Mommy, Sabbath is not a happy day,” our 5-year-old son sadly said.
Our family had just sung at Friday sundown worship the song “Sabbath Is a Happy Day.” Ivan’s unexpected, unhappy comment jolted our Sabbath peace. As parents of two young children, we were sobered and did some heart-searching to determine the cause and remedy for unhappy Sabbaths. We longed for our son to change the words to the song back to “Sabbath is a happy day!” We began a journey to put in place some intentional measures to make that so.
We were a pastoral family. Sabbaths were busy and sometimes hectic days. Daddy was busy with “Sabbathy” activities such as teaching, preaching, leading worship, fellowship with church members, meetings, and so forth. Our children and I were brought into this busyness. Are not worshipping, church services, and Christian fellowship part of keeping Sabbath holy? Yes. But how could we happily keep the Sabbath holy? After all, the Bible doesn’t say “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it gloomy.”
Years later, when we were missionaries living in Africa, my husband and I were presenting a seminar on family spirituality in the African country of Rwanda. A young mother, struggling with Sabbath observance, earnestly asked us how she could make Sabbath a holy and happy experience for her family. Others in the audience jumped in and shared their searching questions and comments about the controversial, and sometimes burdensome, issue of Sabbathkeeping.
These heartfelt questions created in me a desire to delve even deeper into this issue, not only for my own spiritual growth but also for my family’s sake, and for those who ask me about keeping the Sabbath. That day in Rwanda was another step in my quest to live the Sabbath joyfully and wholeheartedly. This experience actually put me on a path that ultimately led me to study the practice of the Sabbath across several cultures.1
In this study I sought for universal biblical principles that are valid cross-culturally. Why? I have lived in numerous cultures, and it was confusing. A variety of different practices are found in various cultures. As I addressed passages in Scripture that shed light on Sabbath observance, however, I noted that universal Sabbathkeeping principles emerged.2 For teaching purposes, I listed them as 15 “Guiding Principles for Sabbath Observance” (see sidebar). These principles are relevant universally and can be applied and lived out as rules for Sabbath practices in any culture. They can serve as a toolbox from which to craft a joyous and holy time with God and those around you.
There is, of course, room in different cultures for various practices, as long as the practices are true to the principle that is being applied.
Actually, there is yet another level beyond the principles from which rules are derived: God’s character. Rules are not right only because they reflect a principle; they are right because they reflect the One we want to be like.3 For guidelines on happy and holy Sabbaths, let’s discuss four of the 15 guiding principles:
Sabbathkeeping means celebrating the creation, or birthday, of the world (see Gen. 2:1-3), and of our redemption (see Deut. 5:15); therefore, its atmosphere should be one of celebration, joy, and delight (see Ps. 92; Isa. 58:13).
Celebration, a divine characteristic:God celebrates and rejoices. He celebrated Creation (see Gen. 2:1-3; Prov. 8:27-31). He rejoices when people come to Him (see Deut. 30:9; Isa. 62:5; Zeph. 3:17; Luke 15). He will celebrate at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9). He is a source of joy (see Ps. 43:4). Speaking of God, David said, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11, NKJV).4 “ You will find your joy in the Lord” (Isa. 58:14).
Acting on the principle of celebration:How could we apply the principle of celebration to make Ivan’s unhappy Sabbaths become happy and holy?
It’s fun to try celebrating Sabbath with experiences that delight all five senses. For example, enjoy the Sabbath with a few of the following:
Sight: flowers; special dishes; candles
Sound: music sung or played by family members or played on the home stereo system; nature sounds
Taste: special food; favorite foods
Touch: clean sheets; back rubs
Smell: bread baking on Friday afternoon; incense or other room fragrances
Did I mention the word “fun” in connection with celebrating Sabbath? Yes! Experiencing Sabbath is celebrating the birthday of the world. Birthday parties are fun. Except the Sabbath is a holy birthday party that focuses on God, for it’s all about Him! He wants to spend time and celebrate with each of us!
Sabbathkeeping means preparing for this special day so we can enjoy its benefits (see Heb. 4:11; Ex. 16:28-30; Luke 23:54-56).
Preparation, a divine characteristic:God is a preparer. He prepared the beautiful Garden of Eden and the plan of salvation before He created humankind and the Sabbath (see Gen. 1-2; Prov. 8:27-31; 1 Peter 1:20); He has prepared an inheritance for the redeemed, the kingdom prepared since Creation (see Matt. 25:34); He has prepared a place for us, a custom-made home in heaven (see John 14:1-3); He will prepare the Holy City as a bride adorned for her husband (see Rev. 21:2).
Acting on the principle of preparation: Even though Friday is the special preparation day for the Sabbath, we should prepare for the Sabbath all through the week. “On Friday let the preparation for the Sabbath be completed.”5 We should “remember the Sabbath day” all week because we want “to keep it holy” when it comes.
“Intentionality” is a magic word in making Sabbath a happy and holy day. Planning a happy time during Sabbath starts before it comes. As my husband and I became more intentional about making Sabbath a happy day for our family, we would use part of family worship time early in the week to discuss our plans for the following Sabbath. We used a form entitled “Our Sabbath Plan,” with blanks to fill in for meals and activities throughout the Sabbath, including Friday evening, Sabbath morning, afternoon, and evening.
