Learning to Lighten Up: Playing at Work

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

This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.
—Alan Watts


God originally designed work to be pleasurable. At creation, everything was deemed good. This would have included all the activity in the garden of Eden. In Genesis 2:15, it states, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” This commission occurs prior to the Fall. Therefore, this task would have been enjoyable to Adam and Eve. It would not have involved the stress and anger reflected in our current jobs. Furthermore, Andrew Spenser argued that “work it and keep it” should be translated “worship and obey,” meaning that the primary purpose for work was to honor God (2017, 71). This is linguistically possible in the Hebrew text because the Hebrew word avodah in this verse can be translated “work” or “worship.” It is used in both capacities in the Old Testament. I believe this word choice is intentional. Even if one maintains the traditional interpretation—that this should be translated “work”—the nuance of the other use, “worship,” is present. It is God saying that work should be worshipful. This mindset fosters an integrated life between our relationship with God and our occupations.

Imagine the work environment in the garden. Sin was not present to cause competition between Adam and Eve regarding their work responsibilities. Tending to the land did not lead to depression or burnout. There was no anger over work-life balance. Stress did not occur over a particular quota or specific deadline. Rather, there was perfect enjoyment at doing God’s will. Work was deeply satisfying as they tended to the animals and land. It was worshipful. It was meaningful. It was pleasurable. Furthermore, their boss was perfect, literally.

I believe Adam and Eve delighted in caring for God’s creation. I also suspect they played. If work was fully enjoyable because sin was absent, is it not reasonable to conclude that they enjoyed moments of pleasure and laughter as they worked in the garden? Is it not possible that they took time to chase each other in the field or toss a vegetable at one another? Can you see Eve hiding from Adam in a spontaneous moment of hide-and-seek? I believe they had permission to fully enjoy play while working. I don’t believe God administered a nine-to-five schedule. Rather, I suspect he encouraged freedom within their work to worship, reflect, laugh, and play. In my perspective, work prior to the Fall perfectly blended productivity with pleasure and play.


The reason it is difficult to imagine the above scenario with Adam and Eve is that we have no point of reference. Sin has touched every part of our reality, from personal identity to relationships, including work. Thus, it is impossible to experientially imagine a world where work is fully enjoyable with pleasure and freedom. Sin oppresses our vocations.

In Genesis 3, God stated to Adam,

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (vv. 17–19)

Because of sin, work is now burdensome. It involves “pain” and “sweat.” Joy is elusive at work, a sharp contrast to the state prior to the Fall. The Fall has deeply distorted God’s original design for work. Individuals’ identities are now rooted in one’s vocation rather than one’s relationship with God. We are defined by what we do rather than who we are. This has fueled humanistic pursuits, as individuals strive to excel in their workplace, both in terms of position and salary. It is thus becoming increasingly important, if not expected, to climb the corporate ladder. Success in life is defined in terms of one’s career.

With the industrial age, work became separated from the home. This is in large part due to the shift from an agrarian society to one of manufacturing. Individuals traveled to their workplaces rather than working on their homestead. This shift resulted in work becoming functional rather than meaningful. Work became a matter of earning a paycheck rather than fulfilling a calling. It was the secularization of vocation. Further, this created a distortion of the employee, as individuals were viewed more as objects than as valued members of the company. This depersonalization amplifies self-centered pursuits, as individuals desire to “take” from their work rather than “give back” to society. It is no wonder that employees experience depression, anger, and sadness at work. When self becomes the focus of one’s vocation, it inevitably leads to emptiness and joylessness.

The primary distortion of sin is that the individual becomes the focus rather than God. It makes logical sense then that sin corrupted work by making it about the employee rather than a divine vocational calling, as was the original design by God—“to work it and keep it” or “to worship and obey.” Furthermore, the emphasis on productivity drives the employer to pressure the worker to do more, to give more, and to sacrifice more for the company. This mindset does not allow for enjoyment, let alone play. Play would be viewed as superfluous, most certainly not something that contributes to the company but rather costs the organization money. Sin has marred God’s original design for work.


This section explores the various benefits of play at work. My hope is that you will imagine a different reality at your job—that it is possible to work hard while also incorporating play. I encourage you to not simply read these pages as “that would be nice to see work in that way” but rather “I am going to take small steps toward incorporating play at work.”

