Sabbath Rest With Little Children?

Sabbath Rest With Little Children?

“If you keep your feet from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable; and if you honor it by not going your own ways and seeking your own pleasure or speaking merely idle words, then you will take delight in the LORD, and he will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; and he will make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob, your father. Yes! The mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14, ISV).

Isaiah 58:13-14 is a verse I know by heart and a promise I believe. I have experienced the gift of rest, refreshment, and true delight that comes when we choose to honor the Sabbath as God instructs us. Yet, as a mama to two sweet and energetic children, I have wrestled with how to truly honor the Sabbath and claim this promise in a season where the Sabbath rarely feels restful. 

On a typical Sabbath, my husband and I are abruptly awakened around 6 a.m. (give or take a half hour) by a toddler that needs to potty or an aggressively (if adorably) awake baby that seems to think we’re burning daylight. To the normal tasks of caring for little ones with big needs and precarious emotional states, we add two hours of driving (playing the fun guessing games of “will the baby scream the entire way” and “what minor calamity will cause the toddler to have a meltdown just as the baby finally falls asleep”), and a service spent bouncing, rocking, pacing, nursing, instructing, disciplining, wiping, and so on—with no guarantee of getting to actually listen to the sermon or even fellowship with our brethren.

How do we truly delight in the Sabbath?

In this context, we have wrestled with what it means to truly delight in the Sabbath, and how to honor the Sabbath command to rest when it can often feel like we still have so much “work” to do.

One of the problems, perhaps, is that we tend to start with how we feel. The Sabbath doesn't feel relaxing; I don’t feel refreshed afterward (more like exhausted and frazzled and ready for bed). But Isaiah doesn’t tell us to “feel the Sabbath a delight,” he tells us to call or proclaim the Sabbath a delight, a day to be honored, a day of worship to our great God.

This is key because this is the starting point. We have to choose to proclaim it a delight and honored time, even in seasons when it doesn’t feel particularly restful or pleasurable. And in some seasons, this is a choice we have to make every single Sabbath. Instead of starting with how we feel, we must start with what God tells us to do to honor His Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day where we can do things we normally cannot do during the week. One of those things is that we get to spend the entire day focused on God. We have been given the blessing of having an entire day where we can focus on being close to and worshipping God. That by itself makes this day a delight!

We have to choose to proclaim it a delight and honored time, even in seasons when it doesn’t feel particularly restful or pleasurable.

We are to avoid trampling on the Sabbath by pursuing our own interests—and that includes not treating it as a self-care day. If I think about the Sabbath as primarily a day of me time and time to recharge, I will invariably end up frustrated and stressed, maybe even irritated with these little ones who are “interfering” with my ideal Sabbath experience. This is not a flaw in the Sabbath but a flaw in my perception of what the Sabbath is or should be. Nor is it the fault of my children, whom our wise and loving God purposefully created to have seemingly endless needs that don’t just turn off for a day.

Before children, or even after, I certainly didn’t think I saw the Sabbath as being about me or a self-care day. Yet in this season of parenting little ones, the Sabbath rarely looks or feels the way I had grown accustomed to envisioning it. The discrepancy between the feelings I was accustomed to associating with honoring the Sabbath and the feelings I often experience during Sabbaths in this season can create all kinds of cognitive dissonance and doubts—am I really honoring the Sabbath? What am I doing wrong? Could I have prepared better?

The reminder that honoring the Sabbath is first about what we do, not necessarily about how it feels, is a helpful one.

The reminder that honoring the Sabbath is first about what we do, not necessarily about how it feels, is a helpful one. Especially since, in previous seasons of life, how I felt was a more helpful barometer as to whether my priorities were in line or out of whack on the Sabbath; but that is simply no longer the case.

Instead of doing our own ways, we are to do what God tells us to do on this day—which means assembling with His brethren to worship Him, even if that assembling takes a lot of work and brings additional stress. Instead of pursuing the things that bring us pleasure, we are to pursue God and His Word and obedience to Him—which includes consistently caring for, loving, and teaching the tiny humans He has entrusted to us. Instead of talking about whatever we want to talk about, our conversations should center around God, His Sabbath, His plan, and His Word (when possible, given the seemingly ceaseless fountain of comments and questions from our three-year-old, all of which apparently require a response).

If we are to talk of God’s ways when we walk by the way, at bedtime, and in the morning Deuteronomy 6:7 , then how much more so on the Sabbath? The Sabbath can be an opportunity to spend more time sharing God’s truth and plan with our children, whether reading a Bible story, going for a walk and talking about God’s creation, or over a special (and easy or pre-made!) breakfast.

