I was really surprised by the thought that came in my mind as I was getting ready. I was fortunate enough to be water skiing for the third year in a row. I had just jumped into the fabulous Minnesota lake water on a beautiful summer day, put my ski on, and was holding on to the tow bar. As I was waiting for the driver to get the rope taught, a completely unexpected, energetic thought came into my mind: “I could work ‘til I’m 70.” Now, why would I think that when I was just about to have so much fun?

I’ve thought about that event a lot since it happened about a month ago now. It continues to capture me. How in the world could water skiing lead me to think about finishing well? How could something I consider play compel me to want to do really good work for another twenty years? This has to be wrestled to the ground.

The Heart of Play

Okay, let’s take a quick look at the essence of play, and go from there.

When I think about play, I think about fun. I think about laughter. I think about focused energy.

Yet I also think about the absence of fear. No terrifying fear anyway. In other words, no fear of major consequences…nothing of eternal significance is at stake in play.  When I am in the realm of play, I’m not concerned about the impact of my performance on the lives of others, or my own life for that matter.  If I fall when I’m water skiing, it’s really unlikely that anything bad is going to happen, besides getting a nose full of water or a bruise on my leg!  As a result, there is great freedom in play.

(Of course some folks really enjoy having greater risk in their play, like when they ride motorcycles or jump out of airplanes…for me those would go in the adventure category, where the risk is higher. Or maybe it’s just a different definition of play for them.  I’ll let that go now.)

All things said, real play brings joy. Real play brings happiness.

Kinds of Play

 Active Play

 There’s a whole bunch of different kinds of play. For guys, it can often be more around sports, like playing tennis, softball, skiing, golf…the list is practically endless. For women, it certainly can be sports as well. Other kinds of play would include things like board games, doing puzzles, or techie games, like Candy Crush…which frankly I’ve never played…for what that’s worth.

Relational Play

There is also the great joy of relational play. This is where the complete joy of humor and laughter comes in. Having people that you can enjoy bantering with, where there is enough security, trust and goodwill, that you can relax and have fun through words and playful actions is a complete gift from the Lord. I think of a time recently with my good friend and colleague Bryan Buckley (www.bryanpaulbuckley.com), where he and I had so much fun talking about hilarious lines from a silly movie that we’d seen, that I couldn’t help but wheeze with laughter as I bent over in my chair with delight. (One extreme of this is when you’re laughing so hard that your beverage comes up through your nose.)

Some Reasons Why Play Matters so Much

 As you are likely beginning to understand, I think play matters a lot. Why is play such a big deal? Well here’s some good reasons:

  • Healthy play helps us know that we have value beyond our performance. When I take time and listen to the Lord, and enjoy play in a healthy way, it clearly tells me that I’m not just here to work. Play confirms a dignity, a value on me, that reassures me that I’m not only valued because of what I do.
  • Healthy play encourages thankfulness. When I am having a boatload of fun (no pun intended), it is so much easier to be thankful. It is so much easier to be grateful for all the good things in my life. And, when I’m grateful, that gratitude often overflows into the lives of those around me. That is a good thing.
  • Healthy play also nudges me out of the illusion that God can’t work if I’m not working. Or, that He is dependent on me for His Kingdom to move forward. This is tricky to communicate. What I’m driving at is that when I engage in healthy play, it helps me, (in ways just like the Sabbath does, as referenced in 3 Ways to Reduce Your Stress Levels), to let God be bigger and I can be smaller. That brings greater freedom to my soul, which of course is part of what the Holy Spirit brings us to (II Cor. 3:17)
  • Play at some level I believe honors that God is in a very nice place on His throne. Of course, He takes sin and suffering seriously, and yet play is a kind of “tip of the hat” to trusting that He is good, and powerful, and will redeem everything that can be redeemed in His time.
  • Play, done well, actually draws us back to our vocations, like what happened to me in the water. It plays a real part in filling us up, which somehow triggers a greater desire to do even more good with our lives.

 Play, the Word, and Finishing Well

But, what about the Word, you say? What does the Word say about play, and how might it connect to finishing well?

Well, there’s no record of Jesus going water skiing on the Sea of Galilee, which is too bad. Or any explicit reference to Jesus, or God actually playing.  So, I’m going to have find indirect ways to get to play in the Word.

Here’s where John Eldredge in his sweet book “The Beautiful Outlaw” really helps out. Elredge makes the great point that God is the creator of all things playful, including puppies, kittens, and chipmunks. God must love play if He created those precious creatures. And, Eldredge brings out in fabulous ways the humor of Jesus around the time when he asks the disciples if they have any fish, after his resurrection. (Please read what Eldredge wrote. It’s early in the book. You will see the playfulness and wonderful wit of Jesus more clearly, and it will be great for your soul.)

Lastly, we know that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  When we play, we experience real joy.  Just as all real love is derivative from the love of God, all real joy flows from the joy of God.  I believe that godly play takes us into God’s joy.

To sum this up, it is a deep truth that entering into godly play brings life to our souls for all (and more) of the reasons above.  As our souls get filled up on a regular basis, through play, renewal and growth, we begin to experience flourishing more and more in our lives.  And, as we experience flourishing more often, finishing well becomes more and more likely.

What is play for you?

The big question now is:  What is play for you?  It varies for all of us.  I encourage you to trust that God is big enough and loves you enough to want you to enjoy good doses of play on a regular basis.  He can keep things going while you play.  Promise.  As you grow in enjoying play, I believe you’ll bring more of His joy with you in the rest of your life, which can only help you bring a more compelling version of Him to others.

Best wishes, brothers and sisters.