Updated: Mar 3, 2021
My brother and I recently spent an afternoon playing football with a bunch of neighborhood kids. Some of the kids we knew. But most of the kids we'd never met before. It took me back to being a kid in our neighborhood growing up. You know, back before Minecraft or Fortnite became the place you'd meet a new person.
The game of choice on this chilly afternoon was football. My brother and I were all-time quarterbacks for our respective teams. That way the boys focused on running, catching and tackling. They focused on those activities intensely. They played hard. The boys were serious about running, catching, tackling, and scoring. Believe it or not, they put down their video games.
To come outside.
To play football.
To spend time with strangers.
This game was serious business. But the boys were also not serious.
Within the confines of the game we were playing, the rules were voluntarily and strictly adhered to. Nothing kills play quicker than a boy shouting "That's not fair!" Of all places, in games we tend to understand and accept the value of boundaries moreso than in the rest of life. Winning isn't the most important thing. Winning can't be the most important thing because it only matters if the winning is done fairly and honestly.
Play is only truly fun when everybody follows the rules. Dishonesty kills play.
Even in our post-modern, truth-is-relative saturated culture, we can't get away from the truth that taking rules seriously enables play to be, well, not serious.
I remember a mother telling me that her oldest son had to tell her youngest son this hard truth during a family game night: “You can make that move and win the game, but just know you will have cheated to win. And cheating is not winning.” Breaking boundaries and cheating others doesn't result in freedom. Loving justice and hating wrongdoing sets us free for healthy and thriving relationships.
"For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing" (Isaiah 61:8). The people of God in the kingdom of God are to love justice and hate wrongdoing enough to direct their own behavior. Imagine heaven in the age to come as a time when even our desires are perfected so we can both want the good and do the right.
But that's not the most fascinating part of our afternoon playing football. Playing is not necessarily the same as resting. Effort, concentration, coordination, the ups and downs of competition, all of this seems exhausting. Except, none of the kids wanted to end the game. If not for dinner time creeping up on us as the sun set over the horizon, why would we stop having this much fun? Those boys would’ve played all afternoon if not for the demands of survival, namely, dinner time and the fact that 30+-year-olds tire faster than grade-schoolers do.
Why is play an experience we don’t want to stop? This is one of the more fascinating parts of play. Effort, concentration, coordination, the ups and downs of competition all seem exhausting. Except, no one wanted to stop playing the game. If the sky never darkened, if our tummies never hungered, and if the boys never got tired (and then frustrated), we might have never had a reason to stop. But all good things come to an end.
Or do they?
God did not intend for our joy to decrease the closer we grow in our relationship with Him. On the contrary, “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God” (Isaiah 61:10). Play is an echo of God's nature. Survival is possible without play, but without play, we don't thrive. Our hope for our children is that childhood is not just about surviving, but imagination and creativity and play. Our marriage counselor told us once to not forget to have fun and enjoy each other. God created you two to live as more than roommates and business partners, but as family and friends who enjoy one another.
Finally, read Isaiah 61:4-6. This passage says the favor of God will include the work of rebuilding broken down structures and cities but minus the toil and concern for survival. Enjoying God's favor involves creating and designing, crafting and building, effort and work. God creates and works and created people to work and to work for its own sake. This is what Adam and Eve did in the garden before the fruit and the snake and the curses. As we think about working in God's kingdom today as well as looking forward to God's kingdom after this life, we can associate the effortless effort of play with the ongoing work of God in and among and along with His people.
If you had a day of rest to yourself to play, what would you do?
What do you enjoy that someone else would refer to as work?
(Comment on what you would choose!)
“Is it really a mature move to turn you back on good things that can bring you joy, that can improve your mental agility, that can improve your physical fitness, that can give you social skills and help you learn how to be a team player? I think not. Indeed, I would say that work and worship both have something to learn from play.”