Taking it easy this summer?
How to make our leisure time more godly
Once, to my shame, I laughed at Don Carson. You need to know that I have the greatest respect for Don. I think he is one of the great theologians of our time. To me, he is ‘the Don’. And many times I have laughed with him during his preaching, and have chuckled at asides in his writing, but this was definitely at him. So what had he said? ‘I relax by memorising Psalms.’
That was it! I laughed at Don Carson because he said, ‘I relax by memorising Psalms’. And I laughed aloud because nothing sounds like harder work to me. At the end of a day at work, having put the kids to bed and cleared the kitchen, the last thing I would think of to relax is memorising Scripture.
Who’s teaching me to relax?
But more recently I’ve started to think, ‘If it isn’t wise men like Don Carson teaching me how to relax, then who is it?’ and I’ve reached a worrying conclusion: it is the godless culture around me. How does that say I should relax? ‘You are good for nothing after a long day at work. You need to crash and put the TV on. You don’t have the mental or physical strength to do anything more than laze on the sofa, graze on comfort food, and glaze over as you channel hop.’
Once more, to my shame, I have bought this lie. The TV channel ‘Dave’ could easily have been renamed ‘Neil’ for the hours I have spent watching it. For me, relaxation has come to mean ‘watching TV’. And I am not alone. The average Brit watches four hours and 18 minutes a day. If Marx was alive today I don’t think he would be down on religion. Comparatively it is irrelevant in our country in terms of shaping people’s worldviews. I think he’d hit TV, saying: ‘Television is the opium of the people in a cruel and heartless age’. The Nazis produced endless dramas, romances and comedies to be shown in the cinemas to keep their people placated in the evenings and at weekends, and our culture does the same.
What’s the alternative?
So is there an alternative? Some Christians have taken the radical step of not having a TV. Increasingly I can see where they are coming from, but I don’t think I am ready for the Amish route just yet. Besides it is possible to deny ourselves all sorts of things without experiencing the blessing God has in mind for those who submit to him. The danger is that if we haven’t thought this through we swap one consuming form of entertainment for another — whether that is social networking, gaming, gardening, cooking, working out, shopping, reading fiction, watching DVD box sets, or whatever else floats your boat.
So how do we begin thinking this through? Questions like, ‘What does Jesus want me to do with my down time? What will be of greatest blessing to me?’ are worth praying through before reaching for the remote control or the gym pass. Trust me, it is harder than it sounds! For many of us it will mean changing embedded patterns of behaviour.
For some, it will mean doing less. Some of us are driven beyond God’s purpose for our lives. We have lost the rhythms built into creation of periods for work and periods for rest. We are constantly on the go, living life in fifth gear. While there may be times when life is a sprint, most of the time it is a marathon. And there are no prizes in long distance running for people who win the first five miles, then drop out of the race. For those like that we need to heed the warning of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, an exceptionally godly and gifted Scottish pastor from the 19th century, who died aged 29 and made this comment on his own life as he lay dying: ‘God gave me a horse and a message. I have killed the horse and I can no longer deliver the message’.
But in our culture there aren’t so many like that, even within our churches. We are very protective of our time outside work. We place a high premium on leisure. Our culture has a Friday night Sabbath, where workers down the tools of their trade and down beer and breezers instead. These are nights of intense worship, where the gods of alcohol, popularity, promiscuity and pleasure get their dues.
Weekends are filled with endless activities, but none so popular or consuming as shopping. A generation, raised during the time of cheap flights, has a whole new set of expectations around what constitutes a holiday and how many of those holidays there should be a year. While as Christians we may avoid some of the excesses of those around us, the underlying attitudes can still grip our hearts. We can covet what we don’t have. We can never move beyond a tithing mentality to one which is truly generous towards God. We can resent the intrusion of church into our evenings and weekends.
We need refreshment
Maybe part of the problem is with the word ‘relaxation’ itself. It is so tainted by self-centredness and self- indulgence. I think what we actually need is ‘refreshment’. I love the verses in the New Testament which credit people with refreshing the hearts of the saints.
In the busyness of life we need nothing more. Weariness is a persistent threat in the Epistles. So we need refreshment in the mornings as we face the demands of the day ahead. We need it during the day, as we travel to and from work, and as we have breaks from our assigned tasks during the day. We need it in the evenings as we are able to decide what we do with that precious time. We need it at the weekend, and especially on Sundays, when many of us have the opportunity to meet with God’s people to praise the name of Jesus, hear him speak from his Word, and meet him in the lives of our brothers and sisters in a sustained way that simply isn’t possible during the rest of the week.
So how do we find this refreshment? By the renewing of our minds.
First, we need to open our eyes to the lies of this age and confess before Jesus the backdraft of the values they falsely teach into the church and into our lives.
Secondly, we need a new approach to life. We need to seek opportunities to be refreshed as part of the normal rhythms of everyday life. It may well be carving out some minutes to be with God as the day begins. It may be switching off 5Live on the way to work and listening to an mp3 of a helpful preacher or uplifting worship track. It may be praying with a colleague during a break or meeting a few friends from the church for lunch at a venue between your offices. It may be pounding a treadmill while praying for an Eric Liddell moment: ‘God has made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure’. We can all dream! It may be going for a country walk, or fishing in a river, or snuggling down with a book, or growing some marrows, or dining with friends, playing a game with our kids, or even deliberately choosing to watch something good on TV. The crucial thing is that we do it to the glory of God, remembering that his desire of every minute of every day is to bless us. What do the Scriptures say? God ‘richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’. Hey, we might even choose to memorise some Psalms!
Finally, many of us need a different attitude to being with God’s people. The apostle John wrote: ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth’. Blasphemy or reality, you decide! Most verses in the New Testament concerning joy are not to do with personal salvation or persevering in suffering, but with being with other believers. When next you rush in from work, down your tea and bundle out the door to a meeting of the church, just pause for a moment: there is joy to be had, but if you see this as work or intrusive you’ll miss it. You are about to see the reflection of Jesus in the body of his people and there is nothing more refreshing than that.