What words enter your mind when you think about God? Creative? Comforting? Provision? Protection? What about playful? At first glance, this last word might seem irreverent or profane. Most people tend to resist characterizations that restrain the Creator of the universe. Yet alongside the more common attributes it ascribes to God, Scripture also offers ample evidence of His playfulness, of the delight the He takes in creation.
This is showcased on day five of creation in Genesis 1:20-23, when both the earth and sky began teeming and swelling with living creatures. Since then, swarms of acrobatic starlings and pods of frolicking dolphins have delighted all admirers, especially their Creator. A right conception of God reveals that He is the most winsome of all beings and inherently playful.
Consider Psalm 104:1-35, a celebration of God the Creator and Provider of all things. This stirring song takes up many of the bold word pictures of the creation texts. And an interesting footnote to this witness to God’s unrivaled power is in verse 26, where “Leviathan,” sometimes portrayed as a chaotic monster threatening creation, is pictured as merely a playful creature—perhaps even God’s pet.
Sometimes I’m still surprised, a little stunned even, to find Scripture describing God as such a whimsical Creator. It’s a far cry from the grumpy disapproving God of my childhood. So, rather than a God who is rigid, temperamental, and extremely hard to please—who expects much and excuses nothing—we’re introduced to a God who delights in us. A God who’s inviting us to come out and have fun. And the invitation is spoken by the same voice Jesus heard at His baptism, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).
Several years ago, while our family was vacationing on the North Carolina coast, I headed out on a solo walk along the crowded beach. It was one of those walks to nowhere, with nothing particularly on my mind (I’ve been told that men excel in these endeavors). Eventually, I noticed a young, darkly tanned boy having a grand time in the shallow surf. Guessing by his size, he appeared to be about 9 years old. I stood there and watched him play, completely absorbed in what I thought looked like the definition of fun. Suddenly, he turned, and as our eyes met, I could see that he had Down syndrome. At that moment, his precious face burst into a smile, and he began to scream what must have been the name of the person he mistook me to be. Then, with our eyes still locked on each other, he began running toward me with his arms opened wide. Without time to sort out how to best respond, I knelt and opened my arms to him. With his arms wrapped tightly around my neck, he began smothering me with a kiss. After what felt like forever, he loosened his grip, tilted his head back, and with his eyes riveted on mine, his face burst again into a smile.
For the next few days, my mind didn’t travel far from that encounter. Still, I was not certain why it had so impacted me. Finally, a few evenings later, as I sat alone in the darkness, God spoke to me: “Fil, that little boy was a picture of My playfulness and My wild and reckless love for you.”
Is it any wonder I am utterly convinced Jesus is the most fun-loving being in the universe?
What do you know about playfulness?
Just look across the landscape of our culture and you’re bound to see that leisure is a major industry, yet most people know very little about it. In fact, it is a concept most of us don’t easily welcome.
Often what we refer to as play is loaded down with competition and compulsion. Many of us live for the weekend, thinking of it as the opposite of work—the after-hours activities we engage in to recover, relax, and unwind. We approach play as something that enables us to return to work invigorated and renewed. Or maybe work is something we do that enables us to return to our diversion. Either way, this view turns fun into work, which is not what God intended.
I believe that Christians today are just as overwhelmed, stressed-out, and unfocused as the rest of our fast-paced, frazzled, secularized culture. Lifelessness and terminal seriousness are the sins most readily tolerated by the church. But if we sincerely believe the things Scripture reveals about God’s nature and character, don’t you think we’d lighten up?
The God that Jesus came to reveal, that we encounter in Scripture, gives us the power to live, move, and be who we are; He is the God who is always with us, who celebrates, sings, and refreshes our life with His love. The One who loved the world enough to experience all its pain and sadness—the God who loves us so much that He’d rather His Son die for us than live without us.
What do you know about Jesus?
Lots of people I know have a one-dimensional, words-on-paper understanding of Jesus instead of seeing Him as a three-dimensional Savior whose humanity is real and whose personality is inviting. For instance, I believe Jesus was as playful as He was prayerful. Surely He knew how to laugh and cry from His gut—how to be serious about life but not take Himself too seriously. Jesus came to save us from our sin and our legalistic, performance-based view of God—the false picture of a father who stands with crossed arms and a disappointed scowl, applauding when we get something right and judging us when we do wrong. Jesus came to make something clear: God’s unmerited favor is more than a one-time gift that applies exclusively to eternal security; it’s a daily gift that keeps on giving.
What relief would it give us to know that the pressure’s off and God delights in every facet of our life—in our working and resting and praying and playing? What peace would it bring to understand that the inherent nature of God is relational and whimsical?
God is not only present in our lives when we see clear evidence; He’s also there when we have reasonable doubt. He hides in our disappointment, difficulty, despair, and failure—in all of the stories of our lives. Whatever situation, whatever state of grace or disgrace our lives are in, God is with us—invisible and waiting for us to discover and learn from Him, in the darkness as well as in the light. But God not only hides—He also seeks.
Years ago, burdened by how little time I had spent alone with the Lord, I decided to get up extra early the next morning, guaranteeing no interruptions or distractions. Shortly after settling into my chair, I heard feet on the stairs that signaled one of the children had awakened. Frustrated and disappointed, I asked God, “What’s it going to take for me to find some time to be alone with You?” The next moment the door opened and our son Lee peeked inside the room. Reading the disappointment on my face, he said, “I just want to be with you.” In a moment of grace, I gave up on my time alone with God and chose instead to be with my son. Settling into this tender time of companionship, I believe I heard God speaking to me: “It’s all right, Fil. You give him what he needs and let Me give you what you need.” Once again, God found me.
Life In Play
The capacity for play seems to be built into the basic design for our life by a creative God. What this should indicate for us, if nothing else, is that unless we are playful, we’re not living. All of us go through periods where lightheartedness is difficult. However, if a month has passed and you have not been amused in any significant way, you need to take an honest look at your life. If God’s creation is any indication, you may not be doing what you were designed to do!
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (NIV). Another translation says, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” It has been suggested that both “be still” and “cease striving” really mean “have leisure.” I think God is often saying to me, “Hey, Fil. It’s time to relax and know that I am God.”
Consider the words of Jesus, the One who stood upon the stormy sea and stilled it: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). When you find the Lord who is mightier than the stormy chaos you face, new possibilities emerge that were previously hidden from view. You discover that life doesn’t simply exist; it plays beneath the surface realities of our daily existence. When you lose your fear of the stormy sea, you may just find that Jesus is inviting you not only to face the sea with courage, but also to walk upon it. Perhaps even to dance!
Illustrations by Matt Johnstone