The Spiritual Discipline of Play?

By Joe Boyd

Last week I sat across from a good friend and trusted adviser at a LaRosa’s Pizzeria in Cincinnati. (He’s also a clinical psychologist, so I can sometimes get therapy for the price of a pizza.) I was telling him all the good things that were causing anxiety in my life: my growing kids, growing business, and growing church responsibilities. He looked at me and asked, “What are you doing for fun?”

11_Boyd_article_JNAlmost without thinking, I replied, “I don’t have time for fun at this time in my life.”

His look said it all. I knew the glaring problem with my statement before it even hit his ears. I hadn’t genuinely “played” for many months. I was tired. But I’ve actually been down this road before. I know firsthand the power of play in my life. I see so many others in this culture who, like me, are overwhelmed with the seriousness and pace of life. Could it be that learning to play again is key to restoring sanity?

Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, wrote:

It is that we, as homo sapiens, are fundamentally equipped for and need to play actively throughout our lifespan by nature’s design. While most social mammals have a life cycle that involves dominance and submissiveness (as in chimpanzee troops or wolf packs) with play diminishing significantly as adulthood arrives, we retain the biology associated with youthfulness despite still dying of old age! By this I mean that our overall long period of childhood dependency, which is dominated by the need for play, does not end with our reaching adulthood. Our adult biology remains unique among all creatures, and our capacity for flexibility, novelty and exploration persists. If we suppress this natural design, the consequences are dire. The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, inflexible, humorless, lives without irony, loses the capacity for optimism, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists. In a world of major continuous change playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive.

So I ask this with a little uncertain trepidation: Is the God of the Bible playful?

The short answer is yes . . . and no. God comes off very serious and often perturbed in the Bible. It is perhaps for this reason that most Christians I know are overly serious (and perturbed) people.

However, there is also a strange unqualifiable mirth, perhaps even mischievousness, to the God reflected in the Scriptures (consider the talking donkey, floating axhead, prostitutes always saving the day, really old women constantly getting pregnant, etc.). It would seem that God is, in fact, playful.

G.K. Chesterton was either one of the smartest men who ever lived or such a masterful wordsmith that he comes off as such. What he says at the end of his masterpiece Orthodoxy has stuck with me for years:

Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he (God) never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Chesterton takes the time-tested iconic image of the white-bearded-grandfather God and replaces him with the 8-year-old-mischievious-boy-holding-a-muddy-horny-toad God. A God who is younger than us would know how to really play. Maybe Chesterton’s younger God is exactly what we all need after a few millennia of Grandpa God.

It makes me think that the most urgently serious question to ask might be this:

Is the version of God we present every week at our church services and in our daily lives playful enough to be considered seriously?

Are we Christians having enough fun to justify our claim of having the ultimate good news? Are our Christian communities known for our scandalous mirth? Is my God fun? Is my church?

If not, it may be time to take seriously the spiritual discipline of play.

Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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1 Comment

  1. December 21, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Sadly, we have a generation of church people that is drunk on play, entertainment, & leisure.
    The TV is on all day, even if they’re not watching, because they’re afraid to be alone with their thoughts.
    “Me time” crowds out God time.
    Millions of church-goers’ ministry time is a tiny fraction of their fun time.
    They invest big bucks in the man-cave, the vacation, & the toys, while a pittance goes to missions.

    There are thousands of unreached people groups, & millions of churches.
    With those numbers, reaching the UPGs should be accomplished within a decade.
    But many of the millions of churches act like they are unconcerned with the lost.

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