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Discipleship and the Theology of Play

By October 8, 2010No Comments

“If man knows himself to be free and desires to use his freedom, then his activity is play.”

–Jean-Paul Sartre

This week in class I’ve been learning about the theology of play. I’d never heard of this term before, and it honestly struck me as a strange topic. What do theology and playing (ie. doing what you enjoy) have to do with one another? Well apparently a number of theologians feel that when we are at play–that is, when we are free to express ourselves in ways that are pleasurable to us, whether it is work or yoga–we are most ourselves. Playing creates a space for us to be our true selves–who God created us to be.

To understand how play gives us that freedom, just think about children at an elementary school. When they’re in class they are constantly subjected to rules that they probably wouldn’t choose for themselves. They have to obey, they have to perform well on tests, they have to be called on in order to speak, etc. But when you let those kids go free on the playground, their true selves are able to shine. They run around, jump, yell, laugh and engage their classmates. You see the purest picture of who they are without the boundaries or influences that compel them to conform to a set standard.

While this analogy is not a perfect one (small children are actually still being formed into their true selves, and discipline is an important part of that), it still gives us an idea of why play is important for adults. When we are free from the pressures and influence of the culture around us, when we break free from the burden to perform or prove ourselves, when we cease striving and rest in the simple act of enjoying God, His children and His Creation–that is when we are most ourselves, our true selves. That is “godly play.”

Play defined this way is less about a particular activity and is more of a disposition. You are either free in Christ and your life is an expression of your true self as He created you to be, or you are a slave to the world and its standards.

Now if you’re like me, you’re wondering WHAT IN THE WORLD does this have to do with anything? The reason this whole concept interests me is that some theologians believe that we NEED  “godly play” in order to grow spiritually. I know that sounds like such a weird idea, but it’s growing on me. Here’s why:

1. Godly Play is the Antidote to Religious Works: Throughout the New Testament the Christian faith is constantly contrasted with works-based  righteousness. It’s not that labor, in and of itself, is bad. But too often we seek our value and meaning from what we do or produce. That kind of work, in which we are conforming to a worldly standard that measures us in superficial ways, will also make us least ourselves. Rather than focus on who God wants us to be, we are focusing on who others want us to be. This kind of mentality stifles spiritual growth.

But if you can find a way to do go about the daily grind as “for the Lord, not for men,” (Col 3:23) then every activity is an opportunity to simply worship and commune with God. You don’t have to worry about climbing the corporate ladder or stress about being a perfect mom because you’re already complete in Christ. Your posture towards these various activities can be one of freedom instead of bondage, one of joy instead of tedium. And when you are actively living out your identity in Christ through “godly play,” you are simultaneously growing in Him.

2. Godly Play Delivers Us From Artificial Discipleship: Have you ever sat across a table from a young woman who wanted to be mentored or discipled, struggling to come up with conversation and feeling like the relationship was totally inauthentic? Even for women who love to gab, it can be hard to create relationships out of thin air with women we have just met. When you’re sitting there staring at each other, there’s a lot of pressure to sound godly and to feel like you really connected on some deep emotional level. When discipleship is done this way, it really seems more like work.

The next time you find yourself in that situation, ditch the coffee date and go to the mall, or the park, or the pet store (the ones where you can play with the puppies!). Play tennis or go on a run together. Figure out an activity that the two of you both enjoy and then go do that. It is AMAZING how much more easily conversation flows when you break out of the bonds of strict expectations about Christian discipleship and simply play. When you are both having fun and you’re more yourselves, you create the perfect atmosphere for friendship to grow.

So that is your basic introduction to the theology of play. I think the thing I love most about this idea is what it implies about God. As the Westminster Catechism states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not about rules but is actually about joy and goodness. That is not to say that anything goes as long as you’re having fun, but that God is the ultimate Creator of fun. The closer we get to Him, the more we’ll understand what real joy is, and I am quite sure our worldly ideas of entertainment will pale in comparison.

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