It is a perennial question, from generation to generation: Why can’t we do the same things on Sunday that we do every other day? What good does it do to keep the Sabbath anyway?
These are not questions asked only by children too young to know the rewards of obedience to our Heavenly Father’s commandments. A college student remarked: “I’ve always had trouble understanding what the Sabbath is really for. It seems to be the one day of the week that I can’t do things with my friends. I’ve been in homes where on the Sabbath you are not allowed to do anything. That just seems to breed hostility.”
A returned missionary admitted: “I’ve been troubled by my lack of spiritual progress since my mission, and I attribute it in part to not keeping the Sabbath as I should. I’m sure there are other members for whom the Sabbath simply means going to meetings for three hours, not going to the store, not going to work, and, on fast Sundays, skipping breakfast. I feel that there’s a lot of confusion about the way to observe the Sabbath properly.”
It was the Lord who created a day called the Sabbath. Why did he do it? What are its purposes, and what kinds of activities are appropriate for the Sabbath? Let’s turn to his own words for answers to these questions.
After God ended his work of creation on this earth, he blessed and sanctified his day of rest—the seventh day (see Gen. 2:2–3). When he reiterated the day’s importance through Moses on Mount Sinai, he told the people of Israel: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). That word remember is important. Most of us need daily reminders, such as prayer and scripture study, to keep the Lord and his work in our hearts, but we also need one whole day out of seven to refocus our attention and our hearts on him completely—to rest from worldly things that may too easily work their way to the top of our priority list.
The Hebrew word shabbat means rest or cessation of labor. But beyond simply resting from our labors on the Sabbath, we are to sanctify the day, to make it holy. We do this by seeking to draw closer to God, worshipping him, and serving others.
Anciently, Israel was known as a people who set apart one day in seven for rest and worship. The Lord said that this Sabbath observance was “a perpetual covenant,” “a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever” (Ex. 31:16–17). The penalty for disobedience to this law of the Sabbath was well known (see Ex. 31:14–15; Ex. 35:2; Num. 15:32–36). Today, physical death is no longer the penalty for one who desecrates the Sabbath. Yet just as the ancient Israelite would have been cut off from the camp of Israel, so a modern child of God cuts himself off from the Spirit and brings a type of spiritual death upon himself by willfully disobeying the commandment.
In New Testament times, the Jews were known for their strictness in observance of the Sabbath law. When chastised for supposedly defiling the Sabbath, Jesus condemned the fussy and fastidious add-ons to the ancient law that he had given. “The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day,” he said (Matt. 12:8), and furthermore, “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). By his example, he showed how we can make the day holy: it is lawful to help and to heal others on the Sabbath as he did (see Matt. 12:10–13), to take care of basic human needs and relieve grief (Luke 13:11–16), and even to rescue people and things from danger (Luke 14:5).
He showed that the key to keeping the Sabbath properly, like the key of obedience to many other gospel principles, is found in our hearts. When we love the Lord, it is unlikely that we will want to violate the Sabbath in any way. Because of their love for the Lord, the former-day Saints (whether Jews or Gentiles) began keeping the Sabbath on “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10), the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). They were commemorating the greatest event since the creation of the world—the resurrection of the Creator himself.
Latter-day Saints have been urged many times to show our love for the Lord by keeping the Sabbath. Little more than a year ago, for example, the First Presidency offered the following counsel:
“We sense that many Latter-day Saints have become lax in their observance of the Sabbath day. We should refrain from shopping on the Sabbath and participating in other commercial and sporting activities that now commonly desecrate the Sabbath.
“We urge all Latter-day Saints to set this holy day apart from activities of the world and consecrate themselves by entering into a spirit of worship, thanksgiving, service, and family-centered activities appropriate to the Sabbath. As Church members endeavor to make their Sabbath activities compatible with the intent and Spirit of the Lord, their lives will be filled with joy and peace” (Ensign, Jan. 1993, p. 80).
Ancient and modern prophets have been reluctant to make long lists of acceptable and unacceptable activities for the Sabbath, but the scriptures and the writings they have given us provide guidelines. Let’s examine some of those guidelines—things we are encouraged to do and things we are discouraged from doing on the holy day.
The prophet Isaiah gave us one of the plainest and most beautifully phrased explanations of what to do on the Lord’s day: “Turn away thy foot from … doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and … honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words” (Isa. 58:13).
