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A Theology of Play

When the servant leaders of our church gathered for a “servant leader summit” Monday night, we played. After a couple of ice breaker games where we laughed, cheered each other on, and released our inner child to have some much-needed fun, we sat down and opened the scriptures to find that God has Their joyful moments, too.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people (Isaiah 65:19).

I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul (Jeremiah 32:41).

[God] will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).

Rejoicing is being effusive with gladness: being loud and singing out with all your heart and soul. To rejoice is to recognize your reasons for joy, to have fun, to play. And God does that.

Even the Creation God spins into being is made to play, and is given space specifically for it: Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to play in it (Psalm 104:25-26).

But what about Jesus? Even from the time he was a pre-teen in the Temple, he was serious: detaching himself from his parents to sit among the teachers and learn from them, and rebuking his mother’s concern for his safety (Luke 2:46-49). Then he grew up to overturn tables in righteous anger, call one of his own disciples Satan, and wander off to be alone in prayer. Where’s the fun, Jesus?

Well, if we see Jesus through the hypostatic lens of him being fully divine and fully human, it’s impossible to imagine that Jesus didn’t laugh like we do, have fun like we do, and even play like we do—we fun-loving human beings who are made in the image of a God that plays. And although there are no biblical accounts of Jesus letting his hair down to have some fun, the parables he tells have their share of frivolity. One of his Mount Rushmore parables, the one about the so-called “Prodigal Son,” ends with a wayward adult child coming home to a relieved and joyful parent who insists on a party being thrown immediately to celebrate that son’s homecoming, and that everyone, including that son’s resentful older brother, participate in the festivities.

But the main reason my extra-biblical imagination gives me that Jesus took intentional moments to have fun is that no one can do the very serious work of sharing the Gospel message of justice, mercy, and love and of building up the kingdom of God’s compassion, equity, and peace without refilling their well with the essential fuel of play. If we’re going to engage in the hard, necessary labor of love that God calls us to carry out, we can’t lose touch with our playful personhood made in God’s image. And no one worked harder to show God’s love to the world than Jesus.

While it’s important to carve out time for self-care, and it’s required that we make space for rest (the Fourth Commandment is arguable the toughest one to keep!), it’s also essential that we play. Play is the joyful energy that replenishes our wells of mind, body, and spirit to do the work cut out for us. So, when was the last time you had fun, got creative, played like the God-dreamed child in you that you’ve maybe forgotten in these days of seriousness upon seriousness? What makes you rejoice? And what plans do you have to spend time with the people and places that bring you joy? When do you plan to play next? How will you play? What does play look like for you? Beloved child of God, I’m asking you these questions as much for your sake as for mine.


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