When we obey God in these ways, the prophet Isaiah says, “then you will take delight in the LORD.”

When we obey God in these ways, the prophet Isaiah says, “then you will take delight in the LORD” (Isaiah 58:13-14). The NIV translation puts it this way: “then you will find your joy in the LORD.” Obedience comes first, then the true, heartfelt delight and deep spiritual rest; not the other way around. This promise is not a guarantee that once we’ve experienced that rest, we’ll never have to go through another season of battling to honor the Sabbath in order to gain a still deeper appreciation for it.

The Sabbath is for me, but it is not about me

There is a growing trend among mainstream Christians and even non-Christians to practice the sabbath. They see the wisdom in God’s design of the Sabbath and desire its benefits, and so they intentionally set aside a day or a period of time as their sabbath, a time for rest and connection and stepping away from the daily grind. But the whole focus of sabbathing in this context is on me—what works for me, what recharges me. While these are benefits God designed into the keeping of the weekly Sabbath, Christ’s words that “the Sabbath was made for man” might be interpreted to mean that the whole purpose of the Sabbath is to serve and benefit me. Therefore, some might say, if a certain sabbath practice isn’t serving myself or my family, then let it go. The important thing is how it makes you feel.

Therefore, in our desire to honor Him, we observe it as He commanded us, and we trust Him for the outcome.

As converted Christians in God’s church, however, that should not be our approach. We observe the Sabbath not primarily because of the very real benefits, but because our Creator commands us to observe it. Therefore, in our desire to honor Him, we observe it as He commanded us, and we trust Him for the outcome.

The Sabbath is a day of rest, yes, but it is primarily a day of worship to our Creator. When we obey God by bringing our families to church, to assemble with our brethren in the place that God has placed His name, the very act of coming into God’s presence in obedience to Him is an act of worship. Singing praises to Him—whether in the midst of our brethren, or quietly in the mother’s room to a nursing infant or fussy baby, or while walking the halls with a toddler—is an act of worship.

When we choose to lay down our own desires for the Sabbath, even good desires (like listening to the sermon), and serve our children with a humble and cheerful heart, that, too, is worshiping God. God delights to see us give of ourselves with a cheerful and unbegrudging attitude 2 Corinthians 9:7 . To do so is to follow in the footsteps of our Savior, who willingly poured Himself out to minister to the needs of those around Him.

In fact, when we consider our Creator’s own example during His earthly ministry, there are three things that we see Him repeatedly doing on the Sabbath: entering the synagogues, teaching, and healing (consider Luke 4:16, 31 ; Luke 13:10 ). Not quietly meditating and praying on the mountainside, though that would surely have been more restful!

He was able to perfectly balance between taking time to serve and taking time to be close to God.

(As a sidenote, while He absolutely prioritized spending time with His Father in prayer and meditation, when the needs of others interrupted His alone time, He did not immediately send them away. He served them with patience and compassion. He was able to perfectly balance between taking time to serve and taking time to be close to God. See Matthew 14:13-14 and Luke 9:18 .)

Our Savior spent the Sabbath focused not on Himself and what He could “get” out of the day but on God’s plan and the work He was doing and on furthering that work Himself. (See John 5:17  and John 9:4 , both of which took place on the Sabbath.) In other words, He spent the Sabbath serving. Whether we are reading a Bible story to our little ones or taking our irrepressible toddler out 20 times during the sermon, the work of teaching our children doesn’t and shouldn’t stop on the Sabbath.

Making the Sabbath a blessing for our children

Our Savior didn’t seek to use the Sabbath primarily for His own benefit but to bless and teach others. This is a principle we see embedded in the original Sabbath commands in the Old Testament, which, as the Being who became Christ is the same One who gave those commands, makes sense!

Deuteronomy 5:13-14 says: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.” (NKJV)

Exodus 23:12 adds, “…that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed.” The word for “refreshed” literally means “may take breath.” The Sabbath is meant to be a blessing not just to us individually but to those around us and especially to those dependent on us.

The Sabbath is meant to be a blessing not just to us individually but to those around us and especially to those dependent on us.  

