“It is not only possible to say a great deal in praise of play; it is really possible to say the highest things in praise of it. It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars . . . that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls.”

– G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered[1]

“This world is not a distraction that keeps us from God. It is the wonder that will delight us into the worship of God. . . We’ve been missing the miracle of the majesty that reveals itself in the most mundane things – in leaves and streams and bees and the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. This world will be a witness to us of the wonder of God’s goodness and love, if we will watch for it.”

– K.J. Ramsey, The Lord is My Courage[2]

Introduction

Many Christians raised in American evangelicalism struggle to practice leisure. Between the endless needs of a destitute world, our relative material wealth compared with the world’s poor, and an impoverished anthropology that says true Christians must perennially function beyond their human limitations in order to be radically committed to God, the practice of rest is rife with shame. Leisure is tantamount to backsliding. To play is to give in to selfish materialistic worldliness, forsaking our first love. So we slip into a boundary-less savior mentality. We burn ourselves out for God while steadily losing any capacity to experience His delight in us, aside from our utilitarian worth within the faceless factory of soul-saving. The inexorable end result is that we forget that the Gospel is, in fact, good news.

Such an understanding of Christianity steals, kills, and destroys. But Jesus makes it clear that He calls us into abundant life: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”[3] Christians who cannot rest struggle to experience the green pastures that Jesus promises. He also tells us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[4]

I will argue in this essay that beneath a leisure-less faith underlies a deadly Gnosticism that condemns as worthless both the physical world and our physical bodies alike. This heresy fuels joyless legalism and, after exploiting its adherents to the dregs, leaves them broken, empty, and worthless, a far cry from the abundant life promised by Christ. To combat this heresy, we must relearn the spiritual practice of play as an essential component of spiritual health.

What is Gnosticism?

The heresy of Gnosticism originated as an ancient cult that saw the spiritual realm as the only good and holy one and the physical world as disgusting and shameful. According to Gnosticism, “Everything originated from a transcendent spiritual power; but corruption set in and inferior powers emerged, resulting in the creation of the material world in which the human spirit is now imprisoned. Salvation is sought by cultivating the inner life while neglecting the body and social duties unconnected with the cult.”[5] Notice that the realm of holiness and godliness is that of spirit, while the physical world is fundamentally corrupt. Its very existence is a result of sin.

The Gnostics even denied the physical body of Christ, claiming that His body was an illusion created by His spirit. After all, the holy spiritual realm can have no contact with the polluted physical realm, so Jesus could not have had a real human body. But as we will examine later, Jesus’ embodied personhood grants dignity both to the physical world and to our own embodied lives.

While it would be tempting to think of Gnosticism as no more than an interesting historical factoid, it is unfortunately far from dead. Gnostic undertones permeate a good deal of modern Christian thinking. Evangelical Christian culture tends to elevate ‘spiritual’ activities like prayer, church, and missions while denigrating ‘worldly’ activities such as fitness, recreational travel, sex, the arts, business, and leisure. The holiest activities are the least physical and seemingly involve only our spirits, while activities that involve our physical bodies and our interface with the physical world are at best deemed inferior, selfish, and materialistic. Author, poet, and cultural critic Wendell Berry writes,

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.[6]

Modern-day Gnosticism desecrates what God created as good and sacred.

As another example, Gnosticism rears its ugly head in Christian purity culture by denigrating our physical bodies. When we believe that our physical form is inherently corrupt and polluted, devastating consequences result: alienation from oneself, inner fragmentation, gender dysphoria, sexual dysfunction, and a host of other problems. As an example, due to their female form, women are fundamentally considered sex objects and objects of temptation, and due to their male form, men are fundamentally considered predators. Therefore, amongst other consequences, friendship between the sexes in many Christian circles is forbidden. Such a view of men and women is deeply dehumanizing, ignoring their true identity as persons made in the Imago Dei, the image of God. The reality of the Imago Dei means that men and women ought to treat one another as sacred image bearers, with respect, dignity, and friendship, rather than as dehumanized sexual objects that must be avoided.

What is the Imago Dei?

In fact, the theology of the Imago Dei is central to overcoming the curse of Gnosticism and recovering a truly Biblical understanding of the embodied human person and the role of play in our spiritual health. This doctrine is rooted in Genesis 1:26-27, when God declares,

‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.’

