In Praise of Leisure

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. – Col 3:23

Make the best use of the time, because the days are evil. – Eph 5:16

Christians should work hard. There is much the Lord has called us to and little time to do it. Further, we know the sin of sloth is ever-present, a constant temptation. We know that if we are productive, efficient, and organized we can simply accomplish more good things. Who doesn’t want that? I certainly do.

Yet, I wonder if some of our productivity goals as Christians reveal an imbalance in our hearts. Success and efficiency are commendable traits, but so is meditation, solitude, and rest. In fact, one could argue that unhurried contemplation, expanses of time away from tasks or content to mentally decompress, is needed so that one knows what they are being efficient for, or how to even define success rightly. If we are listening to a podcast while we text our co-workers during our morning workout we have little time to reflect and so little thoughtfulness. Trying to constantly squeeze in as much as possible, ironically, shuts the door on some things–maybe even the most important things. The best fruit comes from the deepest roots.

I am reminded of the body builder who goes to visit a rural tribe in Africa and struts and flexes his muscles before them all. Amazed at the man’s stature, they then ask him what he uses his great strength for. The man is confused by the question; he only flexes again for them. What is the purpose of our productivity? Are we efficient for efficiency’s sake? Are we building time-management muscles merely to flex them? Now, don’t get me wrong–I am not against productivity; I think it is a great good and understand its necessity if we are to love our neighbor well. But productivity merely for the sake of being productive is a treadmill that doesn’t slow down and takes you nowhere.

How does technology play into this? One of the greatest promises that technology offers us is a “do more better” mentality. The great draw of so many technologies today–from the alarm clock to the Roomba–is to increase productivity. And I praise God for these many blessings. I am incredibly grateful for the common grace of the Lord shown through things like calendars, podcasts, and email (you’re reading this, after all, right?).

However, I have noticed over time how the instantaneous nature of technology and its constant push to consume, process, plan, and accomplish more has both fractured my ability to concentrate and heightened my anxiety around “doing more.” If I can’t listen to an audiobook while vacuuming, I feel like I am wasting time. This pace eventually exhausts me and, in a horrible play of the “heads I win, tails you lose” game, I turn to the distractions technology affords me rather than the deep soul-rest I need. In reading the novels of Wendell Berry I have become aware of how unhealthy this lifestyle is, and even more alarmed at how common it has become.

I was struck in particular as I read this article: Take Time to Be Unproductive: How Busyness Can Waste a Life. The title alone feels like a stick in the bicycle spokes. Make time to be unproductive? Huh? Here is one excerpt:

But is our problem primarily that we are not more productive, or is it that we have allowed unrealistic expectations to distort our vision of faithfulness? While it’s very likely that we could become better organized and more efficient, pursuing those efforts may feed and hide the true problem rather than helping it. What if the heart of our trouble is not time management, but something else? What if the goal of Christian life isn’t merely to get more done? And if that’s true, why do many of us feel a need to fill every moment either with items we can check off a to-do list or with mindless distraction? Binge-watching television and hours spent on social media may be more symptoms than causes of our problems, signs of a deeper malady.

What if God doesn’t expect us to be productive every moment? What if growing comfortable with slowness, with quiet, with not filling every moment can help reconnect us to God, others, and even with our own humanity? That’s at least worth thinking about.

And this one stuck out in particular:

One sign that unhealthy expectations are running our lives is a constant background frustration in our souls, hiding behind our smiling faces. We are exhausted by the kids, by the church, by the spouse, by the endless demands. We have no margin in life, so when someone says the wrong thing, or a child doesn’t move fast enough, or a neighbor needs help, this anger tries to burst through our kindness. People are keeping us from doing what we need to do! Efficiency and productivity have replaced love as our highest value.

Ouch! Seriously, go read the whole thing. It strikes many, many chords. I was reminded of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 where an angel meets with him in his despair and does nothing but let Elijah sleep and eat for several days. Or Jesus’ admonition to not be fueled by anxiety, but to simply consider the lilies and sparrows. God is not a productivity guru or exacting boss wanting to grind you down to a shell of a person in the hopes of getting more output from you. In fact, He is jealous for your attention and therefore jealously opposes that which distracts us from Him. And if our techniques/technology around us amplifies a fretful distraction that constantly fractures our attention, perhaps we should reconsider its place in our life.

Do you have space in your life for leisure? For rest? For time to “stand and stare”?

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

– W.H. Davies, “Leisure”

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