Play Enhances Productivity

I commented earlier that engagement at work leads to increased productivity. Play also increases productivity. A 2018 study by Brigham Young University researchers revealed that workers who played a collaborative video game together experienced a 20 percent increase in productivity when compared to individuals who participated in a traditional team-building activity (Keith et al. 2018). It led to a great sense of cohesion and community. Play also increases innovation at one’s work (Brower 2019). It fosters curiosity, creativity, and problem-solving capabilities—essential components of work productivity. As Tracey Brower stated, “Playfulness is linked to humor and the distance from ‘Ha Ha’ and ‘Ah Ha’ is short” (Brower 2019).

The intangible but essential skills of critical thinking and exploration are innately connected to our being made in the image of God. God uniquely designed us to be curious and creative. He desires that these qualities be exercised in our work. Exodus 31:1–5 states,

The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Bezalel’s skills were an expression of God’s Spirit in him (v. 3). Being “filled” by God’s Spirit resulted in his “ability and intelligence” (v. 3). Walter Kaiser Jr. described these skills as “gifts of the Holy Spirit” (1990, 475). There is a relationship between our being made in the image of God and our problem-solving capabilities. Being made in the image of God and infused with God’s Spirit uniquely allowed Bezalel to create or “devise artistic designs” (v. 4). Furthermore, his work as a craftsman is a calling (vv. 2–3). It is not for functional purposes—to make a living—but as an embodiment of God’s purposes in his life. He was not called to be a priest, but he was called to be an artist.

If our intelligence, knowledge, and creativity are embodiments and expressions of being made in the image of God, and for Christians an expression of God’s Spirit in us, should we not find ways to enhance these qualities at work? Why should these divinely embedded qualities be relegated to hobbies or inventive roles? They should be unleashed in the workplace. Research affirms that play enhances these qualities. As such, it would be beneficial for companies to permit play and workers to engage in play as a means toward greater work productivity. For the Christian, this approach to work also equips one’s calling and flourishes it. In essence, we should embrace the connection between God’s desire for meaning at work and its enhancement through play.

Play Encourages Workplace Trust

It is not uncommon for fellow workers to be viewed as colleagues and nothing more. The transient nature of work further suppresses one’s desire to cultivate deep friendships at one’s workplace; no one knows how long another person will be there. Play counteracts this disconnect and fosters trust between individuals, even if trust was not the intentional aim. “Sharing laughter and fun can foster empathy, compassion, trust, and intimacy with others” (Robinson et al. 2023). When you laugh and joke with another person, you feel a relational connection. You share an experience that becomes stored as a positive memory in your mind. It leads to a greater propensity to share more openly with that person. In many respects, play demonstrates vulnerability. It is a form of safe risk.

The Fall stirs feelings of competition and comparison (Gal. 5:19–21), particularly at work. It leads to unhealthy relationships, even volatility, as we strive to outdo and outmaneuver one another for personal gain and promotion. The relationship between Saul and David embodies these sinful expressions. Saul was David’s boss. Yet he became jealous of David over his successes, particularly when the people esteemed him more, as expressed in their song “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7; see 18:6–11). It permanently dissolved the relationship, leading to Saul attempting to kill David on numerous occasions. This relationship contrasts with David and Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son, seen in the same chapter. If Saul was David’s boss, Jonathan was his coworker (both served in the military). Despite David’s successes, Jonathan, who rightfully could have been jealous since he was heir to the throne, bonded with him—“the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1). Trust and intimacy were forged between them. There are no biblical references to David and Jonathan playing. However, I suspect they shared moments of laughter and enjoyment as they served the nation.

When I served as a pastor, I often utilized short games as part of leadership meetings. They were usually connected to some decision—a way to think about a problem. They were moments of levity while we made decisions about church strategy and congregational needs. Yet the unintended result of playing games together was camaraderie. Even if that game was competitive, it led to a naturalness, an openness, that then translated over to the formal agenda items. The moment of play had the larger benefit of making the entire meeting more enjoyable. I could have viewed games as optional—“if we have time in the meeting,” but I believed laughter and enjoyment would have greater dividends than accomplishing the agenda items in the quickest and most efficient way possible. Trust is an intangible quality in the workplace, yet it is critically necessary for employee happiness and satisfaction. Play enhances this happiness and satisfaction by cultivating trust rather than envy among those around us.

