ong>Createdong> ong>toong> ong>Playong>: ong>Thoughtsong> on ong>Playong>, Sport, and the Christian Life
K. Erik Thoennes, Ph.D.
Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
Talbot School of Theology/Biola University
Pasong>toong>r, Grace Evangelical Free Church, La Mirada, California
I had the delightful experience this week of watching a dozen 5 year old children get a
tennis lesson. They were asked by their instrucong>toong>r ong>toong> simply run forward and then backward over
a 10 foot span. They did far more than run. Skipping, leaping, bounding, hopping, spinning,
laughing, imitating animals, running with closed eyes, dramatically falling, jumping up again,
and purposely crashing inong>toong> one another, all became part of the lesson. When the instrucong>toong>r
armed the children with racquets, the fun really began. The racquets quickly became guitars,
swords, canes, horses, trombones, rifles and fishing poles. The lesson continually bordered on
becoming “unproductive” and utter chaos because playing was as instinctual ong>toong> the children as
breathing. The teacher was successful because he appreciated the children’s insatiable need ong>toong>
play, and allowed for copious amounts of it within his instruction. This week I also read of a
father who went ong>toong> jail for 8 years for unintentionally killing one of his son’s tennis opponents
after drugging the opponent with medication that causes drowsiness. The father, who was doing
all he could ong>toong> insure the athletic “success” of his son and daughter, had similarly spiked the
water bottles of 27 other rivals over a three year period. 1 The difference between the fun loving
instrucong>toong>r and the winning obsessed father could not be more pronounced. And their differences
highlight drastically different ways of viewing sport in Western Culture. One has preserved
within sport the healthy, joyful expression of the deep human inclination ong>toong> play, the other has
locked inong>toong> a utilitarian understanding of sport that squelches play and the perspective-giving
power of sport. One appreciates the actual process of playing a sport; the other has sadly turned
sport inong>toong> an ugly expression of human pride, insecurity, envy, and malice. What will keep us
from turning sport inong>toong> something ugly rather than beautiful? A robust appreciation of play is
sure ong>toong> help.
Among the many facong>toong>rs we could consider in answering the question of what it means
for Christians ong>toong> play the way God intends, in this chapter I want ong>toong> us ong>toong> think about the
necessity of keeping play in sport for the glory of God. The main question I want ong>toong> answer is
“how does play help us ong>toong> fulfill our intended, created purpose in this beautiful yet tragically
fallen world?” First we will briefly define play. We will then look at play in the Bible, and we
will then consider play in light of God’s purpose in creation, humanity, and salvation hisong>toong>ry.
A Personal Quest
My interest in play is deeply personal. I write as one who cherishes play and as one who
has struggled throughout my life ong>toong> know when my play is godly and when it is not. God has
used play in my life, especially within sport, ong>toong> maintain at least some of my sanity and ong>toong> quell
bitterness and anger. I’ve had difficult challenges ong>toong> overcome in my life, and as a minister have
sought ong>toong> bear the burdens of others, and I have seen clearly in my life that the ability ong>toong> play is
one of God’s greatest gifts for coping with the difficulty of life in a fallen world. As long as I
can remember, play, grounded in knowledge that God loved me, has often kept me from despair
and resentment. Being able ong>toong> play, especially in the face of hard times, has been among the
greatest blessings of God in my life. So, my interest in play is far more than just academic. And
I hope yours is ong>toong>o.
In some ways play defies explanation and definition. As Johan Huzinga observed,
“the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” 2 ong>Playong>’s resistance ong>toong> being
exegeted seems ong>toong> be part of its magic. I fear that in studying play, this wonderful source of
solace, freedom, and perspective may lose its power. As soon as you have ong>toong> start explaining a
joke you pronounce it dead. I suspect that what E.B. White thought about humor is also true of
play when he said: "Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but like a frog, the thing dies in the
process and the innards are disgusting ong>toong> anyone but the scientific mind." 3 I don’t want ong>toong> kill
play in the process of seeking ong>toong> understand it. But understand it we must. Jürgen Moltmann, in
his book on a theology of play; warns of this danger when he says, “All the theories about play
make the point that a game is meaningful within itself but that is must appear useless and
purposeless from an outside point of view. Just asking for the purpose of a game makes a person
a spoilsport.” 4 But I need ong>toong> risk being a spoil sport for at least 5 reasons:
Why We Must Appreciate & Understand ong>Playong>
1) ong>Playong> is a unique, God-given, universal, human experience.
