Ours is the first generation of Christians that has seriously asked the question, how much time can I spend on entertaining myself? In all the reading I have done in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, I have never once come across this question in any serious fashion. It is not that these centuries, or the Christians who lived in them, were anti-leisure -- killjoys each one! They were not. No one has done more to dispel that caricature of the puritans, especially, than Leland Ryken in his justly praised book, Worldly Saints.
Nevertheless, ours is a generation in which leisure time has been built into the week's structure as a right. We have times ear-marked for entertaining - Friday evenings, the weekend, including (alas!) Sunday afternoons, despite strong Scripture texts warning us of the consequence of the latter (see, if you are willing, Isa. 58:13-14). Somehow, it never occurs to us to ask why it is that we never read of Jesus or the disciples simply "having fun." There is no word of Paul "hanging out" with the lads in Ephesus or Corinth. What does the Bible have to say about leisure and the way we should use it?
Here's a principle, tricky to be sure and likely to be misused, but a Bible one nevertheless: God has given to us a pattern, a rhythm if you will, of one day followed by six. One day of 'rest' followed by six days of 'labor.' Leaving aside for a minute whether its appropriate to use up the Lord's Day for entertainment, the principle that seems to be about right is that there's nothing inappropriate in spending about 15% of the week, one or two hours a day, in entertaining ourselves.
But here's the thing: it's far too easy to become a couch potato and slump in front of the TV for 3, 4, or even 6 hours at a stretch. That's letting entertainment get out of hand. It's not that a few hours are bad for us (though, of course, it depends on what it is we are watching!); it's just that, as Paul might say, it's not expedient.
Truth is, for all the entertainment on offer, ours is perhaps a bored generation. We have movies, malls and MP3 players and yet, the whine "There's nothing to do" can still be heard, loud and clear. A recent survey revealed that 71% of us want more "novelty" in our lives. Boredom is on the rise. Dr. Richard Winter, a psychologist at Covenant Theological Seminary suggests that Americans are being entertained to death. "Boredom can come from over stimulation. There is a sense in which you need more and more excitement, more stimulation to keep you interested," he writes. In fact, television shows today reveal that people are willing to do grosser and more disgusting things in order to find the requisite entertainment zing.
In his book, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, Dr. Winter examines how boredom has increased as more leisure time has become available. In fact, he says the average person today has about 33,000 more leisure hours than a person in the mid-1800's.
Winter said, "These are addictive pursuits, so that people spend hours and hours, and that becomes their reality...they live in a virtual reality, rather than the real reality of God's world, the physical universe that we are set in."
Here's an idea guaranteed to revolutionize our assessment of the worth of entertainment: start reading books again! Never was there a time when the best of books were more available than the present. A few hours a day reading good literature would repay us handsomely.
Have you read any good books lately?
*This post was originally published at Reformation21 in July of 2007.
This summer has been no different than those which proceded it. At this time of year, you are possibly continuing to see references to the usual litany of 'Summer Reading recommendations for Pastors.' As end-of-summer vacations loom, men in the ministry feel the need to catch up on those weighty tomes of theology that have been gathering dust somewhere but which a guilty conscience tells them ought to be read. (Though their wife and children may have other ideas!)
Despite the title, these paragraphs are not intended to add to this ministerial guilt trip; but, rather, they are intended to relieve it! Instead of offering yet more theology to take on vacation, I wish to offer a theological justification for viewing a vacation as being a good thing - and this, not just at 'vacation times' when they happen to occur.
The rationale behind this comes partly from some well intentioned, but significantly misguided ideals I held in the early years of my ministry. Namely that it was somehow a mark of sanctification to not take my full allocation of annual leave. And it was only after some wise and gentle persuasion from my dear wife that this theological aberration was put right.
However, a more direct factor that made me think about the Bible's teaching on this issue came from a verse from the Gospels that seemed to find its way into my mind on an annual basis - always as the Summer holidays drew near. It was the verse in which Jesus says to his disciples, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest' (Mk 6.31).
It is one of those almost throwaway remarks that Mark includes in his record of our Lord. Not unlike the detail in Christ's calling of the Twelve, that he chose them in part in order that 'that they might be with him' (Mk 3.14) - to provide companionship for him. So even though this verse about rest may seem incidental, it actually has much more to teach than we might imagine.
At the most basic level it says a great deal about the genuineness of Christ's humanity. He was not, as many Christians subconsciously imagine, some kind of Superman in ancient Near Eastern garb. He was real flesh and blood with a real human psyche. He knew hunger, he had to expand his knowledge base, he could not be everywhere at once. But he also knew fatigue. The fact that a few chapters earlier Mark tells us that he was fast asleep in a boat that was taking in water during a storm says it all in terms of how exhausted he must have been (4.38). So here, having just welcomed the Twelve back from their first solo missions trip (6.6-13), he identifies with their weariness, because he himself shared it. In the words of the author of Hebrews, 'he has been tempted [tested] in every way just as we are' (He 4.15) - to the point of exhaustion.
