“Have leisure and know that I am God.”
“Have leisure and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10 Septuagint)
Does this verse surprise you? Have you ever thought about what a biblical understanding of leisure might be? As we approach summer when many Canadians often take their holidays, it is helpful to pause and reflect upon a Christian understanding of leisure. Since most readers of this blog are Americans, I need to point out that Canadians receive a minimum of two weeks of annual paid vacation leave; the US is the only industrialized country without a minimum annual vacation law; 137 nations, including all developed nations except the US, have paid vacation leave; last year only 57% of Americans took a vacation of a week or longer and only 14% took two weeks or more; and the average American works 160 hours (one month) more today than in 1976 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 No wonder the First Annual Vacation Commitment Day was held this past March 31 and a Vacation Commitment Summit is being held in New York City on June 15, 2015.
If you were asked to define leisure, what would your answer be? Leisure has been defined as free time, a function of social class, recreational activity, a state of mind (a psychological state), a state of being (an attitude to life), and holistically where leisure is not distinguished from work. While there is not a fully developed theology of leisure in the Bible, there are numerous biblical elements, including the principle of Sabbath and the concept of rest, that may guide us in our understanding of leisure.
The Sabbath taught that Israel’s life possessed the element of time free from work. The implication of this biblical understanding of leisure is that some rhythm or cycle of leisure (in a quantitative sense) and work is necessary for well-being and wholeness. This rhythmic pattern to life suggested by the Sabbath may constantly serve as a model for us in shaping and scheduling life. The benefit of a sabbatical structure to life is to provide special time on a regular basis for physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional renewal, which leads to better health for the individual and society.
Second, the Sabbath suggests that leisure may be defined in more than a quantitative sense, for the Sabbath is more than a time period, more than one day in seven. In the Old Testament the Sabbath, as a day of abstaining from work, is not entirely for the purpose of restoring one’s lost strength and enhancing the efficiency of one’s future work. Rather than simply an interlude between periods of work, it is the climax of living. Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel described the Sabbath as “not a date but an atmosphere—a taste of eternity—to come.” The Sabbath suggests the attitude of humanity’s basic posture in relation to God. The appeal to creation theology in the Exodus account of the Sabbath commandment suggests that the Sabbath is an invitation to the Israelites, in the act of Sabbath rest, to experience their God as a God whose very nature is one of rest and to rejoice in and celebrate God’s gift of creation.
The prophet Isaiah described the Sabbath as a delight. Jesus taught that the Sabbath was a time for bringing healing and wholeness. The Sabbath, and likewise leisure, is more than a time of non-work; it has a qualitative dimension. The biblical Sabbath teaches us that leisure need not be merely an external cessation from work in the rhythm to life but that it may also be an internal spiritual attitude. This qualitative understanding of leisure was clearly articulated by Roman Catholic theologian Josef Pieper, who wrote that leisure is “an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul . . . a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the world of creation.”2
Leisure is frequently equated with the biblical concept of rest. This concept supplies a wide variety of clues that are descriptive of leisure: a pleasant, secure, and blessed life in the land (the Deuteronomic notion of rest); an entering into God’s rest (Ps. 95); a rest of completion, not inactivity, such as the Creator enjoyed when He had completed His works, and a Sabbath rest of peace, joy, well-being, concord, security (Heb. 4:10, 11); and a relief and repose from labors and burdens as well as a peace and contentment of body, soul, and mind in God (Matt. 11:28–30). While these elements of rest available through fellowship with God will be consummated in the heavenly rest, they are at least partially a present reality. They are one way of describing the quality of life that may be seen as fleshing out the qualitative dimension of leisure.
Thus, a review of the biblical concepts of Sabbath and rest suggests that leisure may encompass quantitative and qualitative dimensions: one related to our doing and the other to our being. These concepts teach a rhythm to life of work and non-work as well as a spiritual attitude for a person’s basic posture in relation to God—one of rest, joy, freedom, and celebration in God and the gift of creation. In addition, a variety of biblical elements (e.g., festivals, feasts, dance, hospitality, and friendships) may be viewed as non-work or leisure activities that along with work fit into the rhythm of life and reflect one’s celebration of God and His creation.
Christians down through the ages have applied these biblical notions to their understanding of leisure. Richard Foster described the early Christian notion of holy leisure as “a sense of balance in 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.”3 Likewise, the medieval monastics advocated a similar balance wherein otium (leisure) was viewed halfway between the two dangers of otiositas (idleness) and negotium (business).
Leisure is crucial for spiritual growth and development. As people who live in a fast paced society we need to remember that a leisure atmosphere—where time and space is allotted for being as well as doing—is crucial for Christian spirituality.
1. J. de Graaf, The Case for Paid Vacations, 2015, https://www.takebackyourtime.org/the-case-for-paid-vacation/.
2. J. Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New York: Random House, 1963), 40–41.
3. R. J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper & Row), 20–21.
Paul Heintzman (PhD, University of Waterloo) is associate professor of leisure studies at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Ontario, and has extensive experience as a recreation practitioner throughout Canada. He previously taught at Brock University and at Acadia University. Heintzman is coeditor of Christianity and Leisure: Issues in a Pluralistic Society and is the author of numerous journal papers and book chapters on the topics of leisure and spirituality, recreation and the environment, and the philosophy and ethics of leisure.
For more information on Leisure and Spirituality, click here.