By Pastor Bob Myers
I’m so grateful for God’s goodness providing a week of play at our favorite beach. At its best the beach turns everyone into more of what they were as a child. From the stressed-out billionaire to the person who is bored by monotony, every one of us needs play. And generally speaking, children are better than most of us at play.
Jesus said, “Become like a child” (Matthew 18). In some ways, being childlike is not only a metaphor for receiving spiritual life but becoming our childhood self can be an expression of mental health. Note that being childlike is not to be confused with being “childish”. But I believe we will be perfectly childlike in eternity! Some childhoods are consumed by extreme trauma that literally deprives them of the ability to play. For the trauma to be significantly healed, the ability to play must be recovered. I’ve seen people restored to greater childlikeness. I see it in my children. When they are at their emotional and mental best, I see aspects of their “toddler personalities” restoresd. Biblical support for seeing childlikeness as part of sanctification is seen in Zechariah 8:5 where it describes the new earth: “And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” When I see children playing in my own neighborhood, I see a preview of heaven. I’ve seen birds play with strings in a kind of tug of war. Otters play. Leopards play. You need to play as a dress rehearsal for eternity.
I recently listened to a message from Christian Psychiatrist, Dan Allender. He answered the question, “What purpose does play serve?”. Allender answers this question with three major benefits play provides.
1. You need to disassociate yourself from work.
You are not merely a worker who serves some noble end. Play extracts us from time and deadlines. It creates space that is beyond the reach of practical demands. It is not enough to watch others play. Watching your child play a sport is significant in itself. But it’s far better for you to play. Watching sports, even in the company of others, is not playing. It involves no risk to your safety or your “pride”. It offers no victory that you won. Real play is a necessary escape hatch. I know this is not a popular sentiment, but I believe childhoods were better before traveling teams. When the sandlot was the place for spontaneous baseball in the neighborhood.
2. You need a safe place to risk it all.
Games to some degree mirror life. That is why we often hear people translating their age into a phase of a game equating middle age with “half time” or playing the back nine. Games mirror realities of life where we can spend our energies and our time, but we can spend them only once. Games give us a safe space to throw the energy of our personality. Competition of a game does not have a heavy-duty consequence but it does provide a buffer zone that relieves stress like few things do. “It’s just a game” is something that humbles winners and uplifts the also-rans.
3. Play gives you an ability to explore.
We are created with a need to explore new frontiers. Sometimes adults play by hunting, fishing, or hiking. But doing something for the mere adventure of it is something God implanted in human beings. Riding a stationary bike or running on a treadmill is not the same as playing. Playing for the sake of exercise or some other benefit is not the same as running or cycling simply for the sake of play.
Our family vacation traditions include opportunities for play. Riding the waves on boogie boards, beach volleyball, board games in the evening, all combine to provide restorative play.
Play reminds me that the world does not rest on my shoulders. I need to be reminded that not even a single care of mine rests on my shoulders. Life is not a game, but games are a necessary part of life. You don’t have to always be doing something useful. In fact, you yourself will not be useful if you give yourself to the grind of life. There is no music worth listening to for orchestration that does not include bars of rest for each instrument. That is part of what play is.
Play helps us be better image bearers. Play reorients us to life.
Jackson Lee Ice put it this way: “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.”
If we are indeed called to have a strong work ethic, we are also called to have an ethos of deep rest and deep play (See Colossians 3:23). Our culture values amusement, but I wonder, does our culture truly develop our sense of “play”? We are often tantalized with distractions. How developed is your sense of play?
David Livingstone wrote in his journal that among his greatest regrets was not playing with his children enough.
I’m grateful for the special memories I have of playing games with my parents and my grandparents. I think God wants us to furnish such memories of play to those we love and live with.
How is your play-life?