Tied in with this, Jesus' invitation for his disciples to rest gives us a glimpse of his sympathy. What Jesus experienced in his humanity was not isolated in some hermetically sealed container for his own benefit, it shaped and colored how he relates to all whose humanity he came to share. That is why Hebrews also adds that he is not someone 'who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses' (He 4.15). He was not detached or protected from the everyday experiences of ordinary human beings. As he read his disciples that day, he saw the tell-tale signs of fatigue that were showing; but he did not brush them aside. There was no 'Once more into the breach for the sake of the Kingdom!' But, rather, 'Get some rest!' Too often, especially for pastors, we can subliminally regard Christ as a relentless taskmaster - always calling us to do more than we feel he can do. But that is not the case.
Another strand in this glimpse of Jesus in Mark is the way it displays him as the embodiment of the 'Wisdom' [hochma] found in Proverbs. It is the God-given 'skill for living' that goes far beyond the number of tertiary degrees we may have after our name to the sanctified common sense needed for daily life. (The sort of knowledge/wisdom many a pastor's family wished he had!) Jesus knew when to call time. He showed there is no shame in thinking, 'Now for something completely different!' Our functionality intellectually as humans is bound up with a life-balance that is somatic as well as psycho.
Flowing out of this we can't help but notice Jesus' appreciation of the rhythm of life. Built into the fabric of the created order, God has embedded the principle of Sabbath. It is the cycle of a 7-day week that cannot be explained by planetary or lunar alignment; only by the words of Genesis. (How astonishing that this has shaped the entire history of a humanity most of whom have never read it.) The Bible makes it clear that Sabbath matters (even those most evangelicals seem think it doesn't). But the ramifications of Sabbath go further than just the days that bookend our weeks. They spill over into the rest times and vacation times that are needed to provide the longer rest than a single day can give.
Perhaps a more tenuous, but nevertheless related dimension to what Mark is observing in this verse has to do with human responsibility. That is, our duty, in light of the sixth Commandment to look after our body with all its different needs. The disciples would do the cause of the Kingdom no good if they worked themselves into burnout before it had barely begun to get a foothold on earth. Yet, strangely, those involved in the ministry, missions and many other forms of Christian work, seem to think nothing of pushing themselves so far that they end up being able to go no further. How many would have spared themselves unnecessary angst and pain if they had listened to these words of Jesus?
The greatest of all elements in what Jesus says on this occasion has to do with salvation itself. Arguably the loveliest articulation of the gospel's invitation ever heard is when Jesus says, 'Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest' (Mt 11.28). His use of 'rest' as a synonym for 'salvation' is more than just a word picture. It is intimately bound up with the very heart of the Sabbath rest we mentioned already. Again it is in Hebrews we see this so clearly as the author interweaves the language of 'Sabbath', 'rest' and 'salvation' (4.1-11). All of which leads us to the eternal rest of salvation consummated in the world to come. The very real joy and pleasure of getting a break from the routine duties of life should not be disassociated from the joy of our salvation.
The final detail in this little glimpse of Jesus from a different angle has to do with our own humanity and how we are divinely wired to find the very best in life. It is the fact Jesus includes the words 'with me' in his invitation to take a break. Rest times and vacations are not meant to be an opportunity to get away from Christ - especially if we feel 'he is our work' day in and day out - but, rather, to enjoy him under different circumstances and in a different way. Pastors easily fall into the trap of relating to Jesus only on a professional basis. But he wants us to know him as our Friend - one who gives us theological warrant to enjoy our vacations!
There are times in the Christian's life when he must recognize and accept that he is in need of a thorough rest. Every faculty in the man of God is engaged in the spiritual warfare. It is therefore not surprising that every faculty becomes periodically exhausted. The body and mind become jaded and the spirit feels no longer able to rise up in hope. When God's servants have laboured and toiled for months together at the post of duty (whether the duty be secular or spiritual) and come to the point of chronic fatigue, they need not feel ashamed to obey the call of a tired constitution. They must unwind and relax. Life without proper relaxation loses its delight and becomes a drudgery. No man can give of his best when he is worn down and spent.
We are apt to think the work of God will collapse if we do not hold it up continually with all our might. But if we think that, we have forgotten who God is. The work of God existed and prospered on earth before we were born. It will also exist and prosper when we are dead and forgotten. Scarcely any greater affront could be offered to God than that odious sentiment of liberal theology which imagines that 'God has no other hands and feet than ours'. On the contrary, his 'chariots are twenty thousand' [Ps. 68:17]. Heaven and earth could more easily pass away than the church of Christ. Concerning the church, God says, 'I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment; lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day' [Isa. 27:3]. 'He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep' [Ps. 121:4].
The Lord Jesus Christ was not ashamed to be found asleep in the boat [Mark 4:38]. His people therefore do not need to feel ashamed when, after exhausting service, they too must yield their aching bodies to a period of necessary rest.