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Leisure as a Christian Calling

Leland Ryken

The past two decades have seen a resurgence of interest in the subjects of vocation and work. In fact, these topics are nothing less than a growth industry in Christian circles, as seen in the appearance of books, conferences, and even permanent institutes. I am happy for the ferment.

The problem is that leisure remains what it has always been—a subject of neglect in the church and among Christians. This neglect can be traced all the way back to the people who thought and wrote most helpfully on the subjects of vocation and work, namely, the Reformers and Puritans. The Protestant tradition has elevated work and undervalued leisure. My heart soars when Luther writes that God put Adam and Eve into the garden to work. And then my heart sinks when Luther adds, “Not for leisure.”[1] Wait a minute, I say to myself. How do we get that from Genesis 2? Why can’t we elevate work without demoting leisure?

I speak of a great mystery, but surely an evangelical author hit the nail on the head when he titled his book When I Relax I Feel Guilty.[2] Why do we feel guilty when we relax? Partly because we have not studied the Bible to see what it says about rest and leisure. I believe we should dignify the concept of leisure, construct a Christian defense of it, and proceed to practice it guilt free.

What Is a Calling?

The Protestant tradition has been so accustomed to linking the concepts of vocation and work that when the subject of vocation is mentioned, we almost automatically assume that the discussion will focus on work. I can therefore imagine a touch of initial resistance to my claim that leisure is a calling. I do not want to soften my claim, however, so I will proceed to define what I mean by a calling.

A calling is anything that God commands us to do. When the Bible speaks of a calling, the primary frame of reference is neither work nor leisure but the call to follow and obey God. That is what the Puritans called the general calling, which comes in the same form to all Christians. One’s particular calling is any specific task or duty that God places before us.

When I speak of leisure as a calling, I do not abandon the definition that I use when speaking of work as a calling.

It is only the application to leisure rather than work that changes.

What Is Leisure?

Before I turn to the biblical data on leisure, I want to summarize what we can learn from the secular sources. What we primarily learn is information about the nature of leisure, starting with the etymology of the word leisure. The word can be traced back to two roots, both conveying the idea that leisure is free time. One root word is the Old French word leisir, from the Latin licere, meaning “to be allowed or to be lawful.” Our word license comes from the same root word.

In our leisure time we have license and permission to do as we please (within moral and spiritual constraints, of course). G. K. Chesterton famously said that the concept of leisure “has come to cover three totally different things. The first is being allowed to do something. The second is being allowed to do anything. And the third . . . is being allowed to do nothing.”[3]

The other derivation of the word leisure is the Greek word skolé or the Latin schola, from which we get the English word school. This root word carried the connotation “to halt or cease,” meaning that in leisure we call a halt to our work and develop ourselves the way we do in our education.  

Based on this etymology, experts on leisure offer the following as the defining traits of leisure. First, leisure is free time or nonwork. Work belongs to the category of obligation, and leisure by contrast is free from obligation. This is important: leisure needs to feel like leisure to count as leisure. If we pursue a leisure activity as an obligation, we have missed an essential aspect of leisure.

Secondly, leisure is defined in terms of certain activities that we normally think of as falling into the category of leisure. Examples are cultural pursuits, recreation, entertainment, hobbies, and social activities. Thirdly, leisure is a quality of life. An expert on leisure has written that “anybody can have free time. Not everybody can have leisure. . . . Leisure refers to a state of being, a condition. . . , which few desire and fewer achieve.”[4]

I will allow a Christian leisure theorist to provide a good summary of what leisure is in its highest reaches: “Leisure is the growing time for the human spirit. Leisure provides the occasion for learning and freedom, for growth and expression, for rest and restoration, for rediscovering life in its entirety.”[5] That raises the bar high, and I think we resonate with that.

My thesis for the rest of this article is that leisure is as much a Christian calling as work is. I have found as much biblical data on leisure as on work. The data is more indirect and inferential than the data on work, but it is present. I will offer six strands of biblical data to defend my claim that leisure is a Christian calling.

God at Rest

Just as a Christian view of work begins with God’s act of creation, so does a Christian defense of leisure. The foundational but not final ingredient of leisure is that it is cessation from work. The great original model for this is God’s rest during the week of creation.

