The divine purpose of work and leisure

By Thomas Power

The pandemic has brought forth many questions about how we conduct our lives. We have been forced to re-examine our patterns of living, attitudes, and behaviour and begun to think anew about the very nature of work and its concomitant, recreation, or leisure. We are posing fundamental questions such as: What is leisure? How do we define it? Is leisure the mere absence of work? Is it simply doing nothing and making a deliberate choice to be lazy? Is leisure meant to fulfill human needs just so that one can return to work or study refreshed? As such is it merely a derivative of capitalism, affluence, and egalitarianism, hence a construct of the industrial revolution and modernity? Is it just a distraction, an exercise in self-indulgent forgetfulness that has no meaning or purpose in itself? If leisure involves effort, is that not a contradiction? Should it not embody elements of escapism, whether consciously chosen or not? How could leisure be considered a discipline or is such a concept contradictory given that leisure activities are meant to be free and unencumbered? Ultimately, if leisure is a discipline, how then could it be considered holy?

“Holy leisure”

These questions were prompted by a reading of Richard Foster’s classic work, Celebration of Discipline, first published in 1978. The book deals with the inward, outward, and corporate disciplines as means of spiritual growth. Under the first category—inward disciplines—Foster includes “Meditation” in preparation for which he recommends adoption of a stance of “holy leisure.” Foster interprets holy leisure as “a sense of balance in the [sic] life, an ability to be at peace through the activities of the day, an ability to rest and take time to enjoy beauty, an ability to pace ourselves.” (pp. 20-21). By this definition, he is suggesting, in part, that leisure is not something separate from work (“an ability to be at peace through the activities of the day”), rather it is a state of mind, an orientation within our normal routines. It is not time or space specific but can be maintained at all times. In Foster’s estimation work and leisure are integrated not separated. Is he correct in this interpretation?

The point of reference for leisure is, of course, work. Scripture provides evidence that work is part of God’s purpose for humanity. God rested on the seventh day after the task of creation was done and from this the practice of Sabbath observance and rest ensued. Jesus in his life had the practice of retreating for periods of solitariness and prayer (Mark 1: 35) that preceded times of active ministry; he brought the disciples away for times of quiet (Mark 6: 31); and similarly, Jesus gave us the invitation to come to him for peace and rest (Math. 11: 28). So, rest from labour has a divine mandate.

The Reformers viewed work as having intrinsic value and worth, and, in its authentic forms, as being holy and worshipful to God. Indeed, for them, the primary purpose of work is not to accumulate wealth but rather to glorify God, and only secondarily is it to be of benefit or service to society. God is the steward and work is simply an act that we offer back to God. In this sense labour is an act of obedience and thankfulness. While work was intended to be sacred and glorifying to God, commitment to it needed to be moderated through a strict Sabbath rest.

The divine purpose of work and of leisure

Because of industrialization and secularization, work is no longer seen as a calling from God or something we glorify Him in doing. It is no longer seen as virtuous but as a self-interested pursuit for attaining career goals and accumulating wealth. Because our culture places a heavy emphasis on work, productivity, and achievement, the original divine purpose of rest has also been lost, though, given this fact the need for it is all the greater.

How then do we view leisure? On the one hand, we can’t idolize it (just as we are in danger of doing with work); and, on the other, we have to value it as an entity apart from work and not just a derivative of it. If, on the one hand, the danger with leisure is to slide into laziness and thus veer towards the sin of sloth, on the other the assumption we must avoid is that leisure can’t be spent in productive activities.

In the end, Foster is correct that our daily routine should embody periods of pause, rest, peace, quiet, prayer, and worship, and that we need to adopt such a conscious discipline, particularly in a time of enforced isolation as we are experiencing currently. It is a discipline in the sense that we have to protect its practice from the intrusion of distractions like the media, technology, and supplied entertainment. But in addition, in a counter-cultural way, the practice of holy leisure calls us to set aside the culturally-mandated compulsion to work and to seek out in a deliberate way opportunities for service, imaginative and creative pursuits, and spiritual retreat, all of which will be similarly restorative. In this respect Lent might be an opportunity to experience holy leisure in abundance!

Thomas Power is Adjunct Professor of Church History and Theological Librarian of Wycliffe College.