Rethinking Our Relaxing

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Staff writer, desiringGod.org

One of the most original books of 2015 was, for me, on a subject I have never studied with much care or thought: Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives by Paul Heintzman. Paul serves as an associate professor of leisure studies at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Ontario.

Page after page, I was introduced to new categories and old debates on how Christians have handled all the various questions about rest and relaxation over the centuries. Heintzman documents many of the major trends in a fascinating way that really presses home the issues at stake and raises the key exegetical points of contention.

I connected with him to think about (and to rethink) our leisure.

Paul, thank you for your time, and thank you for your book. I’ll start broadly. How important is leisure for the flourishing of the Christian life?

With the exception of some versions of Mark 6:31, which tells us that the disciples “had no leisure even to eat,” the word leisure almost never occurs in the English Bible. However, there are many scriptural themes that inform a Christian practice of leisure, including Sabbath, rest, festivals, feasts, dance, hospitality, and friendship. These themes suggest that how we live our non-work time, the leisure activities we engage in, and a leisure attitude of receptivity, celebration, wonder, and awe are important to the flourishing of Christian life. For example, God rested on the seventh day after six days of creating. Humans were created on the sixth day, and their first full day, before they ever did any work, was a day of rest. From this passage theologians have suggested that rest is integral to the nature of both God and humans.

Rest is very fundamental for us, and yet it seems we have a lot to learn on this subject. In your book you write, “To conceive of leisure as free time is both limiting and confusing” (177). Explain that sentence.

While leisure as free time is beneficial for sociological and political analysis, it is a quantitative understanding that limits leisure to an amount of time without saying much about the quality of that time or how that time is used. The biblical themes mentioned above suggest that leisure is more about the quality of our lives than a quantity of time. This concept is confusing because as Christians all of our lives, and not just our non-work time, are lived in both freedom and responsibility.

So if I read your book rightly, it seems you are saying true Christian leisure is not either defined in terms of inactivity or in terms of productivity. Is that right?

Josef Pieper writes, “Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul.” Leisure may involve inactivity in the sense that we focus on our being and not our doing, or we are at rest, but not inactivity in the sense of restless idleness where one is not at peace with oneself. Furthermore, leisure is not primarily about restoring ourselves to be more productive in our work.

Yes, which is interesting that you point out the first full day of humanity on earth is Sabbath. Fascinating. I want to press in. In your book, you write, “Self-centered pleasure-seeking leads to despair.” Amen. We see this self-centered pleasure-seeking in Scripture in at least two places. First, in the idea that we can amass wealth, and then once we’re wealthy we can hit cruise control and enjoy pleasure for the rest of life (Luke 12:19). Or, second, the nihilistic version: Let’s eat and drink, because death is coming for us anyway (1 Corinthians 15:32). So what are some clear marks of a God-centered and authentic leisure in the life of a Christian?

First, a qualitative dimension to leisure characterized by a spiritual attitude of rest, peace, joy, freedom, and celebration in both God and God’s creation that permeates all of life including work and leisure (recreation) activities. Second, a rhythm to life that includes periods of work and non-work (quantitative leisure). Third, engagement in leisure activities (e.g., festivals, feasts, dance, hospitality, friendships) that allows one to express and strengthen the qualitative dimension of leisure. Fourth, Ecclesiastes teaches us that authentic leisure does not involve work-a-holism (e.g., Ecclesiastes 4:4–12) or hedonism (self-centred pleasure-seeking, Ecclesiastes 2:1–11), but an enjoyment of life in creation, which is a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26; 3:12–13, 22; 5:18–19; 9:7–9; 11:9–12:1).

I think what first struck me about your book was your familiarity with the Puritans. It came unexpectedly, a pleasant surprise to me. What do you think the Puritans got right when it comes to leisure?

Although Puritan leisure practices varied across time and location, in general, as Karl Johnson has documented, the Puritans valued leisure for its own sake as well as for its usefulness for renewal; thought critically about leisure as is evidenced by their opposition to blood sports, which were a form of cruelty to animals; advocated for designated days of recreation; and viewed life as a unified whole under God’s sovereignty.

On the other hand, you say the Reformers introduced some confusion into leisure, by confusing the terms of vocation, work, and job. What do you mean? And what’s the fallout for leisure?

The Reformers’ interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:20 narrowed calling to the work associated with a specific position in society (e.g., a baker), rather than the biblical understanding of work and vocation that involves much more than what one does for pay in one’s job. Over time this led to work becoming defined as time devoted to a job, life was compartmentalized, and a dichotomy between work and leisure was created where more value was placed upon work than leisure.

Interesting. So are you advocating that Christians think of edifying leisure activities as part of our calling? Or what would be the correction?

From a biblical perspective our work involves much more than our paid job as it includes such things as caring for others and caring for creation. Although we can bring an attitude of leisure to all these work activities, when we build non-work time into our schedule we need to remember that we need leisure time away from all these types of work and not just our job, and we also need to be open to leisure moments throughout the day. Furthermore, it is important not to overvalue our job activities, as these other work activities and our leisure activities are also important components of our life as Christians.

Many readers (and myself) are not Sabbatarians, not in the strict sense of the calendar. But you make a good case for why Sabbath principles remain relevant in the New Covenant for non-Sabbatarians. What are major takeaways in principle?

First, the Sabbath suggests a rhythm to life — periods of work and periods of non-work. Repeatedly in the Old Testament instructions are given not to work on the Sabbath. We are to have periods of non-work.