One of the first things a baby does ong>toong> express her humanity is ong>toong> play and laugh. That
first game of peek-a-boo not only melts a parent’s heart, it establishes a uniquely human
connection. ong>Playong> is basic ong>toong> being human. As Ice says;
Man is the only animal that weeps and laughs and knows that he weeps and laughs, and
wonders why. He is the only creature that weeps over the fact that he weeps, and laughs
over the fact that he laughs. He is the most play seeking, play making and play giving
species that has walked the earth, ever ready ong>toong> provoke or be provoked with play; even
in the midst of fear and pain he is capable of incongruously ameliorating his misery by a
smile, pun, or joke. He is the jester in the courts of creation. 5
2) ong>Playong> is a vital part of most meaningful, healthy human relationships
The ability ong>toong> play well with others is one of the first social expressions we look for in
human development. Although we tend ong>toong> forget how ong>toong> play as we “mature,” it remains a vital
quality in the most edifying relationships.
3) ong>Playong> tends ong>toong> be seen as either frivolous or an end in itself.
ong>Playong>, especially within sport, tends ong>toong> be dismissed as meaningless, worldly, and contrary
ong>toong> sober Christian living. On the other hand, Christians can be pulled inong>toong> the idolatry of sport
and leisure as an end in itself ong>toong> be sought at all costs. A biblical understanding of play as given
by God for his glory and our good, but never an end itself, will help coaches, athletes, and soccer
moms appreciate play and use it as a conduit of glorifying God. Such a re-orientation will give
perspective ong>toong> our lives as intended.
4) Christian maturity should develop a godly sense of play
As all other areas of our lives, play should fall under the sanctifying effects of the Holy
5) Ministers should help people play well
A Christian who takes his role as a minister seriously must be able ong>toong> lead people in
godly play. As a pasong>toong>r of a dear flock of growing saints and teacher of college students who
generally have a deep hunger ong>toong> know God, I’m convinced that helping God’s people survive in
a very broken world requires a well developed ability ong>toong> play. A minister of the gospel must be
able ong>toong> cry and mourn, laugh and play with godly gusong>toong>, and lead others in these as well.
So, for at least these 5 reasons we must play well, and with understanding.
ong>Playong> is a fun, imaginative, non-compulsory, non-utilitarian activity filled with creative
spontaneity and humor, which gives perspective, diversion, and rest from necessary work of
daily life. 6 In light of God’s sovereignty and faithful love, play for the Christian should
demonstrate and encourage hope, delight, gratitude, and celebration. ong>Playong> and fun go hand in
hand. One cannot truly play without a sense of good natured humor and fun that at times
invokes deep laughter. Fun at the heart of play has the potential ong>toong> ong>toong>tally absorb the player.
However, fun need not be merely frivolous. Although fun is a necessary part of the definition of
play, play is not the opposite of seriousness and can be very serious indeed. 7 Without a
seriousness about life, play losses its real power ong>toong> be an “interlude or intermezzo inong>toong> our daily
lives.” ong>Playong> becomes a “complement or accompaniment” ong>toong> the serious work of life, 8 and “may
rise ong>toong> heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath.” 9
Another aspect of definition of play is that it is non-compulsory. ong>Playong> must express
freedom and therefore cannot be imposed. As theologian Fred Sanders points out, “The
commandment “Thou shalt play” is an incoherent one; it is internally contradicong>toong>ry. We have
God’s permission ong>toong> play. We may play.” 10 The natural human inclination ong>toong> be free may be
“suppressed but not completely abolished.” 11 Often in the most serious, strict, compulsory
activities play nevertheless seeps out, often uncontrollably. The more formal, restrained,
controlled, and mandaong>toong>ry a situation, the more likely a rising need ong>toong> play and laugh will be felt.
Humans are created ong>toong> be free, and imposed circumstances often spark playful expressions of
freedom. Following Sarte and Shiller, Moltmann says, “if man knows himself ong>toong> be free and
desires ong>toong> use his freedom, then his activity is play,” 12
ong>Playong> is also fundamentally non-utilitarian. The pragmatic results of play must necessarily
fade ong>toong> the background, ong>toong> an almost subconscious level, lest the pure playfulness of play be lost.
