Can I Honor God While Working on the Sabbath?
The tension between the Sabbath and work keeps me on my spiritual toes, vigilant to remember God’s holy day and to make time for mental rest and spiritual growth no matter the circumstance.
Complexities are some of life’s most enduring realities.
I awoke one Sabbath morning to a foot or more of fresh snow on the ground from the previous night’s storm. Through my nine-year-old eyes, it was a delightful, beautiful thing. In the experienced eyes of my mother, however, it meant taking me and my 14-year-old brother with her to shovel the walks at the family motel on the week’s holiest of days.
“But Mom, we’re not supposed to work on Sunday,” my scripturally minded brother said, concerned we were flippantly tossing aside a critical biblical command.
“Well, this needs to be done,” Mom said, her face expressing some of her own worry at making us help her on a Sabbath morning. “We don’t want our guests walking through snow and slipping on ice.”
This exchange—my only scrap of memory from that day—has become an unforgettable lesson that helps me confront similar Sabbath-day work dilemmas now, more than 20 years later. My mom was teaching us (and this is a lesson I value only in retrospect) how to balance competing commandments—in this case, the command to “not do any work” on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10) and the command to work and honor previously-made obligations and promises to our fellowman (see Genesis 3:19; Exodus 20:16).
Since then, I’ve wondered: Is it possible to honor God while working on the Sabbath?
Making Peace with a Complex Reality
The question itself sounds heretical. Yet many people work Sundays not out of a desire to displease God but more as a reluctant bowing to the practical realities of life. We know Jesus says “the Sabbath was given unto man for a day of rest” (Joseph Smith Translation, Mark 2:26 [in the Bible appendix]), but in our hyper-connected world in which it’s vogue to always be available by smartphone, the vision of a Sabbath of stillness and peace is remarkably difficult for many to experience every Sunday—even for Church employees, of which I am one.
My mom and dad instilled an ethos of Sabbath worship in my childhood home. Sunday was a time of togetherness and worship, yet between August and March my dad was (and still is) often traveling on Sundays to meet his obligations as a sports broadcaster. My own Sabbath crossroads came years later as my two-year Church mission came to a close. I foresaw an oncoming collision between the Sabbath-day command and the requirements of my chosen fields for university study and career—journalism and public relations. Sunday work is inevitable in such realms—the Monday newspaper is created on Sunday, and the larger world just doesn’t stop its frantic whirl for the sake of the religiously devout.
Can one perfectly untie this knot? All I know so far is that I made peace with this complex reality in college 10 years ago. I continued in my chosen vocation, and in my time since as a journalist and public relations specialist—including now working for the Church—I've had to work many Sundays. Such Church work—as noble as it may sound—is still work. It exhausts the body and the mind on Sunday the same way it does Monday through Saturday. And I know I’m not alone in my Sabbath work—many police officers, firefighters, medical doctors, nurses, pilots, journalists, and others are required to fill occasional Sabbath shifts (to say nothing of the 24-7 efforts of parents with young children).
There are no easy solutions, and in this vein we can learn much from our Jewish friends, many of whom keep the Sabbath so well. Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew whose Sabbath devotion was deep and admirable during his 30 years of government service, was faithful to his faith’s Sabbath laws and, when necessary, carried out time-sensitive government responsibilities that only he could do.
“In the end,” he says of his fellow Jews, “we each have to interpret the Torah for ourselves, doing what seems right. … When circumstances demand, [God] wants us to stop our rest and do what needs to be done, such as protecting life and health, defending our security, and helping others with urgent needs.” Senator Lieberman also says we should be careful to not “put form over substance, to elevate the law above the values on which the law is based, and to forget that the Sabbath is primarily a day to affirm and uphold the life that God has given us” (The Gift of Rest, 177, 182–83).
Nurturing the Heart’s Sabbath Yearning
Keeping Senator Lieberman’s wise counsel in mind, I also give considerable thought to the power of remembering on the Sabbath. President Russell M. Nelson says our conduct and attitude on the Sabbath constitute our sign to God of how we honor Him on His holy day. I've come to see required work on Sunday more as opportunity than irreconcilable collision of commandments. President Nelson’s comment on our Sabbath attitude, coupled with the command in Exodus 20 to “remember the Sabbath day” tell me that the very act of remembering the sacredness of the day can be a significant attitude shift to help me render the day holy even if I have to work.
I shape my Sabbath attitude in a number of ways. For example, I see my sporadic and small sacrifices of Sabbath rest as a chance to ponder and grasp at greater depth Jesus’s supreme sacrifice for our eternal rest. I understand that while I’m working for my family’s temporal salvation, Jesus was and is working for my family’s eternal salvation. And to more firmly ground myself in a spiritual state of mind, I fill pockets of free time with scripture and the wisdom and transcendent beauty of the world’s other great books.
This is not a flawless solution to a complex problem, yet the tension between the Sabbath and work keeps me on my spiritual toes, vigilant to remember God’s holy day and to make time for mental rest and spiritual growth no matter the circumstances. Our society’s culture of rampant materialism and workaholism—even if the work we do is noble and good—can make us feel like weary wanderers in search of a promised land of solitude and rest. But no surprise there—Jesus told us 2,000 years ago that “in the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33).
Though we may not be able to always practice a perfect Sabbath, we can remember the words of Jewish author Viva Hammer, who says the “Sabbath has become the centerpiece” for Jews—a “people who were chased hither and thither, not finding a home.” As it is for her and other practicing Jews, so can it be for us in our work-heavy lives that the Sabbath “hovers over the week, beckoning, so that sometimes, on Tuesday, [we’re] so exhausted [we] yearn for the Sabbath. Not yearning for a day off, not for a vacation, but for the Sabbath” (“Sabbath Alone,” First Things, Nov. 2016).
Samuel B. Hislop is a communication professional, originally from Logan, Utah. He writes often, reads widely, and plays frequently with his three precious daughters.