This article is about idleness, work ethic, rest, and entertainment. The author also discusses Weber's view of the Calvinistic work ethic.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1983. 4 pages.

The Art of Constructive Loafing

Fear of Idleness🔗

“You are wasting your time!”

How often have parents said this to their children! How many wives have told their husbands and how many teachers have scolded their students: “You are just plainly wasting your precious time!”

That time is precious has been instilled in us from our youth. We were taught that time lost can never be found back. We remember the quote of the New England minister who contended that each moment is precious and that one grain of time's inestimable sand is worth a golden mountain. Among Reformed people, there is indeed a nervous fear of idleness which dates back a considerable length of time. One example: The churches of the Reformation in Holland were opposed to the so-called Christian holidays, such as Christmas and the Mondays after Easter and Pentecost. The Synod of Dordrecht (1574) prescribed that, notwithstanding its opposition to such special days, the churches were to conduct worship services on them. The Synod of Middelburg (1581) added Ascension Day, with the same proviso: that the government should be urged to abolish the Christian holidays altogether. Why, under these circumstances, would two synods in a row prescribe church services when they were opposed to the establishment of these holidays? One reason was: obedience to the government. The other, most important reason, used as an argument at both synods: to prevent idleness. 1

Direction of Activity🔗

Remarkably, the accusation of wasting time seldom concerns a lack of activity. There are indeed people who claim that the only good use of land is to stretch out in the grass – the only proper use of trees is to string up a hammock. But those are very few. Small also is the number of Westerners who sit still all day and behold their navel. That is more of an Oriental trait. Therefore, wasting time is a label usually given to activities which are considered unproductive rather than to real idleness. But in that respect opinions vary greatly. Some wives are annoyed when their husbands spend hours staring at a chessboard. There are wives who feel guilty about spending their afternoons watching the soaps. Also children who are addicted to video games are real problems. Then there are the endless card games, the Harlequin romances, and the big volumes of Arthur Haley.

The search for the proper balance between work and play, between toiling and taking-it-easy, poses a problem that has become increasingly more difficult to resolve, as technology renders more and more human endeavors obsolete in the struggle to provide mankind with all its needs. A working man in America had no vacations and worked 66 hours a week in 1850. In 1880 this dropped to 60; between 1900 to World War I it fell to 55; by 1920 the 48-hour week was introduced, which was further whittled down to 40 hours. In several industries 35-hour weeks are now being considered. With the reduction of working hours, a feverish new line of business came into existence: the recreation industry. Bowling alleys, baseball fields, and sports arenas sprang up like wildflowers in the favorable twentieth century climate. Every hick town, if it was big enough to have a Main Street and a First Avenue, would also harbor a half-cylinder-shaped building which it proudly called a “coliseum.” Only the rich could afford music halls; these were therefore restricted to the major cities. But the invention of the moving and speaking images coming out of a projector created the hottest industry of all: the empire of the Silver Screen. Odeon and Famous Players theaters spread everywhere – faster than the plague, some preachers said.

Work Ethic🔗

The proportion of work to play has indeed become a topic of heated debate. For well did the preacher say in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything, but, unfortunately for some, he left out the percentages.

The attitudes of Reformed people towards this problem have sometimes been summarized in one phrase: the Calvinistic work ethic. The German scholar, Max Weber, even made a special project of studying this so-called work ethic. Weber observed that Capitalism will thrive only if people work very hard, and then, instead of enjoying the fruit of their labors, live a frugal life, putting all their unused earnings back into their businesses. Noticing that many of the successful businesses were in Protestant, and especially in Calvinist, hands, he set out to find an explanation. He concluded that the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination played an important role in this remarkable phenomenon. In my English version of Raymond Aron's book, Main Currents in Sociological Thought2 I find Weber's five points on Calvinism. They are listed here to be absorbed with growing amazement:

  1. There exists an absolute, transcendent God who created the world and rules it, but who is incomprehensible, inaccessible to the finite minds of men.
  2. This all-powerful and mysterious God has predestined each of us to salvation or damnation, so that we cannot by our works alter a divine decree which was made before we were born.
  3. God created the world for His own glory.
  4. Whether he is to be saved or damned, man is obliged to work for the glory of God and to create the Kingdom of God on earth.
  5. Earthly things, human nature, and flesh belong to the order of sin and death, and salvation can come to man only through divine grace.

Although, according to Weber, these elements exist in other religions as well, their combination in Calvinism is unique and worth being considered the starting point for a behavior that has important general consequences. The Calvinist cannot know whether he will be saved or damned, and that, according to Weber, puts him under great tension. He would like to be certain. He is also aware of his calling to work (point 4). Therefore, by working hard and living an ascetic life, the Calvinist will find success in his business life, a success that he is bound to interpret as a blessing. And blessings are signs of being chosen by God…

This whole idea of “reverse predestination” may not be worth five cents as a representation of Calvinism, but the concept of the work ethic that was distilled from this strange mixture was served as the brew that is true and so found its way into fairly well every textbook on sociology.

To some extent the lifestyles of many Reformed people did give rise to this speculation. The Roman Catholics had their Mardi Gras at carnival and the merry-go-rounds at their Kirmesses. The socialist working men had their card games, employing “Satan's picture book,” and the Liberals had their theaters and circuses. But Reformed people entertained themselves by embroidering on Sundays, knitting on weekdays, and playing dominoes. They feasted on tea with a cookie.