Our children would make suggestions, and we would record our decisions on the form. Sometimes my husband and I shared with the children biblical principles for Sabbath observance to guide them as they made their suggestions. We then posted the filled-in form on our refrigerator, where we could see it all week. When our children planned Sabbath together, it built up anticipation for that very special day.
Families with little children can do a “Sabbath countdown” all week to help foster excitement and anticipation. Tell the children every morning “Today is [Monday]. There are [five] more days to Sabbath.” Then ask, “What ideas do you have for making Sabbath a happy day?”
Sabbathkeeping means nurturing our relationships with family and friends (see Mark 1:29-31; Luke 14:1). In the gift of the Sabbath, God provides time for focused fellowship with the whole family, even the family animals (see Ex. 20:8-11). Sabbath and family go together (see Gen. 1:1–2:25; Lev. 19:3). This nurtures our “horizontal” relationships, those with our fellow human beings.
Fellowshipping, a divine characteristic: Members of the Godhead are relational (see John 15:15). God’s relationship with us is the foundation of our relationship with each other (see John 13:34, 35; 17:20-23). Jesus fellowshipped with others on Sabbath (see Mark 1:29-31; Luke 14).
Acting on the principle of fellowshipping:After Ivan’s proclamation that Sabbath was not a happy day, my husband and I decided that no matter how many appointments and obligations we had on a given Sabbath, we needed to carve out some time during the day to focus exclusively on the children, even if we could fit in only 30 minutes. It might be as simple as sitting on a blanket in our yard or in a field and reading them a story, or looking at the sky and imagining what animals the clouds looked like.
Remember: simple can still be special. We would go on picnics/nature activities, and so forth; and when fellowshipping with groups of Sabbathkeepers we reminded ourselves not to interact just with the adults but to remember the children and spend time with them. Our children have grown up and left home, but we still try to call them every Sabbath to continue that special Sabbath time we enjoyed with them so many years ago. Family and Sabbath go together.
Sabbathkeeping means participating in corporate, focused worship of God with our church family (see Lev. 23:3; Isa. 56:1-8; 66:22, 23; Mark 1:21; 3:1-4; Luke 4:16; 13:10; Heb. 10:25; Rev. 14:7). This nurtures both our “vertical” and our “horizontal” relationships—those with God and with our fellow human beings.
Worship, as inspired by the divine:God desires corporate worship (see Isa. 66:22, 23). Jesus attended and led out in worship services while on earth (see Luke 4:16).
Acting on the principle of worshipping:It’s clear that corporate worship is an important part of our Sabbath experience. We’re to be there not only bodily but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually emptied of our week and of ourselves. When we are in the place of worship, it is all about Him, not about us, whether we are preaching, listening, or praising Him in song.
Sometimes families experience stress and unhappy feelings toward each other when they prepare to go to church on Sabbath morning. Some have confessed that they fight on the way to church and try to get their faces to switch from frowns to smiles as they enter the church parking lot. How can we avoid that scenario?
Our family decided to take deliberate measures to keep the prechurch atmosphere happy. I put on happy Sabbath music and sometimes sacred music videos to create a positive atmosphere to prepare our hearts and minds for worship. We tried to rise early enough on Sabbath morning so that we didn’t feel unduly rushed. We had our Sabbath clothes chosen and ready on Friday, and we had a simple break-fast that didn’t use many dishes. (We found it best to dress young children after breakfast!) When our children were small, we reviewed their Sabbath School memory verses while we ate breakfast. Sometimes we listened to Your Story Hour or other Sabbath tapes while we ate. We prayed for a Sabbath blessing and that we would be ready to truly worship Jesus at church.
It is very special to worship God in church, sitting together as a family. With Isaiah, parents can come before God and say, “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me” (Isa. 8:18). Parents should do all they can to make the worship experience a happy, meaningful time. For young children, sermons might as well be preached in a foreign language, so bring Sabbath books and quiet activities that can occupy that time. But even young children can participate in prayer and singing, so use those books and other activities only during the sermon. Older children are better able to follow the sermon and look for certain predetermined words the preacher uses, look up the Bible texts quoted, and so forth. You might want to find out what hymns will be sung during the coming worship service and sing them with your children during the week so they will enjoy singing them with the rest of the congregation on Sabbath.
Parents can encourage their children to learn to worship God and ap-preciate the church worship service by having family worship during the week. This special family time provides the opportunity to sing, pray, and share feelings and meaningful ideas from God’s Word at the chil-dren’s level. Keep it short and simple. If your family worship fosters good attitudes in your children, these attitudes can carry over into the Sabbath worship hour.
When Jesus visits your home next Sabbath, plan to make it so interesting to your family “that its weekly return will be hailed with joy.”6
“Serve the Lord with gladness; come before His presence with singing. . . . Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise” (Ps. 100:2-4, NKJV), for Sabbath is a happy day!7
May-Ellen Colón, Ph.D., is director of Adventist Community Services International, General Conference, and special liaison for Community Services with ADRA International.