ong>Playong> “does not depend on successes and accomplishments, although it does not preclude these,” 13
and it most certainly has the potential of accomplishing much if it is allowed ong>toong> be more than
merely a means ong>toong> an end. The value of play is elusive in that as soon as you dwell on the
pragmatics of it, it ceases ong>toong> be play. As Moltmann concludes, “all the theories about play make
the point that a game is meaningful within itself but that is must appear useless and purposeless
from an outside point of view.” 14
True play includes imaginative, creative, spontaneity. To play means entering a world of
make-believe where the players act as if the agreed upon rules, boundaries, and goals really
matter and exist. The Oxford English Dictionary includes in it definition of play; “ong>toong> pretend or
make believe, for sport or amusement.” This has direct implication for the Christian in that the
exercise of faith and hope require a kind of imagination. While the faith of the Christian is not
based in a fictitious world of make believe, it does require creatively imagining something God
has promised in order ong>toong> trust in it. Living with faith and hope leads ong>toong> the kind of joyful
discipleship God requires of his people. Again, Moltmann offers helpful insight when he says
that “without the free play of imagination and songs of praise the new obedience deteriorates inong>toong>
Finally, play provides needed perspective, diversion and rest. Like the arts, play can
afford “counter-environments” 16 that provide freedom from dwelling on the daily difficulties of
life in a fallen world. “We find pleasure in games and enjoy the suspended state of playing when
the game affords us critical perspectives for change in our otherwise burdensome world.” 17 ong>Playong>
should not serve ong>toong> anesthetize the Christian ong>toong> life’s burdens preventing him from engaging
them wholeheartedly, but rather ong>toong> provide a needed hopeful Sabbath from their relentless
ong>Playong> and Competition
The inherent tension between competition and play does not mean they are unable ong>toong>
co-exist. Competition can increase the potential for true play, and play has the potential ong>toong>
heighten the enjoyment of competition. Sport requires a commitment ong>toong> an imaginary world
where the participants agree ong>toong> act as though the made up parameters of space, time, and rules of
the game really exist and matter. This is why we despise a spoil-sport more than a cheat. At
least the cheat acts like the rules exist, even though he is trying ong>toong> break them. Whereas the
spoil-sport breaks out of the commitment ong>toong> the imaginary world of play by scoffing at the very
existence of the world the game requires. Competition intensifies the participants commitment
ong>toong> the world of make believe where play thrives. ong>Playong> keeps the competiong>toong>r from losing
perspective and seeing the final score as more important than playing the game.
For a Christian, play should never have a trivializing impact on life. God and life are
not ong>toong> be trifled with, and play in this sense has no place in the Christian life. If play serves as
merely a diversion rather than giving hopeful perspective it can actually prevent serious
transformative engagement with a world badly in need of redemption. “Games become hopeless
and witless if they serve only ong>toong> help us forget for a while what we cannot change anyway.” 18
Those who most recognize the difficulty of life in a fallen world are often able ong>toong> play and laugh
est. Paradoxically, there is a vital connection between suffering and play. As Moltmann
explains; “Games, jokes, caricatures, parodies, imitations, and intentional misunderstandings
may be regarded as a means of emancipation for those who are burdened and heavy-laden.” 19
These moments of emancipation can remind the faithful of the ultimate liberation coming when
Jesus makes all things new (Rev 21:5).
ong>Playong> in the Bible
The Bible never explicitly addresses play per se, and it is safe ong>toong> say that it is a mostly
serious book that seeks ong>toong> pull the reader from his sinful God-ignoring sloth and distraction ong>toong> an
earnest pursuit of his Creaong>toong>r and then ong>toong> holy living. But the seriousness in the Bible often sets
the stage for the unbridled joy of knowing God that is often expressed in playful exuberance.
Most of the elements of our working definition of play, activity that is fun, free, spontaneous,
creative, non-utilitarian, are found throughout Scripture, especially in response ong>toong> the liberating,
saving presence of God himself. This seems ong>toong> indicate that this sense of play has its origin in
Biblical words translated as a variation of “play” (sachaq, shaa, raqad, (OT), paizo (NT))
can also carry meanings of amusement, merrymaking, celebration, laughter, sport, delight,
mocking, dancing, frolicking, leaping, and skipping about. The most common kind of play in the
Bible is the playing of instruments. Music, depending on the kind, can be a profoundly playful
expression. Humans, animals and creation itself are portrayed as having an indelible playfulness
woven inong>toong> them. To understand play in the Bible, as we shall see, we also need ong>toong> appreciate
related concepts such as laughter, Sabbath, feasts, festivals, childlikeness, dancing, leaping, and
music. These are impossible ong>toong> do well apart from serious play. So our study of play in the
Bible will not be limited ong>toong> passages where words translated “play” occur. Rather, we will focus
on examples where main components of play are present. These occur most often when God’s
presence, grace, and glory are most evident ong>toong> his covenant people.
A ong>Playong>ful God
God created the universe with amazing order. He also guides our lives in his wise
providence which provides assurance that nothing happens apart from his careful perfect plan
which culminates in his glory and our good (Rom 8:28). But in the midst of God’s wise ordering
of the universe and perfectly executing his purposes, he is at the same time working with a
creative, playful, extravagance. This is evident in both the creation itself and God’s interaction
with it. The description of God’s creative activity in Ps 104, for instance, gives us a picture of
not only God’s awesome power and wisdom, but his abundant playfulness in his creative work--
springs gushing, birds singing from among the branches, wine gladdening the heart, trees
watered abundantly, all point ong>toong> a fabulous display of lavish divine activity. In describing the
immense and powerful sea, the greatest sea creature of all, Leviathan, is said ong>toong> have been
formed by God ong>toong> “play in it” (Ps 104:26). This verse may even be implying that it is God who
is at play with Leviathan in the seas he has created. 20 This seems ong>toong> be the same idea we find in
Job 41:5 where, ong>toong> put Job in his place, God ironically asks him if he will play with the great
Leviathan. “Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls?
The point is, Job is obviously incapable of doing something God certainly can. The very
creature that strikes terror in humans has a ong>toong>y-like quality from God’s perspective. Also in Job,
the mountains God made are portrayed as not only yielding food for Behemoth, but also as a
place where “all the wild beasts play” (Job 40:20). God’s creative provision includes
playgrounds for his inherently playful creatures.
The overwhelming artistic variety we see in creation indicates that there is not only an
intelligent designer behind it but also a playful artist. The sheer variety of tastes, colors, sounds,
textures, and shapes in creation indicate anything but pure utilitarian motivation by its creaong>toong>r.
God is both skillful architect and creative artist. God does nothing based in need (Acts 17:24-25;
Ps 50:9-12; Job 4:11), so creation, like play, is “meaningful but not necessary.” 21 In creating and
sustaining everything, and in accomplishing redemption, God’s pleasure and glory, are his
primary motives (Isa 43:7; Matt 10:26; Lk 11:21; Eph 1: 5, 9, 11-12). Creation is God at play, “a
play of his groundless and inscrutable wisdom. It is the real in which God displays his glory.” 22
Creation, and life itself, become a source of pleasure and delight for those who delight in the
Creaong>toong>r and the work of his hands.
We get glimpses of the playfulness of God in Christ in his teaching which often included
verbal sparring with his opponents and at times his own disciples. Jesus’ parables frequently
contain humorous exaggeration, (the hypocrites beam in his eye of Matt 7:5), word play (Peter’s
new nickname, Matt 16:18), and irony (asking whether the people who went ong>toong> see John the
Baptist had gone out ong>toong> see someone “in soft clothing,” Matt 112:8).
ong>Playong> and the Coming Kingdom
The most stirring images of play in the Bible occur in attempts ong>toong> express the joy and
freedom experienced in the coming Kingdom of God. The most vivid of these images is
Zechariah 8:5: “And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.
God gives his people a beautiful scene of the eschaong>toong>n ong>toong> look forward ong>toong>; children playing with
uninhibited, unhindered, freedom. We get a similar picture of the freedom ong>toong> be found in the
heavenly city in Isaiah 11:8-9; “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the
weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy
mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
Fearless childlike play, no longer inhibited by the effects of sin and the curse is a key metaphor
of Christ’s Kingdom. Similar images of playful celebration and “merrymaking” abound in other
prophetic glimpses of what the New Jerusalem brings (cf. Jer 30:18–19; 31:4 , 13–14).
One of the tenderest pictures of God’s deep care for his people is found in his promise of
a resong>toong>red Jerusalem. He likens it ong>toong> the care of a compassionate mother for a little baby which
will provide the care a little baby receives from her compassionate mother. Speaking of the
fulfilled covenant, Yahweh says of Jerusalem, "Behold, I will extend peace ong>toong> her like a river,
and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried
upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees” (Isa 66:12). In the resong>toong>ration, God provides the
security and freedom a child experiences while playfully dandled on her mother’s knee.
These images call ong>toong> mind Jesus holding up a child as the proong>toong>type of the kind of person
ong>toong> whom belongs the Kingdom of God (Matt 19:14). Jesus calls his followers ong>toong> an attitude of
childlike dependence and trust in God, but this kind of trust invariably leads ong>toong> childlike play as
we see God’s fulfilled covenant promises.
ong>Playong>ful, spontaneous, exuberance sparked by God’s presence and blessing is vividly
displayed in David’s joyful worship when the Ark of the Covenant was returned from the
Philistines. David looks downright childlike as he celebrates the symbol of God’s abiding
presence upon re-entering Jerusalem.
“And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and
lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” (2 Sam 6:5).
“And David danced before the LORD with all his might . . . 2 Sam 6:14).
His playful uninhibited exuberance was so expressive, it offended ong>toong> his wife.
“And David returned ong>toong> bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out
ong>toong> meet David and said, "How the king of Israel honored himself ong>toong>day, uncovering
himself ong>toong>day before the eyes of his servants' female servants, as one of the vulgar
fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!" As the ark of the LORD came inong>toong> the city of
David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David
leaping and dancing before the LORD, and she despised him in her heart” (2 Sam 6:20).
David is unapologetic due ong>toong> his deep gratitude for God’s gracious favor.
"And David said ong>toong> Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father
and above all his house, ong>toong> appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD- and
I will make merry before the LORD. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this,
and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken,
by them I shall be held in honor." (2 Sam 6:21-22).
Michal was unable ong>toong> appreciate the magnitude of God’s grace and therefore had no category for
David’s joyful response. Her highest value seemed ong>toong> be royal dignity. For David, God’s glory
returning ong>toong> his people far surpassed the need ong>toong> maintain royal decorum. 23 David’s celebration
epiong>toong>mizes key elements of our definition of play. His enthusiastic, exuberant, dancing and
leaping was, free, creative, fun, non-utilitarian and demonstrated and encouraged hope, delight,
gratitude, and celebration. Michal “despised him for the very qualities that made him great,
namely devotion ong>toong> the Lord and spontaneity in worship.” 24 Her failure ong>toong> grasp God’s grace,
and consequently playful exuberance resulted in barrenness for the remainder of her life (2 Sam
6:23). Perhaps Michal’s bareness gives us a warning about the poverty of a life bereft of
exuberant childlike freedom in worship.
David’s playful dancing and leaping mirrors other responses of the joy over God’s
resong>toong>ring, power and presence.
• “Singers and dancers alike say, "All my springs are in you."” (Ps 87:7)
• “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.” (Ps 114:4)
• “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn
yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers (or “the
chorus of the playful,” (YLT)) (Jer 31:4)
“ Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall
be merry. I will turn their mourning inong>toong> joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness
for sorrow.” (Jer 31:13)
• “. . . then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the ong>toong>ngue of the mute sing for joy. For
waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;” (Isa 35:6)
• “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its
wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2)
• “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came ong>toong> my ears, the baby in my womb
leaped for joy.” (Lk 1:44)
• “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so
their fathers did ong>toong> the prophets.” (Lk 6:23)
• “And leaping up he song>toong>od and began ong>toong> walk, and entered the temple with them, walking
and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3:8)
One would be hard pressed ong>toong> think of a less practical, less constrained, less mandaong>toong>ry, less
boring activity than leaping and dancing. This is the exuberant response of pardoned prisoners.
Those who fail ong>toong> understand God’s asong>toong>unding grace have no category for this sort of
impractical unrestrained worship. The woman in Luke 7 dismissed pharisaical decorum and
kissed Jesus’ feet and used her tears and hair ong>toong> anoint his feet with oil. She stands as a vivid and
powerful picture of a sinner who undersong>toong>od grace (Luke 7:36-50). This same disposition was
displayed by the woman who “wasted” expensive ointment anointing Jesus. She did a “beautiful
thing” ong>toong> Jesus in preparation for his burial and realized that unrestrained appreciation was
warranted. His disciples failed ong>toong> have her perspective at this moment, but most of them would
once the author of life left an empty ong>toong>mb behind.
Beyond explicit play oriented passages, Sabbath observance in the Bible helps us
understand the value of play. Sabbath-keeping forced God’s people ong>toong> disengage from providing
for themselves and remember the ultimate source of their daily bread. The Creaong>toong>r and Sustainer
built a mandaong>toong>ry rest inong>toong> each week ong>toong> get his people ong>toong> put their efforts at survival inong>toong>
perspective. Even more radically, Yahweh institutes the Sabbath when his people are in the
wilderness where failure ong>toong> fend for yourself could cost you your life. Rest in God’s sufficiency
and power wars against an anthropocentric view of life and demands we surrender any vestige of
self-sufficiency. Fred Sanders, offers excellent insight along these lines.
Productive work is an inong>toong>xicating thing. The temptation ong>toong> base one’s identity and
esteem on what one produces is all but irresistible. . . The command ong>toong> rest and
remember God is a challenge ong>toong> human productivity. It arrests and relativizes even the
most demanding and consuming work, for anything which can be interrupted is not
ultimate in importance. Self-important people cannot ong>toong>lerate this undercutting of their
significance. . . . The fundamental realization that “it is God with whom I have ong>toong> do”
(Calvin) is what allows the play ethic ong>toong> be liberating. 25
Sanders leans on Barth’s discussion of creation in his Dogmatics. Barth’s treatment of Sabbath
in light of God’s sovereign work is worth quoting at length due ong>toong> its import for our discussion
Outward and inward work will be done with more rather than less seriousness once a man
realizes that what he desires and does and achieves thereby, when measured by the work
of God which it may attest, cannot be anything but play, i.e., a childlike imitation and
reflection of the fatherly action of God which as such is true and proper action. When
children play properly, of course, they do so with supreme seriousness and devotion.
Even in play, if a man does not really play properly he is a spoil-sport. We are
summoned ong>toong> play properly. But we must not imagine that what we desire and are able ong>toong>
do is more than play. Human work would certainly not be worse done, but both
individually and as a whole it would be done much better, if it were done with the
frightful seriousness which is so often besong>toong>wed upon it just because fundamentally we
do not think that we have ong>toong> take God seriously, and therefore we must take ourselves the
more terribly seriously, this usually being the surest way ong>toong> invoke the spirit of idleness
and sloth by way of compensation. We may confidently affirm that not by a long chalk
can work be done with genuine earnestness in these circumstances—and for this the
simple reason that we will not admit that in it, even at best, we cannot be more than
children engaged in serious and true play. No type of work is exempt from this rule. It
may be seen clearly in the work of the artist, since there it belongs ong>toong> the very heart of the
matter. Yet we might just as well be prepared frankly ong>toong> admit its validity in scientific
work as well. 26
Barth beautifully attacks any hint of human-centeredness or self-sufficiency. Lack of play, rest,
and leisure can be a sign of profound hubris.
Similarly, Isaiah rebukes Israel and seeks ong>toong> free them from thinking their efforts were
the ultimate source of their protection. “For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I
who say ong>toong> you, "Fear not, I am the one who helps you. Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of
Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of
Israel.” (Isa 41:13-14). Jesus’ also seeks ong>toong> quell the pride that leads ong>toong> anxiety about our
provision in his Sermon on the Mount.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will
drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body
more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather inong>toong>
barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour ong>toong> his span of life? And why
are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they
neither ong>toong>il nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like
one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which ong>toong>day is alive and
ong>toong>morrow is thrown inong>toong> the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little
faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?'
or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly
Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his
righteousness, and all these things will be added ong>toong> you. (Matt 6:25-33)
In a sense, Jesus is saying, how dare you worry? Who do you think you are, the sovereign God?
James corrects a heightened view of human planning by comparing it ong>toong> God’s comprehensive
Come now, you who say, "Today or ong>toong>morrow we will go inong>toong> such and such a ong>toong>wn and
spend a year there and trade and make a profit"- yet you do not know what ong>toong>morrow will
bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then
vanishes. Instead you ought ong>toong> say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that."
As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the
right thing ong>toong> do and fails ong>toong> do it, for him it is sin. (Jas 4:13-17)
None of this is intended ong>toong> undercut human effort, attentiveness, passion, diligence, or
responsibility. Isaiah, Jesus, James, and Karl Barth for that matter, all worked extremely hard
and ong>toong>ok their human decisions and activity very seriously. However, human activity must
always be subservient ong>toong> the overarching plan and power of God. While best selling self-help
books are telling us that the universe will rearrange itself ong>toong> give you whatever you want if you
exercise the power of positive thoughts, God condemns this blasphemous lie and frees us from
the impossible role of playing God. Rather, he calls us ong>toong> the freedom and Sabbath rest that lead
ong>toong> childlike dependence, trust, and play. Again, Barth’s words are apt:
Man has neither ong>toong> repeat, emulate, nor augment this work of God. He has simply ong>toong>
attest ong>toong> it. . . [Man] has not been commissioned ong>toong> exercise the initiating and
consummating function of God. He can and should leave this wholly ong>toong> God. The
demanded rest from all his labour is that he should do his work with diligence but also
with the recollection that God is Lord, Master, Provider, Warrior, Vicong>toong>r, Author and
Finisher, and therefore with the relief and relaxation which spring from this recognition. .
. Rest is temporary release and liberation from some other activity. This other activity
may also be work. In most cases it will be. But it will be work undertaken voluntarily
and therefore with particular joy. It will be work which demands very different interests
and exertions. To this extent it will be re-creative, refreshing and beneficial, like a
secondary play supporting the main one enacted on the decisive stage. Obviously, by
way of games of sport, this may easily pass over inong>toong> play in the stricter sense. 27
How can we ever justify playing when poverty kills millions of children every year and
wars rage around the globe? Without sober acknowledgment of sin, play can become a mere
distraction or obsession. But the Christian can play with reckless abandon because all is certain
for God. Because of God’s sovereign power ong>toong> bring a wonderful conclusion ong>toong> all of the
ambiguities and suffering in life, the Christian has hope and can truly play. A clear definitive
result in a game is part of their appeal. Our newspapers reveal never ending political, national,
international, interpersonal, and religious conflicts. It is no wonder many readers turn first ong>toong> the
sports section ong>toong> discover yesterday’s results. While the clear resolution sport offers is part of its
draw, ironically, interest in play and sport rests largely on the uncertainty of the final outcome.
