“Lord, as we enjoy times of relaxation this summer, help us to remember that we are never on vacation from Your will.”
Ever since my friend’s prayer, tucked into a mealtime blessing during a backyard barbeque, I’ve been thinking about whether there is a distinctly Christian way to vacation. We have learned to approach our work as vocation, a calling from God, but what about our leisure?
The word “vacation” itself doesn’t offer much help for this kind of reflection; with its echoes of “vacant” and “vacate,” it mostly conjures up a sense of absence. Vacationers commonly express a desire to “get away from it all,” but it’s hard to derive a positive sense of vacational vocation from that atmosphere of emptiness. While there’s nothing wrong with taking a break, stepping away - in a word, sabbath - there is also a trap in holding a merely negative definition of vacation. Perhaps you’ve experienced frustration, even despair, when you try to get away from your life for a while, but your life follows you. Maybe that’s part of why many vacations descend into family squabbles, as people seeking no higher purpose than to get away start to feel trapped by enforced togetherness.
We have learned to approach our work as vocation, a calling from God, but what about our leisure?
Social philosophy offers a concept that may help here, the distinction between a negative and a positive understanding of freedom (or liberty). “Negative freedom” is freedom from, a lack of constraint, while “positive freedom” is freedom for, the ability to achieve or enjoy some good. While it’s reasonable to recognize the existence of both negative and positive freedom, even to see them as two ways of looking at the same situation (my freedom from random assault is the flip side of my freedom for walking down the street without fear), most social philosophers seek the ultimate grounding of freedom in one or the other. Given the high value that our society places on individual liberty, it’s no surprise that many philosophers hold negative freedom to be the basis of freedom as such; furthermore, many of those same philosophers are quite suspicious, even downright hostile, about strong accounts of positive freedom. To them, upholding any particular good as a goal looks too much like social coercion. We modern, Western people don’t like to be told what to do – especially not “on our own time.” Vacation understood simply as “getting away from it all” is a sign of a negative concept of freedom.
The Christian faith, though, offers a strong counterweight to our culture’s tendency to privilege negative freedom. To be a Christian is to confess that I am not my own - I have not created myself, and my own choices certainly can’t get me out of the mess I’m in. Even Paul’s strong claim of “freedom from” - “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” - is closely followed by a reminder of the ultimate purpose of Christian liberty: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5: 1, 13). Our “freedom from” is only worthwhile if it serves some good, to the glory of God.
As you plan your next vacation or think back on a recent one, what would happen if you shifted your focus from what you’re getting away from to what you’re getting away for? Is your vacation, just as much as your work, an opportunity to respond in loving obedience to God’s call?