Sabbath as Ceasing the Humdrum

One of the worst problems for those who don’t observe the Sabbath day is that life can become so humdrum, every day the same — day after day! The pressures of work never let up; there is always something more to do. Our culture’s great need to cease working is evidenced by the mass exit from the cities for the weekend — thousands of people are trying to get away from it all.” The ironic thing is that these attempts usually cannot be successful because most of those trying to run away from the pressures of their work aren’t actually doing anything to relieve those pressures or lessen their anxieties. Merely to 

run from work, productivity, tensions, striving to be in control, the hassles of buying and selling, and the prevailing cultural values doesn’t work because one must come back to them again. 

Celebrating the Sabbath is different from running away. We do not merely leave the dimensions discussed in the preceding six chapters1—we actually cease letting them have a hold on our lives. 

Everything is turned around when we keep the Sabbath. If we don’t observe it, Sunday just leads us back into the humdrum of the regular workweek (which leaves a great number of people awfully depressed on Sunday evenings); keeping the Sabbath ushers us into the recognition that all days derive their meaning from the Sabbath. As Abraham Heschel points out, the spirit of the Bible is different from that of Aristotle, who asserted that “ relaxation … is not an end’; it is for the sake of activity,’ for the sake of gaining strength for new efforts.” Heschel continues, 

To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is the end of the creation of heaven and earth.” 
The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.2

In our American culture, in which every person is judged by his or her work and rest is determined by our labors, we desperately need this radical reorientation, made possible by the Jewish concept of time in which rest determines work. Such a concept reorients our entire way of thinking about people. 

To return to Sabbath keeping is not nostalgia or an attempt to return to an age that is pre-Enlightenment, pre-Industrial Revolution, and pre-Darwinian. Rather, it is a return to the spiritual dimension that haunts us. In an age that has lost its soul, Sabbath keeping offers the possibility of gaining it back. In an age desperately searching for meaning, Sabbath keeping offers a new hope. In contrast to the technological society, in which the sole criterion of value is the measurement of efficiency,3 those who keep the Sabbath find their criteria in the character of God, in whose image they celebrate life. 

The delight of the Sabbath and its resting, embracing, and feasting give new energy and meaning to life as its climax and focal point. 

Establishing Sabbath Habits 

To keep the Sabbath means to cherish it, to honor it as the Queen of our days, in consort with the King of the Universe. To develop the habit of Sabbath keeping requires some intentionality on our part, but ultimately it sets us free from any sort of legalism….

All the great motifs of our Christian faith are underscored in our Sabbath keeping. 

  • Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. 
  • Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of his grace. 
  • Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. 
  • Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope — the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come. 


The idea underlying much of the ritual observance is this: For six days a week human beings are involved in the act of making, shaping, and transforming the world. So, we take one solid period of time, twenty-four hours, to change our relationship to the world — to refrain from acting upon it, and, instead, to stand back and celebrate the grandeur and mystery of creation. 

Shabbat ritual is designed to disconnect us from our normal attitude of making, doing, changing material existence, and to connect us to the realm of time. To experience the world free from the need to interfere with it is a transformative and liberating experience. But it can’t be achieved in the midst of a day filled with getting, spending, and making. This is where the rituals come in. Like the guides to any deep meditation process, the rituals are the accumulated wisdom of many generations on how to most effectively get into” the experience. 

… It is the immersion in this experience [the old formula” of a complete twenty-four-hour period of separation from the demands of the world”] that provides the refreshment of soul that is so sadly absent from most communities. 

A few practical suggestions might be helpful as we bring this discussion to a close and address the need to apply a theology of ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting to our own spiritual disciplines and weekly lives.


First of all, it is foundational to decide that you want to keep the Sabbath. You can add, modify, even delete certain practices as your customs develop, but the important beginning point is to be adamant about the day — that it will be set aside for ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting. (However, don’t forget that this is an ideal — and sometimes our circumstances prevent our being able to practice our vision. Moreover, as we have noted before, we dare not let our Sabbath keeping become legalistic. We are adamant about setting aside the day because we have freely chosen to observe it in response to God’s grace, not because we have to fulfill an onerous obligation!) 

