Thinking Christianly about vocation, work, and leisure


Leland speaksProtestants traditionally demonstrate an active work ethic, but many—perhaps particularly within Dutch Reformed circles—have more difficulty viewing leisure appropriately.

At the annual fall conference of Covenant Reformed Church in Pella, IA, Leland Ryken, long-time professor and prolific author, guided attendees in developing a biblical view of vocation, work, and leisure.

He addressed each of those subjects in three lectures on November 6-8, 2015, attended by between 100 and 200 people.

A native of Pella, Ryken has taught in the English department at Wheaton College for over 40 years. He was an editor for The Literary Study Bible: ESV and has written numerous books on a wide variety of subjects, including Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure and Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective.

The conference began on Friday evening with a survey of foundational principles that apply to work and leisure. Dr. Ryken explained the biblical concept of vocation as having a general calling to live the Christian life and particular callings to fulfill the roles in our lives.

Because God is sovereign over every event in our lives, everyday activities can be viewed differently than mere duties or annoying distractions. He said, “Thinking of them as callings instead of tasks gives them significance.”

He demonstrated from the Bible how God has assigned people their daily work and how we can be exuberant about it when we put God at the center. We can relate to God and respond to him through our work, and we should reject attempts to separate life into sacred and secular compartments.

“Time is the arena in which we live,” he said. “Work and leisure compete for it, and we cannot add hours to one without subtracting from the other.” He encouraged listeners to “plug into the flow” of time, rather than being tyrannized by it. Ecclesiastes, “the most famous poem on the subject,” can guide us to accept and understand that “everything is beautiful in its time.”

Dr. Ryken urged attendees to “discard activities that do not seem like callings,” but concluded by asking, “Are you granting the same importance to your callings that God has?”

Soup supperFollowing a soup supper on Saturday evening, Dr. Ryken spoke about work. He described problems with it, including tendencies to overwork or undervalue or misvalue it. He advocated a Christian view of work as a solution to the problems.

“Work is rooted in the character of God,” he said, pointing out that work or works is mentioned 200 times in the Bible. “God is pleased when people perform the work he gives them. God wants the heart that loves him and wants to please him.”

He explained that the purpose or goal of work for the Puritans was to glorify God and benefit humanity. God works through Christians who serve him in service of people. He said, “Serviceableness is key to vocation.”

While work is a moral duty and a healthy work ethic requires self-denial, Christians ought to rise above mediocrity in their occupations. He said, “Christians are called to excellence because the God they serve is excellent. Achieving excellence in what we do is a virtue.”

During the church school hour on Sunday morning, Dr. Ryken appropriately addressed the subject of leisure. He explained that the two-fold etymology of the word includes license and learning. He noted leisure’s link to the Sabbath, speaking of it as “a state of being” and “a growing time for the human spirit” through “rest and restoration.”

Many within our circles exhibit a strong sense of obligation and duty, tending to consider free time as unworthy. “The Protestant tradition has elevated work at the expense of leisure,” he said. “But in our hearts, we know that leisure can be something very good indeed.”

Stating that the Bible provides just as much data on leisure as on work, Dr. Ryken led listeners through specific references. The seventh day was part of the creation week, not separate from it. Jesus did not reduce life to endless work and evangelism, but took time for fellowship and leisure. The Bible provides warnings against abuses apart from God and prescribes times for leisure. Regarding biblical festivals and feasts, he said they were less like worship experiences and more like a modern evangelical equivalent of summer camp. The festivity and feasting resembled Thanksgiving Day.

“We do not simply have a right to leisure,” Dr. Ryken said, “we have a need for it.”

He explained the concept of “semi-leisure” as appearing midway between work and leisure on the time continuum. He encouraged listeners to “make creative use of semi-leisure.” It is possible to rescue activities from the realm of work to that of leisure simply by changing one’s attitude.

The challenge to practice leisure appropriately can be more difficult for Christians who often shortchange themselves through church work. But we should heed Christ’s injunction to come away and rest.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6 & & of the December 9, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal.


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