Second, the Exodus version of the Sabbath commandment with its reference back to the creation account suggests that Sabbath and leisure is for experiencing God and the gifts of creation (Exodus 20:8–11). As Christians we are encouraged to enter into God’s Sabbath-rest (Hebrews 4:10) and rest from our work.

Third, the Deuteronomy version of the Sabbath commandment with its reference to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt reminds us that ultimately humans are able to rest because of God’s graciousness to us (Deuteronomy 5:12–15).

Fourth, Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:14 suggest that the Sabbath, and likewise leisure, is for everyone including male and female slaves, foreigners, and animals.

Fifth, the description of the Sabbath as a sign of the Covenant in Exodus 31:16–17 implies that Sabbath, and similarly leisure, reaches its fullest potential when one lives in relationship with God.

Sixth, the prophets condemned those who worked on the Sabbath for their own gain (e.g., Amos 8:5), and suggested that keeping the Sabbath led to delight (Isaiah 58:13–14). Leisure is for enjoyment and not for oppressing others.

Seventh, Jesus’s teaching and practice of the Sabbath suggests that leisure is a time for wholeness and healing.

What would you say to a self-employed Christian who always feels on-call, and struggles to protect leisure time from unbounded work demands from extending into all of life?

The Sabbath suggests that non-work time is even more important in the busiest seasons of one’s work. The phrase in Exodus 34:21, “even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest,” stresses that even at the busiest time of the year in an agricultural society the Sabbath was still to be kept. In Exodus 16 we read that some of the Israelites, despite instructions not to, went out on the seventh day — just like modern people — to gather their manna, but we are told “they found none” (Exodus 16:27). This comment, Wolff wrote, is “an almost humorous criticism of our restless, over-zealousness for work.” Seven days of work is ridiculed as foolish, for its results are nil; it fails to acknowledge that God supplies what is needed. Human life is not dependent on unceasing work but on God’s provision and care.

That is such an important word for many of us Christians to hear, thank you. Many of us live with a smartphone that never stops beeping and buzzing. What cautions or concerns would you have for Christians who are always digitally on-call, and who are always susceptible to the demands of others? Does this concern you?

I do not have a cell or smartphone so I may not be the best person to answer this question. However, I do have a computer and I find that I have to be very careful that responding to e-mails and gathering information on the internet do not eat into time that I need to be devoting to significant relationships with my family, my neighbours, my co-workers, my community, and my church, or time for spiritual practices. Although Jesus did not have the technological devices we have he often withdrew from the crowds for a period of time, just like Christians throughout the ages have gone on retreats. Research studies have shown that being away from one’s everyday tasks and responsibilities, as well as being away from information technology, is beneficial to spiritual well-being.

How does rest and leisure make it possible for us to enjoy God more (directly and indirectly)?

The Septuagint (ancient Greek) version of Psalm 46:10 states, “Have leisure and know that I am God.” The Hebrew word translated “leisure” here means to let go. In the face of natural and political catastrophes recorded in this psalm, the psalmist can be at peace and rest in God. Pieper wrote that “leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.” When we develop this receptive attitude as suggested by Psalm 46:10 we will grow in our knowledge and experience of God. In Hebrew grammar the emphasis is on the second coordinate imperative (“know” rather than “have leisure”). Thus the goal of having leisure is to know God. A leisure attitude as described by Pieper makes it possible to enjoy God more. Indirectly, leisure activities that cultivate this leisure attitude facilitate our enjoyment of God.

What would you say are the most common toxins that pollute Christian leisure today?

  • A strong performance and work orientation that neglects God’s grace.
  • Over-consumption of goods and services that distract us from God and his creation.
  • Busyness in leisure activities that prevents us from developing the qualitative dimension of leisure.
  • An entertainment culture that overstimulates us and diverts us from finding our true refuge in God and his love.
  • An overemphasis upon competitive rather than co-operative activities, organized rather than unstructured play, and spectating rather than participating.

Speaking of these temptations, television is a controversial subject. John Piper has come right out and called TV “the great life-waster” of our generation. It is certainly pervasive, given the average American watches 5 hours of TV every day. There are wholesome uses of TV, but clearly we live in a TV-addicted age and the warning needs to be sounded. Speaking to Christians, what are some signs and symptoms that would indicate that their personal TV habits are failing to generate true leisure?

Is your TV watching: characterized by a restless mindlessness rather than celebration, wonder and awe; preventing you from affiliative leisure where meaningful relationships are developed with other people, including your family; and/or interfering with spiritual practices that facilitate your relationship with God? Research I have conducted has revealed a negative correlation between frequency of TV watching and spiritual well-being, and also that a mass-media leisure style is associated with lower levels of spiritual well-being than a leisure style focused on personal development.

I get the irony in all this, so I must ask it at the end: Can we overthink leisure and kill it by analysis?

I am a leisure studies scholar, so my work involves thinking about and analyzing leisure concepts, behaviors, issues, and trends. I don’t expect other people to analyze these topics to the same extent I do. Nevertheless, Romans 12:2 tells us that we are not be conformed “to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and Ephesians 5:16 instructs us to redeem the time. Christians need to give some thought to their use of non-work time, their engagement in leisure activities, their patterns of consumption, whether their leisure activities negatively impact others, and whether their lives are fragmented or integrated.

Yes, and I am grateful for the way your research has pressed these important questions forward. This has been Paul Heintzman, author of Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives.