Body Ministries

Created to Play

By K. Erik Thoennes, Ph.D.


I had the delightful experience this week of watching a dozen 5 year old children get a tennis lesson. They were asked by their instructor to 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 into one another, all became part of the lesson. When the instructor 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 to the children as breathing. The teacher was successful because he appreciated the children’s insatiable need to play, and allowed for copious amounts of it within his instruction. This week I also read of a father who went to 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 to 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 instructor 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 to play, the other has locked into 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 into an ugly expression of human pride, insecurity, envy, and malice. What will keep us from turning sport into something ugly rather than beautiful? A robust appreciation of play is sure to help.

Among the many factors we could consider in answering the question of what it means for Christians to play the way God intends, in this chapter I want to us to think about the necessity of keeping play in sport for the glory of God. The main question I want to answer is “how does play help us to 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 history.

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 to know when my play is godly and when it is not. God has used play in my life, especially within sport, to maintain at least some of my sanity and to quell bitterness and anger. I’ve had difficult challenges to overcome in my life, and as a minister have sought to bear the burdens of others, and I have seen clearly in my life that the ability to 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 to 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 too.

A Fear

In some ways play defies explanation and definition. As Johan Huzinga observed, “the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.”2 Play’s resistance to being exegeted seems to 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 to 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 to anyone but the scientific mind."3 I don’t want to kill play in the process of seeking to 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 to risk being a spoil sport for at least 5 reasons:

Why We Must Appreciate & Understand Play

1) Play is a unique, God-given, universal, human experience.
One of the first things a baby does to express her humanity is to play and laugh. That first game of peek-a-boo not only melts a parent’s heart, it establishes a uniquely human connection. Play is basic to 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 to 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) Play is a vital part of most meaningful, healthy human relationships
The ability to play well with others is one of the first social expressions we look for in human development. Although we tend to forget how to play as we “mature,” it remains a vital quality in the most edifying relationships.

3) Play tends to be seen as either frivolous or an end in itself.
Play, especially within sport, tends to be dismissed as meaningless, worldly, and contrary to sober Christian living. On the other hand, Christians can be pulled into the idolatry of sport and leisure as an end in itself to 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 to 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 Spirit’s work.

5) Ministers should help people play well
A Christian who takes his role as a minister seriously must be able to lead people in godly play. As a pastor of a dear flock of growing saints and teacher of college students who generally have a deep hunger to know God, I’m convinced that helping God’s people survive in a very broken world requires a well-developed ability to play. A minister of the gospel must be able to cry and mourn, laugh and play with godly gusto, and lead others in these as well. So, for at least these 5 reasons we must play well, and with understanding.

Defining Play

Play 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. Play 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 to totally 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 to be an “interlude or intermezzo into our daily lives.” Play becomes a “complement or accompaniment” to the serious work of life,8 and “may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath.”9

Another aspect of definition of play is that it is non-compulsory. Play 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 contradictory. We have God’s permission to play. We may play.”10 The natural human inclination to 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 mandatory a situation, the more likely a rising need to play and laugh will be felt. Humans are created to be free, and imposed circumstances often spark playful expressions of freedom. Following Sarte and Shiller, Moltmann says, “if man knows himself to be free and desires to use his freedom, then his activity is play,”12

Play is also fundamentally non-utilitarian. The pragmatic results of play must necessarily fade to the background, to an almost subconscious level, lest the pure playfulness of play be lost. Play “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 to be more than merely a means to an end. The value of play is elusive in that as soon as you dwell on the pragmatics of it, it ceases to 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; “to 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 to trust in it. Living with faith and hope leads to 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 into

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 Play should not serve to anesthetize the Christian to life’s burdens preventing him from engaging them wholeheartedly, but rather to provide a needed hopeful Sabbath from their relentless presence.

Play and Competition

The inherent tension between competition and play does not mean they are unable to co-exist. Competition can increase the potential for true play, and play has the potential to heighten the enjoyment of competition. Sport requires a commitment to an imaginary world where the participants agree to 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 to break them. Whereas the spoil-sport breaks out of the commitment to the imaginary world of play by scoffing at the very existence of the world the game requires. Competition intensifies the participants commitment to the world of make believe where play thrives. Play keeps the competitor from losing perspective and seeing the final score as more important than playing the game.

Serious Play

For a Christian, play should never have a trivializing impact on life. God and life are not to 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 to 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 to play and laugh best. 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).

Play in the Bible

The Bible never explicitly addresses play per se, and it is safe to say that it is a mostly serious book that seeks to pull the reader from his sinful God-ignoring sloth and distraction to an earnest pursuit of his Creator and then to 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 to the liberating, saving presence of God himself. This seems to indicate that this sense of play has its origin in God himself.

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 into them. To understand play in the Bible, as we shall see, we also need to appreciate related concepts such as laughter, Sabbath, feasts, festivals, childlikeness, dancing, leaping, and music. These are impossible to do well apart from serious play. So our study of play in the Bible will not be limited to 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 to his covenant people.

A Playful 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 to a fabulous display of lavish divine activity. In describing the immense and powerful sea, the greatest sea creature of all, Leviathan, is said to have been formed by God to “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 to be the same idea we find in Job 41:5 where, to 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 toy-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 creator. 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 Creator 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 to see John the Baptist had gone out to see someone “in soft clothing,” Matt 112:8).

Play and the Coming Kingdom

The most stirring images of play in the Bible occur in attempts to 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 eschaton to look forward to; children playing with uninhibited, unhindered, freedom. We get a similar picture of the freedom to 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 restored Jerusalem. He likens it to 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 to 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 restoration, God provides the security and freedom a child experiences while playfully dandled on her mother’s knee.

These images call to mind Jesus holding up a child as the prototype of the kind of person to whom belongs the Kingdom of God (Matt 19:14). Jesus calls his followers to an attitude of childlike dependence and trust in God, but this kind of trust invariably leads to childlike play as we see God’s fulfilled covenant promises.

Playful, 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 to his wife.

“And David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, "How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!" As the ark of the LORD came into 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 to his deep gratitude for God’s gracious favor. "And David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to 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 to appreciate the magnitude of God’s grace and therefore had no category for David’s joyful response. Her highest value seemed to be royal dignity. For David, God’s glory returning to his people far surpassed the need to maintain royal decorum.23 David’s celebration epitomizes 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 to the Lord and spontaneity in worship.”24 Her failure to 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 restoring, 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 into 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 tongue 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 to 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 to the prophets.” (Lk 6:23)

• “And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3:8)

One would be hard pressed to think of a less practical, less constrained, less mandatory, less boring activity than leaping and dancing. This is the exuberant response of pardoned prisoners. Those who fail to understand God’s astounding 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 to anoint his feet with oil. She stands as a vivid and powerful picture of a sinner who understood grace (Luke 7:36-50). This same disposition was displayed by the woman who “wasted” expensive ointment anointing Jesus. She did a “beautiful thing” to Jesus in preparation for his burial and realized that unrestrained appreciation was warranted. His disciples failed to have her perspective at this moment, but most of them would once the author of life left an empty tomb behind.


Beyond explicit play oriented passages, Sabbath observance in the Bible helps us understand the value of play. Sabbath-keeping forced God’s people to disengage from providing for themselves and remember the ultimate source of their daily bread. The Creator and Sustainer built a mandatory rest into each week to get his people to put their efforts at survival into perspective. Even more radically, Yahweh institutes the Sabbath when his people are in the wilderness where failure to 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 intoxicating thing. The temptation to base one’s identity and esteem on what one produces is all but irresistible. . . The command to rest and remember God is a challenge to 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 tolerate this undercutting of their significance. . . . The fundamental realization that “it is God with whom I have to do” (Calvin) is what allows the play ethic to 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 to its import for our discussion on play:

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 to play properly. But we must not imagine that what we desire and are able to 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 bestowed upon it just because fundamentally we do not think that we have to take God seriously, and therefore we must take ourselves the more terribly seriously, this usually being the surest way to 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 to the very heart of the matter. Yet we might just as well be prepared frankly to 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 to 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 to 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 to quell the pride that leads to 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 into 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 to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil 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 today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into 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 to 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 to God’s comprehensive sovereignty.

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to 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 to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (Jas 4:13-17)

None of this is intended to undercut human effort, attentiveness, passion, diligence, or responsibility. Isaiah, Jesus, James, and Karl Barth for that matter, all worked extremely hard and took their human decisions and activity very seriously. However, human activity must always be subservient to the overarching plan and power of God. While best selling self-help books are telling us that the universe will rearrange itself to 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 to the freedom and Sabbath rest that lead to childlike dependence, trust, and play. Again, Barth’s words are apt:

Man has neither to repeat, emulate, nor augment this work of God. He has simply to attest to it. . . [Man] has not been commissioned to exercise the initiating and consummating function of God. He can and should leave this wholly to 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, Victor, 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 into play in the stricter sense.27

Hopeful Play

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 to bring a wonderful conclusion to 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 to the sports section to 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 to maintaining interest. There must be a good measure of uncertainty as to 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 to 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 history. The spontaneous uncertainty inherent in play with an eventual ending reflects the unfolding story of our lives. Like games, our lives are filled with smaller uncertainties which lead to one final result also fraught with uncertainty. Play can equip a person to deal with uncertainties on the way to the conclusion. For a Christian, the promised good conclusion to 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 Creator becomes a baby; the Creator of all that is beautiful has nothing in his appearance to attract us to 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 to 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 to play, for it expresses our ability to transcend the brokenness of our world. We momentarily see the human predicament as not only daunting but fixable. We should never get used to the relentless difficulty of our cursed cosmos. “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together 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 to come in the Eschaton. 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 Play 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 to abundantly share the spoils of this victory with his children. God’s saving power leads to great joy among God’s people. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue 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 stomachs and tears are not the whole story. 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 to 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 eschatologically mature. Self-control is more like training wheels for the eschatologically challenged. The whole direction of the New Covenant moves away from external controls toward the law-made-instincts on the heart (Jer 31:33-34), a move away from training wheels to 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 took off and his faith matured, so did his wonder—“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too 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 into glory, confusion into wonder, sin into redemption, Good Friday into 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 to be glorifying, or dishonoring to him,

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to 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 to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).

So, if I can eat a peach or drink a root beer float to the glory of God, I must be able to play to 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 to come.

Play is not a major emphasis in the Bible and it can be unhelpful to 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 to appreciate play in the Christian life could easily turn piety into sanctimony, reverence into rigidity, and sanctification into stuffiness. We must take God as seriously as we can, but never ourselves.

God invites us to approach him as his free, forgiven, secure children. We are to approach our holy God with healthy fear and hearts broken by our broken world. But God’s people are also called to 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 to play with reckless abandon, even before the Great Wedding Banquet begins.

2 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, (London: Hunt Barnard and Co., 1949), 3.
3 E.B. White, “Introduction.” Some Remarks on Humor, 1994,
4 Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Play, (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 Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash, (Glencoe: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), and Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Play (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. 16
10 Fred Sanders, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University, “A Play Ethic: Play 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
Press, 1994).
17 Moltmann 12.
18 Moltmann 12.
19 Moltmann 13.
20 A possible reading of this verse is “which you formed to 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 Created Play (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 20.