What to do with Boredom?

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If you’re a parent, you probably deal with bored kids on occasion. Or maybe you experience boredom yourself, despite the myriad entertainment options available. But what exactly is boredom? One writer defined it as “time without life.” 1 The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest”. And Steve Jobs famously said: “I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity and out of curiosity comes everything."2 These definitions seem to be at odds. Which is it? Time without life, or great catalyst for creativity?

To gain clarity we must think about boredom biblically. Unfortunately, the word does not appear in the Bible at all, so we need to translate our definitions into biblical concepts. Boredom seems to combine a few things (with overlap):

  • Free time with no obligations: “I’ve got nothing to do.”
  • No interest in the current activity: “I’m doing something, but I don’t want to be doing it.”
  • Desire to do something, but not being able to do it: “I want to do X, but I can’t right now.”

Now we see biblical categories. Boredom has to do with how we spend our time, handle our responsibilities, and manage our desires. Let’s tackle those in turn.

Time

As Christians, we are called to make the best use of our time. That’s what Paul tells the Ephesians (in Ephesians 5:15ff). In the passage, making good use of our time is part of walking carefully and wisely, filled with the Spirit—which means full of praise and thanksgiving—in mutual submission. I find it helpful to negate passages and consider the opposite. If we do this here, we see that a bad use of time means walking foolishly, carnally, and selfishly. Take a moment to examine the activities you engage in every day and week. How much time do you waste with foolish endeavours? Carnal pleasures? Selfish pursuits? How many of these involve your electronic devices? If you’re feeling convicted, good! Me too. Let’s change how we spend our time to honor our Lord who gave it to us to serve him. This will look different for everyone. Maybe delete some apps off your phone or cut back on weekly activities. Maybe get up earlier (a big change for me!) to take advantage of the unhurried quiet of the morning.

Responsibility

Christians also take seriously their responsibilities towards God and others. Paul says that those unwilling to work ought not to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Though he was addressing local circumstances, the point still stands today. It implies we have obligations towards God, others, and ourselves. One need not go far in the Bible to find them. As adults, plenty of demands tug on our time, such that we never truly have nothing to do. If you’re like me, your todo list ever grows with things waiting to get done. Just like God’s mercy, so are our duties new every morning. The question, then, is not whether we have things to do at any one moment, but in what order we accomplish them. The difficult part, at least for me, is to prioritize what is best, and not just what is most enjoyable. I’ve found Matt Perman’s “What’s Best Next” helpful on the topic. For a shorter and more hands-on guide, check out Tim Challies' “Do More Better”

While some struggle with the work, others may struggle with rest. Can we justify taking a break if so much remains to be done? Yes! We must balance our responsibilities with rest. We can even make rest part of our responsibilities, because God commanded resting on the Sabbath; it is the 4th commandment. As Hebrews 4 explains, our rest today is more than physical and found in Christ, but it is no less than physical rest. We are still finite creatures. Rest reminds us that we are not God. It is a good thing. The Bible does not prescribe how to balance work and rest, so it looks different for each one of us. I probably err on the side of too much rest, so that’s something I need to watch.

Desires

Finally, the way we steer our desires is the key to contentment. Peter writes that the passions of our flesh wage war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11). Paul makes the same point in Galatians 5: The desires of the flesh are against the desires of the Spirit. We should imitate Paul, who was content in all circumstances (2 Corinthians 12:10; Philippians 4:11; 1 Timothy 6:8). If we seek contentment in the wrong things, we quickly find just how unsatisfying they are. A new movie, book, or game, a new package ordered and received, a new job and city, a new car or home. New things excite us, but eventually we grow used to them and again seek the thrill of something new. But we must recognize that it will not satisfy for long. Our desires are bottomless holes. Jesus speaks of the living water that satisfies forever, and we Christians must seek our satisfaction in him alone, because only he can fill that bottomless hole in us.

Should Christians be bored, then? If “bored” means we are shirking our responsibilities to entertain ourselves, no. But when, during a time of contented rest, we don’t do anything except be alone with our thoughts, yes! This is fertile ground for curiosity and creativity, the type of boredom Steve Jobs endorsed. Let us spend our time wisely, find our contentment in Jesus, and fulfill our obligations properly mixed with rest, to honor Christ and make him known.


  1. Quoted in “Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein, p. 39 ↩︎

  2. Interview with Steven Levy, quoted in his Wired obituary on Jobs ↩︎