Learning to Enjoy Life: Playing Requires Permission

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from Theology of Play: Learning to Enjoy Life as God Intended
by Kevin M. Gushiken

It is a happy talent to know how to play.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson  

Life has become too squeezed. There was a time when margin existed in our lives. A person could casually relax at work or at home without the gnawing compulsion to do more. In recent years, there has been a rise in calls for work-life balance. Yet, in the post COVID-19 era, it seems that this balance is eroding due to the incessant pull for additional work hours and further commitments at home. Working remotely forever changed the expectation for employees to be accessible after normal business hours. It is now common for employees to log on to work for an hour or two in the evening. For many, this is necessary to keep up with other employees at work who also are working after hours. And thus, the rat race continues.  

Equally, at home there is a compulsion to max out extracurricular pursuits. Children are enrolled in activities that consume every day of the week. This is partially a result of parents feeling inferior for not doing so. To pad one’s college application, high schoolers are increasingly committing to countless clubs and sports. No one wants to look lazy on their college application. Empty nesters are restless; therefore, they engage in numerous activities, sometimes to fill the identity void created when their children left home. Seniors do not want to be identified as lifeless; therefore, they gather in book clubs and take weekend trips.  

For many in our society, less is not more. Duty and obligation have become the mantra at work. And busyness is the default mode at home. The result is a squeezing of any free moment to play. And, more so, play can become neglected because we feel irresponsible when we enjoy playful moments in life, like it shouldn’t be a priority.


What does permission look like theologically? To embrace play, we need to see it as good for us. It rests in the truth that God loves to give us good things, to build us up. It is not a deviation from our spiritual responsibilities but rather an expression of them. I believe God hardwired us to play. One small example is the uniqueness of humans’ ability to laugh. No other animal has the capacity to laugh in response to a joke. Hyenas laugh but not in response to enjoyment; it is due to high stress—a defense mechanism. Humans laugh because we are enjoying a moment in life. It is an expression of our uniqueness as image bearers.

To grant ourselves permission to play, we need a theological infusion into our understanding of play. It is necessary to see it as more than a means of entertainment and pleasure, as something that is spiritually good and meaningful for us. This involves seeing play through the lens of God. It then moves from optional to necessary.

Play Is Spiritually Good for Us  

James 1:17 states, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” This passage does not define the word gift. It simply affirms that God bestows upon us good gifts. The ultimate gift is salvation. However, there are other gifts such as family, vocation, and leisure. God desires that we find fulfillment in family and work. But he also grants us reprieve from the responsibilities of life by giving us the ability to play. 

Play is good in that it allows us to connect with others. Play allows us to enjoy God’s creation. Play provides human pleasure. Yet it is also true that play has a profound spiritual benefit because it allows us to enjoy the fullness of our humanness by celebrating God’s gift of life. Play is eutrapelia—it allows our “souls [to]take rest in a kind of pleasure” (Kress 2012, 1). It enables a spiritual wholeness and intrapersonal freedom. I believe there is something obtained in play that is not possible in other forms of human expression and activity. It allows us to taste life’s goodness, even briefly. Let’s look at some of the spiritual benefits of play. 

Play Is Spiritually Life-Giving to Us 

Proverbs 17:22 states, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” This verse highlights the human benefits of joy: It is medicinal. It is uplifting. It is restorative. In contrast, the latter portion of the verse captures the emotional strain of a crushed spirit: It is stifling and depressing. It suffocates. 

Play stirs joy in us. There is a “pleasantness of playfulness” (Kress 2012, 1). It is life-giving. It is restorative. Imagine having a horrible day. Something happened that set you off. It might have been failing a test or a relationship falling apart. Perhaps you received some unwanted news at work. Or a trusted coworker violated your trust. You come home to your family or spouse. After you vent for a moment, your loved one comes over to you, looks you in the eyes, and cracks a joke. They then poke you playfully. As much as you want to be angry, you cannot help but smile and chuckle. In that moment of play, you experience a lightening—some restoration. Play is spiritually life-giving, for in that moment our soul becomes lighter.

