If you had a day of rest to yourself to do something fun, what would you do?
(Comment on what you would choose!)
How much effort would your choice involve? Chances are some of the ideas for how you’d spend a day of rest involve effort and may leave you feeling tired.
Growing up, fishing was not done for survival. We always went as a form of sport. Fishing involved effort. There are rules and regulations. In the mountains of Wyoming, there are risks. However, at the end of the day, a bad day fishing beat any day working. Right?
What does it mean to play? Are we better off the less we play?
I once read that “play is something you do when you’re not working. Is it rest? But play can also be effortful, even tiring, so it's not the same as rest either. Is it work? And what about entertainment, is that the same as play?”
Work and Play
Genesis 4:19-21 is one of the Bible’s early accounts of people. We read here about the family of Lamech. One of his children, Jabal, is said to be the father of those who raise livestock. Raising livestock is work, not play. Livestock are raised for food; animals are a means to an end. Another of Lamech’s children, Jubal, is said to be the father of those who play instruments. Some make music for a living. But most sing or play or listen to music for its own sake. No money earned, just enjoyment found.
This old story in Genesis illustrates two parts of life that relate to play. There are activities we do to work and survive out of necessity. And then there are activities we do for play, for fun, and their own sake.
My brother and I recently spent an afternoon playing football with a bunch of neighborhood kids. Some of the kids we knew. Most of the kids we only just met. We played hard. The boys were serious about running, catching, tackling, and scoring. But the boys were also not serious. Believe it or not, they put down their video games.
To come outside.
To play football.
To spend time with strangers.
They would’ve played all afternoon if not for the demands of survival, namely, dinner time.
What is it about play and effort and teamwork that created instant unity among these boys? The boys came together as a team, pushed themselves mentally and physically, made mistakes, overcame defeat, and I hardly had to motivate them. When we play, we unconsciously decide to set aside unimportant differences for the sake of some good and better purpose.
Why were these boys so willing to abide by and hold to the rules of football? Nothing kills play quicker than a boy shouting “That’s not fair!” Perhaps more so in games than in life, we understand and accept the value of boundaries. Winning is not the most important thing when the rules are broken. Winning only matters if it is done honestly. Play is only fun when the rules are followed. Even in our post-modern and truth is relative culture, isn't that odd?
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 call the play to an end. 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 and Play
There are many parallels between play and what God promises His people.
In Luke 4, Jesus teaches about the kind of favor God wants to share because it is in His nature. Jesus points listeners and readers back to the Old Testament book of Isaiah 61. God's favor isn't pure entertainment, but it also echoes some of the life lessons of play in ways we don't fully appreciate.
What is it about play that creates instant unity? Isaiah 61:4-6 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 so 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.
Why do we abide by and hold to rules in a game? "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing." The LORD’s love of justice and hatred of robbery and wrongdoing are the rules that set us free for healthy and thriving relationships. 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 do that move and win the game, but just know you will have cheated to win. And cheating is not winning.” Imagine the people of God as those who love justice and hate wrongdoing enough to direct their own behavior. Imagine heaven as a time when even our desires are perfected so we can both want the good and do what is right.
Why is play an experience we don’t want to stop? 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.” Play is an echo of God's nature. Survival is possible without play; without play, we can't really thrive. Part of childhood is not just 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 live as more than roommates and business partners, but as family and friends who enjoy one another.
Life is serious business. It was in Jesus’ day. In Matthew 11, we read about God sending both John the Baptist and Jesus. The world of John and Jesus hadn’t retained the ability to play or mourn.
The culture of their day saw John and said he was too dour, depressed, a killjoy, and demon-possessed.
But they looked the other way at Jesus and said He was too merry, too flippant, and enjoyed life too much amidst suffering. Culture can become like kids robbed of their childhood and in return seek to rob individuals and families of childlike joy. Is it really maturity to lose the ability to express joy or display a somber demeanor?
“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.”