This sermon was given by Tim Clemens, minister at Grace City Church in Sydney. It has been adapted as an article for Eternity by Kaley Payne, with permission. You can listen to the full sermon here. This sermon was part of a series called ‘Work. Life. Balance.”
Do we have permission to enjoy ourselves?
Consider: Once you’ve got all your jobs done – your work, your chores – what do you do with the time that’s left over? Must we fill it with volunteering, in the service of others? Or is it OK to use some of that time to play golf, to surf, to watch Netflix or read a book (that isn’t a Christian one)?
And how do we choose between leisure activities? Is reading a book more godly than watching television? Is it OK if I play golf with a friend who isn’t a Christian, as a kind of evangelism opportunity, but not OK to go for a jog on my own?
How much leisure time is OK? In a world that prioritises “me time”, how much time for myself is too much?
According to numerous studies, leisure time is the third biggest area that we give our time to each day. The American Time Use Survey in 2020 found that most people had at least three hours per day of ‘leisure time’.
And yet, there is not much at all to guide Christians on how to spend this time.
One of the consequences of never talking about leisure is that we either blindly accept the assumptions of our culture and the common practices when it comes to leisure, or we kind of feel guilty about the whole thing and try to avoid it entirely.
Neither of these are good for us.
The Bible doesn’t talk about “leisure”. But if we think of leisure as the opposite of work, it opens up the possibility of thinking about leisure in the same category as “rest”. Now, not all rest would be considered leisure. But I think all leisure, theologically speaking, would be considered rest.
JI Packer, in his book God’s Plans For You, writes that “leisure is one of a pair of words.”
“The other word is work. Work means not just one’s wage-earning employment, but everything that one must do as a matter of obligation, whether one enjoys it or not … Leisure means time that is ours to use for our own pleasure on a discretionary basis.”
Now, I like to surf. But that surfing often happens with a mild degree of guilt. To be out on the water means I’ve left my lovely wife at home, looking after our two kids. It feels self-indulgent. The time I’m out there paddling is time I could have spent evangelising a non-Christian or doing something else far more productive. One of the ways that I’ve tried to assuage my guilt over the years is by justifying my surfing as an activity that helps me to become more productive in the long run. Surfing is a form of exercise; it’s good for my health. It’s good for my mental wellbeing. And so really it makes me a better husband and a better pastor because it energises me.
That is a utilitarian argument. It says that the value of something is found in the extent to which it is useful as a means to an end beyond itself. The problem with utilitarianism is that it tends to overlook the fact that something may also have intrinsic value for which it ought to be preserved and even promoted.
As a form of rest, part of the value of leisure is actually in its utility. It is, quite literally, “recreational”: it recreates and refreshes you for greater work and productivity. But that’s not the only reason that leisure is valuable. And if you think it is, you’ll tend to feel guilty about enjoying it. And you’ll seek to minimise it in the name of maximising productivity.
We have to be careful here. I’m not suggesting God gives us – or wants us to experience – the spiritual equivalent of an amusement park all the time.
Leisure is intrinsically good, too. And we ought to enjoy it, not just as a means to an end, but also as an end in itself. The Bible might not have anything to say about “leisure”, but it does have things to say about “enjoyment”, which is a sort of side-door into a biblical look at this topic.
Let’s start with 1 Timothy 6:17. Paul is writing to Timothy, and says, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
Notice, it is God who richly provides us with everything. And he provides it for our enjoyment. But perhaps most critically, the misuse of those things is not in the enjoyment of them, but in the trusting in them. Paul warns against putting ones hope in wealth.
Paul’s not correcting greed by calling for ascetism – the renunciation of all good things. He is not saying “don’t enjoy your wealth”. He is saying: don’t trust in your wealth to the point where you’re unwilling to share it with others, for their enjoyment.
Our hearts tend to gravitate towards two unbiblical extremes. At the one end, you have a greedy longing for more stuff. And on the other hand, we can have this hyper-spiritual denial of all good things. Neither of those are biblical. As far as the Bible is concerned, there is a middle way. There can be legitimate enjoyment of good things as a gracious gift from God.
We have to be careful here. I’m not suggesting that God gives us – or wants us to experience – the spiritual equivalent of an amusement park all the time. God’s desire for us is not that we always enjoy his gifts, but that we always enjoy him. And he may, at times, actually take away some of those gifts and our enjoyment of them in order to shape us.
But that doesn’t mean we have to feel guilty if, when he does give us those gifts, we enjoy them. Part of his giving them to us is that we might enjoy them and thank him for them.
We can see this again in 1 Timothy 4, as Paul addresses some within the church who have decided to forbid marriage and the eating of certain foods.
“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving …” (1 Timothy 4:3-4)
Things like surfing, playing golf, reading, watching a movie, having friends over are all examples of a loving Father’s good gifts, which he gives to us for our enjoyment. I don’t need to feel guilty for enjoying them. Rather, my enjoyment is supposed to lead me to thanksgiving and worship.
There is a difference between leisure and being lazy.
