Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Why I Keep the Sabbath

The Sabbath is, first and foremost, about rest.
The Sabbath is, first and foremost, about rest.

The Sabbath is, first and foremost, about rest.

I’m speaking tonight on Sabbath observance for the Lenten series at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. (I have to follow Walter Brueggemann in the lineup—can you imagine? Gulp.)

During this series, which kicked off with 24/6 author Matthew Sleeth preaching in a Sunday service and has included Sunday morning classes as well as Wednesday evening lectures, the people at Redeemer have focused totally on this single spiritual practice: Sabbath. What does it mean? Why should we keep it? And what should we do—or not do—to keep the Sabbath holy?

In my early years as a Mormon, I wasn’t much of a Sabbath keeper. I felt vaguely guilty about this, because the virtue of the Sabbath was preached often from the pulpit, Mormonism never having succumbed to American culture’s general decline in Sabbath observance.

So my Sabbath deficiency became just one more way that I felt I was falling short as a Christian.

I didn’t get serious about Sabbath until I became a parent. But it wasn’t like I had somehow grown more wise or spiritual as a new mom, or even because I wanted to set a good example for my daughter.

No, I did it because I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Ever.

Suddenly, Sabbath seemed like a rather fine idea.

Nowadays people ask me which of the spiritual practices I tried for Flunking Sainthood that I still do. Fixed-hour prayer? Fasting? I tell them that while I attempt some of those practices from time to time, there are two to which I hold firm: Sabbath-keeping and the Jesus Prayer.

I stick to these disciplines like glue not because I am a virtuous person or a particularly good Christian, because I’m neither. With Sabbath in particular, I observe the practice because I am basically a selfish person.

I have come to love the Sabbath because I have permission—finally, weekly—to lay down my anxieties and cease, which is what the word shabbat means. Sabbath is about stoppage. It is about rest, and family, and love.

SabbathIt’s also about God, but not in the parsimonious, self-engineered way that so many Christians seem to think it is. They imagine that God only allows us to rest from our regular work on Sunday so that we can do our Other Great Work, which is to spend extra time reading our scriptures, or at prayer.

Those are of course important things to attend to in a spiritual journey, but they are not the purpose of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a cease-and-desist order, the longest and most specific of the Ten Commandments. When God orders us to stop work in Exodus 20:8 and elsewhere, it is explicitly repeated that stopping work is in itself a holy thing. In fact, such cessation is the only “holy” attribute mentioned in conjunction with the Sabbath.

How often we misunderstand this in our work-obsessed culture. I once heard someone at my church say from the pulpit that he would never feel comfortable napping on the Sabbath and thereby “wasting the Lord’s day.” What hubris.

If God himself rests on the seventh day—note that the fourth commandment is the only one of the ten that God himself keeps—can we be so prideful as to imagine that the world will stop spinning on its axis the moment we cease our labors?


The Sabbath image and the photo of chairs on the beach are used with permission of


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Exo 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
    Exo 20:9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
    Exo 20:10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
    Exo 20:11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

    Exod 31:13 (NKJV) “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: `Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it [is] a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that [you] may know that I [am] Yahweh who sanctifies you.

    It is the only day that God made holy. Without the sign, there is no relationship. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus Christ, God the Father, the disciples, or any one else change the Sabbath which Jesus Himself Kept. The Catholic Papacy is responsible for changing Gods laws and times – such as the observance of the day of the sun god instead of the actual Sabbath which is on Saturday; the 7th day. Dan 7:25 New International Version (©2011)
    “He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.” God be with us all.

  • What do you mean by “keep” the Sabbath? Does that mean you are obeying a command to rest or does it mean you are keeping something which God made Holy or do you mean keeping a tradition?