Healing Sabbath

Healing Sabbath

by Scott Morris, MD


       (The following is adapted from “Healing Sabbath” by Rev. G. Scott Morris, MD. Found in the Church Health Reader, Fall 2013.)


“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is one of the Ten Commandments. Some are old enough to remember when nothing much happened on Sabbath in observance of this commandment. We did not go shopping or fishing, because even “fun” was off the list.

In those days, the Sabbath may have seemed like a bored-out-of-my-skull idea to young people, but it was culturally prevalent. These days, the thought of not working for an entire day more likely strikes fear in people’s hearts. “Waste” a whole day doing nothing? Shut off all my electronic devices? It’s just not realistic for this day and age. Or so we think.

Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 tell us that the promise of rest embedded in the Commandment extends to all people, and their livestock! We need the opportunity to withdraw from work and rest. Exodus also makes the point that God blessed the Sabbath and consecrated it. If God sanctified the day by participating in the first-ever Sabbath, who are we to decide that we do not require this profound manner of rest?

Deuteronomy adds another fascinating perspective. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out from there; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” We might not have been slaves in Egypt, but how easily we become slaves to technology, busyness and to-do lists. Can we hear in these words the truth that just as God delivered the Israelites from slavery, God wants to deliver us from the form of slavery we embrace? Sabbath is the method God chooses.

By the time of Jesus, rather than being a gift from God, the Sabbath was a set of rules. Jesus challenged this thinking by healing on the Sabbath, saying, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”

As a physician, I am particularly interested in the link Jesus makes between the Sabbath and healing. The concept of setting aside significant chunks of time for no other purpose than rest of body and spirit produces benefits that medical science can track. Sufficient quantity and quality of rest pays benefits in better memory, healthier immune function, relief for depression and stress, improved energy and decreased inflammation. Getting enough sleep matters. Having down time matters.

Beyond these benefits, let me suggest four ways that practicing the Sabbath brings medical benefits. First, physiological benefits of rest are not limited to the period of time we are resting. Something happens in the body and spirit that carries forward. We do not start the next week tired, disconnected and compounding last week’s demands on our bodies. Sabbath changes our preparedness for the next phase of our work and living, and that supports our overall well-being.

Second, we would see fewer visits to the doctor expecting technology to fix what embracing Sabbath could help prevent. Patients would save time, trouble and money. The health care system would be less strained. In the end, we could save money by working less.

Third, mental and relational health would improve. I am not talking about clinical mental health situations that should be medically treated, but the run-of-the-mill kind of stress that manifests itself bodily in too many ways to list here. Sabbath—unplugging from everything that crowds our days from dawn to midnight—reveals fresh perspectives. If we can just tough it out through the withdrawal period, we’ll discover that we have time to think, to create, to listen, to uncover solutions that were there all along.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, widespread practice of Sabbath has the potential to connect whole communities in healthy ways, thereby multiplying these medical benefits. Think what could happen if an entire congregation committed to a Sabbath experiment, reflected on the impact on health of the people who are part of that church, and then took those benefits into the community they serve.

I am fond of saying that the church is a potential powerhouse of life-giving community. Embracing the benefits of Sabbath for our experience of health and medicine is one more way the church can lead the way.

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