Healing on the Sabbath

The first weekend of July at the beginning of my third year of medical school marked a significant change in my life and in my lifestyle. Sabbath observance is an important part of my faith, and during my education up to that point I had gone out of my way to avoid studying on Sundays even when I had examinations on the following day. But there was no getting out of weekend work once I started my clinical clerkships in the hospital, so with a sigh I agreed to come in on Sundays that month. Later I learned that my fellow student who signed up for Saturdays that month was a Seventh Day Adventist who would rather have worked Sundays. A little assertiveness would have helped us both there, apparently.

In the years that have passed since then I have worked in the hospital on many Sundays, and I can hardly remember what it was like to have every Sunday free. This has been a topic of soul-searching and pondering for me, and I have discussed it with many of my colleagues and friends. I hope to share a few thoughts here that might be helpful to my fellow people of faith who are health care workers.

This article might have been titled, “How I Rationalize Working on the Sabbath,” but hopefully I can offer you something of more substance than just that.

First of all, we need to understand the purposes and blessings of the law of the Sabbath. God himself gave us the first example of Sabbath observance when he rested at the end of creation (Genesis 2:2-3), and he set aside every seventh day as a time for us to rest from our work and to worship God. The Sabbath is a day to put our own desires and pleasures on hold so that we can give full attention to God, and God’s prophets have promised that those who do this will “delight in the Lord” and qualify for the blessings promised to God’s covenant people (Isaiah 58:13-14). Jesus taught the importance of the Sabbath during his ministry (Matthew 12:8), and he has continued to confirm this through his prophets in modern times (see Doctrine and Covenants 59:9-12 and 68:29 for two examples).

However, some jobs are so vital to health and safety that they cannot be neglected for even one day. Many patients in the hospital would simply die if there were no nurses or doctors in the hospital to care for them. Those of us who have jobs like this need to be honest with ourselves and with God about our reasons for working on the Sabbath. Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that the motivations for our actions are every bit as important as the actions themselves (see especially Matthew 56). Jesus did righteous work on the Sabbath, declaring that it is lawful to do good on that day (Luke 6:9). When he was criticized for healing a man on the Sabbath, he answered, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17). So what really motivates us to work on the Sabbath? And is it possible to approach hospital work in a way that is consistent with the spirit of the Sabbath?

I’m not sure that I have really good answers to those questions, so I will leave them as rhetorical for now, but here are a few things which I have found to be helpful:

  1. Spend as little time as possible in the hospital on Sunday. Get in, get the work done, and get out if you can. The longer I linger in the hospital, the less I feel like I’ve had a good Sabbath.
  2. If at all possible, attend a church meeting that day. Nothing makes the day feel more like a Sabbath than attending a worship service. This provides a priceless opportunity to fellowship with other believers and to focus our thoughts on the most important aspects of our faith (see Moroni 6:5-6). If my own congregation’s meetings are over by the time I leave the hospital, I will often join another congregation that meets later in the day. I remember a time during my residency when I had to work for 6 or 7 Sundays in a row and didn’t make it to church on any of them. Like a person chronically sleep-deprived, I was significantly impaired but unaware of my own deficits. It wasn’t until I was able to attend church again that I realized how much I had been missing.
  3. If you are stuck in the hospital, try to have a personal devotional. During my residency I had to take in-house overnight call on many Sundays, and I would always try to spend a few minutes reading scriptures, listening to General Conference talks, or watching the Christmas Devotional. There is no shortage of good things to do during down time on a Sunday call.
  4. Keep the spirit of the Sabbath as much as possible. On Sunday I listen to religious music like this and this instead of my regular playlists. I never study textbooks or journal articles when I am stuck in the hospital on Sunday unless I have a specific patient care question.
  5. Talk with your patients about religion. Many patients are open to discussing their faith, and I have had many inspiring conversations on Sunday morning rounds in the hospital. I will often ask patients if they would normally be in a church meeting somewhere if they weren’t in the hospital, and I offer to get them a copy of the Bible if they want one. Being in the hospital on Sunday is a very different experience for patients than it is for their doctors and nurses. Some patients feel like they are being tried as Job was, and it means a lot to them when you take the time to listen. Religious patients appreciate knowing that their doctor is also a believer, so don’t be afraid to tell them you believe.

Elder Dale G. Renlund, MD, a cardiologist who specialized in heart transplantation who now serves as a general authority in the Church, offered some similar advice in General Conference a few years ago which I found helpful during my residency. By following these suggestions I have had mixed success at getting the spirit of worship in the hospital on Sundays, with the biggest limiting factor being how often my pager goes off.

Above all, remember that the Sabbath is meant to be a blessing, not a burden. Or, as Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)” I love having a day every week to remember the Lord and to give him thanks for all of the blessings in my life.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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