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Holy Play

A Christian Theology of Sport and Competition

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Guest Contributor

ABSTRACT: Sport and competition can easily arouse pride, insecurity, envy, and malice. Yet they also can afford opportunities to express a healthy, deeply human inclination to play. Play finds its roots in God himself, whose creation reflects not only exactness but exuberance. He created humans in his image to reflect, in part, his playful, non-utilitarian creativity. More than that, the saving presence of God often inspires expressions of play such as singing, leaping, dancing, and merrymaking. Christians play well in the midst of a broken world when they soberly acknowledge the reality of sin and sorrow, while at the same time remembering that Christ’s kingdom of joy is on the way.

Western culture views sport in two drastically different ways. One has preserved within sport the healthy, joyful expression of the deep human inclination to play; the other has locked into a utilitarian understanding of sport that squelches play and its perspective-giving power. One appreciates the actual process of playing a sport; the other has sadly turned sport into an expression of human pride, insecurity, envy, and malice. As Christians, what will keep us from turning sport into something ugly rather than beautiful?

Sport is playful competition, or you could also call it competitive play. At the heart of a healthy understanding of sport is the proper balance between competition and play. To that end, a robust appreciation of play is sure to help. Among the many factors we could consider in answering the question of what it means for Christians to play the way God intends, in this essay I want to consider the necessity of keeping play in competitive sport for the glory of God. The main question I want to answer is, How does play help us to fulfill our created purpose in this beautiful yet tragically fallen world? First, we will briefly define play. We then will look at play in the Bible. Finally, we will consider play in light of God’s purpose in creation, humanity, and salvation history.

Defining Play

We can define play as a fun, imaginative, non-compulsory, non-utilitarian activity filled with creative spontaneity and humor, which gives perspective, diversion, and rest from the necessary work of daily life.1 In light of God’s sovereignty and faithful love, play for the Christian should demonstrate and encourage hope, delight, gratitude, and celebration.

Play and fun go hand in hand.2 One cannot truly play without a sense of good-natured humor and fun that at times invokes deep laughter. Play has the potential to totally absorb the player. Fun need not be frivolous, however. The sacred should never be trivialized by making fun a major priority, but freed slaves are inclined to sing, and play and fun are byproducts of expressing one’s freedom. Although fun is a necessary part of the definition of play, play is not the opposite of seriousness and can be very serious indeed.

Another aspect of play is that it is non-compulsory. Play must express freedom and therefore cannot be imposed on anyone. Humans are created to exercise freedom — and indeed, imposed circumstances often spark playful expressions of freedom.

“The value of play is elusive; as soon as you dwell on the pragmatics of it, it ceases to be play.”

Play is also fundamentally non-utilitarian. The pragmatic results of play must necessarily fade to the background, to an almost subconscious level, lest the pure playfulness of play be lost. Play may lead to accomplishing goals but does not depend on it, and it most certainly has the potential of accomplishing much if it is allowed to be more than merely a means to an end. The value of play is elusive; as soon as you dwell on the pragmatics of it, it ceases to be play.

True play includes imagination, creativity, and spontaneity. To play means entering a world of make-believe where the players act as if the agreed-upon rules, boundaries, and goals really matter and exist. This has parallels in the Christian life in that the exercise of faith and hope require a kind of imagination. While Christian faith is not based in a fictitious world of make-believe, it does require creatively imagining something God has promised in order to trust in him. Living with faith and hope leads to the kind of joyful discipleship God requires of his people.

Finally, play provides needed perspective, diversion, and rest. Like the arts, play can afford “counter-environments”3 that provide freedom from dwelling on the daily difficulties of life in a fallen world. Play should not serve to anesthetize Christians to life’s burdens, preventing them from engaging those burdens wholeheartedly; rather, it should provide a needed, hopeful Sabbath from their relentless presence.

Play and Competition

The inherent tension between competition and play does not mean they are unable to fruitfully coexist. Competition can increase the potential for true play, and play has the potential to heighten the enjoyment of competition. Sport requires a commitment to an imaginary world where the participants agree to act as though the made-up parameters of space, time, and the rules of the game really exist and matter. This is why we despise a spoilsport more than a cheat. The cheat acts as if the rules exist, even though he is trying to break them, but the spoilsport breaks out of the commitment to the imaginary world of play by scoffing at the very existence of the world that the game requires.

Competition intensifies the participants’ commitment to the world of make-believe where play thrives. Play keeps the competitor from losing perspective and seeing the final score as more important than playing the game.