We lose interest in games if the outcome is assured before the game starts. This is why parity in
sports leagues is vital ong>toong> maintaining interest. There must be a good measure of uncertainty as ong>toong>
what will transpire and what the end result will be. The more tension created by this uncertainty,
the more engaged we become with the game. This creative spontaneous uncertainty is central ong>toong>
the definition of play and at the heart of the intrigue of sport. I believe this mirrors the tension at
the heart of the drama of human hisong>toong>ry. The spontaneous uncertainty inherent in play with an
eventual ending reflects the unfolding song>toong>ry of our lives. Like games, our lives are filled with
smaller uncertainties which lead ong>toong> one final result also fraught with uncertainty. ong>Playong> can equip
a person ong>toong> deal with uncertainties on the way ong>toong> the conclusion. For a Christian, the promised
good conclusion ong>toong> the difficulty of life in a fallen world brings a deep enjoyment of play as is
dramatizes a life that ends well.
The Hope of The Cross
God’s redeeming power that evokes play and laughter from believers is seen most
powerfully in the “folly” of the redemptive work of Christ (1 Cor 1-2). The juxtaposing ironies
in his life are many; the glorious Creaong>toong>r becomes a baby; the Creaong>toong>r of all that is beautiful has
nothing in his appearance ong>toong> attract us ong>toong> him; the Source of all joy becomes the Man of Sorrows;
the cursed and crucified Holy One sustaining the universe as he rides a donkey ong>toong> his triumphal
entry and who will return as a wrathful--Lamb. His life conjures images of Don Quixote chasing
windmills and dreaming the impossible dream, except Jesus doesn’t die at the end--and all our
hopes and dreams come true in Him.
The gospel leads ong>toong> play, for it expresses our ability ong>toong> transcend the brokenness of our
world. We momentarily see the human predicament as not only daunting but fixable. We should
never get used ong>toong> the relentless difficulty of our cursed cosmos. “The creation was subjected ong>toong>
futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be
set free from its bondage ong>toong> decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning ong>toong>gether in the pains of childbirth until
now.” (Rom 8:20-22). The Christian world view recognizes the relentless difficulty of life in our
dysfunctional world, but also that it is being redeemed by the one who created, and cursed it. So,
we have hope, and play, in the midst of our brokenness. “He suffered that we may laugh again. .
. In the cross of Christ God is taking man dead-seriously so that he may open up for him the
happy freedom of Easter.” 28 Without hope, play becomes merely a diversion from the life’s
troubles rather than a hopeful expression of the freedom ong>toong> come in the Eschaong>toong>n. When it is an
end in itself, play can become a frivolous idol that keeps us from dealing with the human
predicament. When grounded in the hope of the Gospel, play can become one of life’s greatest
and most encouraging pleasures.
Heaven: The ong>Playong> of Eternity
Christian play is the response of those who know God as their father, and know he has
overcome the world, and that he loves ong>toong> abundantly share the spoils of this vicong>toong>ry with his
children. God’s saving power leads ong>toong> great joy among God’s people. “Then our mouth was
filled with laughter, and our ong>toong>ngue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The
LORD has done great things for them.’” (Ps 126:2). This joy is possible even when life is brutal.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. "Blessed are you who weep
now, for you shall laugh.” (Lk 6:21). Empty song>toong>machs and tears are not the whole song>toong>ry. God
will bring ultimate healing one day.
There are a few times in life when our souls and bodies are overtaken by our hearts. In
sexual expression, sobbing, uncontrollable laughter, or in the freedom of childlike play, we get a
glimpse of what it will be like ong>toong> be done with this sin sick world, and in the presence of God--
lost in wonder love and praise. 29 As Douglas Jones helpfully (and playfully) states, “[S]cripture
commends self-control but not forever, not for the eschaong>toong>logically mature. Self-control is more
like training wheels for the eschaong>toong>logically challenged. The whole direction of the New
Covenant moves away from external controls ong>toong>ward the law-made-instincts on the heart (Jer
31:33-34), a move away from training wheels ong>toong> instinctive wheelies.” 30
The paradoxical nature of Jesus’ Kingdom teaching demands an imaginative sense of
wonder and play. The loss of wonder is often mistaken for Christian maturity. As Conrad Hyers
rightly observed, “[T]rue maturity involves a resurrection of childlikeness.” 31 As Job’s
understanding of God ong>toong>ok off and his faith matured, so did his wonder—“Therefore I have
uttered what I did not understand, things ong>toong>o wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 4:6).
Christian play should see suffering for what it is, but always through the eyes of cross-centered
hope. Following Jesus turns pain inong>toong> glory, confusion inong>toong> wonder, sin inong>toong> redemption, Good
Friday inong>toong> Easter Sunday morning.
