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Holy Leisure: One Way to Care for Your Soul

I’ve been reading James Bryan Smith’s new book, “The Good and Beautiful You: Discovering the Person Jesus Created You to Be,” and the opening lines of chapter one caught my attention:

“Many years ago my mentor and friend, Richard J. Foster, and I had lunch. Not long into the lunch, Richard’s face looked very serious, and he said, ‘I want you to hear this word, and take it to heart. Your career is going to change. You are going to move from the minor league to the major league in the next few years. You must take care of your soul” (p. 7).

Smith’s whole book is about what our souls need to thrive, and how Christ meets those needs. I’m intrigued to notice that the Soul Training practice that accompanies this very first chapter is not Bible reading or prayer or fellowship—though to be sure each of those is foundational in this life of following Jesus—but holy leisure.

Let’s pause here for a second. I’m curious: what goes on in you when you hear the term holy leisure?

Is your initial response confusion? (“Holy leisure? Do those two words belong together?”)

Suspicion? (“Isn’t leisure less holy than serving God and others? Is this God’s truth or something to make Christianity more appealing to the masses?”)

Longing? (“I only wish!”)

Or something else?

I’ll share my response in a moment. But first of all, what is holy leisure, and why does Smith consider it so important?

Holy Leisure: the What and the Why

Here’s what Smith says about it:

“One of the most powerful soul-training exercises I have ever done is a practice called ‘holy leisure.’ In simple terms, holy leisure is ‘doing nothing, for God’s sake.’ It is important to get the emphasis on the right clause: we do nothing, but we do it for God” (p. 26).

He quotes Richard Foster who wrote about this in his classic book, Celebration of Discipline:

“. . .The church Fathers often spoke of Otium Sanctum, ‘holy leisure.’ It refers to a sense of balance in the life, an ability to be at peace through the activities of the day, an ability to rest and take time to enjoy beauty, an ability to pace ourselves. With our tendency to define people in terms of what they produce, we would do well to cultivate ‘holy leisure’ with a determination that is ruthless to our datebooks” (quoted in The Good and Beautiful You, p. 26).

It’s simple to do: Set aside 5-10 minutes, or 30-45 if you are able. Find a comfortable place to sit. Do not do anything that accomplishes something. Just be. Do not do. (p. 27-28). On the surface it’s simple, and yet most people find it very difficult, and some even find it unpleasant. Why? “It stirs up something within us that wants to do, to accomplish, to make the most of our. . . time” (p. 27).

It’s hard. Which is precisely why it’s so important.

“The point of this practice is to become comfortable doing nothing, which puts to death our need to establish our worth through what we accomplish” (p. 28).

That’s important. Let me say it again:

“The point of this practice is to become comfortable doing nothing, which puts to death our need to establish our worth through what we accomplish” (28).

Thus, Smith says,

“I can think of no practice that is more needed for our frantic, fast-paced, over-scheduled world than holy leisure.

The central tenet of this book is that we are created by God with everything we need, everything our souls long for, and that we do not have to strive to meet these needs. God fulfills these needs as gifts to us. But everything within us wants to control, to push, to earn, and to achieve. Holy leisure puts this need to death like nothing else I have done” (p. 26).

God’s Gracious Invitation

I’ll be honest: that drive to strive, to accomplish, is pretty deep in me. Even after these dozen years of an enforced slower pace which have served as training wheels for me to learn to live more gently, there’s still a part of me that sometimes feels guilty about needing and wanting to step back from the do-list and be still. Bible reading and prayer feels “safer” somehow than leisure, because leisure might just seem a little too close to laziness.

But there’s another part of me, a deeper, truer part, that rejoices each time I sit in stillness and quietly enjoy being God’s That part is desperate for that stillness, knows I can’t thrive without it, and delights each time I hear again God’s invitation, written throughout Scripture, to be still.

  • “‘Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
  • “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes” (Psalm 37:7).
  • “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).
  • “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

To be sure, that invitation to be still is placed right alongside the call to join God in his work in the world. We are graciously invited into God’s work—and into God’s rest. Both are gifts. Both are essential. And, for most of us, it’s the rest that we have more trouble settling into, because it requires trusting that God deeply loves us—even when we’re not “earning our keep.”

Jesus’ Freeing Verdict

In case I hadn’t yet gotten the message, as I was sitting with all this again last evening, God brought me back to the story of Mary and Martha.

Sometimes I feel like the two sisters live within me, fighting for the upper hand. Martha is anxious and busy, aware of all that needs to be done, while Mary just wants to be still and listen to Jesus. When Martha complains to Jesus about her sister’s laziness, Jesus once and for all settles the dispute with his perspective, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. But only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42, italics mine).

Join Me, Will You?

Be still. Take a deep breath. Consider the lilies—or the periwinkles and cherry blossoms—and know that the One who clothes them in their spring beauty, the same one who feeds the birds, delights in inviting you to come and rest and let him care for you, body and soul. (Matthew 6:25-34; 11:28-30)

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Dianne Horne

    Hi Carolyn
    You have no idea how meaningful and timely your comments were to me. This week is my week to BE STILL and REST….and all was orchestrated by our Father. Timely..timely is all I can say…thank you.

    1. Carolyn Watts

      I’m so glad, Dianne! May you find deep rest and refreshment in this week of stillness!

  2. Teresa Aquilina

    Thank you for this message ❣️ Needed it !! Something I struggle with since being retired and years passing as I get older! Wanting to feel useful. One of my favourite verses “ Be still and know that I am God”
    Love that “Holy Leisure” Teresa

  3. Deitra Shoemaker

    So, so good! Holy Leisure is so necessary in my life and in our Christian world. I find my best space for practicing this is out of doors, in nature. Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

  4. Barbara

    You have no idea how timely this was for me, Carolyn. I’ve been on this journey a little while not fully understanding everything that was going on.
    But you really hit the nail on the head for me , it was as if God Himself was talking to me and inviting me on a new spiritual path, a new journey. It has given me a new freedom just to embrace and enjoy this time of holy leisure and allowing it to be fully present in my life.

    I have read James Bryan Smith’s other books about the Good and Beautiful God, Life and Community . All of which fed my soul so I’m looking for to getting this one.

    Thank you Carolyn, that was definitely God speaking through you to me.

  5. Bonita

    Wow!!!! This is so hard!!!
    Thank you so much for this!
    I think I need to try this practice!
    Thank you!

  6. Marny Watts

    Read this again today after a very busy stretch, and really needed to hear and believe again these truths (as well as your more recent series of verses about God’s comfort from October 24th)! Much love and thanks, Mom

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