I’m standing in the fourth fairway, addressing the ball. It’s over 100 degrees in central California and the course has been freshly watered, making the air unbearably humid. But here I am, standing over the ball and completely focused, sweat pouring off my brow and onto my hands and down the golf club shaft. I need to fade the ball just a tad to work it around the dogleg right. Nothing else matters now. The first heaven and earth have passed away. I’ve been raptured away from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Right now there is nothing so important as getting this little white ball into a small hole some 300 yards ahead of me.

I finish the round and, as usual, the demons come. First, the golf demons: “Why didn’t you keep your head down on that shot? What were you thinking on the seventh tee?” Then, the Christian demons arrive, with their incessant liturgical refrain: “Shouldn’t you be doing something useful instead of playing golf?”

These beings also plague me when I sit to watch baseball, football, or basketball. All is well and good for the first quarter or the first three innings. Then I hear, “Shouldn’t you be doing something useful?” The accusers repeat that refrain until I shut off the TV and find something “useful” to do.

The Court of Self-Justification

But for better or worse, I still succumb to the temptations of golf and fly-fishing. And when the demons bring me before the court of self-justification—“Shouldn’t you be doing something useful?”—I am compelled to account for my time. That’s because I’m an evangelical Christian with Calvinist sympathies, a complex syndrome that even prayer and fasting can’t seem to cast out. Our tribe knows better than most that there is a suffering world going to hell, so we need to be attending to the Master’s business. Time is short. We must be faithful in small things. We mustn’t bury our talents or hide them under a bushel, because efficiency is next to godliness.

Whenever we take a Sabbath—or whenever we find time to play—we remind ourselves from where we’ve come and to where we’re going.

There are two lines of defense I employ when these prosecutors, briefcases bulging with such arguments, show up. The first is therapeutic. I have worked hard in my careers as a pastor and a journalist—everyone who knows me agrees with that. But I’m limited and fallible (at least that’s what my wife tells me). So I need to pace myself and, from time to time, I need to get away from work, no matter how noble. I need to rest so I can come back to work refreshed and ready to, well, work harder and longer.

So I tell myself I need these five hours of golf and these two days away on the river so that I can be a more productive worker in the Lord’s field.

Sometimes after making this speech to myself, the prosecution rests. But only briefly.

“Okay,” they say, “you need a break. We get it. But why not take a break that is a little more useful? Why not take up running or biking? These at least would do your body some good, making you fit, extending your three-score and ten productive years and giving you more energy, so you can work with more diligence in the Lord’s fields today. They consume so much less time. And not to mention, they cost so much less. You do want to be a good steward of your money, don’t you?”

Yes, but golf has moral and spiritual benefits! Thus begins my second line of defense. To even learn to play passably—which for me is in the low 90s—requires extraordinary amounts of time on the practice tee or on the golf course. It requires attention to the finest details of your body, the course, the weather, the ball’s lie, the angle of the shot.

Article continues below

And better than most sports, it teaches you about God’s inscrutable providence. In fact, it may be the perfect sport for those tempted by Calvinism. So this is golf: On a par four, I hit into two bunkers before amazingly landing the ball four feet from the cup, sinking the putt for a par. On the next hole, I hit a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway—which hits a sprinkler head and careens off the fairway and lands right behind a tree. I recover nicely in my next two shots, hitting my approach so well it actually hits the pin, and the ball careens into a sand trap. I hit the sand shot almost perfectly but just a tad too long, so the ball runs downhill 30 feet past the hole. I then three putt for a total of seven.

Here’s the point: You can play great and end up with a mediocre score, and play terribly and come out looking pretty good. Providence, I tell you, inscrutable providence. If that doesn’t make you a Calvinist, nothing will. (Suggestion for the Together for the Gospel crowd: When one of the faithful is backsliding, get them out on a golf course to revive their conviction.)

But my defense gets even better with fly-fishing. Norman Maclean puts it better than I can at the beginning of A River Runs Through It, describing his father teaching how to cast a fly line:

As he buttoned his glove in preparation to giving us a lesson, he would say, “It is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.” As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. . . . I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician, but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty.

And then a bit later: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

Mixed with the humor is the poignant reminder that any sport done well is about both art and grace. Maclean in that same book said, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,” but I believe a fairway runs through it as well.

The prosecutors, however, are not ultimately satisfied. “Really?” they say. “That’s a lot of time and effort and expense to teach about such things. What good does it do anyone that you can hit a golf ball straight and long, or lay down a cast soft and enticing?”

And then the coup de grâce: “Can’t you be a better steward of your time and energies? Shouldn’t you be doing something useful?”

Summer Fun and Biblical Rest

The prosecutors rest their case on a common but questionable assumption: That life’s highest purpose is to work, to get things done, to be useful, to make the world a better place. Leisure, if it is to be justified, must fit into this purpose by making it possible for us to work longer, harder, and better. And even then, leisure must be efficient.

The activity of rest is not about doing something to justify our use of our time. . . . It’s activity designed to do one thing: bring joy.

One would think that if work were so important, it would have been one of the Ten Commandments. But there is no command to work, just an assumption that one will have to work in this life (Gen. 3:17–19, Ex. 20:8–11) and that work does in some way reflect God’s creative nature. The only commandment on the subject of work tells us to stop working.

Article continues below

Furthermore, this one commandment points back to the creation story, where the only day that is called “holy” is the day when the Lord rested (Gen. 2:3). I suspect this is why the writer of Hebrews alludes to heaven as an eternal Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:1–11), and the new heaven and earth described in Revelation is not described as a place of activity but one in which the inhabitants spend a lot of time simply marveling at the beauty of the place (Rev. 22:1–6).

The Bible frames our existence not by our usefulness, not by what we accomplish, but by what we enjoy. The purpose and meaning of life, then, may not be about finding something useful to do as much as it is about learning how to engage in seemingly useless activity. Like marveling at the beauty of God and his creation. And even more to the point: Recognizing that the work of Christ on the cross was akin to God’s work in creation, so that Christ’s words, “It is finished,” parallel the creation’s story, “It was very good.” All that has most needed to be accomplished has already been completed. We can relax.

And play. Biblical rest does not mean doing nothing, for the eternal Sabbath rest includes joyful worship of the Lord (Rev. 4). But the activity of rest is not about doing something to justify our use of our time. It’s not about shoring up our energy for more work. It’s activity designed to do one thing: bring joy. If it’s not useless (in the way we normally understand that word), it’s not rest. And one of the best ways to rest (besides worship) is to play.

Catholic scholar Johan Huizinga, in his classic Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, said play is “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.” Michael Novak, in The Joy of Sports, agrees: “The first free act of the human is to assign limits within which freedom can be at play. Play is not tied to necessity, except to the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom, to enjoy something that is not practical, or productive, or required for gaining food or shelter.”

Thomas Aquinas concluded, as one scholar summed it up: “God plays. God creates playing. And man should play if he is to live as humanly as possible and to know reality, since it is created by God’s playfulness.”

Whenever we take a Sabbath—or whenever we find time to play—we remind ourselves from where we’ve come and to where we’re going. We’re living into our purpose and destiny. We’re practicing for eternity. This is why Peter L. Berger, in his book A Rumor of Angels, says that play is a “signal of transcendence.”

All this, of course, might be one fancy justification for my useless hobbies. Maybe I’ve thought all this up so I don’t feel so guilty when fly-fishing or golfing. Could be.

Or it could simply be true, and if so, that makes all the difference.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

Do you agree? Is this missing something? Share your feedback here.

Issue: