The Puritans are often labeled as killjoy because of their view and practice of the Sabbath. Considering that there are various recreations for us that can be enjoyed even for the glory of God, we wonder why anyone would even forbid them in general on any day. The sight of these men in history arguing over whether hobbies are ‘okay’ during the Lord’s Day, for us in a secularized twenty-first century, is like watching cavemen clubbing each other’s head while talking gibberish. Even for evangelical Christians, this seems too primitive and worse, legalistic and pharisaical.
“This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” (WCF 21.8)
Very few would dispute the prohibition in Scripture regarding our earthly vocation during the Lord’s Day. But question marks pop everywhere when the Confession, in its expression of what the Scripture says, also impinges on our hobbies and recreations. If it’s a day of rest, why can’t we have a little fun? The usual response to this question is to set a codified guideline of what is and what is not allowed to do. We’re itching to know the boundaries. Where do we draw the line, so that we would know if we have formally stepped over it? This deserves a fair consideration. Setting up protocols are not bad by default and can even be helpful in many cases if applied correctly. Wanting to get our externals right isn’t wrong per se. Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for cleaning their cup from the outside; He pointed out their irrationality for cleaning the outside of the cup while forgetting to clean it from the inside. As they say, first things first. And concerning our observance of the Lord’s Day and its prohibition on our worldly recreations, the same principle must be considered. We must first deal with the ‘why’ before proceeding to the ‘how.’
Arguably, the clearest text regarding the subject would be Isaiah 58:13 that says “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly…”
It wouldn’t take long to notice that this verse seemingly contrasts two synonymous words: ‘delight’ (of the Sabbath) and ‘pleasure’ (of your own). “If worldly recreations, as you have mentioned, are not sinful in and of themselves, then why is this so?” What we must understand is that, though the passage appears to put them in a contrasting manner, it is not pitting these two over against each other. God is not killjoy. In fact, He intends to give the height of our happiness in Him. We are called to turn away from our own pleasure and call the Sabbath a delight, not because the former is evil, but because the presence of the latter deems it unnecessary. The prohibition that have been set before us, paradoxically, is an invitation to surrender a weaker pleasure to fully enjoy a greater one.
I agree. The Sabbath isn’t heaven yet. But here on earth, it’s the closest we can get to it. A day of congregating with other redeemed sinners, hearing and being nourished with the Word, confessing our infirmities with grace-filled boldness, singing to our Savior; these are the things that make the Lord’s Day a day of rest for the Christian. This is where our perception of the Sabbath matters. If you spend the other six days of the week as though you are a permanent citizen of this world, sucked into its definition of happiness, then the Lord’s Day will be a drudgery for you. You’ll be wearing a mask, fidgeting here and there, wishing for it to be over so you could get back to the real business. But if you know that you are but a sojourner on your way Home, then this will be on the reverse. You will spend your six days looking forward to this day of rest; tending the field and “having fun” while waiting. And when Sabbath comes, you drop these inferior enjoyments down without hesitation because a more tangible realization of the heaven that you long for is now here.