Sometimes I get the feeling that as Christians, we often look for ‘practicality’ as a way to determine the merit of an event or activity. A good sermon provides relatable application points. A good conference leaves you with motivation to make specific changes in your life. A good house group or Bible study gives you the chance to consider how you’ll put Scripture into action. A good outreach makes efficient use of resources and impacts the lives of others in a tangible way. When we don’t easily see the application, the action step, or the results that justify the effort, we become frustrated, irritated, and unmotivated.
If the paragraph above leaves you feeling a bit uneasy, like we’re missing something important when we are constantly scouting for practical action steps, Josef Pieper would agree with you. In Chapter Five of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (affiliate link), Pieper brings his essay to its conclusion: anything subjected to practical, utilitarian purposes cannot be worship. A proper understanding of worship, therefore, is precisely what is missing.
The heart of leisure is divine worship.
The chapter begins by Pieper relating the concepts of leisure, celebration, and worship. He says:
Celebration is the point at which the three elements of leisure come to a focus: relaxation, effortlessness, and superiority of “active leisure” to all functions.
The ultimate celebration, of affirming the world, the goodness of God’s creation, and our proper place in that creation, is worship of God. To reiterate, leisure comes to a focus in celebration, the root of which is worship.
Pieper then draws a helpful metaphor between a temple and worship. Just as a temple is land that is set apart from utilitarian purposes (no one farms it or lives there), worship is time that is set apart from utilitarian purposes. Crucially, we cannot worship when we seek to get something practical and utilitarian out of it. We can sing and study all we want, but if we’re looking for a bottom line, it isn’t worship.
Worship cannot be utilitarian
When we constantly search for the practical elements of our faith, we miss out on the big picture. We remain stuck in the world of ‘total work’, in which we are no more than what we accomplish and we are driven to produce more and more. What’s more, we miss out on the abundance of life Christ offers us (John 10:10):
The world of “work” and of the “worker” is a poor, impoverished world, be it ever so rich in material goods; for on an exclusively utilitarian basis, on the basis, that is, of the world of work, genuine wealth, wealth which implies flowing into superfluities, into unnecessaries, is just not possible.
It can be hard to visualize what this looks like in daily life. Our culture is build around the “total work” mindset, and it has seeped into the church, so we do have to step back and really consider our situation. Here’s one example that you might be able to relate to.
I know I’m not alone in struggling to consistently read and study the Bible. Even before kids came along, I would have good seasons and bad seasons. After kids, the good seasons became shorter, and the bad seasons grew longer. I’m thankful that I’m in a good season now, but what is it that derails me, and so many others, from this crucial habit?
There are many reasons, spiritual battle among them. But I wonder how many of us drift away from daily reading of Scripture because it seems dry, irrelevant, just another item on our to-do list. Bible study is ‘too academic’ or ‘too deep’, so we reach for devotionals or other readings which are more easily made relevant to our circumstances. It’s hard to come back to something day after day when it feels like a lifeless chore, that doesn’t even contribute to preparing for the next outreach event, maintaining the church building, or meeting the practical needs of our neighbors.
From Pieper’s perspective, though, the issue isn’t with Scripture, but with our approach to it:
Perhaps the reason why “purely academic” has sunk to mean something sterile, pointless and unreal is because the schola has lost its roots in religion and divine worship.
If spending time in God’s word has lost its vitality, then there is a good chance we’ve lost touch with the reason why we do it: not to find practical application points, but to worship. To set apart time in a completely non-utilitarian way in order to celebrate the Creator.
Worship offers true wealth
If the world of work is poor and impoverished, then the world of worship is the sphere of wealth and riches, because worship is built on sacrifice. Specifically, worship means that we sacrifice the opportunity to make practical, economic use of our time.
The act of worship creates a store of real wealth which cannot be consumed by the workaday world. It sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns. Such wastefulness is, we repeat, true wealth.
Understanding worship as sacrifice allows us to find a deeper joy and significance in practices that are important, but don’t always appear to have practical value. Reading the Bible, as I discussed above, singing worship, even spending time in fellowship with other believers: many times, we don’t have much to show for taking part in these things. But that isn’t a sign that we are doing it wrong. In fact, rejoicing in this set-apart-time, without goals, targets and outcomes, is precisely the point!
What’s more, engaging in sacrificial, non-utilitarian worship creates a powerful, visible witness to those around us, those ‘stuck’ in the world of work.
In leisure, as was said, man oversteps the frontiers of the everyday, workaday world, not in external effort and strain, but as though lifted in ecstasy. That is the sense of the visibility of the sacrament (of the Christian culture): that man is “carried away” by it, thrown into “ecstasy.” Let no one imagine for a moment that that is a private and romantic interpretation.
Worship sets us apart from the world, and as a consequence, the world will notice. As we enjoy the wealth and abundance that comes from a life of worship, it will become more and more apparent that our eyes are on the heavenly places and our hearts are not concerned with earthly treasure, and that speaks volumes to those around us.
A proper understanding of leisure leads to change
Pieper asks the question himself: what should we actually do, now that we understand what leisure is, and its vital importance? He admits his book isn’t practical. Indeed, by attempting to pursue leisure for practical purposes, we miss the point, and we miss leisure.
Here, though, I think Pieper sells himself short a little bit. I believe that there are practical things we can do in order to regain leisure in our lives. Let’s go back to the temple illustration. Choosing what land to reserve for worship is a practical choice. Constructing the building involved countless practical decisions. Individuals actively choose to go to the temple in order to worship.
In the same way, I think we can make practical decisions to set apart time for worship. For example, we can plan our weeks so that time is reserved for leisure at specific times, including attending a church service or for Bible study and prayer. This includes refusing scheduling conflicts, as well as avoiding situations where we ‘have’ to miss church in order to fulfill another commitment.
Worship and leisure do require work. We aren’t going to have a leisurely attitude at church if we’re worried about having the house clean before guests arrive for lunch afterwards. Similarly, we aren’t going to enjoy a Christmas feast if we don’t plan a menu and shop for groceries before the big day. We aren’t going to get this right every time – but we can make a point of growing in our ability to prepare and anticipate the work that needs to be done, in order to worship without concern for practical outcomes, and fully enjoy stepping into the sphere for which God created us.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this is my second time reading Leisure, the Basis of Culture. I returned to it only a year after the first reading because, frankly, I knew that there were important principles in the book, but I couldn’t remember any of them!
This second time through, I’ve taken my time, written reflectively, and engaged much more deeply with the text. The best part is knowing that in doing this, in coming to a right understanding of leisure, and becoming motivated to engage in the sphere of leisure often, I’m helping realize Pieper’s goals for the essay.
I hope more people read this book. In a total work culture, where you not only have to work hard at a job but must also love it passionately, where holidays and the Sabbath are losing their meaning, where people regularly fall prey to consumerism and capitalism, the Church has a powerful opportunity to not just remind people, but to show them visibly, that we are more than the sum of our productive effort. Indeed, in divine worship, in leisure, we truly live the abundant life Christ offers us.
If you’ve enjoyed reading my notes on Leisure, the Basis of Culture, I have written a study guide should you wish to read this book yourself, and would like a bit of structure as you go through it. It will is also ideal for book clubs.