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The Scripture That Helped President Nelson Keep the Sabbath Day Holy as a Surgeon

The dilemma of keeping the Sabbath day holy was a complicated issue for the young surgeon. How does a busy doctor handle the Sabbath? “This was not a theoretical question for a doctor,” Dr. Nelson explained. “We were dedicated to healing and saving lives, and I wrestled to know how to handle this.”

Russell wanted to be in church with his family. After an intense week of performing operation after operation and scrubbing his hands with soap, water, and a bristle brush so many times that the skin was raw, he needed the personal, physical, and spiritual healing the Sabbath allows as well as a breather from the relentless, life-and-death pressure of his profession.

And yet, there were always operations to be performed, and sometimes there were lives at stake. During at least one season of his career, he dealt with a hospital administrator who wanted to keep the operating suites busy on weekends and who applied pressure for the surgeons to operate on Sundays. The issue was complex and confusing. During his formative years as a surgeon, Dr. Nelson even studied lists compiled by others who suggested dos and don’ts for the Sabbath day. But he found them all wanting.

Then one day Dr. Nelson came across a passage in Exodus that triggered new spiritual understanding: “Verily my Sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you” (Exodus 31:13).

When he realized what he did on Sunday was a sign to the Lord about how he felt about Him, his dilemma was resolved. He said, “I no longer needed lists of dos and don’ts. When I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, ‘What sign do I want to give to God?’ That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear” (Nelson, “Sabbath Is a Delight”).

He determined he would not operate on anyone on Sunday unless he knew the person would not live until Monday. If a patient came in with a bleeding aorta or a crushed chest, yes, he would operate on Sunday. Every cardiac surgeon operated on Sundays to save lives that wouldn’t last another day. Sometimes the bleeding had to be stopped immediately. But if the patient could wait until Monday, Dr. Nelson waited.

“Once I had the Sabbath day concept figured out,” he explained, “and understood that what I did on Sunday was a sign of my love for God, I realized that just as it wouldn’t show my love for Him by operating on Sunday when it could wait until Monday, it also wouldn’t show love for God if I let someone die on Sunday who could have been saved. For a cardiovascular surgeon, that scripture was lifesaving for my conscience and for my heart.”

All images from Insights from a Prophet's Life: Russell M. Nelson.

Get more fascinating glimpses into President Nelson's life with Insights from a Prophet's Life.

Insights from a Prophet's Life offers a candid view of President Russell M. Nelson, the seventeenth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from childhood to the current day. More than a biography, this landmark volume invites readers to experience President Nelson's life through dozens of brief vignettes and hundreds of photographs. Each episode highlights an important lesson; taken together, they weave a captivating story of a man prepared in a unique way to lead the Church in our day.

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