There is an element of mystery in God’s rest, but one of its great uses to us is that it provides an unmistakable model and warrant for human rest. The key text is Genesis 2:2–3, which states, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” Exodus 31:17 adds to the mystery of divine rest by ascribing refreshment to God’s resting on the seventh day: “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”

It would appear that God’s Sabbath rest was a day of creation, not a day off. It was, to be sure, a day off from work, but the implication is that the days of creation form a week, so that God can be said to have created and instituted the seventh day of rest. A Jewish scholar claims that “it took a special act of creation to bring [the Sabbath] into being.”[6]

What are the implications of divine rest for leisure? The first lesson is that we have an obligation to have times when we call a halt to work. If God did it, we need to do it.

Divine rest sets a pattern for drawing a boundary around work and making sure that it is balanced by rest. God’s design for the human race is not non-stop work.

The Sabbath and our leisure modeled on it have the nature of letting go of the utilitarian and acquisitive urges that occupy us in the workaday world of getting and spending. In rest and leisure we celebrate what has already been accomplished and realize that for the moment work is unnecessary and inappropriate. I like Kenneth Woodward’s comment that “the essence of leisure [is] time off for the timeless—for thanking God for what has been freely given.”[7] Also excellent is Leonard Doohan’s claim that “people who refuse to rest on the Sabbath and reject genuine sabbatical living are those who trust in their own strength rather than God’s grace. . . . It is only in the sabbatical pause that we can truly open ourselves to appreciate and acknowledge what God has done.”[8]

Because God established rest as part of creation, it has the force of a creation ordinance, just as work does. Regular cessation from work is a foundational principle that God has built into the fabric of human existence.

The Example and Teaching of Jesus

Divine rest is reinforced by the example and teaching of Jesus as recounted in the gospels. Jesus did not reduce life to endless work and evangelism. He found time to ponder the beauty of the lily and commanded his followers to do the same.

Here is a typical scenario from the life of Jesus: “Immediately [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, . . . while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land” (Mark 6:45–47). In other words, Jesus and his disciples drew a boundary around their work and obligations to others.

Here is another typical passage: “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves” (Mark 6:30–32). If we arrange the public life of Jesus into a series of typical scenes, one of them is Jesus attending what we call a dinner party—a form of leisure. If Jesus himself, who lived and died to be our Savior, found time for leisure, surely we should do the same.

In addition to the example of Jesus’s lifestyle, we have his teaching and in particular his discourse against anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount. I consider this passage—actually a poem—to be a great primary source on leisure. There are two main thrusts to Jesus’s discourse against anxiety in Matthew 6:25–34. One is the command not to be anxious about acquiring things like clothes and food. In commanding us not to be anxious about these material things, Jesus is asserting a prime principle of leisure, namely, the need to set a curb to the acquisitive life. The second thrust of Jesus’s discourse against anxiety is the command to contemplate nature and let it influence how we live. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus says. Contemplating nature and enjoying its beauty is one of the world’s favorite leisure activities. Jesus commands us to do it.

The Fourth Commandment

In addition to the example of God’s cessation from work and Jesus’s inclusion of rest and leisure in his busy life, we have the command to rest in the Decalogue. The fourth commandment states, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Exod. 20:9–10). Although we associate the Sabbath with worship, it is unclear how early the Sabbath entailed worship. The emphasis early in the Old Testament is on the complete prohibition of work. In any case, if God commands rest or leisure in the Fourth Commandment, then it is something that he calls us to do. That is why I do not shrink from labeling leisure a Christian calling.

After the Fall

While my topic of leisure as a calling does not require me to talk about the effect of the Fall on leisure, I am going to do so because it is part of the total picture. The effect of the Fall on leisure warns us against abuses of leisure in our lives. The primary data on the perversion of leisure from its godly intention is simply a look around us, where we find empirical proof that the Fall changed everything in regard to leisure.

