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Give it a Rest

Stressed? Maybe you need a bit of leisure. Not sure what that looks like? Read on ...  

“You know,” my wife said over coffee as she watched vacation photos on the electronic picture frame, “I love the pictures of you in Maine. You look so completely relaxed and happy — more relaxed and happy than at any other time.”

Most summers we vacation on a small island off the coast. We load luggage, food and friends into a rowboat, out-oars across the harbor, and live for a week sans electricity, running water and indoor plumbing in the farmhouse my wife’s ancestors built when they homesteaded the island in the 1820s.

Lest this seem primitive, we row back every couple of days to go to the grocery store so there is no shortage of gourmet provisions including, of course, plenty of local blueberries, lobsters, musselsand clams. Amazing food punctuates days of walking, reading, writing, drawing, beachcombing, conversations, cribbage, croquet and — best of all — sitting on the rocks for hours watching the tide come in.

As G.K. Chesterton commented, “I know it takes all sorts to make a world; but I cannot repress a shudder when I see them throwing away their hard-won holidays by doing something. For my part, I never can get enough Nothing to do.”

I do not look good in Maine because I look good. In fact, by the second or third day I need of a shampoo, shower and shave. I look good because it is the place where I achieve that rarest of modern states — leisure.

Leisure is not simply a break from work. If it were, we would never need “a vacation from my vacation.” And, as 20th century philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997) pointed out:

A break, whether for an hour or three weeks, is designed to provide a respite from work in anticipation of more work; it finds its justification in relation to work. Leisure is something entirely different.

In an essay entitled “Leisure and Its Threefold Opposition” Pieper pointed out “the three-faced demon everyone has to deal with when setting out to defend leisure.” The demon is our overvaluation of work; its three faces are:

  • overvaluation of activity for its own sake
  • overvaluation of exertion and drudgery, and
  • overvaluation of the social function of work

By “the overvaluation of activity for its own sake” Pieper meant, “the inability to let something simply happen; the inability to accept a kindness graciously, to be on the receiving end in general.” Leisure “is essentially a ‘non-activity’; it is a form of silence.”

With all our choices of activities and events, we rarely opt for “none of the above.” Or if we do, we feel guilty since there is so much to do. And silence? We live in a noisy, image- and word-filled world. During our free time we often plunge into the torrent of sensory data by watching TV or movies, playing video games, surfing the Internet. These work against true leisure which is an inner quiet that receives and reverences the good of Creation, of others and of God without expending needless mental, physical and emotional energy.

Pieper’s assertion that we over valuate “exertion and drudgery” may, at first glance, seem ridiculous to people who happily spend money for all manner of services and gadgets that minimize the dull and mundane tasks of life.

Yet, while it may just be my upbringing or my generation, I always feel I have to eat all my vegetables before I get dessert. In fact, I not only feel I must work for what I get, I really want to work for what I get. My pride values what I earn above what I receive.

As Pieper pointed out, this is the opposite of leisure, something that comes with celebration. He wrote:

Leisure means an attitude of celebration. And celebration is the opposite of exertion. Those who are basically suspicious of achievement without effort are by the same token as unable to enjoy leisure as they are unable to celebrate a feast.

“Gift,” “without effort,” “celebration,” “feast” — these words are basic to the Christian Gospel. All four describe aspects of grace and as Frederick Buechner so wonderfully put it:

A critical eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

And if there is nothing you have to do, the result will be leisure, a part of God’s gift of grace.

In all this, rather than over valuating the social usefulness of work, leisure celebrates the fact of our humanness as God’s creatures. Pieper wrote:

The essence of leisure is not to assure that we may function smoothly but rather to assure that we, embedded in our social function, are enabled to remain fully human.

If the enemies of leisure are overvaluation of activity for its own sake, overvaluation of exertion and drudgery, and overvaluation of the social function of work, it follows, Pieper went on, that leisure is, “first, nonactivity and repose; second, ease and absence of exertion; third, leave from the everyday functions and work.”

That makes logical sense, but we will never get there without the precondition for leisure: “that we find the world and our own selves agreeable.”

Speaking at pastors’ retreat, Old Testament scholar Mark Futato noted that when we think about our humanity we typically begin with Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

While this verse expresses a critical truth about who we are, it is not, he emphasized, the proper starting place for a biblical understanding of what it means to be human. We need to begin by looking at creation and hearing God declare that everything he made is “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Sin distorts and damages creation, including human nature, but does not void that original goodness. There is today much that is agreeable in the world and in our own selves. And this is amplified by the promise of Christ’s return to make all things new. Human dignity always precedes human depravity and remains central to our identity.

This explains of why I look good on the island in Maine. It is a place where, for me, all things are agreeable and where I enjoy non-activity and repose, ease and absence of exertion, and leave from the everyday functions and work. I have nothing to do, and there’s plenty of time in which to do it. Leisure is the inevitable result, a foretaste of the final Sabbath that will arrive when Christ returns.

It would be a mistake to conclude that either I need to return to Maine or Jesus needs to return in glory before I can enjoy leisure. Leisure enables us “to remain fully human” and so is God’s gift wherever we are.

Finding “the world and our own selves agreeable” means, for most of us, a change of heart based on a theological truth: God created the world and us and pronounced it all, “Good.” This is not to minimize the troubles and pains of life. Instead it places them in context against the background of God’s goodness.

Leisure is a spiritual discipline and like all disciplines, it can be learned and will improve with practice. May I suggest a renewed interest in taking a Sabbath every Sunday as biblical place to start?

And the mention of Sunday brings me to Pieper’s final point: Worship is the epitome of leisure. Pieper writes:

[L]eisure depends on the pre-condition that we find the world and our own selves agreeable. And here follows the offensive but inevitable consequence: the highest conceivable form of approving of the world as such is found in the worship of God, in the praise of the Creator, in the liturgy. With this we have finally identified the deepest root of leisure.

In worship we affirm the goodness of God’s creation and our place in it. We hear the written Word that points us to the Living Word whom we will one day see face-to-face. We feast on bread and wine, a foretaste of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9) that will begin the great Sabbath rest when, as Julian of Norwich said, “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

As we learn the leisure of worship, we will learn bit by bit how to give it a rest day by day.

Copyright 2009 James Tonkowich. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

James Tonkowich

Jim Tonkowich is a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, D.C. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Jim is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He and his wife attend McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va.


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