I know he meant well, but he came off sounding a little pompous, more like a professional wrestler on Saturday afternoon TV than an ordained man of God: “The Devil doesn’t take a day off. He doesn’t take vacations, and I don’t either.”
I’d been speaking to him of my family’s impending trip to the beach, how relaxing it would be, how I hoped it would recharge my pastoral batteries. He was having none of it. “I haven’t had a vacation in 40 years,” he said. “I look at fun the same way the Puritans did: Christians shouldn’t have any. I don’t have any hobbies, and I don’t want any.”
I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere, so I dropped the conversation. But it did make me think. What are a Christian’s boundaries when it comes to leisure? And what about the Puritans? Were they against fun? This is important, because I agree with J. I. Packer that Puritanism represents the apex of mature Christian theology and spirituality, perhaps the most luminous star in the Reformation galaxy.
In the years since my encounter with the overworked minister, I’ve studied the writings of the Puritans intently and have developed deep affections for them. I’ve also taken many getaways with my wife and four kids as a pastor and Christian in need of refreshment. And I’ve come to see that, while the Puritans were perhaps somewhat deficient in their view of leisure, they were not completely against it.
Puritans and Leisure
When it comes to theology, Puritan pastor-theologians were deeply biblical and tireless practitioners of the Reformation principle sola Scriptura. When it comes to godliness, they were—as J. I. Packer points out in A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life—towering giants that stand on the landscape of church history like Redwood trees in California.
But when it comes to a robustly biblical view of recreation and leisure pursuits, the Puritans admittedly left something to be desired. Leland Ryken in his book Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were put it well: “Someone has correctly observed of the Puritans that ‘they wrote about recreation with the gravity of a modern sociologist.’” Consider, for example, the words of Cotton Mather: “Let your business engross most of your time. ‘Tis not now and then an hour at your business that will do. Be stirring about your business as early as ‘tis convenient. Keep close to your business, until it be convenient you should leave it off.”
As Ryken observes, the Puritans didn’t value recreation for its own sake or as celebration—a good gift of God to be done to his glory. Rather, they viewed leisure pursuits as activities that enabled work. “Recreation belongs not to rest, but to labor,” one Puritan wrote, “and it is used that men may by it be made more fit to labor.”
The Puritans could run to extremes when it came to avoiding non-religious pleasure. At one point, John Bunyan believed his participation in a game of “cat” (thought to be a precursor in England to cricket and baseball) on the Lord’s Day was a certain sign of his reprobation. Richard Baxter affirmed recreation and “lawful sport,” but while listing no less than 18 baselines for gauging a sports’ lawfulness.
While the Puritans were certainly a mixed bag on recreation, Scripture is the authoritative barometer for answering the question. Here are five lines of biblical reasoning on a Christian’s involvement in leisure and hobbies.
1. Leisure and hobbies are not sinful.
Scripture nowhere forbids hobbies. It nowhere forbids leisure time. After God finished creating the world and everything in it, he rested. And in his rest, he established the principle of rest for all time for his people. Regardless of your view of the Lord’s Day, this is indisputable. Granted, God wasn’t sitting down to watch the Super Bowl, but I think that’s beside the point. God rested. He called the creation good. Therefore, insofar as leisure time is enjoying things God has created for our good, they are by no means sin.
But can they become sinful? No doubt. They become sin when they take primacy in our lives and cause us to neglect our calling from God to work and minister to our families.
Scripture clearly and curtly forbids laziness: “If a man won’t work, then he shall not eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10; cf. Prov. 6:6) If leisure and hobbies lead to laziness or shiftlessness, then they’ve evolved into God-replacements that can entangle our hearts like kudzu. But in and of themselves, most hobbies aren’t sin. My minister friend quoted earlier might have benefited from some time off.
2. Leisure and hobbies are needed in light of human weakness and life rhythms.
The Puritans often get broad-brushed as mule-faced killjoys. They were serious about the gospel. They were serious about the Bible. They were serious about theology. They were serious about the church. We could learn a thing or two from them about taking such things seriously. An observer once told Packer that North American Protestantism tends to be “3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep.” Indeed. The crying need of the hour in contemporary evangelicalism is not less seriousness about these core issues, but more.
Still, that doesn’t mean we should avoid leisure time and less serious pursuits that bring relaxation and make our hearts merry. In today’s work force, some researchers have found the average work week for an American man is creeping beyond 50 hours. Thus, after a long and laborious work week, our finite bodies and minds often stand in need of refreshment. God set a pattern in the created order (evening/morning/end of the day) for six days, and then established a day of rest on the seventh. Our rhythms of life tend to follow along that line: work five or six days and then rest one or two. Rightly used, periods of rest and leisure are helpful.
Even the Puritans did affirm, if halfheartedly, leisure activities to recharge the physical and mental batteries. Ryken quotes John Downame (1571–1652), showing the Puritans encouraged people to partake moderately of such pastimes as “walking in pleasant places, conferences which are delightful without offence, poetry, music, shooting, and other allowable sports as best fit with man’s several dispositions for their comfort and refreshing.”
3. Leisure and hobbies may be viewed as good gifts from God.
My main hobby is following Major League Baseball and reading about its history, and it’s a game I particularly enjoy with my two sons. I coach their teams, and we often watch games on TV and take in several at ballparks across the country each summer. Baseball is played outdoors under God’s blue sky and on lush green grass he made.
In our family’s travels, we often visit old historic ballparks where famous teams or players once played. It is an excellent way to spend time with my boys and teach them lessons about history, sportsmanship, even biblical manhood. We pray before their games (that they’ll play the game, win or lose, to the glory of God) and sometimes are privileged to have gospel conversations with teammates. We view the game and the pleasure our family takes in it as a good gift from God’s hand (James 1:17). These are gifts to be enjoyed within the context of worshiping a good God who demands our ultimate allegiance.
God intended for us to enjoy his creation in this fashion so long as we understand it possesses “pointer” glory and not ultimate glory. The created order, though beautiful and breathtaking, was designed as a pointer to an even more beautiful and breathtaking Creator. In other words, it possesses glory because of its Creator, not in itself. I think this is what David is telling us in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Our hobbies and leisure time afford us the opportunity to enjoy the created order, to enjoy the gifts God has given us.
4. Leisure and hobbies can become idols.
As Calvin famously put it, the human heart is an idol factory. Solomon tried pleasure and mirth, which no doubt included a good bit of leisure, but in the end found it grossly deficient as a means of ultimate satisfaction, dismissing it as “chasing after the wind.”
Hobbies don’t make good gods. For me, baseball could easily morph into something that far too closely resembles worship. In the United States, sports (and I write this as a former sports journalist and lifelong fan of no small zeal) borders on idolatry when fans skip Sunday worship to attend those events. When our leisure time and hobbies replace the worship of our Savior, they have become functional idols.
5. Leisure and hobbies should be done to God’s glory.
Here Paul’s words come to bear: “So then, whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all things to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). He made no exceptions here. Eating? We do lots of that. Drinking? Same thing. We should pursue God’s glory even in the most mundane things we do.
God declared all of his creation good. So I think it’s fully biblical to say hobbies are pursuits that may be done to God’s glory—from playing or following sports to gardening to exercise to music to outdoor activities to many other things—and may be enjoyed by the Christian.
So, as John Piper might put it, don’t waste your leisure time. Leverage it to glorify the One who gives them and bestows you with life, breath, and strength to enjoy them.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published in The Gospel Witness.