What Authentic Play Teaches Us About God
Learning to genuinely ‘play’ offers parallels to our spiritual life.
When I was a child I loved throwing a tennis ball against a wall. I could stand there whipping that ball towards the side of the garage and waiting to catch it for hours.
To be honest, I still love doing it.However, as I have gotten older I don’t play as much as I once did. It’s not that I don’t want to have fun, but rather that I have lost some of the ability to truly play.
This realization came about while reading Robert K. Johnston’s book The Christian at Play. Johnston argues that one of the biggest issues facing our culture is our inability to play—specifically, not understanding what play is meant to be.
As Johnston describes play, it became apparent that the same elements present in play are present in our relationship with God.
Three things stood out.
HELP REDEEM THE CULTURE OF YOUTH SPORTS.
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Playing for the Sake of Play
At the core of its purpose, play serves itself. We don’t play to achieve a goal, gain an advantage, or for other external benefits—we play to play.
Throwing a football around in the backyard does not have a set purpose outside itself.
This is why lifting weights in the gym should not be considered play. When a person chooses to go to the gym and lift, they most likely engage in this activity to improve their muscle mass, stay healthy, or train for a sport. This motivation serves as an external goal that the person is trying to achieve. It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy this type of activity—it’s just not play.
Our play may have benefits outside itself, but in its purest sense we do not approach it expecting anything in return.
Revelation 4:11 says, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” The author doesn’t mention God should be worshipped because of what God will do for us or how God will benefit our lives, but because of who God is.
When we approach our worship asking how it will benefit our personal lives, our worship becomes more about ourselves than God.
We worship God because of who God is, not what we “get” out of it.
Just like play, while we may benefit from our worship of God, it is not—or at least should not be—why we worship the Creator.
"We don't play to achieve a goal, gain an advantage, or for other external benefits—we play to play."
Playing with Our Whole Being
True play requires our entire being. It demands that one be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually present.
Think about a child who imagines they are a professional athlete. As they run around the yard, simultaneously playing a game, being a TV commentator, and cheering like the crowd, they are wholly involved in the activity. If the child does not give themselves fully, the imaginary world disappears. To play, one must commit themselves fully to that act.
Much like the child pretending to be their favorite athlete, our faith calls us to fully commit to our beliefs. If we proclaim our faith in Jesus, but act against his teachings we do not live out our belief.
When speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:7-8).
Jesus calls us to live out our faith fully, acting on the beliefs we proclaim.
Playing with Complete Freedom
You can’t force anyone to play. When play is mandatory, it is not genuine.
In freely agreeing to play, we allow ourselves to experience the freedom of play. In opening ourselves to the world of play, we can see life in a different way. Where once we only observed a grassy field, a space is now present in which we can feel joy, love, and peace.
The freedom to play allows us the freedom to see the world as it can be.
There will always be those who do not want anything to do with the message of Jesus. However, just because some do not proclaim Christ as Lord does not make the message false. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).
While some may see belief as foolish, those who have freely chosen the Christian faith can speak to the freedom that is within the way of Jesus. What may look like a rigid system of do’s and don’ts is actually an encounter with the Savior’s love, forgiveness, and grace.
In freely choosing to follow Jesus, we experience the world as it is meant to be.
Can We Know God through Playing?
When we look at play in its most authentic form we see a free act that serves itself, requiring our whole being. What we may have considered childish is actually a way in which we can better understand our relationship with God.
While there are countless ways we can connect with the Creator, what if we simply played like we were young again?
This may be something that doesn’t match up with our understanding of faith, play, or the world, but I would urge you to consider how genuinely playing can lead to a deeper connection with God.
If you want to speak with me about this, I will be outside with a tennis ball…