God created humankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them,

male and female he created them.[7]

When God creates Adam and Eve, He gives them His own image. God imbues His characteristics into both man and woman; both reflect God’s character and His various attributes. Then, “God saw all that he had made – and it was very good!”[8] Scripture tells us that all of God’s creation, including our physical bodies and the physical world, are in fact very good. Furthermore, notice that both man and woman are created to “rule . . . over all the earth” – the physical world that God had just created. We were created with the express purpose of ruling over and therefore interacting with the physical world in robust ways. As we will explore in greater depth later in this piece, we cannot experience the fact that God’s creation is ‘very good’ unless we allow ourselves to enjoy it.

How Gnosticism Erases the Imago Dei

But as the keen reader may have already noticed, Gnosticism and the Imago Dei clash. In fact, Gnosticism depends on the functional erasure of the first two and last two chapters of the Bible for its power. Devastating consequences result.

Andy Crouch, theologian and author of the book Culture Making, explained in a book lecture how this misreading of Scripture affects our imaginative picture of the life of faith.[9] Many of us leave off the first two and last two chapters of the Bible in our understanding of the story of reality. Crouch explains what happens when we miss

. . . the first two chapters, Genesis 1 and 2, the story of the good beginning of the world, and the last two, Revelation 21 and 22, the story of the remaking of the world, and of God re-giving the world to His redeemed people. And if . . . your functional Bible, the Bible you actually let shape your imagination, doesn’t include those bookend chapters of the Bible, the first two and the last two, what are you left with? You’re left with a Bible that starts in Genesis 3 and ends in Revelation 20 . . . What happens when you have a Bible that starts with sin and ends with judgment? Well, it’s a bad news to bad news Bible.[10]

In other words, here is how the story of reality goes when we neglect these crucial Scriptures: In the beginning, humans were corrupted by the Fall. We are wretched and worthless sinners, disgusting worms mired in sin. Due to our depravity, there is no good in us. We are worthless. We ruin everything we touch. But God mercifully sent Jesus to save us. When God looks at us, He doesn’t see us; He sees Jesus. (The unfortunate implication is that even if God loves us, He doesn’t like us; and even His love for us is in question if He only sees Jesus when He looks at us.[11]) So if we stay in the faith and fight sin, we will survive Judgment Day and the lake of fire. Meanwhile, those who are yet unsaved are also totally and wholly depraved, with no good in them. Since the whole world is dripping with sin and utterly worthless, true Christians must stay far away from anything that might be tainted, because we have a Judgment Day to survive.

When we skip Genesis 1 and 2 and neglect the Imago Dei, we face devastating consequences for personal worth and value. This story desecrates sacred image-bearers by convincing them that they are worthless – thereby aiding and abetting the enemy of our souls. Gnosticism and the popular understanding of total depravity are both tools Satan uses to convince us of our own worthlessness. When he succeeds, one of many consequences is that despair plagues many. Without a firm theology for our own value, many are gutted of the power to overcome mental illness in its worst forms. After all, the pit of suicide depends in many cases on a deep-seated belief in one’s own worthlessness. And recovery from such harrowing darkness requires the embrace of one’s own infinite worth as a precious and dearly beloved creation of God Himself.

Now, none of this changes the fact that the doctrine of original sin still stands: all of us are infected with the tendency to sin. It may even be permitted to argue for the doctrine of total depravity, when used in the narrow sense that our sinful minds and hearts prevent us from saving ourselves by our own efforts. However, when understood in a way that erases the Imago Dei, doctrines like these can be perverted to baptize the Satanic lie of our worthlessness as sacrosanct theology – making such theological perversions nearly impossible to question, much less overcome. These perversions are hauntingly similar to Gnosticism in how they desecrate the sacred. Any theology or ideology that defaces, mutilates, or erases the glory of God’s creation must be vigorously repudiated.

After all, we do not praise Vincent Van Gogh by destroying one of his paintings; we do not ruin a masterpiece so that the painter will be seen as greater or more glorious by the starker contrast between himself and the ruined work of art. Likewise, when we tear down image-bearers, using the fact of our sin to erase the fact of our Creator’s signature, we do not lift up our Creator or display ‘a high view of God.’[12] Instead, however inadvertently, we spit in the Artist’s face. We join in on the work of Satan, the Accuser and Enemy of our souls, in destroying God’s good creation. The fact of the matter is that God is not threatened by the goodness of His handiwork – the goodness that He Himself imparted. Rather, our good glory reflects the infinitely greater glory of our Maker.