Now, before one becomes excessively merry about such pettiness, a few things have to be considered.

First of all, much of the entertainment that was shunned, they avoided not because they believed it to be a waste of time, but because of its ungodly content. And although even in this context there may have been more “hating of the garment that was polluted by the flesh” (Jude v. 23) than necessary, it remains a fact that the production of Hollywood, for example, as a total genre, was far from uplifting! And the evils of spades, diamonds, clovers, and hearts may have been exaggerated, but the fascination with these configurations have sometimes led to an addiction that rendered a man useful for very little else. We may all smile at the medieval portrayal of the straight and narrow road we see on the still famous poster, but it is a fact that those who are shown there on the wide road as they line up in front the theater, appear to us in all respects quite presentable, and not altogether ineligible as possible company. However, the command remains that we must be in the world, but not of the world. As more and more affluence and leisure time comes our way, the temptations to choose the wrong direction increase. And that is nothing to smile about. To resist temptation is something that takes concentration and prayer (Matthew 26:41).

In the second place, Weber was not completely wrong when he claimed that we must work for the glory of God. This earth is indeed the battlefield where the only real stake is the Kingdom of heaven. Christ Himself mentioned that the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and that violent men take it by force (Matthew 11:12). What Weber did not understand is that the battle has been won in principle, and that instead of a dreadful, unpredictable despot, we have a loving Father in heaven, and our flesh as a sure pledge before Him. That is the reality since Christ's ascension. Man has been given several offices, to the end that he may serve his creator (Belgic Confession, Art. 12), and what man has lost through sin, he receives back by putting on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24). And, although man has only very small beginnings of this newness of life, the claim is total. From being engaged in the battle for God's Kingdom, no one takes a holiday. No one would want to, for outside that engagement, there is no life. There may be a lot of noise, but there is no life.

In the third place, the Christian is heavily overburdened as a result of the very lopsided division of labor and the complete misdirection of resources. So he has more cares and carries a greater share than his unbelieving neighbor who takes it easy. 3 If the many millions that are spent to promote pornography would be made available for Christian education, and if the large sums that are blown on idolizing some adolescent who can “put it in the net” were to be spent on mission work, then the Christian would not have to check every pocket to find the last dime.

Therefore, the next time you see the pictures of the “men and brethren” of a previous generation, with their bowler hats and their stick-up collars, remember, they opened schools, they maintained universities and colleges, they instituted political parties, they launched new publications and even daily newspapers. Admittedly, some of their writings sound a bit stuffed-shirtish today. But by and large, they were not the pitiable petty prudes that some of their descendents would make us believe they were. They were heroes! And if today we still find ourselves doing things which everyone says can't be done, we should consider it an honor to be in their company.

And so, when we find ourselves with this relatively new affluence of two or three weeks of holidays, a bit of a nervous twitch is still excused. But we may enjoy them! And the beauty of it is that nobody can tell you how to do it! As the tourist told the eager museum curator: “I want to make all my mistakes myself.” We used to tell visitors (in Europe): “Two cathedrals, three museums, and a visit to the grottos is a bit much for one day, but if you enjoy it, why not?” Some people like to congregate around a lake and engage in elaborate coffee klatches. It is not my cup of tea (!), but … who am I to tell? The American continent lends itself extremely well for extended camping trips. Our family usually disappeared from civilized life without leaving a trace and we never stayed anywhere longer than two days. There is something exhilarating about having it all packed up again in the morning, ready for new territory, unseen before, where you can pitch your tent. There may have been a gypsy among our forefathers.

We also prefer to forget our cameras. When the mountain goats jump out of the bush, we watch with amazement as they run up the high slopes with unbelievable speed. Picture-takers search through the whole car to find their camera, nervously make the adjustments to timing and aperture, only to find out that it is too late, which leaves them rather upset.

Still others like to laze about in the sunshine at the side of a lake and devour one Agatha Christie after the other.

The main secret is to do something that completely differs from one's daily occupation. An office clerk hauls large quantities of firewood, a lawyer walks barefoot along the Lakeshore in search of driftwood, and a telephone operator extends her fishing gear in utter silence for days on end. This is how one unties the knots. An overworked administrator was told by his doctor to find a busy city and walk through the crowded streets on the wrong side of the road and with his head in his neck. Such useless activities seem to have therapeutic qualities.


When the disciples having been sent on an expedition, returned, Jesus wanted to arrange for a moment of recreation – “come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). One can picture them amidst the sagebrush, some laying on their backs, arms behind the head, watching the clouds float by in God's sky; others sitting up, nursing their calloused feet. But it was too busy in God's Kingdom. The holiday was cut short.

Work and rest. They are distinctly different; they are opposite to each other.

The Lord has given us both.

Both are necessary to bring the earth to its fulness and mankind to their final destination.

It is a throbbing, pulsating, eventful history in which we all are placed to do our thing.

But when the final destination is reached, something completely new will take place. Working and resting will then be identical, as all desire has been united with being satisfied. 4


  1. ^ See Joh. Jansen, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening (J.H. Kok, Kampen, 1923) pp. 291, 292.
  2. ^ Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociologi­cal thought, Volume II (Anchor Books, Double­day and Co., Inc., New York).
  3. ^ See K. Schilder, Christ and Culture, "On Abstention" (Premier, Winnipeg), p. 69.
  4. ^ See K. Schilder, Wat is de hemel? (Kok Kam­pen, 1954), p. 231.

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