If there were ever an “age of hobbies,” this might be it. Changes in technology have made it easy for anyone seeking recreation. You want to know how to knit? There’s a YouTube video for that. You want to branch into acting? For a small fee, you can sit under the great Samuel L. Jackson in a MasterClass. Interested in making soap? There are several Facebook groups ready to teach you about the art of suds.
Although these leisures tease us with rest, we often turn them into burdens. Hobbies have become nothing more than another sphere to master. We run to reach our weight goal, paint and make some side money, or pick up backpacking and start our own YouTube channel in the process. And we love the measurable results: the Fitbit on our arm, the “likes” on our article, or the number of items crossed off our bucket list. They give us the metrics we crave to reap the reward we’re working toward. Progress is our game—even with pleasure—and we ingrain ourselves in the cycle that Nathan Stucky calls “work, reward, repeat.”
However, a recent Vox article suggests that people are starting to rethink this approach to hobbies. Hope Reese writes that “our hustle culture leaves us with no moment unaccounted for, because we feel that even our ‘free’ moments must involve the pursuit of excellence, money, self-improvement, and ‘growth.’” Her solution: “ignore insidious competition culture.”
Writing for the fashion blog Man Repeller, Molly Conway also cautions against the urge to turn hobbies into hustles. “Every time we feel beholden to capitalize on the rare places where our skills and our joy intersect,” she writes, “we underline the idea that financial gain is the ultimate pursuit.” Her solution: “We don’t have to monetize or optimize or organize our joy.”
Both Reese and Conway expose the problems we all feel. And although they offer deeper, less commodified reasons for pursuing hobbies, those reasons still end in a predictable place: with the self.
What’s the alternative? As believers, we have a rich, full, and freeing view of hobbies, and it involves shifting our gaze from ourselves to God.
In his book , Leisure: The Basis for Culture, German philosopher Josef Pieper proposes that leisure is “not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose.” That’s a hard definition to embrace. Since the first bite in the garden, human beings have reached for control. Because of our sin, we take the good command to cultivate, we distort it, and then we work as if we hold all things together (Col. 1:17).
That’s precisely why we need Pieper’s definition of hobbies—because it demands humility. By this light, hobbies give us an opportunity to sit in our smallness and let go of the reins a bit. They invite us to recall the words of Genesis: “dust [we] are and to dust
will return” (Gen 3:19) and also Ecclesiastes: “What does anyone gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?”(Eccles. 1:3).
In other words, we’re challenged to remember our very small place in creation. A photographer may be able to manipulate light with flashes and camera settings, but those who love the craft also know that the best pictures come from bending their will to the light they’re given that day. A good carpenter knows the limits of the board beneath his fingers and plans accordingly as he chooses tools and methods. A cyclist may train and master her body, but when her wheels hit the road, she succumbs to the terrain before her.
This is the first fruit of wisely practiced hobbies—looking outward rather than inward. The second fruit: Hobbies encourage us to look upward in praise and worship.
As followers of Jesus, we believe that God has made
himself known to us through Scripture (John 1:18), and we also believe
that God has enabled us to use our minds to wonder at these revelations.
Hobbies give us a space to do that. They enable us to pause and take
part in what the Westminster Catechism calls “the chief end of man”: “to
glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Perhaps, then, we don’t need to
find every activity useful, as Mark Galli writes in “A Theology of Play,” but instead “learn how to engage in seemingly useless activity.”
I’ve learned this lesson in my own hobby of decorating cakes. Sometimes when I grab my frosting tips and parchment bag to craft a dolphin cake for my daughter or a frosted fire truck for my sons, I wonder if I’m squandering my gifts. My mind floods with guilt. Should I be making money at this? Am I wasting valuable time? But a robust theology of leisure lifts those burdens and reminds me that no, I don’t need to be chained to big results, and yes, I can simply wonder at the way icing stacks. God is at play in the world around me, and I get to worship him through something as small as a well-decorated cake.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having goals, measuring progress, or even making money from a hobby. Some of us can even use them in ministry. But ultimately, we have to remind ourselves that God doesn’t need our toil or our work. He created us not out of need but out of his good pleasure (Psalm 8:4; Acts 17:25), and he will be the measure of how useful our work and our leisure is, because he produces the fruit in both (John 15:5).
In this age of YouTube tutorials and side hustles, Fitbits and vision boards, wisely-practiced hobbies help us pause and worship. We get to wonder at something bigger than ourselves, and we trust that no matter how small it seems, the fruit will be sweet.