Abundance of Idleness
My wife and I are shopping for our first home. It’s exciting, but also a little overwhelming.
There are so many combinations of lot sizes, floor plans and architectural styles. Each home is unique, but we also find that every open house we visit includes a few common elements: some form of central heating, running water, ranges and microwaves, washers and dryers. We couldn’t imagine living without these conveniences. They are practically necessities today, but this hasn’t always been the case.
In 1890, only 24 percent of American homes had running water,1The Enduring Vision, Fifth Edition, Paul S. Boyer, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Carleton College, et al., Technology and Culture: Chapter 18 and each home had to haul seven tons of coal and 9,000 gallons of water on average each year.2Greenwood, Jeremy. Evolving Households: The Imprint of Technology on Life. United States, MIT Press, 2019. p. 48. Just imagine the effort of gathering fuel to keep a fire stoked, or heating water on a stove to wash.
Technological changes have not only simplified household tasks, but they have also transformed every industry. The economic engine of corporate America has been optimized and fine-tuned to exploit every marginal gain, and as a result, citizens of this nation have long enjoyed an increasing standard of living.
University of Pennsylvania professor of economics, Jeremy Greenwood, writes “The average time spent working by an adult in the market declines with economic development… in richer countries, people spend more time on leisure.”3Ibid. Academic researchers Aguiar and Hurst looked at survey data collected in the United States from 1965 to 2003 and determined that leisure time increased up to “8.1 hours per week for the average non-retired adult since 1965.”4Aguiar, Mark, and Erik Hurst. “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 122, no. 3, Aug. 2007, pp. 969–1006
This may come as a surprise to many of us who feel like there are limitless demands on our time, even after our duties at work and household tasks have been accomplished. But it is important to recognize that the trend in developed nations has been towards increasing time available to pursue hobbies, recreation and other outside interests. This is the time that (seemingly) belongs to us–our personal time. Despite the trend towards increasing leisure time, some of us have very little time of our own to offer our LORD. It may be a few minutes after working a double-shift or before leaving for our second job. Those few minutes devoted to the LORD are precious like the widow’s two mites.
The rest of us have quite a bit more to sacrifice. We dutifully perform our daily readings and attend the ecclesial meetings. Still, like the wealthy donors Jesus observed casting into the treasury out of their abundance, we have so much left over that could be devoted as an offering to the LORD. Instead, that time often goes to video games, ESPN or HGTV, idle scrolling on social media and many other time sinks. The LORD teaches that “to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.” (Luke 12:48). It is precisely because we have so much that we must be very honest about how we use our time.
Even Jesus found moments of enjoyment and repose
This is a subject I find difficult to write about because it can easily become preachy and tedious, like the cliched observation that we each get 86,400 seconds in a day, and shame on us for failing to make every one of them count. This sort of message usually fails to achieve any transformative effect beyond a sense of guilt for mismanaging our time. With this danger in mind, we should preface our consideration by acknowledging the need for diversions from the regular tasks that occupy us.
Even Jesus found moments of enjoyment and repose. He celebrated the wedding of a family friend and accepted invitations to dinner. He sought solitude in the mountain and found rest on a ship while transiting the Sea of Galilee. Yet in each of these familiar stories, Jesus found ways to glorify his father. Even in his lighter moments, our Lord’s vocation and identity consistently shine through.
Remarking on the topic of leisure in 1931, one Christadelphian author wrote “Recreation is good. ‘All work and no play’ are not an arrangement which the scriptures commend.”5Jannaway, A. T. “Meditations.” The Christadelphian, vol. 50, no. 592, Oct. 1913, p. 436 The same author goes on to address two general categories where our use of leisure time can become problematic: (1) “any recreation, however innocent and lawful… indulged in at the expense of express duty,” and (2) “recreation which encourages thoughts and feelings which it is our duty to subdue and conquer.”
The first category of leisure time consists of activities that are generally viewed as harmless but could divert us from our central pursuit as disciples of Christ. The author gives examples of biking on a Sunday morning or going to a concert in the park instead of a public lecture. While supporting ecclesial events is an essential part of fellowship, faithful attendance at the meeting hall is only one avenue by which we may show the LORD our devotion. Jesus teaches that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt 6:21). This is a useful diagnostic for us. If time is money, then our leisure time is treasure and according to Jesus that makes it the measure of our heart’s desire.
It’s been said idolatry is “turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.” When we take an activity, however harmless by itself, and elevate it into the object of our life’s pursuit (“an ultimate thing”), then we have made a false god from it. There are probably more egregious forms of idolatry out there, but perhaps these harmless activities are all the more dangerous because they can slip under our guard. It takes discernment to know when our pursuit of otherwise innocuous recreation has crossed an invisible line and become an idol to us.
The second leisure category is generally a little easier to identify by its connection to the sinful desire. We see this when David lounges on his rooftop and finds himself lusting after a beautiful woman. David crosses a line between benign and transgressive behavior that would have been avoided had he been engaged in his vocation as warrior-king. When recalled from battle, Uriah is more righteous than the king and refuses the comforts of his wife and home while his fellow soldiers are camped in the field of battle.
Like David, Ahab’s treachery against Naboth seems to be associated with a time when he was idle at home. The prophet rebukes Ahab for releasing Ben-hadad, and “the king of Israel went to his house vexed and sullen and came to Samaria.” (1 Kgs 20:43). This sets up the following scene: “After this Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house.’” (1 Kgs 21:2). Like David, Ahab has a wandering eye. The king mopes in bed (v. 4) when his desire is not gratified, and the story sadly leads to another righteous man’s death. How soon would the vineyard have left his mind if he had persisted in his campaign against Syria?
In the 4th Century, Jerome wrote, “engage in some occupation, so that the devil may always find you busy.”6Letters, CXXV xi. This may be the source of the modern proverb “idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” meaning that indolence can lead us into sin. Expressed as a positive, the converse of this message gives us reason to be hopeful. The time we spend serving God can keep us from succumbing to temptation. When we fully commit our leisure time to a vocation ordained by God (such as supporting our spouse, raising children, serving the ecclesia or preaching the gospel), we can be delivered from downright harmful temptations.
In my experience, temptations have always seemed less attractive during life periods where I’ve been highly involved in ecclesial duties or enjoyed meaningful relationships built around the gospel. Periods, where I’ve been isolated and absented myself of useful vineyard work, are also times I recall feeling untethered and spiritually adrift. I realize this is only anecdotal evidence, but perhaps you’ve had these experiences also? I can’t help but wonder if this is the intended message behind the constant exhortations towards industry in Proverbs: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” (Prov 6:10-11).
We may not be spiritually asleep, but do we let ourselves doze?
Of course, there is a valid surface-level interpretation, but God didn’t give us the wisdom of Solomon simply to protect us from going broke. There’s a spiritual principle at work here. When Solomon implores us to rise from our sleep, shouldn’t our minds fly to Paul’s call to wakefulness: “It is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed?” (Rom 13:11).
We may not be spiritually asleep, but do we let ourselves doze? Do we stumble through life drowsy and nodding off? Are we like the long-haul trucker who startles awake in the wrong lane facing oncoming traffic? Paul warns us we cannot escape sudden destruction if we “sleep as others do” (1 Thess 5:6) but he also encourages us that as “children of the light, children of the day… God has not destined us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 5, 9). We reject the black and dreamless sleep brought on by sin’s soporific influence because we have been offered such a better state of rest. We look for refreshment in well-watered pastures, protected by a shepherd who invites us to lie down in true repose. But until he brings us to that place, may we remain alert and watchful, intent on following our shepherd’s footsteps.
(Stoughton Ecclesia, MA)