Of course, that’s not always what we do with those good gifts. Here are a few of the dangers of leisure:
We only have 24 hours in a day to get things done; to meet all of our commitments and obligations. One of the perhaps more subtle forms of excess that can lead to unfaithfulness is where we try and claw back time for leisure at the expense of the other ‘hats’ we wear.
If your leisure time starts eating into your ability to be faithful to your other obligations, then you’ve most likely crossed over into excess. There is a difference between leisure and being lazy.
As good as it is, leisure has the potential to be corrupted and degenerate into immorality. Paul outlines some of the degenerate leisure pursuits in Galatians 5:19-21:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
With the exception of witchcraft, I reckon we know a lot of people whose weekends look a bit like that. I’m hoping it’s not your weekends that look like that!
Hedonism pursues pleasure as a God. Enjoyment receives pleasure as a gift.
Paul is warning us: if our lives are characterised by leisure that leads to these types of things, we most likely don’t have the Spirit of God in us. We will not inherit the kingdom of God.
In other words, you’re not a Christian.
Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself. The clearest example of this is found in Ecclesiastes, chapter two.
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
There’s no regard for God in the pursuit of pleasure. JI Packer says the paradoxical truth is that to seek pleasure, comfort and happiness is to guarantee that you will miss them all.
So how do you get the most out of our leisure time?
Treat it like a gift and not a God
Hedonism pursues pleasure as a God. Enjoyment receives pleasure as a gift. There’s a massive difference.
Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 says,
“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
Or in Ecclesiastes 3:12-13:
“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil — this is the gift of God.”
In what is an otherwise pretty pessimistic book, the author of Ecclesiastes includes a few such passages on joy, rising out of his “life is meaningless” worldview and reflecting on the difference it makes to live life with God.
The goal of the writer of Ecclesiastes – in his work and leisure – is to serve God. But as he serves God, he discovers that God gives him a gift of satisfaction and enjoyment along with it.
Improve the quality of your leisure
We’ve already seen there are certainly things that we shouldn’t fill our time with. But there is also stuff that might not necessarily be wicked, but may not be particularly beneficial, either.
Take TV, as an example. As a result of not always thinking critically about our leisure, we can drift into the thing that’s just easy to do. And that’s often watching countless hours of TV. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to watch TV. But I am suggesting that there might be higher quality leisure activities which you can engage in.
Television would never have proven so popular a pastime if it were not for the prevailing physical and mental fatigue that characterises a society given to overwork.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that, in contrast to written and oral discourse, television encourages passivity, incoherence – that is, an inability to perform sustained thinking on a subject – lack of deliberation and triviality.
Television floods us with information without expecting us to do anything with it. And, therefore, it produces a sense of impotency.
Postman says that television did not produce mindless and empty leisure all by itself. In fact, television would never have proven so popular a pastime if it were not for the prevailing physical and mental fatigue that characterises a society given to overwork. Most people lack the physical energy to do anything other than plop down in front of the television after dinner. I certainly sympathise with that feeling.
The problem, says Postman, is that watching so much television is not refreshing. Part of the goal of leisure as a form of rest is to refresh ourselves. And most of television is not particularly edifiying – it does not uplift us. It does not raise our eyes to God.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul writes: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
Perhaps we can equally paraphrase that last bit: “Go after these kinds of things in your leisure activities.”
Diversify your leisure
I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t watch TV. But perhaps you might try something different every now and again. Are there activities that might engage the mind and inspire imagination? Is there something you could do to get the blood pumping and look after your body in a physical way?
Who wants to be the guy who seems to be encouraging his flock to seek pleasure? But I fear that if we don’t talk about leisure – if we ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter – we run the risk of shunning God’s good gifts or turning those gifts into idols.
We can also tend to see leisure time as “me time” – it’s a popular catchphrase these days. But we must not underestimate the power of leisure to build and strengthen relationships. Certainly, the more introverted among us will strongly preference solitude for this down time. But we shouldn’t let our personality become a justification for only spending time on our own. God has created us for relationship.
This Eternity article is a shortened version of a sermon I gave in 2020. And I was nervous about giving that sermon. Who wants to be the guy who seems to be encouraging his flock to seek pleasure? But I fear that if we don’t talk about leisure – if we ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter – we run the risk of shunning God’s good gifts or turning those gifts into idols.
Ronald Wallace, summarising Calvin’s view on enjoying God’s pleasures, writes that the conditions for a “right use of this world” are:
- To pass through it as pilgrims should, who have their minds fixed on another country, to which they are travelling.
- To offer all that we possess and enjoy here in our open hands, as a sacrifice to God to take from us whenever it pleases him; and
- To let whatever tokens of the divine love that we enjoy in the midst of this present creation, whet our appetite for the fuller glory that is yet to be.
“In other words,” Wallace writes, “to use this world thankfully as a preparation for that which is to come.
“Under such circumstances, it is right for us to indulge in a real and thankful love of this life. We thus have the paradoxical truth that we are able to love this life truly only when we have truly learned first to despise this life.”
Tim Clemens is lead pastor at Grace City Church in Sydney.