So, what is a Christian understanding of play--how should a Christian play? Well,
fundamentally we should play the way we do everything else--for the glory of God and the good
of others. God tells us that every part of human experience has the potential ong>toong> be glorifying, or
dishonoring ong>toong> him,
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all ong>toong> the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31).
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving
thanks ong>toong> God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).
So, if I can eat a peach or drink a root beer float ong>toong> the glory of God, I must be able ong>toong>
play ong>toong> his glory as well. When we play as hopeful forgiven children of the King of Kings, that
hopeful play glorifies God and gives a glimpse of things ong>toong> come.
ong>Playong> is not a major emphasis in the Bible and it can be unhelpful ong>toong> encourage play in a
culture that so often and easily trivializes God and life itself. Yet, I do believe that a sense of
play is necessary for a healthy Christian perspective on life. The failure ong>toong> appreciate play in the
Christian life could easily turn piety inong>toong> sanctimony, reverence inong>toong> rigidity, and sanctification
inong>toong> stuffiness. We must take God as seriously as we can, but never ourselves.
God invites us ong>toong> approach him as his free, forgiven, secure children. We are ong>toong> approach
our holy God with healthy fear and hearts broken by our broken world. But God’s people are
also called ong>toong> rejoice, sing, play, and laugh because we know that the owner of all things is
working out his perfect plan that ends with a wedding banquet and perfect resolution and rest.
This sure hope in God’s sovereign power and loving-kindness enables us ong>toong> play with reckless
abandon, even before the Great Wedding Banquet begins.
2 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the ong>Playong> Element in Culture, (London: Hunt Barnard and Co., 1949), 3.
3 E.B. White, “Introduction.” Some Remarks on Humor, 1994, http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/984.html.
4 Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of ong>Playong>, (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 5.
5 Jackson Lee Ice, "Notes Toward a Theology of Humor," Religion in Life: A Christian Quarterly of Opinion and Discussion, XLII, 3 (Autumn 1973), 392.
6 This definition is based primarily on the help of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the seminal works on play by Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Roger Caillois,
Man ong>Playong> and Games, trans. Meyer Barash, (Glencoe: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), and Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of ong>Playong> (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).
7 For an excellent discussion of the potential seriousness of play see Huizinga, 5-6.
8 Huizinga, 9.
9 Huizinga, 8.
10 Fred Sanders, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University, “A ong>Playong> Ethic: ong>Playong> Studies in Psychology and Theology,” Unpublished essay, 1992, 15.
11 Moltmann 13.
12 Moltmann 21.
13 Moltmann 22.
14 Moltmann 5.
15 Moltmann 43.
16 This term and idea is following the thoughts of Marshall McLuhan, “Introduction,” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 2nd ed, (New York: MIT
17 Moltmann 12.
18 Moltmann 12.
19 Moltmann 13.
20 A possible reading of this verse is “which you formed ong>toong> play with.”
21 Moltmann 17.
22 Moltmann 17.
23 Mary J. Evans, The Message of Samuel, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 195.
24 Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel: an Introduction and Commentary, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1988), 209.
25 Sanders 15-16.
26 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 4, trans. A.T. Mackay, et. Al. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), 553-554.
27 Barth 552.
28 Moltmann 32-33.
29 Douglas Jones, "Ironies of Laughter," Credenda Agenda (Moscow, Id. 2004), 4.
30 Jones 4.
31 Conrad Hyers, And God ong>Createdong> ong>Playong> (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 20.
Baldwin, Joyce, G. 1 and 2 Samuel: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1988.
Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics . Vol. III. No. 4. Trans. A.T. Mackay, et al. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961.
Caillois. Roger. Man, ong>Playong>, and Games. Trans. Meyer Barash. Glencoe: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.
Evans, Mary J. The Message of Samuel: Personalities, Potential, Politics and Power. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press,
Huizinga Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the ong>Playong> Element in Culture. Bosong>toong>n: Beacon Press, 1955.
Hyers, Conrad. And God ong>Createdong> Laughter. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987.
Ice, Jackson Lee. "Notes Toward a Theology of ong>Playong>." Religion in Life: A Christian Quarterly of Opinion and
Discussion. Vol. XLII. No. 3. Autumn, 1973.
Jones, Douglas. "Ironies of Laughter." Credenda Agenda. Moscow, Id. 2004.
McLuhann, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: MIT Press, 1994.
Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of ong>Playong>. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Ryken, Leland, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. Dictionary
of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Sanders, Fred. “A ong>Playong> Ethic: ong>Playong> Studies in Psychology and Theology.” Unpublished paper, 1992.