Neglecting the Imago Dei leads not only to devastating consequences for our personhood, but also for cultural engagement. If all humanity is worthless and devoid of any good or value, why should we engage with our sinful culture? We would have compelling reason to cloister ourselves far from the touch of sin and wretchedness in order to keep our own robes clean. And many do. Using the terms of philosopher Richard Niebuhr in his book Christ and Culture, this approach towards cultural engagement is known as ‘Christ against culture.’[13] This posture positions the whole world as fundamentally worthless. There is no engaging with sinners because there is no good amongst them to engage. In the process of scrubbing our lives clean of anything that might be tainted, we destroy any possibility of meaningful interaction with the sinners who still drip with the filth we despise. Their sin replaces their Author as the most important thing about them.

If we evangelize at all, we do so in the most superficial way possible, through stilted evangelism at arm’s length. We are unable to engage with our culture’s artistic forms, its stories and films, its music, the meaning-making mechanisms that shape and form its worldviews, let alone sinners themselves. If we cannot watch a film or read a book with a single curse word in it, for fear of pollution, how are we to seek and to save the lost soul who drops an F-bomb every third word? We shun our culture to the detriment of effective engagement – and to the neglect of the law of love. We fail to walk in the footsteps of the Savior who touched diseased sinners, befriended and ate with prostitutes and tax-collectors, and permitted unclean Gentile hands to nail Him to a Roman cross. But if we take the Great Commission seriously, we must learn to see the good value and worth in the yet-unsaved image-bearers for whom Christ died.

Furthermore, where does sin reside when we deny the Imago Dei and embrace Gnosticism? Sin lives in unsaved sinners, our bodies, and in earthly, secular cultural forms, but not in ourselves. While we may pay lip service to our own sin and brokenness, it may still feel inconceivable to recognize widespread corruption on our own side. When we believe that ‘the culture’ has cornered the market on depravity, we lose the ability to recognize, much less fight, the evil in our own souls, churches, and institutions. This mindset leads to what we see today: explosive scandals across the evangelical world – most recently, the sexual abuses and/or power abuses of the Southern Baptist Convention, Mark Driscoll, and Ravi Zacharias. But the fact of the matter is that sinners and saints alike bear the Imago Dei. Sinners and saints alike bear the capacity to sin, and sin gravely (see, for example, how David, who according to Scripture was “a man after God’s own heart,” sinned against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah.)[14] [15]

When we neglect the place of the Imago Dei in our theology, we not only destroy image-bearers, but we also become complicit in church corruption as we leave hell-bound sinners to their fate. Doing so runs counter to the message of cruciform love upon which hangs the whole of Scripture.

Restoring the Imago Dei

But what happens when we include the first and last two chapters of Scripture in our vision for the life of faith? Everything changes. As we saw when we defined Imago Dei, God declared mankind good, as the crowning glory of His good creation. Unfortunately, the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria, “to the glory of God alone,” can sometimes obscure the Biblical fact of man’s glory:

“When I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels

    and crowned them with glory and honor.”[16]

Let that sink in: God crowns humans with glory. Humans are created good. This is not a manifesto of secular humanism; it is straight from the pages of Scripture. (Or more precisely, perhaps Scripture warrants a form of Christian humanism, but I digress.)

Of course, Genesis 3 still follows. We still fall. Our sin is still odious. We still need redemption. But the end is not Judgment, but the creation of a new heaven and a new earth: a perfected physical world without sin. We can presume this new earth, being better than the current one, will include at least all the glorious goods of the current physical world: bejeweled hummingbirds, snowcapped mountains, playful otters, intricate ferns, and perfect human bodies of many different hues gleaming with the design of their Creator.

God created the whole world good – everything from our national parks to our oceans, to the wood used in woodworking, the pigments in paints, the sand in silicone computer parts, the rubber in our footballs, and the ingredients that stock every chef’s cupboard. Every material we use in our sports, hobbies, and leisure activities was declared “very good” on the sixth day. Crouch again explains,

Six times in Genesis 1, as God is making the world, God saw that it was good. Good, good, good, good, good, good. The world that culture happens in, the world that we human beings find ourselves in, is not a world fundamentally characterized by conflict and violence, as real as those things are. But deeper down and further back is a world that God looked at and said, ‘That’s good.’ Made by a very good God.[17]

Genesis 1-2 tells us that this world is the handiwork of God. Revelation 21-22 tells us that God is not forsaking His creation but redeeming and renewing it. So the physical world matters. Our bodies matter. Sinners matter. All is sacred. Though much has been desecrated, God is committed to redeeming and renewing His creation until the curse of Gnosticism itself is cast into the lake of fire.