With that in mind, what are some ways that we can help our children see the Sabbath as special, a treasured day that they look forward to all week? Maybe it’s a special meal or treat that they look forward to or special toys or activities that we reserve only for the Sabbath. The gift of our undivided attention, without additional work to attend to, and time together as a family can also make the Sabbath special to our children. In Deuteronomy 5:15 , we see that the Sabbath is a time to remember all that God has done for us and to share that with our children. As mentioned before, the Sabbath can be an opportunity to spend more time sharing God’s truths and the ways He has worked in our own lives with our children.

The Sabbath can also be an opportunity to give our spouse some extra quiet time with our Creator—a true blessing in this season! All these things take extra work on our part, yet they can be part of proclaiming the Sabbath a delight and a blessing for all.

The principle of preparation—and of choosing the good part

In Exodus 16:23 , we see the principle of preparing ahead of time to be able to keep the Sabbath holy and minimize labor on that day. While preparation is important in any season of life, we have found it especially critical amidst the chaos of parenting little ones. Since we know we will still have the “work” of caring for our precious, needy children on the Sabbath, the more we can prepare ahead of time to minimize all other “work” (meals, clothes picked out and ready, bags ready for church, etc.), the more we can truly relax and focus on the Sabbath.

Even something as seemingly small as getting all our bags and paraphernalia together on Friday, so there’s less scrambling on the Sabbath before leaving for church, can make a big difference. Doing as much meal prep ahead of time as possible, or choosing simple meals that don’t take much work or create too many dirty dishes, also helps a lot.

I’ve found that when I use Thursday to do as much of the cleaning and prepping as possible, using Friday as more a buffer for all the last-minute things, we are more likely to arrive at Sabbath evening in a peaceful manner rather than haphazardly crashing into it.

Of course, we can have all the good intentions and ideas and plans, and yet the reality is we will still (frequently!) fall short of our goals. What worked last week may fail miserably the next. On those days when the house is still a mess and there are far too many things left to do, and Friday evening feels like it’s barreling down towards me, I have a choice to make. I can continue to desperately attempt to get everything done right up until sunset, stressing everyone out in the process, and crash into the Sabbath … or I can take a moment to ask God to show me what is most important to do in the time remaining, choose to let go of all the other things that are still undone, and be like Mary, who “chose the good part” while Martha was stressing about all the physical things left to do ( Luke 10:38-42 ).

Yes, I find it easier to welcome the Sabbath with a peaceful heart when my home is clean, and I feel prepared, and we have a special meal. But while those physical things are nice and are positive goals to aim for, it’s a blessing to know that, on the weeks when it doesn’t all come together, I can still choose Sabbath rest in the midst of physical chaos and incompletion.

The weight of honor

In Isaiah 58:13, the Hebrew word for “honorable” and “honor,” kâbad, comes from a root that means “to be heavy” (Strong’s Definitions). We are to consider the Sabbath weighty—a day heavy with meaning and purpose and importance and with God’s own presence and holiness. In some seasons, honoring that holy time is a heavier weight to carry than it is at other times. 

Our brethren throughout the ages who have been persecuted and even martyred for their decision to honor the Sabbath surely felt the weight of honoring the Sabbath far more so than we do today! Yet, on a far less extreme scale, perhaps we sometimes feel ourselves struggling under the weight of honoring the Sabbath with small children. 

If so, we can look to our Savior’s words in Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Rest comes in willingly placing ourselves under His yoke, choosing to be guided by His hands, honoring His Sabbath command even when it’s challenging, and following His example of being a living sacrifice.

Of course, parents with small children are not the only ones for whom the Sabbath may not feel as restful or relaxing. We all know elderly members or members with a chronic illness for whom it may be a physically challenging and exhausting day. For pastors, the Sabbath is a full day of work and service.

There are seasons where obeying God requires more of us, seasons where it is a test of obedience, of clinging to God and His law, and then God blesses us with that spiritual rest and renewal. The feelings don’t come first; obedience comes first. Just because we’ve learned and experienced the spiritual truths found in Isaiah 15:13-14 doesn’t mean we won’t have to relearn it in a new season—and that’s not a bad thing! Each new season and challenge can be an opportunity to deepen our appreciation for and understanding of the Sabbath.

By continuing to obey and worship God by preparing for the Sabbath (even though it takes more work and preparation these days), attending His holy convocation (even though it takes a more effort and is more stressful to do so right now), and teaching our children about this special day (which also means more time and effort on our part), we can be confident that we are honoring the Sabbath command, even when it doesn’t feel restful. In so doing, we will gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Sabbath day as well as for the true spiritual rest it pictures—and I believe God will bless us with that true rest in response.

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