In no previous civilization have ordinary people experienced greater leisure than in ours. In the past, leisure was the privilege of the aristocracy. Now, however, with a standard forty-hour work week and a house full of labor saving devices, even blue collar workers have significant leisure at their disposal. In fact, managers often have less leisure time than the people who work for them.
What is leisure? We spend most of our time just staying alive. We take time to eat and sleep. We spend lots of time doing work that provides us with the means of life. We spend more time discharging legal duties, maintaining our homes and cars, and fulfilling other obligations. Leisure is simply the time that is left over—time that we can spend however we wish.
Unfilled, leisure is essentially tedious. Killing time is a hard job—as anybody who has spent a day loafing at work should know. Leisure demands to be filled or it quickly palls and turns into monotony. Everyone wants to do something with leisure. All people try to fill it somehow. No one remains completely idle for long. We all use our time to do something.
For Christians, the use of leisure is no idle matter. Our vocation includes a stewardship of time—not merely the minutes and hours, but the occasions and opportunities. We are told to buy these up because the days are evil (Eph. 5:15-17). In the text, “redeeming the time” is probably equivalent to “walking circumspectly.” In both we must reject folly, pursuing wisdom and discerning what the Lord wishes of us.
Many people try to fill their leisure hours with amusements. These are diversions or distractions, intended to engross our attention so as to stave off boredom. They include (among others) video games, television programs, sporting events, and light reading. Not all amusements are intrinsically wrong, but they are not intrinsically good, either. They may be useful fillers during moments between activities or between activity and rest, but they are not productive. They are the temporal equivalent of empty calories.
Amusements can be distinguished from recreations. By definition, recreations are restorative. They return us to a state of wellbeing when our normal work has worn us down. They take us away from our usual routine of activity and redirect our energies into some refreshing pursuit. A recreation may be as simple as a drive in the country. It may involve a round of golf or an afternoon on the basketball court. Fishing and hunting are popular recreations. Reading a good book or listening to a symphony are recreations for many. Others choose to travel as a form of recreation. Shared recreations not only have the power to restore us individually, but also to strengthen our relationships. Recreations are a form of play. Like work (and unlike amusements) they engage the mind, the body or both. Unlike work, they captivate us because they delight us.
Oddly enough, however, some activities may turn out to be recreational even when we do not enjoy them. We are sometimes asked to work hard in areas that are outside our normal routine. Many have found that this kind of labor has a restorative influence upon them. For example, a businessman who spends a weekend baling hay for a family member might discover that both mind and body are better prepared to face the office on Monday. Whether he enjoys the work is almost beside the point. The activity removes his mind and body from their normal routines, providing them with the opportunity to recuperate from their normal stresses.
Besides amusement and recreation, a third use of leisure is entertainment. A common assumption is that amusement, recreation, and entertainment are equivalent concepts, but each has its own unique emphasis. Properly speaking, we entertain people when we bring them into our household so that they eat with us, live with us, and join our lives for some period of time. That time may be as brief as an hour or two. It may be as long as months. The point is that while people are being entertained they are taken out of their own world and inserted into someone else’s.
By extension, entertainment includes those activities that bring us into someone else’s mind and heart, enabling us to see and feel as the entertainer sees and feels. To change the metaphor, the purpose of entertainment is to open a window, allowing us to perceive some aspect of reality from another’s point of view. In this sense, entertainment is the very opposite of amusement. Amusements put the mind in neutral; entertainments shift them into gear. A cheap murder mystery may be merely amusing, but Crime and Punishment is entertaining. A verse from Ogden Nash is amusing; one from John Donne is entertaining. Tin Pan Alley was amusing, while Bach is entertaining. Rembrandt is genuinely entertaining, but Thomas Kinkade is just amusing. In each of these pairs, one has something to say and the other does not. That is why amusements quickly become tepid. They fade away. Genuine entertainments endure because they continue to challenge and change us.
Another use of leisure is avocation. An avocation is a productive activity pursued out of personal interest rather than for gain. Avocations are more than recreation and certainly more than amusement. Unlike entertainments, which invite us to consider the world, avocations are ways of working in the world. Avocations contribute to the world’s larger wellbeing, working toward its beauty, utility, and order. A quilter and a woodworker will (if they have the skill) produce items that are both beautiful and useful. An amateur rose gardener increases the world’s beauty. A coin or stamp collector gathers, orders, and preserves a record of a part of the human drama. Some people write novels or poems in their spare time. Others remodel houses. Much of human progress has been propelled by people who employed their leisure to pursue avocations.
One other way that we can spend our leisure is by deliberately serving others. We can give up our own time and efforts to meet specific needs that other people are experiencing. This kind of service may be as modest as baking a plate of cookies for the neighbor next door. On the other hand, it may involve volunteer service in large civic or charitable endeavors.
Major organizations like Boy Scouts and Civil Air Patrol have been built around voluntary involvement. Many other organizations like schools, hospitals, and libraries are often staffed partly with volunteers. Obviously, churches could not fulfill their ministries if the work had to be done entirely by paid staff. Volunteer service is essential to many human endeavors. Because it takes us out of our everyday vocation, volunteer service may well serve as a form of recreation and perhaps even entertainment.
How should we Christians redeem the time? We obviously have choices to make. The Bible never gives us a list of activities that qualify as “most useful.” But if we are aware of the distinctions between amusement, recreation, entertainment, avocation, and service, we shall be equipped to make those choices more wisely.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
William Cowper (1731–1800)
Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem by Thy sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.
There, if Thy Spirit touch the soul,
And grace her mean abode,
O with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God!
There, like the nightingale, she pours
Her solitary lays;
Nor asks a witness of her song,
Nor thirsts for human praise.
Author and Guardian of my life,
Sweet Source of light divine,
And, all harmonious names in one,
My Saviour,—Thou art mine!
What thanks I owe Thee, and what love,
A boundless, endless store,
Shall echo through the realms above
When time shall be no more!