Leisure is a new word in my vocabulary.
It’s not that I’ve never participated in what others regard as leisurely activities, of course.
I participated in many sports and activities as a child: soccer, baseball, swimming, tennis, tae kwon do. You name it, I probably did it. As I grew older, I would hear my peers talk about these activities as outlets; a place where the cares of the world would pass away and they could just love the game or activity because it was good.
This was never my experience. These activities were always a cause of anxiety and fear for me. Anxiety that I never seemed to be as good as any of my peers. Fear that my peers would not accept my lackluster abilities.
I finally found a niche in highschool: music! As it turned out, I could actually be good at something. But as I think back on my years investing in my music (which included two weeks as a music major in college!), I do not recall many experiences where I simply enjoyed music because it was enjoyable. Music was always an opportunity for me to compete, to master a skill, to prove myself as better than peers, or to get to “the next level.”
When the relentless pursuit of music perfection finally burned me out in college, I turned to other activities – some better than others. I had become very overwieight and out of shape in high school. When I got to college, my competitive edge turned toward fitness and martial arts. Over the next few years, I turned my body into a finely tuned machine. Meals were carefully carefully calculated, and I would often work out twice in one day. I enjoyed the thrill of competition and proving myself to be physically superior to others.
This too proved to be meaningless.
When the burn out would once again overwhelmed me, I would turn to activities which allowed me to “check out” from life: video games, Netflix, and occasionally alcohol. Often all at once.
I confused these things for rest, but I could never shake the feeling – is this really what I want? A life of burning myself out through incessant self justification, and then checking out to try and recover? Surely this cannot be what people mean by “a good life.”
So what is leisure? Great question. Alan Noble’s new book You Are Not Your Own has helped me discover it’s meaning.
The premise of Alan’s new book is that as Christians, we do not belong to ourselves – we belong to God. Building on the first question of the Heidleberg Catechism, Noble shows us how faith in Christ is a radical reconstitution of our being in the world. When we belong to God (and not ourselves), we can rest in his presence, acceptance, and loving gaze. We can look to him for our affirmation, meaning, and identity.
As a result, we no longer need to give into the relentless, anxiety-producing race of life in the modern world. We no longer need to measure the quality of relationships based on what others can do for us. We no longer need to treat ethics or justice as utilitarian. We no longer need to measure every actvity by efficiency and productivity. We no longer need to search for ways to justify our existence.
In Christ, we are already justified. It is good that we exist, simply “because a loving God intentionally created you and continues to give you every breath” (You Are Not Your Own, 50). When we are justified before God, we can enjoy and participate in “the good” simply because it is good.
One of the practical implications which Noble draws from these profound truths is that we will learn how to leasiure. Building on the work of Josef Pieper, Noble shows how genuine leisure must be “done in absolute trust in absolute trust in God and His providence… Put differently, we can only have leasuire – true rest – when we can stand before God and accept that we are not our own” (ibid., 152).
Modern people tend to confuse leisure with the essence of an activity. However, just because we found ourselves feeling comfortable or participating in a certain activity (whether vacationing or binge-watching our new favorite show), this does not mean we have truly leisured. If our rest is a means to an end – such as recovering so we can get back to work, or trying to justify ourselves before others – it cannot truly be leisure.
To have leisure, we must submit efficiency, productivity, or profit “under the influence of other, higher values” such as love, goodness, and beauty. Consider these examples which Noble gives:
Maybe sitting on your porch and reading to your children has been proven in studies to improve their vocabulary by five points (I just made that up), but to read leisurely is to read to them on the porch because it’s lovely outside and you love your children and it’s a good book. It may be that gardening reduces stress and helps the environment, but you garden leisurely when you enjoy the feel of the earth in your hands and the taste of fresh tomatoes and the beauty of a well-designed flower garden. (ibid.)
We have leisure when we are not concerned about the practical benefits or the accolades of others. Leisure cannot be a means to an end. It cannot be a vehicle for us to prove our worth (whether through awards, social media, or anything else). “If we are not our own but belong to Christ, things can just be good. And that’s enough” (ibid., 153).
When we leisure, we enjoy creation and the fruits of our labors simply as good gifts from God. In this way, we follow the wisdom of Ecclesiastes:
24 So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)
So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. 13 And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13)
I think I’m learning how to lesiure. I wish I could give you a formula for how I got here. But my experience is more felt than planned. These thoughts are still in process.
I purchased my first smoker two years ago. This purchase was originally justified under the utilitarian ability to feed large groups of people for ministry. I never really gave much thought to how I might enjoy the work of smoking food simply for the good of the work and the ability to bless others.
But over time, I’ve learned to love the process simply for the process itself. In preparing food, I have found an activity which takes me away from the anxieties of life and the worries of the day. As I tend to the meat, I might make time to pray for those I’m cooking for. I do not fill the space with more noise (podcasts, etc.).
Similarly, I’m learning not to look to others to approve the work I put into the food. Initially, I would present the meal and immediately justify it with what I wish I had done better. More and more, I am learning to take pleasure in the experience of the meal and the opportunity to bless others.
Nine months ago I bought a board game. It was a gamble – I’ve never really been into board games. But my gamble paid off. Whether I play with friends or by myself, I have found a space where I can set technology or the cares of tomorrow aside and simply enjoy something for the fun it can provide.
I’m learning to leisure, rather than justify my existence through my activities. And as I’ve reflected on this new word in my vocabulary, I’ve realized that my faith and awareness of God’s goodness has grown.
Or maybe it’s the other way around?
Maybe I can stop searching for the cause and simply enjoy the goodness of God’s presence in my life.
I belong to Jesus, body and soul. That is good. This life is good. That is enough.