Are you recreating, or merely entertaining yourself?
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. – Mark 6:31
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My wife and I recently had one of those free two-week subscriptions to Netflix. They offered to extend it for another two weeks, but we cancelled. The lady on the phone wanted to know why, but our reason wasn't on her list. She asked, "Have you enjoyed it?" We said yes, and thanked her. "Are you finding the movies you want?" Affirmative. "Are you able to find the time to watch the movies?" Again, yes. "So, why are you canceling?" she asked incredulously.
The worldview in our culture is straightforward: you've worked long and hard, sacrificing your preferences to do what others need you to do, and come quitting time, you should reward myself. You've earned it. And when you're sitting by the pool with a diet Coke and a great magazine, you can remember that this is what you were working for. It doesn't get any better than this.
Even when striving for Christian excellence, I often worked for selfish reasons. I did my job well not for God's sake, but for what my boss and others would think. I wanted a better raise, perhaps a promotion, and certainly the proper respect. Like when I was so concerned about passing my oral exam in graduate school that I skipped church two weeks in a row, working 20 days straight. Because my perspective on work terminated on myself — my ambitions, desire for praise, recognition, or prestige — it was only natural that I would also idolize leisure. The weekends were about my time because the weekdays were also.
When my wife worked for the phone company, she would often overhear people talk about how long they had till they could retire. While they might have two years to go and she had just started two years ago, she was horrified at the thought of spending the next 28 years counting them down till she could leave! This convicted her to view both her work and her weekends as borrowed time to be lived fully for God's glory.
Thankfully, God also showed me that work is a gift from Him. God had given me natural abilities and then provided the opportunity to hone them into developed skills. With these skills, He in turn provided a job whereby I could demonstrate a love for Him and my neighbor by helping to develop useful services or products.
In my case, this meant computer chips, and later, research and teaching. For others, it may mean developing a treatment plan for a patient's illness, fixing the transmission on a customer's car, balancing the home budget while nurturing and training small children, or painting a house with care. Through our work we serve others, making products and delivering services which bless them, and for which they pay us, allowing us to pay the bills, provide for our families, support our churches and help those in need.
But I have found that even when I view my work as a faith-filled expression of devotion to Christ, when it comes to the weekend it is easy to revert to a "my time" default. Both when I was single, and for the past three years since I got married, to view leisure as particularly "mine" has always seemed natural. So while cultivating a God-centered perspective on recreation and entertainment takes effort, it is absolutely necessary if my entire life is to have the aroma of the One who taught us to store up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21), that our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3-4), and that it is God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy (I Tim. 6:17). So how can we sanctify our precious little free time?
Some Recreation is Essential
I think we need to start by remembering that some recreation is essential. Working constantly is at best foolish and inefficient, leading to burnout. Never taking time off may also mean we've forgotten that "unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain" (Ps. 127:1). In other words, we don't need to work anxiously, as if everything ultimately hinged upon our efforts. In God's mercy, it does not.
In fact, the quality of our work (not to mention our health) will probably be enhanced if we labor with a restful disposition that recognizes the goodness and sovereignty of God. Our need for refreshment is a reminder that we are finite creatures, and that only God is infinite. With that kind of perspective we're able to take consecrated breaks for soul and body refreshment. Only God never needs to rest or sleep (Ps. 121:4); only God always gets everything done.
Recreation Should Be Intentional
If we've attended productivity seminars, we learned to "begin tasks with the end in mind." With my choleric personality, I love prioritized action item lists at work. But when it comes to leisure time, I am often too tired to think about a strategy, so I just veg. I figure I'll just check a few blogs or scores, and before I know it, I've lost hours of time that I could have spent more fruitfully with my family, or even just working out. And only a small fraction of what I read was informative or edifying. So, with God's help, I'm trying to keep two criteria in mind regarding leisure time:
Recreation vs. entertainment. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines recreation as "refreshment of strength and spirits after work." However, entertainment is defined as "amusement or diversion provided especially by performers." Both are diversionary; they take our minds off of work. But while recreation is the purposeful attempt to restore or refresh creative energy, too much entertainment tends to be mind numbing — failing to rekindle mental energy. In fact, television can actually prevent people from falling asleep, while reading (though it involves mental processing) prepares the body and mind for more restful sleep. I find that what my brain often needs is not the cessation of stimuli, but a different kind (or lower intensity) of mental stimuli. The recreation I find in reading and writing, others might find in home improvement or planning and planting a flowerbed.
Solitary hobbies vs. community-builders. There are advantages to recreating alone. In college, I was a Division III cross-country runner. To this day, I find running to be an excellent opportunity for reflective thought, prayer and planning. But excessive solitary recreation can become an outlet for selfish indulgence and the abdication of responsibilities towards others. Cultivating refreshing pastimes that also allow connecting with others is a useful way to kill two birds with one stone. Going on a walk with a spouse, friend, or child, visiting a museum, or taking in the Christmas lights downtown with my family all yield refreshment while providing uninterrupted time for developing relationships.
Recreation Should Be Limited
In high doses, leisure tends to distort a gift of God into an idol. Our hearts turn inward and we become immune to the needs around us. We end up living for harmless pleasures, sitting on the sidelines while leaving the Kingdom business to others. We miss out on the deepest joys and the most significant friendships (Matt. 19:29).
Remember our two free weeks of Netflix? We cancelled not because we couldn't find the movies we wanted or didn't enjoy them, but because it ate up too much time, and we were being lulled away from responsibilities rather than being refreshed for responsibilities.
Recreation Should Restore, Not Detract
I mentioned that the attitude we bring to recreation should be one of God-dependent, faith-filled thanksgiving — a recognition that unless the Lord builds, we labor in vain (Ps. 127:1). A humble recognition that God made us as finite creatures and that our bodies and minds need refreshment. But just as importantly, the attitude we take from leisure should include thankfulness for the gift of work — in particular for our work, the set of responsibilities that God has given us as a part of our calling as stewards of God's grace (I Peter 4:10). We should feel a sense of rightness that leisure represents temporary refreshment and that labor — paid and unpaid — is a regular part of the Christian life.
So as my wife and I make plans for next weekend, we're now asking whether our leisure time reflects Kingdom priorities. Are we pursuing worldly pleasures that will dull our appetites for God and dampen our Christian witness? Or are we seeking to bless others in the name of Christ, cultivating relationships that mutually edify and point non-Christians to the Savior? Is our leisure refreshing to our bodies, minds and souls, allowing us to return to our work invigorated? Does our recreation draw us towards God and others in purposeful ways, or is it just selfish, wasted time?
We hope and pray that our recreation would be sanctified unto God, just as our work should be, and that the entirety of our lives would be a worshipful expression of trust and delight in the One who saved us.
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Copyright 2008 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.