Serious Play

Christians are commanded to live carefully and wisely and to make the most of the time we have “because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16). Stewarding our time wisely and seeking eternal rewards should lead to a sense of peaceful urgency because the time we have is short (Psalm 32:6; Romans 13:11–13). We may think, then, that the Christian life affords no place for activities that seem so unessential as sport, play, and recreation. Certainly, for a Christian, play should never have a trivializing effect on life. God and life are not to be trifled with, and play in this sense has no place in the Christian life. If play serves merely to divert rather than to give hopeful perspective, it can actually prevent serious transformative engagement with a world badly in need of redemption.

“Play can serve to remind those who are burdened and heavy laden that there is rest and restoration on the way.”

An eternal perspective, however, should lead to both diligent, earnest engagement with gospel ministry and restful playfulness as we trust in the God who knows the beginning from the end. The sovereign grace of God frees Christians to seriously play even in the midst of the suffering all around us in this fallen world. Paradoxically, there is a vital connection between suffering and play. Those who most recognize the difficulty of life in a fallen world are often able to play and laugh best. Play and playfulness can serve to remind those who are burdened and heavy laden that there is rest and restoration on the way. These moments of emancipation can remind the faithful of the ultimate liberation coming when God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).

Play in the Bible

The Bible never explicitly addresses play. The Bible is a mostly serious book that seeks to pull the reader from his sinful, God-ignoring sloth and distraction to an earnest pursuit of his Creator and then to holy living. But the seriousness in the Bible often sets the stage for the unbridled joy of knowing God — joy that is often expressed in playful exuberance. Most of the elements of our working definition of play — fun, free, spontaneous, creative, non-utilitarian — are found throughout Scripture, especially in response to the liberating, saving presence of God himself. This sense of play, it seems, has its origin in God himself.

Biblical words translated as a variation of “play” (sachaq, shaa, and raqad in the Old Testament, paizo in the New Testament) can also carry meanings of amusement, merrymaking, celebration, laughter, sport, delight, mocking, dancing, frolicking, leaping, and prancing. The most common kind of play in the Bible is the playing of instruments. Music, depending on the kind, can be a profoundly playful expression. Humans, animals, and creation itself are portrayed as having an indelible playfulness woven into them.

To understand play in the Bible, as we shall see, we also need to appreciate related concepts such as laughter, Sabbath, feasts, festivals, childlikeness, and music. These activities are impossible to do well apart from serious play. So, our study of play in the Bible will not be limited to passages where words translated play occur. Rather, we will focus on examples where main components of play are present. These occur most often when God’s presence, grace, and glory are most evident to his covenant people.

Playful God

God created the universe with amazing order. He also guides our lives in his wise providence, which assures us that nothing happens apart from his careful, perfect plan, which culminates in his glory and our good (Romans 8:28). But in the midst of God’s wise ordering of the universe and perfect execution of his purposes, he works with a creative, playful extravagance.

This is evident in both the creation itself and God’s interaction with it. The description of God’s creative activity in Psalm 104, for instance, gives us a picture not only of God’s awesome power and wisdom, but also of his abundant playfulness in his creative work — gushing springs, singing birds, wine that gladdens hearts, and abundantly watered trees all point to a fabulous display of lavish divine activity. As the psalmist describes the immense and powerful sea, the greatest sea creature of all, Leviathan, is said to have been formed by God “to play in it” (Psalm 104:26). This verse may even imply that God himself is at play with Leviathan in the seas he has created!4

The overwhelming artistic variety we see in creation indicates that there is not only an intelligent designer behind it, but also a playful artist. The sheer variety of tastes, colors, sounds, textures, and shapes in creation indicates anything but pure utilitarian motivation by its Creator. God is both skillful architect and creative artist. He does nothing based in need (Acts 17:24–25; Psalm 50:9–12), so creation, like play, is “meaningful but not necessary.”5 In creating and sustaining everything, and in accomplishing redemption, God’s pleasure and glory are his primary motives (Isaiah 43:7; Matthew 10:26; Luke 11:21; Ephesians 1:5, 9, 11–12). Creation is God at play, “a play of his groundless and inscrutable wisdom.”6 Creation, and life itself, become a source of pleasure and delight for those who delight in the Creator and the work of his hands.

We get glimpses of the playfulness of God also in Christ’s teaching, which often includes verbal sparring. Jesus’s parables frequently contain humorous exaggeration (the beam in the hypocrite’s eye, Matthew 7:5), word play (Peter’s new nickname, Matthew 16:18), and irony (asking whether the people who went to see John the Baptist had gone out to see someone “in soft clothing,” Matthew 11:8).