Nehemiah, governor of the Persian province of Judah in the fifth century B.C., was a spiritual and humble administrator, but also bold and vigorous in setting a course of reform for Israelites who hadn’t learned the lessons of their immediate history. Under his leadership, Jews who had returned from exile to their homeland entered into a covenant of obedience to God that included this pledge: “If the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the sabbath” (Neh. 10:31).
When some merchants were determined to keep doing business on the Sabbath, Nehemiah showed them that he was serious about honoring the Lord’s day:
“Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day?
“Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.
“And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day” (Neh. 13:17–19).
I recently learned about a modern parallel to this situation from Old Testament times. Its outcome was enlightening.
A Latter-day Saint couple bought a local family restaurant which had not been highly successful during the previous couple of years, but they planned to make some changes and put new life into the business. Sunday had been one of the restaurant’s high-volume days, and some of their acquaintances—including a close friend who had loaned them money to buy the business—urged them to keep it open on that day. The couple agonized over how to close the restaurant on Sunday; after all, it did defy good business logic. But they finally decided to close it and follow their own belief and trust in the Lord. The succeeding months saw an immediate increase in sales, and every year since then the business has seen a steady and consistent growth.
This couple’s experience, along with the experiences of others, teaches us that the Lord does reward obedience to his commandments. Just as he promised a double amount of manna on the day before the Sabbath (see Ex. 16:29) and a more bountiful harvest during the sixth year to provide for the seventh and eighth years (see Lev. 25:3–7, 20–22), so the principle can apply in a modern restaurant setting; an increase in sales on Friday and Saturday can compensate for (and often exceed) what could have been earned on the Sabbath. We should not, of course, assume that if we honor the Sabbath, we will necessarily receive financial blessings. Sometimes we may even be required to endure financial difficulties as we live the gospel. The important thing is that we prepare ourselves, through obedience, to receive whatever blessings the Lord sees fit to bestow on us.
In our day, the Lord has told us that keeping the Sabbath will help protect us against the ills of a world that is degenerating spiritually. In one revelation to Joseph Smith, he rephrased the fourth commandment this way: “That thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” (D&C 59:9; emphasis added).
Here is a divinely inspired plan for protection against immorality, rebellion, the deterioration of family structure and stability, and other spiritual dangers that threaten us: we can go to our meetinghouses each Sabbath and partake of the sacrament, which involves regular repentance and covenant making to keep ourselves clean and “unspotted from the world.”
The Lord continues: “For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High” (D&C 59:10). If we will change our daily routine once every week and sincerely pay our devotions—or dedicate ourselves and our energies to serving God and others—we will be shielding ourselves from the evil around us.
“Remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord” (D&C 59:12). (Oblations is defined in a footnote as “offerings, whether of time, talents, or means, in service of God and fellowman.”) This suggests that we protect ourselves not only by committing all that we have to his service but also by confessing our sins to God, to those we have offended, and when appropriate, to the proper and appointed servants of the Lord.
The Lord continues to define what is acceptable on his holy day: “And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart … that thy joy may be full” (D&C 59:13). Here we have a specific example of keeping this one day holy; we ought to keep food preparation simple so that our devotions can be to God rather than to our temporal satisfaction.
But there is much more to consider. Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve once explained the significance of the command that “on this day thou shalt do none other thing”:
“If we are to do none other thing on Sunday but to devote the day to holy purposes, what is our situation if we willfully choose to operate our businesses on the Sabbath, or if we patronize such Sunday businesses, or if we go to places of recreation on Sunday?
“We know there are employees in certain essential services, such as in hospitals and other 24-hour-a-day institutions, who have no option as to their working conditions. We do not speak of them. But most people are not so employed, and they have control of their own time.
“Would they rather ski or swim or go to the movies or conduct business on Sunday than to go to church? If the answer is yes, they should ask themselves if they have strayed away from the faith to that extent and adopted another gospel—a gospel of Sunday fun and business. … The manner in which we spend the Sabbath is a sign of our inner attitude toward [God]. … Observance of the Sabbath is an indication of the depth of our conversion” (Ensign, May 1975, p. 49, emphasis added).
Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve gave the following suggestions for keeping the Sabbath properly:
“The Sabbath is a holy day in which to do worthy and holy things. Abstinence from work and recreation is important but insufficient. The Sabbath calls for constructive thoughts and acts, and if one merely lounges about doing nothing on the Sabbath, he is breaking it. To observe it, one will be on his knees in prayer, preparing lessons, studying the gospel, meditating, visiting the ill and distressed, sleeping, reading wholesome material, and attending all the meetings of that day to which he is expected. To fail to do these proper things is a transgression on the omission side” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, pp. 96–97).
Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve has suggested that even the way we dress may influence our attitude and inclination on the Lord’s day: “I often wonder what happened to the good old saying, ‘Sunday best.’ If our dress deteriorates to everyday attire, our actions seem to follow the type of clothing we wear.
“Of course, we would not expect our children to remain dressed in their church clothes all day, but neither would we expect them to dress in clothes that would not be appropriate for the Sabbath” (Ensign, Nov. 1984, p. 19).
Great rewards and blessings are promised to those who truly call the Sabbath a delight and make it a holy day. “And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances, … the fulness of the earth is yours, … and the good things which come of the earth” (D&C 59:15–17).
Just as the ancient Israelites experienced numerous miracles in the wilderness of Sinai when they obeyed the Lord’s commandments, so miracles can happen in our lives if we are obedient.
Sometimes blessings may not be immediate; standing by our beliefs may even bring what seem like difficult sacrifices. But as we fill our Sabbaths with activities compatible with the will of the Lord and compatible with his Spirit, we are promised joy and peace, all things eventually working together for our good. Following is a case in point.
Several years ago, a former Jerusalem Study Abroad student wrote to me soon after returning to the United States. She reported a particular challenge regarding Sabbath work: “One of the most difficult things I had to do was tell my boss that I couldn’t work for him on Sundays anymore. The last two summers it hasn’t bothered me to work on Sunday, but because of the knowledge I’ve gained since then, there’s no way I could justify it now.”
She looked on her boss almost as a second father. “I guess the reason I didn’t want to tell him is because he’s been so good to me; I’ve always been able to count on having a job there.”
It took her three days, including a day of fasting, to get up the courage to tell him of her feelings. “All I wanted was for him to understand my position. I took an olivewood carving as a peace offering—just in case. Well, of course the conversation centered around Jerusalem and everything I’d done in Israel. I tried to warm him up as to why I couldn’t work on Sunday.
“The conversation eventually came around to my job. My nerves betrayed me and my voice got a little shaky, but finally my feelings came out. The Spirit must have been there because there were tears in his eyes, and it was hard for him to talk, too. He told me that he respected my decision and was glad that I stood up for what I believed in.
“He also explained that his beliefs were a little different than mine and that he had to be fair and treat all of his employees equally. He never did come out and say I wouldn’t be working for him any longer—but we both knew. It felt like a weight had been taken off my shoulders. I don’t have a job, but that’s okay; something will work out.”
In preparation for the great millennial era, Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to work toward becoming a people pure in heart and obedient to the will of God, ready for the reign of their Eternal King. Doctrine and Covenants 68:29 [D&C 68:29] says that the inhabitants of Zion will “observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” What will the Sabbath be like in his City of Zion?
From all the Lord has spoken and all the prophets have written, we may conclude that on the Lord’s day there will be no physical labor, no shopping, no businesses open, and no sporting events. The people of Zion will not go to movie theaters or go sightseeing or engage in other amusements. We would not expect them to overwork or stay up late the night before and be exhausted on the Sabbath.
Instead, we would expect these Saints to attend Church meetings, to study and ponder the scriptures individually and with their families as well as studying Church history, biographies of Church leaders, and other uplifting reading material. We would probably see them writing personal and family histories, buoying up the spirits of others, visiting the sick, doing family history or missionary work, singing the songs of Zion and listening to inspiring music, and seeking out other activities inspired by the Spirit of the Lord.
There is no doubt that in keeping the Sabbath holy and honoring the Lord of the Sabbath, they will experience constantly the blessings of peace and joy he promises.
Does this view of the Sabbath seem like a beautiful picture? The remarkable thing about it is that it need not be part of the distant future. If we want it to be so, it can be our future as early as this coming Sunday—and we will begin to reap the blessings of obedience immediately.