This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts… do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.
—The Westminster Confession (1646), Chapter XXI
Does this match your experience of Sundays? Up until last year, this was a fairly accurate description of mine—and even where I fell short of observing this perfectly, it at least described the ideal that was agreed upon by nearly all of the conservative evangelicals in my Scottish Presbyterian church.
But then I moved to Sydney—to the thoroughly evangelical Anglican diocese; to the home of world-famous preachers; to a place that could be relied upon to teach the Bible.
And I was so surprised that Sabbath observance was just not a thing here. I’d never imagined that mature, evangelical Christians would do their grocery shopping on a Sunday, or that my fellow Moore College students would happily work on their essays! I had to question my assumptions about what was biblical as opposed to cultural, and I’m very grateful to have been ‘forced’ to think these things through.
But there are things I miss about the ‘Scottish Sabbath’. Whether biblically mandated or not, there are benefits in having a day of rest and of setting Sunday apart as special, and there are lessons to be learned from the Scottish example—even when Scottish Christians have themselves leaned too far in the other direction!1
Firstly, gathered ‘worship’ at both the start and end of the day is a central part of the Sabbath in Scotland. This structure ensures there is more time physically spent with God’s people—and, importantly, under God’s word. By its very nature, having the routine of gathering morning and evening means the day necessarily revolves around God and his people.
This timing also facilitates an interval between the services that, for many years and for thousands of Christians, provides a great time for food and fellowship. Back in Edinburgh, the middle part of our Sundays were often taken up by an extended lunch with church family, and I’ve found (so far) that nothing in Sydney church culture quite matches this in terms of progressing relationships centred on fellowship in Christ. In my experience, Sunday lunches are more productive than weeknight dinners, because they are less likely to be rushed and give the opportunity to spend time with an entire family while doing more than just eating. Spending an afternoon with people enables extended conversation, and even the chance to go for a walk, play games, etc. In the midst of a busy week with all kinds of pressures and pulls, it is so helpful to have the church-wide expectation that Sunday afternoons are for fellowship.
It’s easy in our individualistic culture to overlook the community aspect of the Sabbath. Sunday lunches may not be a biblical mandate (!) but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of spending time with our family in the Lord.
Even when not lunching with church family, Sunday afternoons still looked markedly different from any other days. Rather than continuing our way through the week’s never-ending to-do list, we’d make a conscious effort to cease from our usual activities—be they chores, grocery shopping or catching up on emails. Some of our friends marked the day as different by choosing not to watch TV or attend kids’ parties. At my university, it was normal for Christian students not to do any coursework on the Sabbath, despite very heavy workloads.
Why? Well the reasons are theological. Practically we are showing what we know to be true—that God is sovereign and that the world doesn’t depend on us or our actions. So in place of usual activities, we’d specifically seek to do things that would help us delight in the Lord. And that is different for each person. For us, we’d often take walks, do devotional reading, and nap.
The outworking of this theological truth is actually relief and enjoyment. In the busyness of the rest of the week, in the chaos of our world, we have ‘permission’ to say no to things that can cause us to rush around and make us task-orientated. For example, our friends who say no to kids’ parties are freed from the rigmarole of getting child A to location X by Y time, which occupies so much of their week (and weekend). Instead they can have quality family time centred on the Lord and their family in him. For them, Sabbath observance, and having the permission to pause, is a real relief.
Of course, there is always a way to take something that God has made good and turn it into something burdensome and restrictive. All those who do observe the Sabbath must be careful not to be like the Pharisees, who were guilty of burying the real law of God under a mountain of foolish and manmade provisions. I find it challenging that Jesus went out of his way to press in on their tidy interpretations of the Sabbath by healing those in need (cf. Luke 6; John 9).
Nevertheless, I do miss that rest was standard on a Sunday in Scotland. It turns out that it’s much harder to cease from my work when it isn’t the cultural norm, and no one else is doing it! Whether a biblical mandate or not, it’s possible that Sydney Christians have missed out by neglecting the Sabbath. Whether we see it as obligatory or not, it is good to have a set pattern of expecting our work to stop on a certain day, because our restless hearts won’t always feel like stopping. Having this rhythm of rest can be a useful check on our pride—when we think the world depends on us—and stops life from becoming overwhelming.
Of course, we will never perfectly rest in this life. Above all, Sabbath rest whets our appetite for when we arrive home to our final resting place, when we shall know Christ fully (1 Cor 13:12).
How sweet is rest after fatigue! How sweet will heaven be when our journey is ended. –George Whitefield
1 This is certainly the case historically. Even today, in the Northern Isles of Scotland, playgrounds are not allowed to be used on a Sunday. I also know of a woman who was reported to her minister for hanging up her washing on the Sabbath!