I had the delightful experience this week of watching a dozen 5-year-old children get a tennis lesson. They were asked by their instructor to simply run forward and then backward over a 10-foot span. They did far more than run. Skipping, leaping, bounding, hopping, spinning, laughing, imitating animals, running with closed eyes, dramatically falling, jumping up again, and purposely crashing into one another, all became part of the lesson. When the instructor armed the children with racquets, the fun really began. The racquets quickly became guitars, swords, canes, horses, trombones, rifles, and fishing poles. The lesson continually bordered on becoming “unproductive” and utter chaos because playing was as instinctual to the children as breathing. The teacher was successful because he appreciated the children’s insatiable need to play, and allowed for copious amounts of it within his instruction.
This week I also read of a father who went to jail for eight years for unintentionally killing one of his son’s tennis opponents after drugging the opponent with medication that causes drowsiness. The father, doing all he could to ensure the athletic “success” of his son and daughter, had similarly spiked the water bottles of 27 other rivals over a three-year period.
The difference between the fun-loving instructor and the winning-obsessed father could not be more pronounced. And their differences highlight drastically different ways of viewing sport in Western culture. One has preserved within sport the healthy, joyful expression of the deep human inclination to play; the other has locked into a utilitarian understanding of sport that squelches play and the perspective-giving power of sport. One appreciates the actual process of playing a sport; the other has sadly turned sport into an ugly expression of human pride, insecurity, envy, and malice.
What will keep us from turning sport into something ugly rather than beautiful? Is it possible to play sports for the glory of God? Can play and sport even help us fulfill our intended, created purpose in this beautiful yet tragically fallen world?
My interest in play is deeply personal. I write as one who cherishes play and as one who has struggled throughout my life to know when my play is godly and when it is not. God has used play in my life, especially within sport, to maintain at least some of my sanity and to quell bitterness and anger. I’ve had difficult challenges to overcome in my life, and as a minister have sought to bear the burdens of others, and I have seen clearly in my life that the ability to play is one of God’s greatest gifts for coping with the difficulty of life in a fallen world.
As long as I can remember, play, grounded in knowledge that God loved me, has often kept me from despair and resentment. Being able to play, especially in the face of hard times, has been among the greatest blessings of God in my life. So my interest in play is far more than just academic. And I hope yours is too.
5 Reasons to Understand and Appreciate Play
1. Play is a unique, God-given, universal, human experience.
One of the first things a baby does to express her humanity is to play and laugh. That first game of peek-a-boo not only melts a parent’s heart, it establishes a uniquely human connection. Play is basic to being human. As Jackson Lee Ice puts it:
Man is the only animal that weeps and laughs and knows that he weeps and laughs, and wonders why. He is the only creature that weeps over the fact that he weeps, and laughs over the fact that he laughs. He is the most play seeking, play making, and play giving species that has walked the earth, ever ready to provoke or be provoked with play; even in the midst of fear and pain he is capable of incongruously ameliorating his misery by a smile, pun, or joke. He is the jester in the courts of creation.
2. Play is a vital part of most meaningful, healthy human relationships.
The ability to play well with others is one of the first social expressions we look for in human development. Although we tend to forget how to play as we “mature,” it remains a vital quality in the most edifying relationships.
3. Play tends to be seen as either frivolous or an end in itself.
Play, especially within sport, tends to be dismissed as meaningless, worldly, and contrary to sober Christian living. On the other hand, Christians can be pulled into the idolatry of sport and leisure as an end in itself to be sought at all costs. A biblical understanding of play as given by God for his glory and our good, but never an end itself, will help coaches, athletes, and soccer moms appreciate play and use it as a conduit of glorifying God. Such a re-orientation will give perspective to our lives as intended. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31).
4. Christian maturity should develop a godly sense of play.
As all other areas of our lives, play should fall under the sanctifying effects of the Holy Spirit’s work.
5. Ministers should help people play well.
A Christian who takes his role as a minister seriously must be able to lead people in godly play. As a pastor of a dear flock of growing saints and teacher of college students who generally have a deep hunger to know God, I’m convinced that helping God’s people survive in a broken world requires a well developed ability to play. A minister of the gospel must be able to cry and mourn, laugh and play with godly gusto, and lead others in these as well.
Taking God Seriously, But Not Ourselves
Play is not a major emphasis in the Bible, and it can be unhelpful to encourage play in a culture that so often and easily trivializes God and life itself. Yet I do believe that a sense of play is necessary for a healthy Christian perspective on life. The failure to appreciate play in the Christian life could easily turn piety into sanctimony, reverence into rigidity, and sanctification into stuffiness. We must take God as seriously as we can, but never ourselves.
God invites us to approach him as his free, forgiven, secure children. We are to approach our holy God with healthy fear and hearts broken by our broken world. But God’s people are also called to rejoice, sing, play, and laugh because we know that the owner of all things is working out his perfect plan that ends with a wedding banquet and perfect resolution and rest. This sure hope in God’s sovereign power and loving-kindness enables us to play with reckless abandon, even before the Great Wedding Banquet begins.
Editors' note: This article was adapted from Erik Thoennes’s Created to Play: Thoughts on Play, Sport, and the Christian Life. You can read the original article in its entirety here, or can listen to a 12-minute podcast of Erik talking about play at Desiring God.
 Jackson Lee Ice, “Notes Toward a Theology of Humor,” Religion in Life: A Christian Quarterly of Opinion and Discussion, XLII, 3 (Autumn 1973), 392.