Play Is Spiritually Meaningful to Us  

Humans are created to connect with others. From the beginning, God deemed it is not good for a human to be alone. It is essential to be in relationships. We long for human connection and belonging. A person can play in isolation. However, many times play involves community. It is an opportunity to interact playfully with others. This human connection is meaningful in that it cultivates in us acceptance and safety. When play is shared with others, there is a human intimacy that is fostered. 

Research indicates that experiences grow fonder as one grows older. Amit Kumar stated that experiences “provide more enduring happiness” (Kumar, Killingsworth, and Gilovich 2014, 1924). Even if the memory is not perfect, our mind wants to view it as pleasing. He indicated that the “fleetingness” of these experiences makes them dearer to us. This contrasts with physical gifts that deteriorate over time. As an example, we can hardly remember a specific item given to us as a gift. But we can easily recall a present that involved an experience. Why? Because there was meaning attached to that human connection. That moment of play was not simply about the experience; it was about the meaning. This truth is one reason why my wife and I decided early in our marriage not to give physical presents for birthdays. Rather, we celebrate these moments with playful experiences. We have enjoyed rock climbing, skydiving, baseball games, concerts, and scavenger hunts, to name a few. As we look back at the last twenty-six years, we have a colorful slideshow of playful memories that surface in our minds. It is not primarily the activity that was enjoyable; it was the meaningfulness of those moments with loved ones that brought and continues to bring pleasure. These relationships are spiritual blessings infused with affirmation, safety, and intimacy. Play is an arena to celebrate these blessings. 

Play Is Spiritually Therapeutic for Us 

There are times when it is necessary to play as a means of emotional health. Play therapy is an increasingly popular field that provides psychological support and assistance to children. In essence, a trained therapist uses play to assist children in identifying and articulating emotions. At times, it involves observation to detect stress and anxiety. Other times, it is a means to create conversations around traumatic events. In sum, play is used among children as a means of psychological healing because play unlocks distress and trauma.

For some reason, this form of therapy is relegated to children. However, is it not also possible that play can have equal benefit for adults? I wonder if some mental health concerns might be alleviated by engaging in play. Is it not possible that play provides opportunities for healing in addition to moments of pleasure? 

I believe one reason we do not embrace play is because it is simply viewed as leisure. It is framed around a hobby—a moment to have fun. But if we were to reframe play around emotional, physical, relational, and psychological benefits, we could move it from elective (if I have time) to necessary (this is good for my soul). Perhaps one of the reasons we are not motivated to play more regularly is because we view it as secondary to the more important responsibilities in life—work, church, and ministry. 

To summarize play theologically,  

  • If God wanted us to be more serious, he would have withheld smiles.
  • If God wanted us to be more intense, he would have deprived us of sleep.
  • If God wanted us to be more efficient, he would have given us greater capacities.
  • God wanted us to enjoy life, so he gave us relationships.
  • God wanted us to breathe in the fabric of life, so he gave us days off.
  • God wanted us to play, so he gave us laughter.


To read more, preorder a copy of Theology of Play, or pick up a copy on June 25!

This post is adapted from Theology of Play: Learning to Enjoy Life as God Intended by Kevin M. Gushiken. This title is set to be released on June 25, 2024. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

God encourages you to experience great joy in following Jesus

God has given humans freedom and permission to play–to fully enjoy life’s moments as he intended, with no ulterior motive. The Christian life without play becomes malformed, and believers can miss aspects of the abundant life Jesus came to give.

In A Theology of Play, Kevin Gushiken builds a case for getting serious about play as a vital element of being a Christian. “Play,” he writes, “is not merely an activity but a way of living.” Gushiken explores play from various biblical and theological lenses:

        • How an identity grounded in God’s good creation invites us to play
        • The connection between play and the biblical concept of Sabbath
        • Why past hurts don’t have to keep us from enjoying the present
        • Releasing false guilt and shame to find true freedom to Play
      • How to play in the midst of difficulty and pain

Ultimately, knowing and enjoying God brings freedom and pleasure. A Theology of Play helps Christian believers identify barriers to play in their day-to-day lives and offers faithful guidance in recapturing play within the rhythms of life.


About Author

Kevin M. Gushiken (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) serves as the PhD and Leadership Director at Lancaster Bible College, Capital Seminary & Graduate School. Prior to this, he served as a senior pastor in Chicago for seventeen years.

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