Introduction

When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of

latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales.

I scratch my head with the lightning and purr myself to sleep with the thunder.

– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Life is busy. Although Henry Ford instituted the five-day, 40-hour working week in 1926, modern technology has meant that many employers expect their employees to be on call virtually 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This results in people never being able to fully wind down as they know they may receive an email or SMS at any time.

The popularity of various social media platforms has also contributed significantly to the strange phenomenon whereby Gen Z is history’s most connected generation, but also the loneliest.[1] This, according to Trinko, is not only due to the fact that Gen Z tend to use their phones rather than interact face-to-face, but also to the decline in church attendance, smaller families, and less time socializing with neighbors and co-workers. This lack of social connectedness and interaction means that people are less likely to take part in various group recreational activities, which, in turn, results in less social connectedness, and so the cycle continues and the situation worsens.

We all instinctively feel that humans were made for more than the endless treadmill of a working life. I believe that we were made to have life, “and have it abundantly.”[2] Unfortunately, modern life, coupled with a so-called Protestant work ethic, conspires to make it difficult to live the life for which we were created.

In this article, I will discuss that, apart from other, more commonly agreed upon attributes, God is also playful and desires a real, intimate connection with humankind and creation. I will then propose that, as women and men are made in God’s image, time for play is not childish, or a waste of time, but something that is vital for our flourishing as human beings.

Made in God’s Image

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

– William Blake, The Divine Image

The concept that humankind was created in God’s image is multifaceted and does, of course, mean many things.[3]However, I would like to focus mainly on two characteristics that I believe highlight why leisure and play are vital for mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. These two characteristics are connectedness and playfulness.

Even a cursory look at nature is enough to highlight the creativity of God. Everything has a function, and a part to play in ensuring the cosmos continues to be nurtured, supported, and sustained. However, creation is not merely functional; it is a gift created for God’s enjoyment and for ours. Could God have made a fully functional universe that was only black and white or shades of gray? Of course! But He didn’t. God chose to create color, diversity, and whimsy. God also created a ‘day’ that was to be set aside for rest and ‘re-creation’. From the Latin word recreare, this is more than simply taking part in leisure activities. This is taking time to renew one’s spirit and relationships – to refresh, restore, and make anew.

We ascribe many attributes to God: omnipotence, righteousness, omniscience, holiness, omnipresence. But what about playfulness and whimsy? If you have difficulty imagining that God is playful or whimsical, look no further than two animals that are native to my homeland of Australia – the platypus and the quokka. The platypus looks like it was made up of bits left over from other animals, whereas the quokka has rightly been called the world’s happiest animal (if you don’t know why, look them up!).

G.K. Chesterton expressed the concept of God’s playfulness perfectly when he wrote:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.[4]

It can also be argued that the triune God is the epitome of connectedness – three separate, yet inseparable persons. Similarly, humans were created for connection – with God, each other, and the rest of creation. God saw that it was not good that Adam should be alone, so created Eve to be his companion.[5] That the omnipotent God yearned to have a relationship with humankind is beautifully illustrated in the image of God walking through the garden in order to spend time with Adam and Eve.[6]

Another depiction of God’s desire to be in communion with humankind is found in what has become known as the icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Initially painted to depict the three men who visited Abraham and Sarah in order to announce that Sarah would bear a child, it has become one of the most readily recognizable images of the Trinity.[7]

There are two aspects of this icon to which I would like to draw attention. Firstly, the three figures are quite androgynous, which points to the fact that women and men equally reflect the image of God. More importantly, however, is the placement of the three figures. They are seated at a table in such a way that there appears to be a spare seat, in front of which there is a bowl of food. The intention is clear; this is an invitation to take your seat at the table and share the meal. In a culture where people eat with their fingers, this is an invitation to be part of a very intimate relationship.

So, if we are made in the image of God, it would stand to reason that part of that image would manifest itself in the need for connection and the need to be playful. Indeed, I would argue that true, life-affirming connections cannot be forged without there being an element of playfulness, and therefore, playfulness is essential in nurturing and maintaining healthy relationships. I have called this ‘playful connectedness’.

