Parental Responsibilities and the Sabbath

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Minority Thinker asks, "How Can Parents of Young Children Observe a Day of Rest?" If sabbatarian principles mean we have a moral responsibility to take a day of rest, then what does that mean for a full-time parent whose work is to care for a family? For that matter, what about someone who has a full-time job who then comes home and has a family also to care for? Is it rest from one's job if that rest time is spent doing household tasks and doing a different sort of work? This post is adapted from a comment I left on that post.

I've spent some time reflecting on how Christians should see the Sabbath (and see also this followup). I'm assuming that background here, although some of this might reflect small developments in how I've thought about this since then.

A close look at the biblical passages on the Sabbath reveals that there are certain aspects of farming that they did do and others that they didn't. They wouldn't do any planting or harvesting on the Sabbath, but they would feed their animals, and they would rescue animals if they fell in a ditch. Similarly, for household living they wouldn't gather food on the Sabbath, and they wouldn't do something to bring in income to provide for food if it wasn't something that had to be done every day, but in the ancient world they couldn't prepare a meal and then put it in the fridge to be microwaved the next day, so they prepared food on the Sabbath.

The theological principle behind the Sabbath is less rest and more completion and wholeness or peace with God. God created, and then God allowed his creation to stand. It was complete. His work was done. Of course, it wasn't really done. God still maintains his creation and providentially orders it. But there's a sense in which its completion is celebrated in the seventh-day principle. In Christ we enter God's rest, meaning we are complete and not in need of further work to be in God's family. Christ's work is done at the cross. It doesn't mean we're perfected yet, but of course we're not ever done yet experientially in this life. The Sabbath principle is to recognize what is complete in Christ and to rest in that. In this sense all time since Christ is Sabbath time. It's not that the work week has expanded to include the seventh day. It's that the Sabbath has expanded to include the rest of the week, the same way the holiness of the temple has expanded to include all believers as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

Now there is a secondary principle of observing regular rest as a simple wisdom teaching in the sense of the wisdom of Proverbs, but do we have to do that in the 6-on 1-off pattern of the Sabbath ritual in the Mosaic covenant? I'm not sure why we would. The opponents Paul is dealing with in both Galatians and Colossians are too tied up with observing special days and seeing them as special, and Romans 14 and Philippians 3 allow for the weaker Christians to maintain such customs if they can't bring themselves to be mature enough to recognize the principles in other ways, but Paul's preference is for them to mature and apply the principles in other ways when circumstances warrant it.

I think it's important to notice that different percentages are given for different things in the old covenant, with one-seventh for rest and completion on a weekly basis, one-seventh for resting the land over seven years, one-tenth for tithes of produce, or the firstborn (whose percentage may be as much as 100% or may be much less) for animals and children. I think that signals that the percentage of time isn't really the issue. It all belongs to God, and we symbolize that by giving him the best and by recognizing that it's not from us but a gift from God. This is true with our work in any sense of the term, including parental responsibilities. Finding ways to take breaks, especially when others are willing to handle those ongoing responsibilities for short times, is indeed an application of this general principle. It's a recognition that it's God who enables, and we're stewards of our children just as much as we're stewards of our possessions. With high-needs kids who need close attention, it's impossible to get a lot of time away from them, so it's important to try to find those opportunities, not just for rest but to demonstrate our recognition that we're only doing a task God has given us. Some people don't want to relinquish control, and being extremely possessive of your kids, including caring for their basic needs (and I would say this includes how they're educated) may show a sign that the principle of stewardship isn't full operative.

I'd be inclined to say that finding time to rest from certain daily responsibilities is indeed an application of the secondary Sabbath principle of rest. But it doesn't have to be a straight 24-hour period. In our family, we've probably got a good deal more need for rest than most, since two of our four children are autistic, one who needs absolutely constant supervision for safety, and one is a baby who also needs pretty careful attention. But we also have more flexibility to allow for me to take on some childcare tasks during the normal workday, since I teach at a college schedule, with the possibility for large gaps during the day when I'm not on campus. It means I get less work done, since I can't get any done when the boys are home, but it gives her a little break. Most families don't have that, but it allows me to watch the girls while Sam goes out during the day sometimes when the boys are at school. She attends a Bible study the women in our congregation have that provides childcare, and she attends a group at another local church for parents of special-needs kids, and they also provide childcare.

