Question: Is wasting time a sin? When I find myself wasting time, I become frustrated. Doesn’t the Bible say that we should live single-mindedly for God’s will? So many popular pastimes — listening to music, playing video games, reading novels, watching television, etc. — are obviously addictive and don’t help me understand or do what God wants me to be doing, and yet these activities are very appealing. Shouldn’t we be doing more with our lives than just passing the time?
Frank answers: Your idea of doing God’s will means “doing something.” It doesn’t seem to allow for just “being” in God’s presence or just being with other people. Your idea of being in a relationship with God is so action-oriented that you are judgmental toward those who listen to music, play video games, read novels, and watch television—and probably spend too much time on their computers or checking their iPhones for messages.
Teenagers spend a lot of time daydreaming or chilling out. They may have their ear plugs in listening to music or playing video games. There’s a prejudice against “day dreaming” in our work-oriented society. Parents may complain about moody teens who are sitting around staring into space. But often teens are working out issues in their personal lives by daydreaming.
Sometimes we adults also need to do some “day dreaming” in order to figure out how we’re going to approach a task. I find it helpful to walk meditatively as I contemplate a writing project. I get the project outlined in my mind before I actually sit down to start writing. But sometimes I just need to step away from some project and chill. These moments are not wasting time. They’re refreshing my mind by deleting all the windows that have been opened with too much cumulative information to be able to process it. Being engaged in frenetic activity all the time is not necessarily productive.
Many of us in our society are addicted to work. Are we really supposed to be working 24/7? The work ethic of many Americans would suggest so. We are a very productive people, but we don’t know how to replenish ourselves as whole persons. We don’t renew the mind and spirit, and sometimes not even the body. Many people don’t get enough sleep. Most people don’t have enough “down” time. I’m probably not the right person to answer this question because I’m retired and I’m happy to be relieved of employment responsibilities. I still find plenty to do and I accept invitations to teach courses as a guest professor. But I also practice yoga, and sit down in the afternoon to read books, and go away on trips to see parts of the world I haven’t seen before. And I’m happy to have the leisure to do so.
Is it totally wrong to do the things that the question places in a negative light? According to this list, I guess I’m guilty of wasting time. I listen to music at home and in the car and I go to a lot of concerts and operas. I don’t play video games now, but when video games first came out I enjoyed playing some of them with my children. It was another form of playing a family game like we did when I was a kid and my father and us siblings played interminable games of Monopoly. I don’t consider anything we do to strengthen the bonds of marriage, family, and friendship a waste of time. Working on the important relationships in our lives is as important as working at our jobs—maybe more important.
Should I curl up in bed at night with a theological tome instead of a novel? (Well, if I did I’d fall asleep right away.) And don’t a lot of great novels shed light on the human condition? I don’t watch a lot of television, but I confess that when I used to come home from church meetings at night I found it relaxing just to turn on the TV and let my mind go to mush. I grant that these activities can become addictive. But some (many!) people are addicted to work and don’t know what to do with themselves when they have no work to do. It’s a problem many people face in retirement. We encourage people to find volunteer work to do when they retire, and begin doing that before they retire. Maybe we should also encourage people to learn how to enjoy meaningful leisure before they retire.
The questioner probably wouldn’t object to spending a lot of time in worship, prayer, meditation, or silent retreats since these are ways in which one can discern God’s will for us. When we ask what we should be doing with our lives, the classic Christian answer found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1644) is this: “The chief end and purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We work-oriented Americans can easily imagine “glorifying God” through a lot of activities, but “enjoying God forever” seems more like play than like work. The Book of Revelation envisions an eternity of time devoted just to praising God and basking in the presence of God and the Lamb. It’s a vision of the eternal sabbath – eternal rest. The earthly liturgy should be “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
The German philosopher, Joseph Pieper, in his little masterpiece, Leisure the Basis of Culture (1952 – English edition includes a preface by T. S. Eliot) confronts the modern Western ideal of “total work” wherein people are defined by their jobs to the exclusion of their character, where a country’s greatness is based almost solely upon economics (Gross National Product), and leisure is regarded simply time away from work—free-time, your own time, time off the clock, necessary R & R. But this is not real leisure. This is work-related down time. People have “time off” so they can return to the battlefield of labor rested and rejuvenated to plunge into work again. Pieper contends that this approach to work and rest destroys the opportunity for a meaningful life.
