Your ‘Free Time’ Isn’t Free

Everyone loves free time, the time we have left after working and doing the things we have to do (sleep, bathe, do laundry, take care of the kids).

“Free time” is when we can finally do what we want. No one is telling us what to do; no one is demanding our attention. We can give our attention gladly to the things we love, or we can set leisure aside and keep working to get what we want. Whatever we decide, we’re in charge.

We feel free.

Three Problems with ‘Free Time’

This is our culture’s conception of leisure, but should Christians think this way? Theologian J. I. Packer identifies three problems with contemporary leisure practice. The first is idolatry. Some people worship their work, while others worship their leisure activities—whether vacations, sports, hobbies, music, gardening, or reading. Instead of serving the Creator, people use their free time to serve and worship created things (Rom. 1:25).

The second problem is hedonism, where pleasure is pursued as life’s supreme goal. Many Christians don’t question the assumption that free time is wholly for pleasure. Packer writes: “Today the love of luxury and the pull of pleasure are more intensely felt than at any time in Christendom. . . . The quest for pleasure—intellectual, sensual, aesthetic, gastronomic, alcoholic, narcissistic—is one aspect of . . . Western decadence.”

The third is utilitarianism, where free time is valued only for making us more productive. According to this mindset, the purpose of leisure is to “re-create” a person to work more productively. Christians buy into this view when they become so obsessed with a strong work ethic that they succumb to workaholism. They overlook the biblical teaching that God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17). Leisure time is necessary for this enjoyment and, as such, it has intrinsic value apart from how it impacts our work.

Utilitarianism is probably the most prevalent leisure-related problem among Christians. Protestant Christianity has traditionally promoted a robust work ethic, leading evangelical Christians to emphasize work over leisure and activity over rest. Packer writes: “Modern Christians tend to make busyness their religion. We admire and imitate, and so become Christian workaholics, supposing that the busiest believers are always best.”

Many people find it difficult to relax, and they actually boast that they’re busy and overworked. As Karl Johnson recently documented, our society is plagued by time poverty, time stress, a frenetic pace of life, overwork, work idolatry, and overconsumption.

Redeeming the (Free) Time

Even though our society’s conceptions of free time don’t bring true rest, health, or flourishing, Christians often buy into them. To enjoy leisure well, then, we need to understand God’s reign over leisure and his purposes for it.

First, Christians must recognize that all of our time comes under the Lordship of Christ, whether we’re working or recreating. God doesn’t care just about our work; he cares about our time. Even in our free time, we’re responsible to God for our use of it. We don’t have a pass to do whatever we want.

God doesn’t care just about our work; he cares about our time.

Second, we often think of free time as a quantitative concept. We count down the hours of freedom that remain before the weekend ends. Scripture does teach us to live a rhythm of life with periods of work and periods of rest. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, instructions are given to not work on the Sabbath. But the Bible isn’t solely concerned with doling out time off work. Our leisure should have certain qualitative dimensions, too. When we rest, we should celebrate God and his gift of creation (Exod. 20:8–11). We should rehearse the redemption he has accomplished for us. Our rest should bring us closer to God.

To apply these truths practically to your life, you need to understand your time use. Most Americans have misconceptions about how they use their time each week. Perhaps you could keep a time-use diary for one week and categorize your activities by (1) existence, (2) work, and (3) leisure time. If your life is dominated by existence and work, create more opportunities for leisure. Make sure you have large blocks of time available for leisure. Our time is increasingly fragmented, but larger blocks are better for relaxing and slowing down. A weekly Sabbath provides a large block, and you can also practice mini-Sabbaths throughout the week.

Additionally, it helps to become familiar with biblical passages that will inform your concept of leisure. As mentioned above, the Sabbath teaches a rhythm of life that includes periods of work and non-work. Both the Sabbath and the biblical concept of rest (Gen. 2:2; Deut. 12:9–10; Ps. 95:11; Heb. 4:9–11; Matt. 11:28–30) suggest a qualitative dimension of leisure characterized by an attitude of rest, peace, joy, freedom and celebration of God and God’s creation. Biblical passages on festivals (Deut. 16), feasts (Gen. 21:8), dance and music (Ps. 149:3), hospitality (John 12:1–8), and friendships (Luke 7:34) likewise provide instruction on how recreation activities can fill our leisure time.

Finally, Ecclesiastes teaches us that authentic leisure involves neither workaholism (Eccl. 4:4–12) or hedonism (Eccl. 2:1–11), but an enjoyment of life in creation, which is a gift from God.

When we enjoy our free time in the Lord, we’re truly free.

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