One reason the boys go to an after-school program designed for respite for parents of special-needs kids is because most parents can get a break from constant parenting once their kids are old enough to do a relatively self-directed activity. They can set up their kids to do their homework or to do a craft, or they can let them play or watch TV for a little bit without having their eye on them the whole time. We can't do that. If we take our eyes off Isaiah, he might be trying to dump the entire container of fish food in the tank or trying to take the fish out with the net. He might be in the kitchen climbing up on the counter to get food out of the cabinets, usually candy or something he doesn't get ordinarily. He might step outside to go down the road to play on a porch swing 15 houses down. A couple years ago his major goal when going outside was so he could lie down in the middle of the road. If he gets scissors, he'll cut off his locator bracelet and then proceed to cut up any photos he can find. If he comes home at 3:15 and doesn't go to bed until 7:30, we have to be watching him non-stop that entire time. We have to do it all day on the weekends, but it's nice to get a couple hours extra on school days to do grading, cleaning, cooking, or shopping without having to deal with all the extra things that arise with all the kids present. That's actually a kind of rest, even if we're using it to do work of a different sort. It also allows for completion of tasks in a more timely manner, and completing tasks and resting in their being done is an important application of the sabbath principle.

One thing I make an effort to do is to take time to do enjoyable things. If I have a long period when I'll be using as much of my waking time to do grading or something of that nature, I'll make sure I have breaks. I might take a break every two hours, or I might have a window open on my computer where I can switch to do something short in between grading questions to break up the monotony, maybe a computer game or maybe to read a short blog post on a blog I've gotten behind on, reading the next post at my next question break. I might take an hour to watch an episode of a TV show I've recorded during my lunch if the TV is available, or I might use my lunch to write a blog post or catch up on some blogs I read. Reading is relaxing for me, sometimes even if I'm reading something related to my studies or teaching, and I relax by reading when I do other things. If I have to walk to campus, that's 20 minutes each direction when I can bring a book with me, and it makes the walk more enjoyable for me. I'll pull a book out when waiting in line at the checkout counter. We listen to books on tape in the car. Finding ways to make something you already do more relaxing is a way to apply the sabbath principle.

One argument for home-schooling is so you can more easily ensure that you're fulfilling your parental stewardship responsibilities by making sure you control the content your kids are taught, but stewardship principles can just as easily be applied in the other direction. If my wife and I are not as competent as a speech pathologist at meeting Ethan and Isaiah's needs for promoting their communication skills, then we are failing at our stewardship responsibilities if we home-school them and do a poorer job than a specialist can do. The same goes more generally for parents who can't do as good a job at specialized subjects. There are ways to compensate for this. Most home-schooled kids I know end up taking community college classes by the time they reach high school or at least pool together with other kids to have someone more qualified teach the more specialized subjects. This isn't an argument for or against home-schooling in principle. It's a consideration to keep in mind, and all I'm saying here is that some motivations for home-schooling go too far if they prevent you from relinquishing enough control over your kids' education that you can't ever rest from it and allow others to contribute to that education. It would be like insisting that every penny of your money be spent directly by you on the needs you choose it to help rather than giving to a wisely-stewarding charity who will spend that money more effectively than you would to meet the needs it meets. In both cases, parenting and giving, there's a sabbath issue at stake. Part of resting in the completion of one's tasks is being able to relinquish control for a time and in certain spheres and trust God that others can handle things.

As with many issues, there are often competing concerns, principles that are sometimes going to pull you in different directions if you only think about them in isolation from each other. Careful, thoughtful living is never easy. When it involves responsibilities for other people, those complexities get amplified. These principles are given to us to be a help. I found it worthwhile to think through them and reflect on my own application of them.


Thanks for the link and comments! What you say makes sense, and your ideas are far more practical than most I have heard on the topic. I never really thought of the connection between rest and a sense of completion, but that principle really resonates with me.

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