Play Increases Worker Longevity

God desires that we commit wholeheartedly to whatever we do. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23–24). This verse affirms that work should be an act of worship (“whatever we do”). Ultimately, our focus should be on God rather than the company. It can be challenging to maintain this perspective in a humanistic world, where employees are oftentimes viewed in terms of how much money they bring to the company. As a result, our worshipful perspectives can erode in cutthroat environments. I believe that a perspective realignment toward work as worship would enhance longevity. We would see our vocations as places of mission and meaning rather than sources of a paycheck.

It is unreasonable to expect non-Christian companies to embrace a Christian worldview. But for Christian companies, particularly owners and managers in those organizations, it is necessary, as a spiritual act, to think through how one can foster conditions to allow individuals “to commit wholeheartedly.” Obviously, there are numerous ways to accomplish this—fair treatment, work-home balance, and equitable compensation. Germane to this book is the topic of play. Creating conditions of play within one’s organizations can help the overall workplace environment and enhance spiritual vibrancy. It can create pleasurable work atmospheres that are more easily conducive to worker commitment.

In the secular space, Silicon Valley has created fun workspaces to increase worker longevity and reduce turnover. Turnover is costly to the organization by increasing transition and training costs. Research indicates that employee turnover cost companies $2.4 trillion in 2021 (Worqdrive 2022). In addition to reducing turnover, play reduces employee dissatisfaction. Most individuals are change averse. The prospect of changing jobs every few years is not attractive. For these reasons, companies are increasingly adding arcade games, pool tables, and relaxation spaces to keep workers engaged and committed. In other words, they are intentionally incorporating environments for play into their spaces to increase employee enjoyment. They rightfully understand that a playful work environment not only improves employee satisfaction and engagement but also promotes worker longevity.

I believe secular companies should not lead the way in terms of workplace enjoyment and stability. Rather, Christian organizations should be the pioneers by fostering vibrant, flourishing places where workers can work hard and play hard. I have a Christian friend who started a financial investment firm. He built it from the ground up, beginning in his garage. When the firm grew, he rented space in a business complex. As part of the workspace design, he incorporated an open floor plan with a coffee bar, casual chairs, and an area for table tennis. Initially I was surprised. I questioned whether clients would enjoy investing their money in a place that encouraged casualness and play. Would they think that the consultants were not taking their jobs seriously and thus the investments? The opposite occurred. The overall returns in the firm increased. The clients were happy, but more importantly, the workers were happy. They had an environment that fostered playful interactions and enjoyment. They had freedom to play at their jobs. The result was a greater commitment to the company and the work.

Play Improves Homelife (and Transitions to Homelife)

In our digital world, work is always accessible and always present. This is the new reality. It is not likely to change. For remote workers, it is easy to feel that your home is synonymous with work. Therefore, it can negatively impact your ability to enjoy nonworking hours. For others, you are never fully off from work in that your job requires you to check emails in the evening or attend to projects. Others find that work is incredibly stressful. As a result, it spills over to homelife in that you need to process the frustrations of the day before you can begin to rest. These realities can easily lead to burnout because individuals feel work dominates their lives. They live to work rather than work to live.

Play at work can improve each of these scenarios. It fosters enjoyment that then reduces the sense that work consumes our lives. Rather than begrudging work, work becomes part of your life rhythm rather than strictly compartmentalized. It makes logical sense. If you enjoyed work, it would not be difficult to engage in it. Even more so, if work also consisted of play, it would be life-giving at times. It would be pleasurable rather than simply functional.

Furthermore, being able to play allows us to transition better to homelife because there is less of a need to demarcate the two. Stress would be reduced, resulting in less need for decompression at home. A person can more easily transition to homelife, naturally and freely, because the built-up frustrations of the workday no longer need release. This is the benefit of play. The playful pockets throughout one’s day serve as a pressure relief valve. They allow you to breathe, laugh, and smile.

Work can be challenging and frustrating. The curse on humanity’s toil described in Genesis 3 is a reality for all of us. We experience difficulties, workplace gossip, employer abuse, and coworker manipulation. The impact of mental health issues, emptiness, and stress further points to the plague on humankind. Yet, there is hope. Proverbs 17:22 states, “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (NIV). Play can buoy the soul during difficulties. The psalmist states, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness” (Ps. 30:11). God can infuse our hearts with pleasure and enjoyment, even in stressful moments. This is equally true in our workplaces. By incorporating more playful moments at work, we might just find our workplaces more enjoyable, which can then result in healthier, more vibrant homes.


To read more, preorder a copy of Theology of Play, or pick up a copy on Tuesday, 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

(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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