Play and the Coming Kingdom

The most stirring images of play in the Bible occur in attempts to express the joy and freedom experienced in the coming kingdom of God. One of the most vivid of these images appears in Zechariah 8:5: “The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” God gives his people a beautiful scene of the eschaton to look forward to: children playing with uninhibited, unhindered freedom. Isaiah 11:8–9 offers a similar picture of the freedom to be found in the heavenly city. Fearless, childlike play, no longer inhibited by the effects of sin and the curse, is a key metaphor of Christ’s kingdom. Similar images of playful celebration and merrymaking abound in other prophetic glimpses of what the New Jerusalem brings (for example, Jeremiah 30:18–19; 31:4, 13–14).

“Fearless, childlike play, no longer inhibited by the effects of sin and the curse, is a key metaphor of Christ’s kingdom.”

One of the tenderest pictures of God’s deep care for his people is found in his promise of a restored Jerusalem. He likens it to the care of a compassionate mother for her little baby (Isaiah 66:12). In the restoration, God provides the security and freedom a child experiences while playfully dandled on her mother’s knee. These images call to mind Jesus holding up a child as the prototype of the kind of person to whom the kingdom of God belongs (Matthew 19:14). Jesus calls his followers to an attitude of childlike dependence and trust in God, and this kind of trust invariably leads to childlike play as we see God’s fulfilled covenant promises.

Playful, spontaneous exuberance sparked by God’s presence and blessing is also vividly displayed in David’s joyful worship when the ark of the covenant was returned from the Philistines. David looks downright childlike as he celebrates the symbol of God’s abiding presence reentering Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:5, 14, 20–22). David’s celebration epitomizes key elements of our definition of play. His enthusiastic, exuberant dancing and leaping was free, creative, fun, and non-utilitarian, and it demonstrated and encouraged hope, delight, gratitude, and celebration.

David’s playful dancing and leaping mirrors other responses of joy over God’s restoring power and presence (Psalm 87:7; 114:4; Isaiah 35:6; Malachi 4:2; Jeremiah 31:4, 13; Luke 1:44; 6:23; Acts 3:8). One would be hard pressed to think of a less practical, less constrained, less mandatory, less boring activity than leaping and dancing. This is the exuberant response of pardoned prisoners.

Those who fail to understand God’s astounding grace have no appreciation for this sort of impractical, unrestrained worship. The woman in Luke 7 dismissed pharisaical decorum when she kissed Jesus’s feet and used her tears and hair to anoint his feet with oil. She stands as a vivid and powerful picture of a sinner who understood grace (Luke 7:36–50). This same disposition was displayed by the woman who “wasted” expensive ointment anointing Jesus. She did a “beautiful thing” to Jesus in preparation for his burial and realized that unrestrained appreciation was warranted (Mark 14:3–9). His disciples failed to have her perspective at this moment, but most of them would welcome it once the Author of life left an empty tomb behind.

Sabbath and Rest

Beyond explicit play-oriented passages, Sabbath observance in the Bible helps us understand the value of play. Sabbath-keeping forced God’s people to disengage from providing for themselves and remember the ultimate source of their daily bread. The Creator and Sustainer built a mandatory rest into each week to get his people to put their efforts at survival into perspective. Even more radically, God instituted the Sabbath when his people were in the wilderness, where failure to fend for yourself could mean death. Resting in God’s sufficiency and power wars against a human-centered view of life and demands we surrender any vestige of self-sufficiency.

Similarly, Isaiah rebukes Israel and seeks to free them from thinking their efforts were the ultimate source of their protection (Isaiah 41:13–14). In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also seeks to quell the pride that leads to anxiety about our provision (Matthew 6:25–33). In this passage, Jesus is saying, “How dare you worry? Who do you think you are — the sovereign God?” James also corrects a heightened view of human planning by comparing it to God’s comprehensive sovereignty (James 4:13–17).

None of these exhortations is intended to undercut human effort, attentiveness, passion, diligence, or responsibility. Isaiah, Jesus, and James all worked extremely hard and took their human decisions and activity seriously. Human activity, however, must always be subservient to the overarching plan and power of God. God calls us to the freedom and Sabbath rest that lead to childlike dependence, trust, and holy play.

Hopeful Play

How can we ever justify playing when hunger and abortion kill millions of children every year and wars rage around the globe? Without sober acknowledgment of sin, play can become a mere distraction or obsession. But because of God’s sovereign power to bring a wonderful conclusion to all of the ambiguities and suffering in life (Romans 8:28), the Christian has hope and can truly play in righteous measure.