Playful Connectedness

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

– John Donne

Humans are made for connectedness: with nature, colleagues, friends, family, God, and self. Our connections ground us by giving us a ‘place’ in the world, in our various communities, and within our families. We define ourselves by our connections: we are sons, daughters, partners, mothers, fathers, friends, mentors, etc. As human beings, we need to feel as though our lives have meaning and purpose. To thrive, we need to be able to give and receive love. All this is only possible through our relationships.

In 1989, after the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, around 170,000 so-called ‘Romanian orphans’ were found being raised in destitute institutions. Psychologists who have followed the progress of some of these children over the years have found that the neglect they suffered in those institutions has had lasting adverse effects on their physical and mental health. These include delays in cognitive function, motor development and language, deficits in socio-emotional behaviors, and an increased incidence of psychiatric disorders.[8]

This, of course, is an extreme example of the consequences of a truly toxic environment. However, any prolonged or recurring period of disconnection will still leave its mark.

We are connected to the whole of creation. Admittedly, some connections are more immediate than others; however, it is important to take the time to nurture all “levels” of our connectedness. It may be helpful to imagine these connections as a series of concentric circles, beginning with the outermost.

Nature

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

– Psalm 19:1

Anyone that has a small child in their lives knows how long it can sometimes take to walk 100 meters . . . especially if there are puddles involved! Because that is not simply a puddle. It’s the deepest ocean, and those leaves are pirate ships, and that twig is a fearsome sea monster intent on sinking the ships. As educator Walt Streightiff said: “There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.”

As we age, we run the risk of becoming jaded. We’ve seen it all before – “there is nothing new under the sun.”[9] We can also become overly preoccupied with the busyness of everyday life – work, housework, committees. None of these are wrong in themselves. Indeed, most of them are necessary. It is when they become so all-consuming that they render us unable to stop and smell the roses that they can become a problem. We are so busy “doing” that there is no time left for simply ‘being’, for simply looking around and marveling at the beauty of creation. I suspect that an attitude of child-like wonder and awe was part of what Jesus was referring to when he warned his disciples that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[10] We cannot enter it because we are blind to nature’s ‘sacred doorways’ – the doorways that are there for our enjoyment and to invite us into a deeper connection with our world and its creator.

We are a part of creation, and as such, inextricably connected to it – a creation that, when viewed in its entirety, is “very good.”[11] God entrusted creation to our care.[12] We were not meant to plunder and destroy it. The increasing occurrences of extreme weather events and the number of species (flora and fauna) becoming endangered or extinct must erase any remaining doubt as to whether the actions of humankind affect nature as a whole.

If we were to give ourselves, from time to time, permission to view our world through the eyes of a child, we would rekindle a sense of wonder, awe, joy, playfulness, and gratitude, and gain a sense of our place and purpose in God’s grand plan. We could, like St Francis of Assisi, give thanks for the gift of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” in our lives, and dedicate ourselves to do all we can to be true stewards of creation.

Community/Family

To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.

– Mark Twain

Recent years and the on-again/off-again lockdowns we have all endured have brought into sharp focus our intrinsic need for human connection and the freedom to exercise the pursuits we enjoy. Last year, in an attempt to foster a sense of community, ABC Classic (our national classical music broadcaster) launched a virtual choir. A special Christmas carol was written (some of its lyrics in indigenous languages); people learned the words and sent in videos of themselves singing. The resulting choir numbered around 1,500 people from all over Australia and also from other countries. Choristers ranged in age from primary school aged children, through to people in their eighties and beyond. No prior choral or vocal experience was required. All that was needed was a love of singing and the desire to be part of something joyful.

Society tells us that, for our lives to be worthwhile, we have to be successful, we have to not just achieve our goals, but go beyond, and it all has to be documented on social media. All this does, however, is make us competitive and destroys any joy we may experience from our activities by turning them into a series of challenges to be mastered. Of course, not all use of social media is bad. It can keep us connected with family and friends who live far away, and during Covid, it helped make isolation more bearable for many people. Balance is the key.

