Work and leisure
How do we strike a right balance between work and leisure? Both are God’s gifts to us, but our attitudes to them are too often dominated by society’s secular and pragmatic outlook.
The gradual decline of moral and spiritual values in our culture is particularly reflected in how people spend their leisure time. Today’s confusion between work and play is well summed up by the aphorism ‘we worship our work, work at our play, and play during worship’. Christians need to rediscover God’s blueprint for both these vital aspects of life.
Work can be defined as ‘the meaningful employment of our time resulting in productivity and fruit for our labour’.
The Bible asserts the true value of industrious work. Solomon said, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest’ (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The Protestant tradition made much of work as being a creation ordinance. This approach later became known as the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The Reformers extolled diligence as a primary virtue in the Christian life, and the Puritans emphasised it too. William Perkins said, ‘Man must live by the labour of his own hands and feed upon his own bread’; Richard Bernard said, ‘Idleness is a great sin, the nurse of all vice’.
Work should be viewed as a calling in which the worker is a steward, accountable to God (cf. Ephesians 4:1). Its goals are firstly spiritual, to glorify God, and secondly humanitarian, to serve men and society.
But today, in a meritocratic and elitist society like Singapore, the consumer ethic is coupled with the success ethic to determine the career ethic. People value work simply as a means of attaining success, with success measured in terms of a prestigious career with many promotions up the career ladder.
The Singaporean dream today consists of the five Cs: ‘Condo’ (prices of these are at an all-time high), Car, Club, Card and Corporate success. But more important to Christians should be the 3 Cs: our Creator, Consecration to Christ and Contempt for this world’s values.
To achieve success, workers sometimes deny themselves leisure, family and friends. They have an intensely competitive spirit, ready to trample on any other people they view as obstructing their way to economic success. But Christians must not be like that. We have far higher goals in life than material gain and earthly power.
The concept of leisure is more elusive, and difficult to define. Some have described it as the antithesis of work, calling it ‘non-working time’. While this is true in some ways, I find such a definition insufficient and misleading.
I believe leisure is discretionary time — time used fruitfully to the glory of God apart from the obligations of work, family and society.
It is activity positively chosen for personal enrichment. It can be used for physical, spiritual, intellectual or social refreshment. It can mean reading a book, going for a walk or interacting with someone in conversation. It is as much a matter of mental and spiritual attitude as external constraint. A person on leave from work may not, in fact, be enjoying ‘leisure’!
Leisure provides occasions for learning and growth, for rest and freedom, for rediscovering life in its entirety. It is a search for repose, creativity and freedom. And it serves many useful functions.
Jesus had occasions when he enjoyed leisure with his disciples, as in Mark 6:31-32 where we read: ‘And he said unto them, come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. And they departed into a desert place by ship privately’.
But there are some things Christians may not do in leisure or relaxation. Examples include night club dancing, getting drunk with alcohol, or practising yoga (with its religious connotations). Paul said, ‘All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any’ (1 Corinthians 6:12).
I treasure reading good Christian books, taking long walks with my wife, swimming, cycling, listening to Christian music or messages, playing the guitar, fellowshipping with others, or just resting.
Leisure is more than non-work and is positively beneficial for body and soul. I believe it to be essential for a healthy ministry, and a healthy mind and body as well. If you do not sometimes come apart and rest awhile, you may just plain ‘come apart’! Solomon advised that ‘every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God’ (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
In the Gospels, Jesus took time off from his busy schedule of healing people, casting out demons and preaching; he spent much time with his disciples privately (Mark 6:31-32; John 10:40).
You can be reading a Christian book or resting on the beach or listening to good edifying music or engaging in light exercise. I like to read a book during my free time and to just rest on a Sunday afternoon.
There is a time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2). God has made us so that we do not work continuously to our physical detriment, but has given us one day of rest each week to recuperate, refresh and reinvigorate ourselves in the Lord.
In some companies, it is quite common for some employees to sell their annual leave to make more money, and to work on Sundays for overtime pay. These are not wise things to do. But we should also avoid the idolatry of leisure.
The pursuit of leisure is capable of turning into a religion, with people putting such interests at the centre of their lives instead of God. Indeed, if every day is play, then play will one day become very tedious work.
Even a legitimate leisure pursuit can turn into an inordinate affection. Such does not augur well for a person’s spiritual health and vitality. There are some who are enthralled by and addicted to computer games, TV, listening to worldly music on the iPod, or watching violent and occultic movies.
Children can be excessively playing Playstation or Transformers, or have other little obsessions. Others are enamoured with Youtube, sport, rock music and worldly entertainment. Many neglect family, prayer, work and Sabbath worship because of leisure. Be careful that even good and legitimate things are not carried to an extreme.
The Puritans gave us a general perspective on what are unacceptable as leisure pursuits for Christians. They rejected gambling, bear baiting (cruelty to animals), horse racing and carousing in and out of taverns.
They were wary of idleness, loafing and aimless inactivity. They honoured the Lord on the Sabbath in worship and rest and communion with the Lord and his people. On that day they spent more time with their family and spiritual brethren in consecration, exhortation and reading sound Christian literature.
(For deeper consideration of this subject, the author commends Ryken Leland’s Redeeming the time — A Christian perspective of work and leisure, 1995).
The author is a Bible Presbyterian pastor in Singapore