Working and Playing with God

This post launches our new series Finding God at Work.
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boy and girl on a tire swing together


I recently backed a game on Kickstarter, which got me thinking about work and play. For the staff team that created the game, the project is part of their work and livelihood. At the same time, the game itself is playful and light-hearted in design. Like any game, it’s meant for play! Crowd-funding works because of the demand for great games. The hard, creative work that went into making the game will now pay off not just in terms of sales, but also in the form of hundreds of people getting to enjoy the game. In this instance, work is creating play and play is creating work. 


There’s something beautiful about that integrated picture of work and play. I know for my part, life feels right when work and play are both there. I imagine it’s the same for you. That feeling is a clue to how God designed us, leading us to ask how work and play can come together in our lives in a good and godly way. Scripture has plenty to say about both work and play, but I want to look at them here through the lens of Christian love.


Genuine Love in Heart and Action

Several passages on love emphasize the importance of genuineness, and the features of genuine love have implications for both work and play. One test of whether our love for God is genuine is whether we love each other. In his first epistle, John the Elder puts it bluntly: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20 NIV). Speaking of love for an invisible God is just lip service if you can’t show love for the flesh and blood people right in front of you. In the same letter, John writes “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17). A genuine love for God always goes with a love for other people, ready to act in order to meet their needs.


The theme of genuineness also shows up in Peter’s words on love in the Christian community: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22 NIV). A genuine love for one another is also a deep, heartfelt love.


These two features of love, readiness to act and heartfelt affection, each resonates with work or play. One of the main ways that we act to meet other people’s needs is through our work, while one of the main ways we express affection and connection is through play. Exactly what play is may be less than intuitive, especially for adults, so we’ll start with the easier concept of work. 


Work As a Way to Love People

For most of us, work is one of the main pursuits of our lives. Both inside and outside our formal jobs, we invest hundreds of hours per year in work. While work can be tricky to define, I find scholar Paul Marshall’s characterization helpful: “human activity designed to accomplish something that is needed, as distinct from activity that is satisfying in itself.” That’s not to say that work can’t be satisfying, but that the thing that makes it work is accomplishing a need


We do much of our work in order to meet our own needs. When you buy the groceries, you’re getting food for yourself, even if you’re also getting it for your family or roommates. When you earn a paycheck, you end up spending a good chunk of it on your own expenses. In that sense, work is not always a form of love for other people; sometimes, it’s how we participate in the way God is providing for us.


But work is also one of the most common ways that we can love and serve others. If readiness to act to meet another’s needs is a hallmark of genuine love, then working is the main way we actually do meet others’ needs. Sometimes the work itself directly serves others. This is true of many forms of work that happen outside of our paid jobs, like cooking a meal for your children (or a friend’s), shoveling a neighbor’s driveway, or serving on a team at church. Depending on our age and stage of life, these unpaid activities may be the main work we do.


From a spiritual perspective, what makes work significant is not whether it is paid, but whether it is done in love. We can do these tasks of meeting others’ needs for any number of motives besides love. We may cook for the kids because we have to, or serve at church to avoid being perceived as a mooch. Just because someone else’s needs are met doesn’t mean we’ve loved them. When John says that those who have “no pity” do not have “the love of God” in them, he’s addressing both our actions and the attitude of our hearts. It’s when we act to meet another’s needs because we have an authentic concern for their well-being that work becomes love. 


Of course, paid jobs are also a context where we can love others. The temptation is to let the paycheck be our only reason for working. Getting paid is a legitimate motive; we need to put food on the table. But we can also approach our work with a spirit of serving our clients, teammates, and leaders. It’s interesting, though, that when the Bible addresses how to do the drudgery of required work, it doesn’t emphasize serving others so much as serving God himself.


Work as a Way to Love God

We see this emphasis on work as a way to serve God in how the apostle Paul addresses first-century slaves in his letter to the Ephesians. An important context for understanding his counsel is that slavery under the Roman Empire was not like the later race-based chattel slavery of Europe and North America. Slaves had more education and social options and even received wages. Nevertheless, they still had far less social mobility and faced greater injustices than most of us do in the economies of the developed world today.


Paul writes:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.


Ephesians 6:5-8 NIV

Notice again the emphasis on genuineness and an inward attitude: Paul commends “sincerity of heart,” doing the work “from the heart” and serving “wholeheartedly.” But this time, the object of that wholehearted attitude is not other people; it’s Jesus Christ himself. Translating this guidance to our own context, we also have the opportunity to do our required work as if we were doing it directly for Jesus. Paul invites us to exercise our spiritual imagination, placing Jesus in our boss’s office.


While we might be tempted to think that people whose paid work is Christian ministry are “working for God,” Paul’s words here means that those who do any kind of work can be working for God. We could name some obvious exceptions, like work that is intrinsically sinful. But in the realm of honest labor, anything can be made a sacred act of devotion. If Jesus is my boss, then I can serve cranky customers for Jesus, file the expense report for Jesus, and answer emails for Jesus. Outside of my paid job, I can clear clogged drains for Jesus, get the oil changed for Jesus, and cook the kids’ meal for Jesus. 


Just like with serving others, this doesn’t happen automatically. The option remains open for us to do our work without a lively spiritual imagination, clocking in and out just to get a paycheck, fending off resentment and discontentment. It takes genuine effort to make ourselves mindful of God in our work, to put in the oomph of wholehearted labor, and to not get sidetracked by all the ways that those we are serving are not as great as Jesus. But Jesus will give us the heart we need for the work we do, if we let him.