A few summers ago I was training the camp staff at Okoboji Lutheran Bible Camp in Iowa. That week I had led daily sessions of Scripture study, taught a few extra classes on Lutheran doctrine and ministry to others, taken lots of counseling walks with students on the staff, and given the Sunday-morning sermon. Relaxing over brunch after worship, I heard the announcement that I would be meeting with the junior counselors that afternoon. I gulped — that had not been listed on my planning schedule, and I had made no preparations. I was faced with a really tough choice. If I had known about the session, I could have prepared for it on Saturday. I don’t ever think that it is work for me to teach such a session (or to give a Bible class or sermon on Sunday mornings) as long as I have done the preparation — the work of planning and study— the day before. I enjoy immensely the privilege of teaching and usually feel in the midst of it that I have been ushered into the presence of God — so I’m always grateful for opportunities to speak on Sabbath days. 

The struggle over that extra session arose because it was important to me to encourage the junior counselors. I had not devoted any particular time to them during the week, and I did not want them to think that their work was not significant. On the other hand, to prepare a presentation would violate my internal law against working on the Sabbath. The program director said, Oh, you can just whip something up, can’t you?” No — I could, but I did not want to, because even the few little moments that it would have taken to plan something would have been work. 

As I prayed about the situation, a new insight struck me. The reason that I was tempted to break my own habit of not working on the Sabbath was that I deeply cared about those high-school kids that served as junior counselors. Perhaps I could love them best by meeting with them and telling them why I did not prepare a talk for them. That way I could even honor the Sabbath more deeply by telling others about the practice of Sabbath keeping. 

The junior counselors and I met together for quite a long time. I told them why I would not, at the last minute, prepare a talk for them and thereby introduced them to the whole idea of keeping the Sabbath. The session gave me an opportunity to express my affection for them by urging them to enjoy the practice of Sabbath keeping too. …

To decide that you will keep the Sabbath is the most important starting point, and to continue faithfully in that decision even though you are tempted to break it will reap a harvest of blessings.


In order to set the day apart, it is important to establish a precise, deliberate beginning and ending. You might want to follow the proper Jewish tradition of beginning and ending at sundown. We dare not legislate for others how to keep the Sabbath, but we must act decisively to establish the point at which this day of ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting has started and the point at which we have again returned to the workweek.


One of the most important parts of Sabbath keeping is the involvement of the worshiping community. We cannot keep the day alone. Rather, as we invite others to participate with us in honoring the whole day, they can support us in our intentions as well as provide companionship in our activities. 

Habits Over Feelings”

Tom, a dear friend who was a trusted mentor of mine when I was in college, helped me understand one of the greatest benefits of my own Sabbath-keeping practice. At a time a few years ago when I was very discouraged and turned to Tom for counsel, I told him that I felt very far from God, that I was ashamed of the weakness of my own spirituality, and that in my discouragement I felt that I could not serve God very well in my teaching and writing. 

Tom urged me not to be too hard on myself and said that he saw evidence that my relationship with God was intact, even though I did not feel that way. When I asked for specifics, he said, You keep the Sabbath.” That very discipline was causing me to abide in Christ, even though I could not feel anything of his presence. 

Too often we base our assessment of our own faith on whether or not we feel good about it. This is comparable to judging one’s marriage on the basis of how romantic the partners feel about each other — when the sink is leaking, the children are screaming, the bills need to be paid, and the husband or wife has been laid off from the job. The fact is that God is always gracious; we can always count on his love for us, even when we are not tangibly experiencing it. Furthermore, our faith is his gift, to be nourished by our spiritual disciplines— but these, too, are made possible by his grace. 

The habits of Sabbath keeping include calling to God even in his apparent absence. In obedience, we learn that God is always present, and that one of the places he is especially present is in the day that he himself has hallowed.

  1. Dawn outlines six chapters on Ceasing in Keeping the Sabbath Wholly. They are: 1. Ceasing Work; 2.Ceasing Productivity and Accomplishment; 3.Ceasing Anxiety, Worry, and Tension; 4.Ceasing Our Trying to Be God; 5.Ceasing Our Possessiveness; and 6.Ceasing Our Enculturation. ↩︎
  2. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951), p. 14. His quotations are from Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea X, 6; Rabbi Solomo Alkabez’s Lechah Dodi (the Kiddush hymn referred to in Chapter 1); and the Evening Service for the Sabbath. ↩︎
  3. See particularly the works of Jacques Ellul on this theme— especially The Technological Society and The Technological System. ↩︎

Adapted from chapters 7 and 28 in Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, by Marva Dawn, 1989. Used with the generous permission of Eerdmans

Text First Published August 1989 · Last Featured on January 2023