What is the culture of “total work?” The “worker” (Pieper uses this term in a philosophical sense) is not only or solely an employee but rather anyone, employed or not, who has accepted, whether consciously or not, the ideals and tenets of a world consumed by work: “work as activity, work as effort, work as social function.” Work defines meaning. What do you do? How much do you make? These questions take precedence over and/or replace philosophical and religious queries like: Who are you? What is the meaning of life? Is there a God? In a computer age the all-consuming religion of work has become even more “total” than when Pieper wrote his little book sixty years ago, and his prescription is even more relevant.
In Pieper’s view we should aim for leisure, not just “time off” from work. Leisure is not simply time away from work. Any time that is necessary in order to recover from work, whether breaks, vacations, weekends, or free time, is an extension of the work day and as much a part of work as the labor put in while one is “on-the-clock” or “at the office.” Leisure is time beyond this. Pieper wrote that “workers” must escape work and “step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces …” Pieper explains that the ancients had no word for work. Aristotle wrote, “We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure.” The reason to work, in Aristotle’s view, is not to obtain money or a position of power, but to secure leisure. The expressions of culture—games, sports, concerts, plays, art exhibits, etc.—can only flourish if the people have leisure to enjoy them.
What is leisure? “[I]n leisure,” Pieper wrote, “man overcomes the working world of the work-day not through his uttermost exertion, but as in withdrawal from such exertion.” The working world is about utility, about effort, about practicality, about efficiency, about the “bottom-line.” “It could be said,” Pieper writes, “that the heart of leisure consists in ‘festival.’ In festival, or celebration, all three conceptual elements come together as one: the relaxation, the effortlessness, the ascendancy of ‘being at leisure’…over mere function.” (See also Pieper’s companion work, In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity.)
Is it a sin to waste time? Not if it is a way to glorify God by tending to the needs of our bodies, minds, and spirits, to work on our personal relationships, to enlarge our sense of the world by engaging in festivals, liturgical celebrations, and worship. Lent and Easter provides an opportunity to work on all of this. Can we knock off work (even on our own projects) to “waste time” by going to extra worship services during Lent, Holy Week and Easter to glorify God in the highest and practice peace among human beings on earth? Might we gather at strange hours of the night (as in the case of the Easter Vigil) or at dawn (Easter sunrise services) to affirm new life and sing Alleluias, and then enjoy a sumptuous feast with the community, devote ourselves later on to family time, and visit friends and relatives? Can we keep this leisure going for fifty days? That’s what Easter is: a fifty-day celebration up until Pentecost (the fiftieth day). St. John Chrysostom said of this fifty-day festival, “We have unending holiday.”
Orthodox Paschal Vigil in Toronto
Well, we don’t live in the society of Christendom any more—a society that supports Christian liturgical celebrations. But in the society of Christendom people knew that leisure was necessary to have a festival, and festivals were necessary to give people a sense of communal identity and meaning in life. Festivals provide an opportunity to step back from work and enjoy life together with others in community. Something has been lost when we no longer have these opportunities. We aren’t better off because high tech communications make possible non-stop work.
Lent is, among others things, a time of self-examination and repentance, a time to evaluate our lives and make changes. For some self-examination and repentance might be an occasion to review one’s work habits and make changes in order to use one’s time more productively. Workaholics may need Lent to give themselves permission to take time for spiritual replenishment. All of us need the sobriety of Lent in order to really, joyously, join in celebration when Easter comes. We need the foci of Lent, including the focus on death at Lent’s beginning—“You are dust and to dust you will return”—and at Lent’s end— “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit”—in order to rejoice in the affirmation of life that comes in the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Our holy days have become secular holidays. That hasn’t necessarily improved them as opportunities for festivity and celebration and affirmation of life. Maybe we need our holidays to once again become holy days in which we just enjoy being in God’s presence and with one another.
Pastor Frank Senn
For some fans opening day at Wrigley Field in Chicago in early April is a holy day full of the affirmation of life in which hope springs eternal.