Striving for success and being goal-oriented starts early. How many parents complain of having to spend almost all their weekends being ‘mum’s taxi’ or ‘dad’s taxi’ as they ferry their children to a variety of extra-curricular activities? Sports, swimming lessons, music lessons, etc. All of these activities are good in themselves, however, as well as leaving little time to just ‘be’, there is within them the concept of competition. If your activity isn’t pitting yourself against an opponent, then it is pitting yourself against yourself as you strive to progress to the next level. Coupled with a considerable load of homework, this has the potential to result in time-poor families who are simply bouncing from one activity to another – activities that have now been stripped of any playfulness or possibility of imparting joy.

Adults need to lead by example. Of course, it is necessary to earn money to keep a roof over the family’s head and food on the table. And there is nothing wrong with getting satisfaction from your job. But there needs to be a balance, but sometimes the accepted wisdom makes it difficult to discern what that balance could look like.

We need to give ourselves permission to do things simply because they bring us joy. Not in order to achieve a particular goal; not in an effort to attain a new personal best – but simply because doing them puts a smile on our face. Whether it’s something we do on our own or with others (and both are important), we need to reconnect with that inner child and deliberately make time to do things we love for the simple reason that it nourishes our spirit and brings us a feeling of peace, contentment, and connection. 

God

Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

As mentioned earlier, some people find it nearly impossible to imagine God as playful or joyful. Too many have been raised with an image of God as judgemental, serious, and joyless. However, the image of God as described by the author of the first creation story is of a God who took pleasure in each step of the process of creation. After each ‘day’, it is possible to imagine God standing back, admiring his handiwork, and declaring it to be good. Creation could have been effective, utilitarian; simple, streamlined, bland. Instead it is an absolute riot of color, smells, shapes, and sizes – all for our pleasure, and God’s.

Some of the stories found in the Bible also hint at a playful, mischievous God. For example, the prophet Jonah, unhappy that God had given the Ninevites a chance to repent, thus avoiding their destruction, goes off and sulks.[13] God, after having ‘appointed’ a bush  for Jonah so that he might have shade, then ‘appointed’ a worm to attack the bush, causing it to wither.[14] This opens the door for a timely object lesson for Jonah. This is hardly the image of an impatient, short-tempered God. No, the image here is more akin to a parent, gently teasing a recalcitrant child. Many of Jesus’ parables contain a good dose of Jewish humor. And who can manage to suppress a smile when imagining Jesus’ conversation with the ‘vertically-challenged’ Zacchaeus who just happened to be up a tree at the time?[15]

Just like any relationship, to grow and flourish, our relationship with God needs to be nurtured. Of course, our image of God has a significant impact on how we go about communicating with God and living our lives. This is one of the issues Jesus had with the Pharisees. Their image of God was of a jealous, vengeful God, one who was ready to punish anyone who put a foot wrong. Consequently, they went to great lengths to ensure there was no risk of transgressing any of the commandments. This resulted in people being loaded “with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves [the Pharisees] do not lift a finger to ease them.”[16] The Pharisees were more interested in the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law. This view reduces God’s grace to a dry, legal transaction rather than an expression of a loving relationship.

Yes, God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent, but rather than seeing those properties as creating a chasm between a distant God and a puny, unimportant creation, perhaps it would be more accurate to define those properties as a God who is always with us, who always knows what is best for us, and who is stronger than any of the issues in our lives that may be weighing us down.

Creation is a gift, a gift that God is not only happy to share with us, but a gift created for our mutual pleasure. In creation there is color, beauty, diversity, playfulness, and whimsy. Therefore, if it is possible, as St. Paul argues, to see and understand the creator through creation, then it should not be too difficult to imagine a creative, playful and whimsical God. Indeed, as Malcolm Guite so wonderfully puts it; creation is, in fact, God’s language.[17] [18]

 Self

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

– Psalm 139:14a

Arguably, the most important connection we have, and the one which influences how healthy our other relationships will be, is our connection with ourselves. Every day in my work as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, I see the effects that having a poor connection to self has on people’s lives. People who do not believe they deserve to be loved, cannot envisage that anyone could possibly love them, not even God. This, of course, has a detrimental effect on their ability to form healthy connections.

