was really hard for her because when she slowed down and implemented the idea of rest in her life, she questioned her worthiness.
The patient also started attending a Bible study and a grief support group. Manuel reports that now the former patient is doing really well.
Bogdan Scur, a professor in the Religion Department at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., adds that the Sabbath reminds believers that God has made humanity worthy of that grace and rest. “The rest we experience on Sabbath is not only physical but spiritual. This rest reminds us of the rest we have in the salvation accomplished by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every time we lay our work down and spend 24 hours of rest with God and in God, we ought to remember that Christ died for us and we [can] trust His sacrifice on our behalf and rest in the salvation that He established.”
A Coming Boom to Adventism?
Whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church can eventually become a denominational home to the many people who are investigating Sabbath rest remains to be seen. Some pastors are skeptical because, within Adventism itself, they notice a gradual push away from Sabbath observance.
“I feel worried in some ways, because I think we’re in danger as Seventh-day Adventists of losing the Sabbath as I watch the trends around me,” says Roberts.
“If, when you think about Sabbath, your thinking is mainly governed by what you can’t do, then you’ve got some work to do in understanding the true intent of the Sabbath,” Roberts says. “If, when you think of Sabbath, you have a hard time distinguishing it from any other day of the week, then you’ve got some work to do on the meaning of Sabbath.”
Roberts says Adventists continue to be split on how the Sabbath should be observed.
Somewhere in the middle, Roberts suggests, “is a relationally rich, spiritually inspiring, restful time that clearly is set aside from other time but is not dominated by what I have to do or what I can’t do.”
When Roberts was being interviewed for The Blue Zones—a book that highlights the healthy lifestyle of Adventists in Loma Linda and other groups around the world—he found it surprising that author Dan Buettner kept circling back to the topic of the Sabbath. Roberts shares, “He said at one point, ‘So you’re saying that every seven days, you all don’t pay bills and mow the lawn and wash the car and shop and do all this stuff.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can’t speak for [others] … but that is the idea. …’ And he said, ‘Wow, do you realize how different my life would be if I did that?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, that is kind of the idea. … I think if we took the Sabbath as seriously as we probably ought to, I think it would transform our lives too.’”
A Symbol of God’s Faithfulness
“Sabbath is one of the most powerful theological symbols of Christian faith. Its significance for Adventist faith and spirituality is immeasurable,” says Scur. “Sabbath is the symbol of creation, salvation and glorification.”
Scur continues, “Remembering creation on the Sabbath teaches us that we are not our own; we belong to God, God gave us life and we are not selfmade. ... Also, we need to remember weekly that we are loved and cherished and that the entire world is created as good. Our bodily existence is good.”
Tonstad adds another layer beyond remembrance. “God [created the Sabbath] to show that He is present in human reality,” says Tonstad. He recently published a book titled, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, which emphasizes how the Sabbath is a symbol of God’s faithfulness.
Tonstad argues that many Adventists have ignored the primary meaning of the Sabbath, placing much emphasis on the Sabbath as a memorial to creation that feels more like a historical memorial—that continually is further in the past. “God created the Sabbath to enter into human time as a participant. So, God is present in the world, and He is present with us now in the Sabbath. So, we cannot just have it as a memorial because a memorial in some ways has the connotation of absence. … He is present where believing communities [are], where people of faith show up.”
He also notes the “sin of omission in Adventist Sabbath theology is that we have centered—we have emphasized—the Sabbath as divine commandment, similar to the Jews in the time of Jesus,” he states. Back then, Tonstad says, the Jews accused Jesus of not observing the commandment appropriately, such as when He healed the sick on Sabbath. “Jesus’ Sabbath healings makes good on the divine commitment the way we should,” Tonstad says.
“I strongly urge that we shift our focus from the Sabbath as divine commandment to Sabbath as divine commitment,” Tonstad adds. “And then we also will communally try to make the divine commitment shine in our Sabbath observance.”
What Is Meaningful Sabbath Rest?
For many Adventists, achieving true rest on Sabbath can be easier said than done.
According to experts, the key to ultimate Sabbath rest relies on several factors, including staying connected to loved ones, preventing distractions and placing full faith in God. Also, a meaningful transition at sundown on Friday evenings can help set the mood for Sabbath observance.
“I think we could learn some things from Jewish rituals about the candles and the opening of the Sabbath hours and closing of the Sabbath, and marking those boundaries,” says Tonstad.
Manuel recommends quality time with friends and family on the day of rest. “So, if that’s a Bible study— or a group of nature lovers, your running group or just your family spending time together, talking, eating—connection is so, so important for rest and to feel refreshed.”
The Sabbath can also be a busy time for denominational employees such as pastors whose day is filled with serving, preaching and facilitating. Scur says we can’t remove every responsibility from them but suggests leaders should encourage and teach local members to participate in various ministries. “When every church member takes part in ministries to which God called them, pastors will not be overwhelmed with various responsibilities on the Sabbath and will have more time and space to rest and truly engage in worship of God,” he says.
In his 42 years of denominational employment, Roberts has encountered many people who miss out on celebrating the Sabbath because they claim that stepping aside for a 24-hour period will prevent them from completing their work or studies.
“In actuality, that is the point of the Sabbath,” he says. “There has to come a point at which you, by faith, say, ‘God, I’m leaving this in Your hands, and now I’m going to rest. I’m going to focus on You. I’m going to focus on others. And I’m going to enjoy this sacred time that You’ve given me to enjoy.’”