A game’s clear, definitive result is part of its appeal. The 24-hour news cycle reveals never-ending political, national, international, interpersonal, and religious conflicts. It is no wonder many readers turn first to the sports section to discover yesterday’s results. While the clear resolution sport offers is part of its draw, ironically, interest in play and sport rests largely on the uncertainty of the final outcome. We lose interest in games if the outcome is assured before the game starts. This is why parity in sports leagues is vital to maintaining interest. There must be a good measure of uncertainty as to what will transpire and what the end result will be. The more tension created by this uncertainty, the more engaged we become with the game.

This creative, spontaneous uncertainty is central to the definition of play and at the heart of the intrigue of sport. It also mirrors the tension at the heart of the drama of human history. The spontaneous uncertainty with an eventual ending inherent in play reflects the unfolding story of our lives. Like games, our lives are filled with uncertainties that lead to one final result. Play can equip a person to deal with uncertainties on the way to the conclusion. For a Christian, the promised good conclusion to the difficulty of life in a fallen world brings a deep enjoyment of play as it dramatizes a life that ends well.

Hope of the Cross

God’s redeeming power that evokes play and laughter from believers is seen most powerfully in the “folly” of the redemptive work of Christ (1 Corinthians 1–2). The juxtaposing ironies in his life are many: the glorious Creator becomes a baby, the Creator of all beauty has nothing in his appearance to attract us to him, the source of all joy becomes the man of sorrows, the Holy One is cursed and crucified. His life conjures images of a man chasing an impossible dream, except Jesus doesn’t remain dead at the end — and all our hopes and dreams come true in him.

“When play is grounded in the hope of the gospel, it can become one of life’s greatest and most encouraging pleasures.”

The gospel leads to play, for it expresses our ability to transcend the brokenness of our world. We momentarily see the human predicament as not only daunting but fixable (Romans 8:20–22). The Christian worldview recognizes the relentless difficulty of life in our cursed world, but it also recognizes that the world is being redeemed by the one who created and cursed it. So we have hope, and play, in the midst of our brokenness. “He suffered that we may laugh again. . . . In the cross of Christ God is taking man dead-seriously so that he may open up for him the happy freedom of Easter.”7 Without hope, play becomes merely a diversion from life’s troubles rather than a hopeful expression of the freedom to come in the eschaton. When play is an end in itself, it can become a frivolous idol that keeps us from dealing with the human predicament. When play is grounded in the hope of the gospel, it can become one of life’s greatest and most encouraging pleasures.

Heaven: The Play of Eternity

Christian play is a response of those who know God as their Father — who know that he has overcome the world and that he loves to abundantly share the spoils of this victory with his children. God’s saving power leads to great joy among God’s people (Psalm 126:2). This joy is possible even when life is brutal (Luke 6:21). Tears and empty stomachs are not the whole story. God will bring ultimate healing one day.

Christian play should see suffering for what it is, but always through the eyes of cross-centered hope. Following Jesus turns pain into glory, confusion into wonder, sin into redemption, Good Friday into Easter Sunday. God invites us to come to him as his free, forgiven, secure children. To be sure, we are to approach our holy God with healthy fear and hearts broken by our broken world, but God’s people are also called to rejoice, sing, play, and laugh because we know that the owner of all things is working out his perfect plan, which ends with a wedding banquet and perfect resolution and rest. This sure hope in God’s sovereign power and loving-kindness enables us to play with abandon, even before the great wedding banquet begins.

  1. This definition was developed with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary and the seminal works on play by Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois. 

  2. Regarding the use of the word fun in the definition of play, I carefully hammered out each word of this definition over several weeks at the Tyndale House study center, in the spring of 2006, with John Piper sitting about 25 feet from me. John is one of my living heroes, and I am aware of his aversion to the word fun (https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-john-piper-hate-fun), but even more to the concept of levity in the wrong time and place, and the modern loss of the capacity for serious joy. I use the word with the hope that we can redeem it, in the right contexts, in the way that John has sought to do so with words like hedonism to describe the Christin life, and happy to describe God. I hate it when the sacred is trivialized with words like fun, but I also don’t want people to think that there is no place for fun in the Christian life. I don’t want to surrender that word or experience to the unbelieving world. I’ve tried to find a better word in English, and I don’t think there is one that gets at this key element of play. 

  3. This term and idea follows the thoughts of Marshall McLuhan, “Introduction,” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 2nd ed. (New York: MIT Press, 1994). 

  4. A possible reading of this verse is “There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play with.” 

  5. Jurgën Moltmann, Theology of Play (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 17. 

  6. Moltmann, Theology of Play, 17. 

  7. Moltmann, Theology of Play, 32–33. 

is professor and chair of theology at Talbot School of Theology/Biola University, pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, California, and author of Godly Jealousy: A Theology of Intolerant Love. He and his wife, Donna, have four children, Caroline, Paige, Samuel, and Isaac.