Once I was in a group that was asked to say the most important thing we do for the environment. I ran down the list of my activities—I run an organic vegetable farm, I try to drive only a few times a week, I recycle, I buy local food—all the standard answers, but were they really the most important?

When it came my turn to speak I found myself saying, “The most important thing I do for the environment is sit on my porch in a rocking chair and take leisurely walks.”

This answer may seem glib, given all the work that needs doing in the world. How could taking walks be as important as working to restore strip-mined land?  How could sitting in a rocking chair be as important as growing food without pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers, in ways that provide habitat for wild animals and prevent erosion?

Those are questions I wrestle with, a tension between my desire to work to fix what’s wrong and my conviction that idleness is a redemptive activity to which God calls us. So let me offer an apology for idleness—an argument for why it is an essential part of Christian practice and a key element of our “work” to live with care and responsibility as members of creation.

I need to take a moment to say what idleness is not. Idleness is not laziness. Laziness is the shirking of responsibility; it is avoiding and not doing what one should be doing. Idleness, on the other hand, is hard work. It is a responsibility. Idleness is the work of enjoying and savoring the gifts of God, realizing that for all the work we do, when it comes down to it, all that we have and enjoy is a gift. Idleness is the practice of Sabbath taken into our everyday lives. It is taking delight in the goodness of creation. It is the same as Mary at the feet of Jesus, Elisha listening to the small voice; it is God enjoying the goodness of creation on the seventh day. So “idle hands are the devil’s playground” is a priggish old wives’ tale—if more people weren’t so busy, we might have a better world.

But of course we have been very busy, exhausting ourselves and our resources, and to what end? We aren’t really sure exactly, and that is the problem. Our uncertainty comes from a misplaced understanding of God’s gifts that finds its roots in the intellectual history of the West, and that came profoundly forward in America through the influence of John Locke.

Locke, a British Enlightenment-era philosopher, believed that freedom was God’s gift to us, but that the creation itself was a sort of raw material that was formless outside of the choice and direction of human freedom. This view of freedom was opposed to the classical view of Plato and Aristotle, which defined freedom as the ability to be what one should be. In other words, a free person is one who has the power to act as a human being should, and not be enslaved by passions and addictions. This is also the view of Scripture.  But in Locke we find a different definition of a free person. Instead of a person who is free to be what one should be, we find a person who is free to make choices without any definition as to what those choices should be—a more radical form of freedom. Choice alone is freedom, and God’s gifts in creation are made meaningful only through our choices—they have no God-given value in themselves.

This understanding now dominates our thinking. We value freedom above all things, and freedom, for most of us, means the ability to choose what we want, and not the freedom to be as we should. This form of freedom leaves us in a of vacuum of desperation; freedom can be a burden. It becomes our job to make meaning in the world. This sets us to a task of exhausting work that is never done, because the making and assigning of value is a divine task that humanity has never been able to maintain.

The Lockean view of freedom has affected the church’s view of creation. I once taught at an evangelical Christian high school. These students were not nominal Christians. But when I asked them what the creation is and why God created it, their answer was more from Locke than from Scripture. They said that creation was given to us to use, that it was ours. Of course they thought that we should be caretakers of it, just as we should use other commodities like money with care, but that creation was something that had independent value and was primarily God’s was beyond their understanding. Their worldview had none of the tone of Job 38-39, where God tells Job of his care for animals that never see human beings; or the idea in Colossians 1:15-20, that all was created through and for Christ. Too many have adopted the worldly, Lockean view that creation is simply the raw material for a happiness formed through our choices.

Of course this is not the Christian view—it is far too anthropocentric. The view of Scripture and Christian tradition is always centered on God. The creation is God’s creation, created from God’s love. It is a creation God delights in because it is good and has value. We don’t have to work to give our lives, or the resources of creation, meaning. They are gifts we accept. Of course it is part of our given nature to labor—it is something all humankind finds joy in at times. But we must remember that we do not gain our meaning from our work, and that a tree or an animal, a river or a coal field has all the value it needs before we involve ourselves with it. If we do not recognize the value God has given it, we will end up trading a diamond for a pebble.

Taking time to reflect on and enjoy the gifts of creation, realizing that we don’t give creation its meaning, is at the heart of idleness. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that, “Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha was created on the Sabbath.” Menuha is Hebrew for rest, but it suggests much more than the cessation of labor—it is stillness, an active enjoyment of what God has created. It is in this rest that we are able to get closer to seeing creation as God sees it and as God values it.

There is much work to be done. We need to clean our rivers, we need to change the way our cities are built, we need to restore land strip-mined for coal. But more essential than all of these is our need for the work of idleness. It is work, as anyone who has tried to find time for daily renewal will know, but without it we will not be able to see the world as God sees it. So be idle and know God, and delight in the goodness of His creation.