This lack of self-esteem also means they find it very difficult to allow themselves to pursue activities that bring them joy. Abuse and/or neglect in their formative years leads them to believe they have to earn love by being successful and having their lives together. As discussed earlier, society’s definition of what constitutes success, unrealistic social media images, and overemphasis on material possessions make it difficult for people to make time to just ‘be’ or to nurture their various relationships.

It’s time to reclaim our playfulness. It’s time to give ourselves permission to do things simply because they give us pleasure, joy, and a sense of well-being and serenity, not necessarily because we may be good at them. We need to try to shed our self-consciousness and, like children, embrace the adventure of trying new things. In the words attributed to William Watson Purkey, we should “dance like nobody’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt. Sing like nobody’s listening; live like it’s heaven on earth.”  If we can, even sometimes, do this, we will be like that little child of which Jesus spoke, doing our bit to bring about heaven on earth.

Conclusion

We were created for so much more than punching the time clock and going to work.

In this article, I have suggested that two of the most important things for which we were created are connection and an attitude that allows for playfulness and whimsy. I have suggested that these two attributes are not only beneficial for a happy and fulfilling life, but that to act in a way that stifles these attributes is contrary to our humanity.

We are made in God’s image: a God who is the epitome of connectedness. There is, of course, connection within the Godhead itself. But we must not forget that God desires connectedness with each one of us. Indeed, as Pope Francis stated, the Bible is “a love letter, written to us by the One who knows us best.”[19]

It stands to reason, therefore, that as we are made in God’s image, we too need to nurture our relationships and give ourselves permission to be playful in order to thrive. Play is not a waste of time. It provides a release valve to the tensions of everyday life. It also helps nurture relationships; with the rest of creation, as we wonder at the beauty and diversity that surrounds us; with family and friends, as we share activities; with God, as we allow ourselves to discover God’s playfulness; with ourselves, as we begin to realize what we need to grow and flourish.

Although Mother Nature can sometimes be terrifying, we are part of a creation that is beautiful, awesome, colorful, diverse, and, for the most part, nurturing. If we have the eyes to see, creation is full of playfulness and whimsy – otters frolicking, pandas falling out of trees, kittens playing. What type of God would create such a world? All powerful? Yes! Creative? Of course!  But given the evidence all around us, also a playful, whimsical God with a healthy sense of humor. God also sustains the world. So, like a child that never tires of a favorite game, each new day is the result of a divine ‘do it again’.


Citation Information

Anna Beresford, “In The Image of a Playful God: Flourishing Through Playfulness And Connection,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 179-194.


Endnotes

[1]  Katrina Trinko, “Gen Z is the loneliest generation, and it’s not just because of social media,USA Today, accessed March 8, 2023, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/05/03/gen-z-loneliest-generation- social-media–personal-interactions-column/574701002/.

[2] John 10:10b (NRSVue).

[3] Genesis 1

[4] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996), 82.

[5] Genesis 2:18-24 (NRSVue).

[6] Genesis 3:8 (NRSVue).

[7] Genesis 18:1-15 (NRSVue).

[8] Kirsten Weir, “The Lasting Impact of Neglect,” Monitor on Psychology 45, no. 6 (2014): www.apa.org/monitor/2014/06/neglect.

[9] Ecclesiastes 1:9b (NRSVue).

[10] Luke 18:17 (NRSVue).

[11] Genesis 1:31 (NRSVue).

[12] Genesis 2:15 (NRSVue).

[13] Jonah 4:1-5 (NRSVue).

[14] Jonah 4:6-7 (NRSVue).

[15] Luke 19:1-10 (NRSVue).

[16] Luke 11:46 (NRSVue).

[17] Romans 1:20 (NRSVue).

[18] Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2014), 46.

[19] Lydia O’Kane, “Pope at Mass: God’s Word a love letter from the One who knows us best,” Vatican News, accessed March 8, 2023, www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2021-01/pope-francis-god-s-word-a-love-letter-from-the-one-who-knows-us.html