Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Work and Leisure, part I

I've been (too) slowly coming to the realization that work is unavoidable, and even good.

One of the problems with the way Christianity relates to work, I think, is that it looks at it as a consequence of the Fall. Christians assume that labor is a result of sin, based on God telling Adam that he would have to struggle to raise food from the ground. While the Fall did affect the harmony between man and nature, bringing in blight, disease, and pests, it did not introduce work. Work predates the Fall; Adam was given tasks by God - to tend the Garden, to name the animals, etc. God Himself works, doing the work of creation, the work of salvation, the work of maintaining our existence. He commissions us to "do good..." what? Good works. We are, Paul says, "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

There is nothing wrong with the act of work, just as there is nothing wrong with the act of leisure. The problem arises with the type of work or leisure one does, or the priority one places on either one over the other.

In the process of writing about this I've realized that it would be best to split this piece into two parts. I'd like to examine in this piece what kinds of work and leisure we involve ourselves in, and in the second look a little further into why it is that we've adopted as a culture a negative attitude to (certain types of) work.

I'll say right now, I'm a product of the first generation to really grow up with personal computers in nearly every home and a video game console in every entertainment center, and as a result, I enjoy time playing computer/video games about as much as anyone else. I've never been a "hardcore" gamer, and I've never been one to rush out and buy a game the first day it hits the shelves, either. In fact, this past month is the first time I've ever owned a brand new gaming console, the Wii. But given all that, I still manage to find games I like - and subsequently become addicted to. Civilization (II and III), Baseball Mogul, the Sims, Alpha Centauri, Need for Speed (Underground and Most Wanted), to name a few. I can play these for hour after lost hour, always seeking to get to that next level - acheive cultural dominance, win that fifth World Series in a row, get that promotion, defeat the Hive, trick out the WRX, etc. This is my preferred method of spending my leisure time.

But at the end of the day, there's nothing tangible to show for all that time spent. I can't take my World Series rings to the pawn shop and get cash for them, I can't really command anyone to nuke London into submission, I can't drive my pimped out Mustang to the grocery store to pick up milk. I have spent hours refining skills and setting goals and breaking records for a fantasy world that has no lasting impact on this world. I have, in essence, done nothing but wasted time and electricity.

I'm not trying to argue that all video and computer games are bad - I'm not convinced they are all horrible. But I do think it is bad to spend unlimited, or even significant (more than a couple consecutive hours), time on them, especially when there are other, more "productive" things to do. There ought to be something to show for our time. And I'm not just talking about games. As Christians, our lives aren't our own, and to be using the time here on earth that we've been given to master video games or sate ourselves on TV shows – or, for that matter, go out fishing for hours every weekend or spend hour after hour researching baseball stats and trades (guilty of that one, too) -- doesn't make sense from that perspective. We ought to be using our time to create things that will have an impact on the kingdom - that will produce a lasting, positive result.

I have two passions in life that I hope to replace my more base leisure activities with: my writing and woodworking. Both will, I hope, produce things of lasting value that others can enjoy - far more than attaining any skill level at a game. But they require work.

It is excruciating work to write - it sometimes comes naturally and easily, but most times, in order to keep forward progress, it requires a diligent slogging forward through sometimes ill-constructed sentences and poorly-worded thoughts written down only to maintain momentum. And while this can be painful, there's joy in it, and the end result is something that will last and (perhaps) enrich the lives of others.

And I suppose that's reallly the lesson I've been learning: that true joy comes only with pain, and that to work at something that will last costs something, but ultimately leaves you with much more than the cheap and easy way. The difference I feel between hours spent writing versus hours spent vegging out in some form or another is incomparable. To play games leaves me afterwards feeling stressed about time lost, guilty that I was not doing other, more important, things. To write, or to work on a wood project, leaves me with a sense of satisfaction at the end, that I have done good work and it has made me a better man in the process of doing it.

That's really the sum of it: do we continue in a trend towards pointless leisure that leaves us stressed rather relaxed afterwards, or do we involve ourselves in activities that may be work, but will ultimately leave ourselves and others far more satisfied?

I think back to other eras - our practice of using technology as leisure is one that is relatively new - and consider the ways that they relaxed. Of course, every era is susceptible to its own irresponsibilities, but a) the increase in leisure time and b) the sheer volume of options we have for entertainment make our current environment unique. How did people entertain themselves before the advent of TVs and computers? And are we better people and a better society because of their existence, or has it made us worse: lazy, uneducated, apathetic, because we can sate ourselves on something generally mindless and indulgent?

I resolve, therefore, to fight the harder against the temptation to pacify myself with computer/video games, and other forms of technology, and to sharpen my mind with reading and writing, and to hone my skills at woodworking, so that I can be a man at peace with himself and his God. I urge others to examine their own convictions on the matter and do likewise.


  1. Thanks for the thoughts Jesse. I've been successful lately in finding time to read in areas of my life I desire to expand. However, sometimes I wonder if the topic of history isn't a bit too natural for me to be growing at a profitable rate.

    Another thought -- I got a tad uncomfortable with your wording when addressing the issue of feelings of guilt and making yourself a "better man" through productivity. It has a certain self-help gospely sound to it.

    More specifically (and perhaps nit-pickily) assigning "peace with himself and his God" to the one who properly redeems the time seems to put a lot of redemptive weight on the shoulders of one sin conquered.

    Thanks again for writing these, though. I can already, in my minds ear, hear a chorus of Reformed Christians (myself included), desperately trying to rationalize their poor leisure choices.

  2. I meant no legalism in my words, nor do I think they necessarily imply it. I find that this area is one of my greatest struggles, and it's perhaps in that vein that I spoke. When I am productive, I am more at peace, both with myself and God.

    I think that work does better us - or perhaps more correctly, good work done well is one method God uses of bettering us. I hope that clarifies my meaning.

  3. I totally understand — and meant no disagreement. I was just selfishly wishing for more clarification. :)

    Victory over sin, while never complete in this life, provides a measure of encouragement. This is a gift of God, who gives his spirit to help and comfort.