Almost not at all actually, depending on your translation the word game appears about ten times but it refers to wild animals – as in game that you hunt. Play turns up quite a bit more – mainly in reference to playing the lyre (which I like to think of as the heavy metal guitar of the ancient world, but that’s just me).
Laugh and laughter appear a similar amount of times – interesting laughter is mostly used as a blessing (something God’s blessing brings back to people), and laugh mostly appears in reference to people who laughed in disbelief at God’s promises.
Despite these limited references, when you look at the word joy in scripture – the very thing that play is both a product and a manifestation of – we see a much fuller picture beginning to emerge. In the NIV, the word joy appears over 200 times. It includes phrases such as ‘making our joy complete’ and ‘celebrate with joy.’
The concept of joy and play (a key cause, and result, of joy) is so central to community that God frequently commanded his people to celebrate.
There are approximately 50 versus commanding Israel to ‘do no regular work’ and celebrate.
- Exodus 12.47: “The whole community of Israel must celebrate it.”
- Deuteronomy 14:26: “…buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other strong drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice.”
- Numbers 9:13: “…if anyone who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, they must be cut off from their people for not presenting the LORD’S offering at the appointed time. They will bear the consequences of their sin.”
In Genesis 21, Sarah celebrates God’s blessing when she conceives Isaac by saying, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me,” (Genesis 21:6).
In Job 8:21, one of Job’s friends speaks an encouraging prophecy over him by saying, “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.”
Was God himself not playing when he made these weird and wonderful creatures?
Ever been angry and then someone makes you laugh somehow? The anger just melts away. In the same way that you can’t laugh, really laugh, and be angry or stressed at the same time, play works as an antidote against myriad other ills that plague our lives and society. Here’s some of the effects of play:
- Play is a sign of peace. When you play, have you noticed how you’re no longer conscious of all the things you were worrying or bothered about beforehand? It all disappears and there is just this moment. Worry prevents us being open to play, but if we push through it and start to play, worry disappears. Once you engage there’s no contest, play wins.
- Play is a sign of freedom. In the moment when everything else disappears, you are free. Numerous artists, musicians and sports people that struggle with different challenges describe a feeling of pure freedom they encounter when they engage in their art (which is play). Because of the way play creates a sense of freedom for the soul, it can act as a really healthy statement of defiance against the fear, sorrow, and despair broadcast all around us each day. Instead of giving into the constant stream of negativity, choosing to play is a statement of defiance and freedom. And it can become infectious.
- Play is a sign of joy. This one is perhaps the most obvious. Play is one of the common expressions of joy, and joy is a by-product of play. They’re a self-reinforcing cycle. And joy is one of the most attractive things on the planet.
- Play is inviting and inclusive. Play – and the freedom, joking, laughter, and joy that go with it – are innately attractive. It draws others. And as our fears and anxieties melt away, so too do our prejudices as well. Think of your experiences in sport or music or other arts you’ve been involved in with others. How often did those experiences seem to render differences in ethnicity, culture, gender, age, belief and background irrelevant. The friendships we build through work and through play are often some of the most enduring we have.
This great clip from the classic movie Chariots of Fire also highlights how play can be an offering of worship as well. In taking a moment to express the talents and abilities we have been given - or have developed - in play, it can be a powerful gift of thanks to our creator and a powerful expression of faith and a reassertion of the pure joy of life in the midst of a pain-filled world.
“God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."
It’s a powerful scene.
It’s also been identified as a critical part of adolescent develop, helping children to establish a healthy sense of boundaries, risk, creativity, problem solving and negotiation.
- “Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold” – Joseph Chilton-Pearce.
- “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression” – Brian Sutton-Smith.
- “Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humour” – Stuart Brown, MD.
- “Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father” - Roger Van Oech.
- “We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing” – Charles Schaefer.
- “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing” – George Bernard Shaw.
- “Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. Without it, life just doesn’t taste good” – Lucia Capocchione.
One final aspect I’d like to emphasise is that because play is inherently creative, that makes it inherently about life. It’s a life-giving, life-filled activity. And anything that is inherently creative is inherently at war with death.
God takes play seriously. He commands his people to celebrate. At other times he tells people they’ve mourned for long enough – the time for mourning is over and now the community need to play and celebrate.
Let’s take play as seriously as God does and grab it as war against the curse of death.
Let’s use moments of play to invite and draw others in and create moments of freedom, inclusion, joy and peace for those around us. As we do so, we are driving back the curse.
We need to make sure we are all prioritising moments of fun amongst the tyranny of duty and obligation.
For, as we play, we are doing the work of the kingdom.
Play is inherently creative.
Creativity is war against death.
In the economy of the kingdom, play is a weapon. Let's use it.