Christian “Leisure” Ethic
In June 2007 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issued a report describing how Americans spend their time. Approximately 13,000 participants, aged fifteen and older, were questioned about the number of hours devoted to work, the household, child care, and leisure. The results are not that surprising. On an average day, working Americans spend the majority of their time sleeping, working, and enjoying leisure.1 Just what should Christians think about “leisure,” the most flexible category in the list?
First, there really is time for leisure. In fact, according to BLS statistics, Americans devote approximately 35 hours of their week to some type of leisure. Thus, most Christians have no reason to moan, “I never have a moment’s rest!”
Second, leisure time should be enjoyed. This is both God’s model and His command. After He created everything, He stopped, beheld His handiwork, and declared its goodness (Gen. 1:31). Later, He told His people to follow suit and abstain from work on the seventh day (Exod. 20:8-11). The principle is clear: God’s people are to regularly and deliberately put down the hoe, the pen, and the vacuum in order to rest. Indeed, leisure is not work, and Christians are to rejoice in the difference. The author of Ecclesiastes rightly called his readers to the pleasures of life: “Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Eccles. 9:7). The Lord has sanctioned recreation; there is no need to feel guilty for times focused on enjoyment—this is part of God’s plan.
Third, although leisure time should be enjoyed, it should be enjoyed wisely. Balance and diversity is key. The BLS reported that adults between the ages of 25 and 34 spent 2.85 hours each day (approximately half their leisure time) watching television.2 Such massive and passive consumption of entertainment is not healthy. Like a child who gets a stomach ache after devouring too much cotton candy, television junkies complain of apathy, boredom, isolation, and a lack of motivation.3 Leland Ryken was right when he exhorted the Church by writing, “The Christian life calls us to something better than the triviality, mindlessness, and immorality that characterize much of the leisure scene today.”4 There is no sin in enjoying your favorite program, but a rich life of leisure might also include time in a good book, chatting with a close friend, a game of golf at dawn, or a jog through the city. However one spends this time, it is important to remember that, when it comes to leisure, God is not indifferent. C. S. Lewis put it well: “Our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”5
Fourth, leisure should be experienced in the context of work. It was only after God created that He rested; thus, part of leisure is reflecting upon a job well done. In other words, work and leisure are “complementary parts of a divine harmony and God-ordained whole.”6 First comes work, then comes leisure. A common danger is the love and pursuit of one without the other; if one’s time and mind is committed to leisure, it becomes an idol; furthermore, work is idolized when carried out without proper attention paid to rest. The Christian life should enjoy healthy portions of both.
If Neil Postman is right and Americans (including many Christians) are “amusing themselves to death,”7 it is because believers are not thinking carefully enough about leisure. Ryken censured Christian leaders: “We have not been encouraged by pastors and teachers to become self-conscious about our leisure choices. . .”8 There is room in the Church for a Christian work ethic and a Christian leisure ethic; since the Bible speaks to both, each must be taught. After all, the Lord is sovereign over every hour: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
United States Department of Labor, “American Time Use Survey Summary,” U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics Website, June 28, 2007, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm (accessed November 8, 2007).
For adults aged 35 to 44, the TV time “dips” to 2.56 hours per day; in the 45 to 54 age bracket, it jumps to 3.03 hours per day and continues to climb. See United States Department of Labor, “Table 11,” U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics Website, June 28, 2007, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.t11.htm (accessed November 8, 2007).
Michael Argyle, The Social Psychology of Leisure (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 191.
Leland Ryken, Redeeming the Time (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 291.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).