The Imago Dei in the Face of Sin

The fact of our good creation by our Father’s hand is the most essential thing about us. And so the fact of our sin is not.

The popular question asks, “Is man fundamentally evil or fundamentally good?” I would argue that given God’s divine authorship in Genesis 1-2, along with the tragedy of the Fall in Genesis 3, this question is a false dichotomy. Scripture seems to indicate that mankind is essentially good, but incidentally evil. Our identity as ‘sinners’ is incidental, not essential.

What I mean by these terms is precise: Our essential identity is our sine qua non, or that without which we do not exist. If ‘sinner’ is essential to our identity, to cease to be a sinner is to cease to exist. But we know it is possible to be a human without being a sinner: Jesus proved it. And we also know that in glory, with sanctification complete, we will cease to be sinners. But we will not cease to exist. Therefore, being a sinner is not the most fundamental thing about us. Our essential identity, then, is not that of sinner, but that of image-bearer.

Our incidental identity is related not to our ontology (or being) but to our circumstances and actions. For example, I am an American citizen by birth, but that identity marker could change if I chose to emigrate to another nation. As another example, there was a time before graduate school and motherhood when I was not overweight; then through neglect I became overweight, and through hard work and discipline that incidental identity has been reversed. Such incidental identity markers can fluctuate or change, but my essential, non-changing identity remains throughout: I am a good creation of a good God, made in His image and likeness and bearing His signature. Because each of us is God’s creation, it is good that you exist, for everything that God creates is good. It is, of course, bad that we sin, but God’s authorship of our being is more significant for our ontology and more fundamental to our identity than our contingent sinful actions. In other words, our value stays constant.

So with all this in mind, the story of our identity goes like this: there was a time when humans were not sinners. Given the truth of Genesis 1 and 2, our essential identity is that of good creations of God, made in His image and likeness and bearing His signature. Then we became sinners, an incidental (and devastating) identity. And the doctrine of original sin teaches us that all humans inherit this tendency to sin, called the sin nature. But our sin nature does not erase our value as God’s creations. In his book On Getting Out of Bed, English professor and Christian writer Alan Noble writes, “To God, your existence in His universe is a good act of creation, and it remains good as God’s creation, even in its fallen state.”[18] And through Christ, our incidental identity is reversed, and our essential identity remains. Of course, the process of sanctification remains to be completed; we live in the tension of the ‘already and not yet.’ Paul exhorts us,

Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.[19]

We have been justified. Sanctification continues to rid us of our sin. And the process will be complete in glory.

Some might argue that while Adam and Eve were created good, their sin plunged the rest of us into an essential identity of sinner, as original sin was passed down to the whole human race. How shall we respond? J.R.R. Tolkien gestures towards an answer in a poem recorded in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”:

Although now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,

and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind . . .

We still make by the law in which we’re made.[20]

Tolkien argues that our sin has not wholly destroyed our capacity to model the image of God. Our ability to be creative is rooted in “the law in which we’re made,” the image of God. We have been disgraced, but not dethroned; albeit in tatters, goodness remains. Through sin we are long estranged, yet we have not fully lost our rags of lordship. With the few tatters of truth we possess, beautiful art and good insights are produced, even though mixed with error. The thoughtful student of culture sees many threads of the good, true, and beautiful in the books, artworks, music, and other cultural goods made by unbelievers. As case in point, C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man quotes a wide variety of cultures who hold versions of the Golden Rule and other components of the moral law in common.[21]

This should not surprise us if the Scriptures are true that God uses nature to reveal Himself to every human being. Psalm 19 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands . . . their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”[22] Similarly, Romans 1 states, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”[23] All human beings have some access to the truth. Again, Paul preaches to the Greeks on the Areopagus in Acts 17, appealing to their reason and using the threads of truth they already possess to reveal the whole tapestry.[24] Though sin does infect our ability to reason rightly, it does not wholly erase our God-given capacities to reason and seek the truth. While sin is universal across the human experience, so is the Imago Dei, because we are all made by God’s hand. So our incidental identity as sinners does not erase our essential identity as good creations of a good Creator. He is steadfastly redeeming us from our sin, that we may walk as His good creations into the fullness of life.