But the Bible, too, paints pictures of perverted leisure, showing us that after the Fall leisure has had the potential to degenerate into immoral activities and triviality. The book of Ecclesiastes provides haunting pictures of the emptiness of leisure that the quester experienced when he turned leisure into his central life interest. His futile experiment began with a conscious decision: “I said in my heart, Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself” (2:1, RSV). What followed was a litany of cheap and tawdry leisure pursuits: “I searched . . . how to cheer my body with wine. . . . I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man” (2:3, 8). In that same passage, it is obvious that the wealthy quester went shopping on a grand scale—recreational shopping in a courtly mode. Further, “I kept my heart from no pleasure, . . .  and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). We know that the author is talking about leisure because leisure is a reward for toil—something we enjoy after we have worked to make it possible.

And what was the result of this pursuit of leisure apart from God? Emptiness. We read, “Behold, all was vanity [literally vapor] and a striving after wind” (2:11). There is an important lesson here: despite all my enthusiasm for leisure, it needs to come as a byproduct from something more substantial than leisure itself. Part of the restorative value of leisure is that it offsets the rigors of work. It is like dessert after the main meal. Just as dessert cannot carry an entire meal, leisure cannot give purpose to a whole life.

Old Testament Religious Festivals

Another body of data is the Old Testament prescription of an annual calendar of religious festivals or feasts. Before I unpack the biblical data, let me reply to what is an entirely plausible initial resistance to what I am about to say. Aren’t the Old Testament religious festivals worship experiences like our Sunday morning worship services? My answer is no; they were more like the evangelical institution of a Christian summer camp. Certainly worship was a central part of the annual Old Testament events, but there was a social and celebrative aspect as well. I consider them a form of religious and spiritual leisure.

What does the Old Testament say about these events? First, there were six annual required festivals. They went by such names as “holy convocations” and “appointed feasts.” They were accompanied by strict prohibition of work. I think they resembled our Thanksgiving Day celebrations when observed as a day of thanks to God with a church service as part of the mix.

When Moses recapitulated the rules of religious festivals originally recorded in Leviticus 23, three of them were expanded to include annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. These were group events that included camping out.

They were so communal that Jesus’s parents left Jesus behind in Jerusalem by mistake, just assuming that he was part of some other family’s entourage.

In Nehemiah 8 we catch a glimpse of what the feast of booths was like. The people went out from the city to the hills, where they built makeshift booths from tree branches. On the occasion of the rediscovery of the law recorded in Nehemiah 8, the camping trip lasted seven days.

One reason I put the Old Testament religious festivals into the category of leisure is that they put a halt to work, and this is an essential feature of leisure. A second reason is that they had some of the physical and social properties of leisure. I would call these festivals and feasts sanctified leisure.

Respecting Our Creaturely Selves

I will make one more argument for the necessity of leisure, this one based on inferences about the kind of people God created us to be. I would call this a Christian principle but perhaps not an explicit biblical teaching.

An evangelical author titled one of his books Your Right to Rest.[9] If we look at what people are like, it appears that the book title understates the case. We do not simply have a right to rest; we have a need for it. Living responsibly includes living in accordance with the kind of creatures God made us. Our mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing require that we rest and refresh ourselves and take breaks from work. Burnout is an established phenomenon in our culture. The chief cause is excessive work and insufficient leisure. Burnout is not God’s goal for people.

The person who coined the word workaholic speaks of the self-deception of trying to live as if we do not have a body subject to certain limitations.[10] One of the limitations of the human body is that it cannot work nonstop. It needs rest and leisure. So do our minds and emotions. Because we are physical creatures subject to physical and psychological laws, to have regular times of leisure is to live in accord with the Creator’s plan for us. We are also created to seek reward from our work. I have always found evocative the phrase in Ecclesiastes 4:9 about people having “a good reward for their toil.” Leisure is one of the good rewards for our toil.

Applications

I am ready to turn to applications, and these are intended to shift the discussion from why leisure is a calling to thoughts on how leisure can be a Christian calling. The first of four applications that I will make is that we need to take stock of where we personally stand in regard to our leisure lives. That begins by pondering the case that I have made for leisure as a Christian calling. Are we convinced that God wants us to have rest and leisure in our lives? If the answer is yes, we have a mandate to make sure that the quantity of our leisure reaches a certain minimal and respectable level.

Taking stock also requires that we make a realistic assessment of the special problems that leadership and service in the church pose for Christians. I do not have space in this article to survey the leisure problem in our culture at large, so I will just summarize what the data shows, namely, that most people do not find enough time for leisure. I believe that this problem is more severe for many Christians because of their sense of duty and commitment to Christian service. In fact, there seems to be a correspondence between diligence in Christian service and lack of leisure in a person’s life. It is well established that pastors struggle to find time beyond service to people and the church.

There are no easy answers here. Our initial response is that it would be self-defeating to the work of the church to encourage those who are most active to cut back so they can engage in leisure. It may even seem unchristian. But if leisure is a Christian calling, it should not be regarded as optional or unworthy of cultivation and stewardship. On the surface, leisure can seem like self-indulgence, but not to engage in leisure can be a form of shortchanging others, including spouse and family.

For my second application I want to reach into the wisdom of secular sources on leisure theory. Leisure theorists have evolved a paradigm called the time continuum. It consists of the twenty-four hours that make up every day. At one end of the continuum is obligation, consisting of work (all work, not simply our job). On the other end is freedom from obligation, consisting of leisure. We cannot add to one without subtracting from the other, and therein lies our problem.

But leisure theorists have also evolved a category in the middle of the continuum that they call semi-leisure. Activities in this category are a combination of obligation and freedom. The degree to which they are experienced as either drudgery or leisure depends partly on the attitude with which we perform them. My application is that we can make creative use of semi-leisure, importing qualities of leisure into activities that might otherwise add still more work to our lives.

My third application concerns education in leisure. We do in our leisure time what we have learned to do. Learning is simply another name for education, broadly defined. Who is ultimately responsible for seeing that all aspects of the Christian life are being covered in a local church? The minister is—not in the sense that he needs to do all of the educating, but in the sense of ensuring that the issues are being addressed somewhere (in sermons, Sunday school classes, small groups, etc.).

It seems likely that the topics of work and vocation are adequately taught in Reformed churches. It is less clear that leisure is receiving its due. I was exhilarated to learn that New England Puritan Cotton Mather preached a sermon on “how to employ the leisure of the winter for the glory of God.” I will add that education in leisure is a parental responsibility and that someone needs to be prompting Christian parents to exercise that responsibility. In our culture at large, children and young people are mainly left to themselves to forge standards and practices in their leisure lives. The standards and practices of many Christian young people are barely distinguishable from those in the youth culture at large.

My final application is that the usual standards of stewardship apply to our leisure as well as our work. Perhaps because my vocation is that of a literature teacher, when I assimilate Jesus’s parable of the talents, I am thinking as much about stewardship of leisure as of work. Leisure is an opportunity that God has entrusted to us. According to Jesus’s parable, God expects a return on what he has entrusted. Applied to leisure, this extends to both the quantity and quality of our leisure activities. In Jesus’s parable, not cultivating an opportunity is pictured as burying the master’s money in the ground.

The take-away value of what I have said in this article might be to ponder what burying a talent looks like in our leisure lives, and then to resolve to be like the faithful stewards of Jesus’s parable rather than the wicked and slothful servant who did nothing with the opportunity that had been entrusted to him.

Endnotes

[1] Martin Luther, commentary on Genesis 2:14.

[2] Tim Hansel, When I Relax I Feel Guilty (Elgin: David C. Cook, 1979).

[3] G. K. Chesterton, “On Leisure,” in Generally Speaking (London: Methuen, 1928), 111.

[4] Sebastian de Grazia, Of Time, Work, and Leisure (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1962), 7–8.

[5] Robert Lee, Religion and Leisure in America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1964), 35.

[6] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 23.

[7] Kenneth Woodward, “What Is Leisure Anyhow?” Newsweek, August 26, 1991, 56.

[8] Leonard Doohan, Leisure: A Spiritual Need (Notre Dame: Ave Maria, 1990), 46.

[9] Wayne Oates, Your Right to Rest (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).

[10] Ibid., 25.

Leland Ryken is emeritus professor of English at Wheaton College, where he continues to teach part-time. He has published more than fifty books. Ordained Servant Online, November 2018.

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