Play As a Way to Love People

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Perhaps more than most, Christians have earned a reputation of being, well, dull. Our faith in Christ is characterized by sacrifice, faithfulness in suffering, and moral transformation. These things don’t have to be boring—indeed, living a life of freedom to sacrifice, growing into full humanity by the power of Jesus is the adventure we were each created for. But for many Christians, the vibrancy of the Bible’s images of life in Christ have been dimmed down to a vision of frumpy niceness, a la Ned Flanders.


At one level, this reputation makes sense. There are certain kinds of “play” that conflict with Christian faithfulness, like sexual license and drunkenness. At our best, it’s not frumpiness that prevents us from engaging in these unhealthy activities, but rather our greater delight in life with God. We shouldn’t expect those who haven’t yet tasted the joy of the Gospel to understand that.


At the same time, sometimes we are guilty of being spoilsports, caught up in the self-righteous demands of Christian duty. We do a disservice both to our fellow believers and to everyone else whenever this is the case. The medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas even writes that a “lack of mirth” is an offense against others; it is a sin “to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment.”


One solution for this sin of mirthlessness is to engage actively in play with other people. Now we come to the question of what play is. Here, children are our teachers. Under normal circumstances, play is the default mode of a well-cared-for child with free time. By watching children, we see what play is. Psychologist Peter Gray has identified five major characteristics:

  • Play is “self-directed.”
  • Play is “intrinsically motivated.” 
  • Play is “guided by mental rules, but the rules leave room for creativity.”
  • Play is “imaginative.”
  • Play is done with “an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.”

That second characteristic, of intrinsic motivation, helps distinguish play from work. Rather than the instrumental value that work has in meeting needs, play’s value is play itself. Play is done for its own sake. When we watch children play tag or make-believe, they are not working for some result or outcome; they are fully engaged in the play itself with no other goal in mind. Even among grown-ups, who are always tempted to be serious, we can easily think of activities pursued in this same way: Board games with family or friends, improv, sports, dancing, eating dessert, and more.


If play is done for its own sake, it might seem wrong to speak about play as a way to love people; that would make play a means to an end. But we all know from experience that there is a certain kind of intimacy in play. Friends play together, and play deepens the friendship. Play is a way to love people not because it meets practical needs, but because it deepens relational connections. When we play with someone, we are saying to them, “I’m glad to be here with you.” When we play together, we are present to each other. When we make time to be present to each other with no other objective in mind, it solidifies the importance of our relationship with each other. It affirms the value we each have not as workers, but simply as human beings. In the church, playing together cements our bond as sisters and brothers in the family of God.


Play As a Way to Love God

These dynamics of intimacy and intrinsic value that characterize play with others can also characterize our union with God in Christ. We can play with God. This is true in two ways: First, some of the ways that we can love God most directly, like worship, can be thought of as a form of play. In his book The God Who Plays, theologian Brian Edgar compares worship to playing with God. Without trivializing the transcendence of God and the reverence we owe him, worship is like play in the sense that it is something we do for its own sake, and that is fundamentally engaging and relationally interactive. Edgar writes, “To say that we play with God is a way of exploring the deeply participatory experience that we have, which is new life in Christ, not external to, but sharing in, God’s life” (emphasis original). Like playful David “leaping and dancing before the Lord” in the streets, we offer our whole selves to God freely, fully, and joyfully in worship (2 Samuel 6:16 NIV).


Second, literal play can be offered back to God in a way that deepens our communion with him. The habit of saying grace before meals reminds us that, even in something as common as eating a meal, we can encounter God and give thanks to him. What’s true for meals can also be true for play: We can enjoy fellowship with God, aware of his presence with us in the back of our minds as we make chalk drawings on the sidewalk with children, roll the dice of our favorite role-playing game with friends, or start up a soccer game in a public park.


This second sense of God being present in everyday play is perhaps even more important than thinking about worship as a form of play. That’s because when we engage in literal play, we remind ourselves and others that we are made for more than work. We have intrinsic value and objective standing before God has his beloved people that is independent of any work we do. As Paul teaches, we were made by God “to do good works,” but our energy for that work springs from the freedom of being saved by “the gift of God—not by works” (Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV). God adopts us into his family first, before we can do anything (see Ephesians 3:5, Romans 8:14-17). God rescues us for our own sake, inviting us into an intimate connection with himself (and each other).


In this sense, play is an image of the good news of the gospel. Just as when we play with a little child out of sheer delight in them, without expectation that they perform or achieve some result in the process, so God delights in us, adopting us as his children before we can contribute anything to his kingdom work. His desire to simply be with us, to enjoy communion and union with us, predates and undergirds all the work that we do in collaboration with him. In this specific way, play is like a sacrament—something that accomplishes the spiritual reality that it represents. When we play, enjoying life without the necessity of performance, we are reveling in the riches of a God who loves us just as we are.


Reflect and Practice

  • Are you more tempted to neglect work, or neglect play? Why do you think that is?
  • Whose needs does your work serve?
  • What would it look like for you to do your work as an act of devotion to Jesus?
  • How do you play?
  • Who do you play with?
  • What do you make of the idea of playing with God?
  • What’s one way you can play with God this week?


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash 


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