Towards a Theology of Play
There is plenty of research and writing about the need for enjoying one’s Sabbath time. After a summer of driving my students hard towards a better understanding of God (believing that what we think about God determines how we act and live our lives) by exploring His attributes I wanted to give them a Sunday “off” at youth group. The purpose was less to explain the need for a Sabbath and have one (though we did) than to simply hope to redeem time off for these students. I’m a parent – I wish my son wouldn’t like to almost exclusively play (to my chagrin I realize my cultural conditioning in that statement). On the other hand, our culture makes much of work and commitments while making fun of those who seem to spend their time playfully. The generation coming up is perhaps more stressed than at any other time in history!
Despite this, I’m gaining a bit of a bookish reputation with my new youth group. Since I got here in April we’ve played a few games, but I find this to be a far less important aspect of youth group than helping teach our students a more vibrant faith (Vibrant faith is contagious, disciple-making faith). I’m having fun, I make our youth meetings fun even while we’re doing lessons, and I’m hearing from most all of these students that it is a direction they’re quite pleased with. Let’s be real though, many students come to youth group simply for a breather from “life” and to have some fun in the midst of their busy lives, especially now that school has started.
This past Sunday we had a game night. There was junk food galore, board games spread around, foosball upstairs, some football tossing outside, and an impromptu dodgeball game targeting those of us gathered at the different game tables. We had a blast. With about fifteen minutes left, though, I pulled them aside for a “Gotcha!”
Rather than playing (ha!) into cultural stereotypes glorifying work to the demonization of play, I wanted to help redeem the idea of play for our students and give them an ordained view of playtime (in community).
Psalm 104 celebrates the glory of God’s creation and the diversity of His creativity. Specifically, vv 24-26 speaks of something (Leviathan) created for play! Indeed, you can’t look at some of the creatures in our world and not see a playful Creator God!
One of the threads of storyline from the Old Testament is the repeated fallout from sin that humanity endures. It is beautifully telling that some of the promises and prophecies to heal this fallout center around a vision of play. We’ve been dealing with the consequences of sin from the word “Go”, but we are assured that it will not always be so. Isaiah 11:1-9 assures us that in the day when Christ reigns wolves and lambs will live together and babies can play safely (near cobras!?!?!). Though written to the exiled people of Judah during a separate time (nearly 200 years later), Zechariah similarly prophecies play as one of the fruits of God’s restoration of His people as a result of His healing:
“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: once again old men and women will walk Jerusalem’s streets with their canes and will sit together in the city squares. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls at play.” – Zech 8:4-5, NLT
I think that from God’s intent for us in the Garden of Eden even through prophetic promises ages later, godly rest and play is a fruit of our time spent living out faithfulness to God.
We see this at work when Christ commands His disciples to let the children come spend time with Him rather than pushing them away (Matt 19:14-15).
For that matter, let’s just consider the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. How ironic?! How silly! How playful? It simply defies logic that God would choose to become one of us in the first place, but to live out a human life cycle?! If I am God I am coming at the peak of maturity and power! But as a baby?!
Examine Christ Himself. We have come to imagine this very pastoral (
pastural?) image of Christ – benign, laconic, chill… but with special abilities. Incomplete, at best.
Reconsider Christ Himself. He was, for a time and place, one of us. Walking and talking and teaching us. Doing miracles for us. Touching us – we literally cannot touch each other without imparting communication. (It is also literally impossible for an NBA team to play (and win) without the power of touch .) Then look at some of His stories and lessons, teaching deep truths using images like coins and sheep. See how He sparred with the Pharisees and religious teachers of the law – what if it isn’t always anger but in many cases a playful sort of sarcasm? I believe Christ was playful.
And irony of ironies, upside-down, reality-flipping, playfulness: the Resurrection. Christ literally could laugh in the face of death.
Then imagine the ways He appears to His disciples after the resurrection: to two of them on the road as an unrecognizable traveler until He chooses to reveal Himself before poofing away; perhaps even shouting “Surprise!” as He suddenly appears to them in a locked room; and then again to the fishermen at the beach (John 21).
In the face of desolation and loss, as we all often do, Peter and a bulk of the disciples return to something familiar and comforting once Christ is gone. They spent the night on the boat fishing, but it was a terrible night – they have nothing to show for it when a man on the shore hollers out. Can you imagine the looks on their faces when Stranger suggests they put their nets on the other side of the boat? The eye rolling? The “Yeah, right!”s? And imagine the glee with which (unknown to them) Christ encourages them to give it a shot as He prepares to overload their nets (echoing Him calling them to Him at first in Luke 5).
So they do and are immediately overwhelmed. As they begin heading to shore and barely get the catch to land what do you think they are they thinking? “Yep, that’s our guy!” or “Oh no… He caught us not doing what He told us?” or “No way!?” or “How will we get these fish to shore?!” or “FINALLY! FISH!”
All the while He’s tending a small fire to cook breakfast on. Playful. Smug? Anticipating? Excited, even?
He invites them to breakfast and begins probing Peter. Again, I see playfulness here. He’s not rebuking as He would a Pharisee. He’s not exhorting like at the Sermon on the Mount. He’s not questioning as with the Samaritan woman at the well. In the vein of the woman caught in adultery, Christ will forgive while also challenging him to higher standards.
Watch His imagery – does Peter love Christ more than… the other disciples? The massive haul of fish? The gear itself? Then prove it by feeding…lambs? Little baby animals? And Christ asks a playful second time with the challenge to care for Christ’s sheep (echoing Christ’s teachings about pastures and gates and shepherds). But then a third time, perhaps a little more solemnly, piercing Peter with His eyes – so feed His sheep.
Peter’s not in trouble for fishing. In a bountiful, playful, probing sort of way, Christ reminds Peter of his first love, his Lord, and what Peter is really supposed to be fishing for. Of course, it wouldn’t be Peter without putting his foot in his mouth, and Christ parries the question about another disciple’s death with a patient parent’s faux-indignation and a hint of playful sarcasm.
Christ is God in human flesh, and I think He reveals a playful nature to God we have perhaps ignored until now. Though the Old Testament prophecies referenced above found some fulfillment in Christ, I think they continue speaking ahead to a time when God’s Kingdom is with His people (Rev 21) – play is a promised fruit of redemption and restoration. This gives significance and urgency to our command from Christ (Matt 28:16) to make disciples – why would we not share this with those who are working themselves to death, hopeless in their current circumstances, or even becoming hairless because of stress?! We are compelled to share this (literally Christ-ian) example of joyful play with a world that could use some mercy.
In this effort we are confirmed, comforted, and compelled by Colossians 3:1-17 (NLT) to live as an example of Christ and for Christ. We’re told:
“Whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
I think this includes our play,
especially even as I’m taking over the Monopoly board in tycoon’s fashion (don’t cry, guys). Do it (play, work, rest, strife, sport, generosity, service, hospitality, love… our LIVES) as Christ, through Christ, for Christ’s glory in a dark world that hasn’t yet found His wondrous Light! Because it is in living (and playing) well, according to Christ’s example and teachings, that we make this world a brighter place.
What do you think?
I believe the playfulness of Creation reveals God’s playful character. The playfulness of Christ’s miraculous interactions fulfill the playful promises given in the Old Testament. And the Spirit’s call to Godliness in all things redeems our play so that it can be joyously restoring.
Does this overview towards a theology of play hold up under scrutiny? What are some ways in which we can redeem play? How have you begun to turn your play into something you’re doing FOR Christ? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.