Welcome back to the podcast. Is the hobby of watercolor painting a wartime waste of time and money? That’s the question today from a listener named Amy. “Pastor John, hello to you, and thank you for your ministry over these many years,” she writes. “I have benefitted greatly from it. Your ‘seashells’ message was especially profound to me.” Yes, one of the classic John Piper sermons, which is titled, “Boasting Only in the Cross,” preached on May 20, 2000. “But that sermon left me with a lingering question I’ve never resolved. Would you consider all hobbies, like seashell collecting, a waste of life?
“I ask because I recently took up watercolor painting. I keep asking myself, Does this glorify God? And to what purpose does this further his kingdom? I’m not sure it does. Painting is a relaxing stress-reliever for me, and I have enjoyed using it to make homemade cards for people. But it seems it’s mostly for my benefit and enjoyment. You clearly have a category for hobbies — when Tony recently asked you to name your favorite hobbies, you said Scrabble with Noël and making your yard look perfect (in APJ 1882). So, what guidelines can you offer us wartime Christians to discern when hobbies are God-glorifying and when they become life-wasting?”
When I first tackled this question nine years ago on APJ, I was reading biographies at the time — books about Hudson Taylor and by Hudson Taylor, the missionary. And I think Hudson Taylor, at that time and now (if he were alive), would answer this question pretty bluntly and say, “Come on, come on, let’s give our lives for the cause of the gospel, especially world evangelization.” So, I have that ringing in my ears even to this day. And I don’t want to soft-pedal how radical the Christian life is by being culturally adapting as a Christian and ignoring the horrific plight of the lost and the unreached of this world.
But here’s what I think needs to be said biblically. (We want to be biblical and not just draw out our own inferences from situations that may not accord with God’s word.)
Warning Against Worldliness
Yes, some people waste their lives playing. We just have to admit that. They do. Their whole life is jumping from one fun thing to the next. What they really get excited about, and what they spend most of their time (most of their life) thinking about, is the next gadget, or the next vacation, or the next streaming video series, or the next concert, or the next movie.
If you want to get them animated, bring that up, not Jesus. Don’t bring up salvation — they won’t have anything to say. There’s no emotional kick there at all. Not the hope of glory, not adoption into God’s family, not the forgiveness of sins, not the miracles of Jesus. Just, “What did you watch last week?” And whoa — they come alive with all kinds of verbal statements that show they can talk if they want to talk; they can feel if they want to feel. And those people give little thought to the biblical truth that their life is not their own.
Paul said, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). That’s what you should think about with your body, your eyes, your ears, your hands, your tongue. “Glorify God in your body.” What could be more wonderful, more clear, more radical than that statement? You are not your own. You belong to God. Make him look great!
And when you do, be excited about that. Do that with your hobbies. Those people act as if they can do whatever they please with no reference to the one who owns them or bought them. And those people need to hit pause on their life and ask, “Am I really born again? Do I have any of the affections of my Lord Jesus or my Father in heaven? Or are they all worldly?”
Three Guiding Questions
So, to me, if you operate from that verse (1 Corinthians 6:19), then you ask of your hobbies (and it doesn’t make any difference whether the hobbies are collecting coins or shells or climbing mountains), “Is this the Lord’s will for my life, which he bought, which he owns?” And to answer that question about the will of God, you ask, “Am I glorifying him in this hobby? Is this hobby serving to make him look great and beautiful and valuable? Is it making me like one who values his glory above everything?”
“Is this hobby serving to make God look great and beautiful and valuable?”
Paul said, “Whether you eat or drink [or do a hobby], or whatever you do” — whether you climb mountains, or hunt deer, or collect coins, or do crossword puzzles, or collect shells, or paint watercolors — “do all,” he says, “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Make Christ look like the treasure that he is.
Now, how does that happen in hobbies or in leisure or in recreation? Because I think it does. I will just mention three ways, three questions to ask.
1. Is it God-exalting?
Is the hobby (the leisure, the recreation, the hobby itself) a participation in God-exalting experiences? Now, this is not mainly about the effects of the hobby, but what it is in itself. Do you see God in it? Does your spirit come alive to God in it? Or is it dragging you down? Is it leading you to be more distant from Christ, more indifferent to him, more in love with the world and less in love with him?
Now, I can easily imagine Amy’s watercolor hobby feeding her soul spiritually as she looks at the world with the eyes of a worshipful Christian, as she sees the glory of God and seeks to capture some of that beauty in what she paints, all the while being amazed that she herself is a kind of creator in the image of her Creator. It seems to me that most hobbies that involve making things could have this worshipful effect of experiencing the wonder of being a maker like our God is a Maker, and then bending what we have made to God’s service, so that both the process and the product reflect God’s glory.
2. Is it truly refreshing?
Is the hobby (the leisure, the recreation) refreshing you physically, emotionally, spiritually for the other parts of your life where you need energy and focus to live for God’s glory as part of your vocation or part of your family? Or is the hobby depleting you and weakening you and making you less able to do that part of your life to the glory of God?
This is a question about physical depletion and spiritual depletion or weakening (or even deadening). We need to be really honest about whether what we’re focusing on for hours is shaping our minds for greater spiritual alertness and wisdom and love and worship — or misshaping our minds to be more at home with sin.
3. Does it serve your relationships?
How is your hobby or leisure or recreation serving your relationships with other people for their good? I ask it like that rather than what I used to say, way back nine years ago, when I thought about this question. Namely, I asked, “Are you involving other people in your hobby?” I’m not saying that now, because I realized that there are recreations or hobbies or diversions that are specifically designed to isolate you, but not selfishly — not selfishly, but for loving reasons. For example, one of the things I like to do (besides Scrabble and yard work), when I’m not under pressure to do what everybody else expects me to do, is to write poetry.
“How is your hobby or leisure or recreation serving your relationships with other people for their good?”
Now, this would be like Amy’s watercolors, I think, only probably I am much more insistent than she would be that I must be left alone. She might be able to paint with people around her. I can’t. Writing, especially disciplined creative writing, is intensely focused action. I cannot do it while others are around me. So, the hobby itself is not gregarious — it’s isolationist. But my aim is always to write to be read. I want to speak to somebody what I’m writing. I want to use it to encourage them and to glorify God with it. I want the poems to capture something about God and his word and his world that will awaken others to what I saw and experienced in a way that magnifies Christ.
So, I think it is a good question to ask, How is your hobby or your leisure serving your relationships with other people for their good? The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:14, “Let all that you do be done in love.” So he said, on the one hand, “All that you do, do it to the glory of God” (see 1 Corinthians 10:31). And here he is saying (which I think is a subset), “Let all that you do be done in love” — love for people. So, it is a good biblical question for all our hobbies. Is this expressing my love for others? Is this hobby forming me into a person who cares for others, wants to live for others’ good, is willing to sacrifice for others?
So, I think if we’re honest with those three questions, the financial part of the hobby will probably take care of itself. In other words, I think the God-focused, ministry-focused, love-focused emphasis of those questions will put a governor on any exorbitant spending in our support of the hobby. We live in a very needy world, and one of the effects of those three questions will be to make us more alive to those needs so that we embrace a wartime lifestyle for the good of the world and the glory of Christ.