How Play Nurtures Spiritual Health

A Christian story that embraces the Imago Dei allows us to grow in spiritual health and live with integrity. It is helpful to remember that ‘integrity’ and ‘integrated’ come from the same root word. Psychologist and counselor Diane Langberg points out that “the word integrity comes from integer, which means ‘whole’. It refers to something that is the same all the way through.”[25] Gnosticism demands that we focus on the ethereal at the expense of the physical and embodied. But God makes no such cruel bifurcations. He wants us to come to Him with whole, integrated, and healed selves. As the Greatest Commandment tells us, we shall love God with our whole selves – heart, soul, mind, and strength.[26] K. J. Ramsey, a trauma-informed licensed professional counselor, writes in her book The Lord is My Courage that “Courage is practicing integrity, embracing that beautiful wholeness that refuses to slice apart body and soul, physical and spiritual, ordinary and extraordinary – the wholeness embodied in the person of Christ, who brought heaven and earth together . . . Courage is refusing to dichotomize that which Christ has dignified.”[27] God wants us our whole selves to experience the Good News of the Gospel. He who knit us together in the womb longs to re-knit together the tattered rags of our humanity. He invites our whole selves to lay down in green pastures, to follow Him beside still waters, to be restored.

When we live with integrity, we repudiate Gnosticism and its manifestations in Christian culture. The physical world is good – because God declared it so. We can follow theologian Abraham Kuyper in his famous statement: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”[28] Therefore, our bodies matter. Our world matters. And, most pressingly for today’s discussion, play matters.

The facts of our good creation and our good existence are of first importance for the theology of leisure, carrying enormous implications. How shall we define play? I define it as the enjoyment of God’s creation for its intrinsic rather than extrinsic worth, according to the teleology of creation, in order to behold God’s good glory and to remember the Gospel.

Creation’s Teleology

The question is, how does God intend for us to interact with His creation? Put differently, what is the teleology (or purpose) of creation? Scripture seems to make it clear that creation fulfills at least two functions: it is meant to display glory, and it is meant to be stewarded. The heavens declare the glory of God; we are to take dominion of the earth and subdue it.[29] In other words, the teleology of creation is mankind’s enjoyment and stewardship. Hence we have a mandate to play and to work. We are to enjoy God’s good earth, allowing it to show us His goodness and His character. With that goodness in mind, we are called to steward the earth well, using it to love God and neighbor.

Enjoyment is a prerequisite condition for stewardship. If we seek to steward that which we do not enjoy or appreciate, we will inevitably misuse it. We would not think of appointing an illiterate person as head of Oxford’s classics department, or a teetotaler as head of Italy’s finest winery. How much more impossible it is to steward a physical world we believe to be fundamentally corrupt and worthless! Before we can be equipped to steward God’s creation, we must behold its glory as something fundamentally enjoyable, walking amidst it as heirs. We cannot treat our shared inheritance as worthless. And as we are part of God’s good creation, we cannot treat ourselves as worthless either. Rather, we must remember creation’s intrinsic worth.

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Worth

If we have forgotten how to play, how to enjoy something for its own sake, we have forgotten how to be childlike. God views children with high regard; Jesus Himself “called for the children, saying, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.’”[30] If God desires us to be like children and even warns that we cannot enter His Kingdom without a childlike spirit, it is worth meditating on the praiseworthy elements of what it means to be a child. On children and their appetite for the intrinsic goodness of creation, Christian philosopher G.K. Chesterton remarked in his book Orthodoxy,

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.[31]

In other words, children play because they have the strength to exult in the intrinsic beauty, goodness, and wonder of the created world. They don’t need extrinsic goods like competition or superiority to others as a prerequisite for enjoyment.

Children work as hard at their play as we do at our work. But they do it for the joy of it, for the intrinsic beauty of it, not for extrinsic rewards. When a child competes for a trophy rather than for the inherent joy of running, dancing, or playing music, it seems they have lost something significant. The child now not only enjoys the leisure activity; that activity, instead of being enjoyed for itself, has now become a way of being superior to other people. Play becomes a means to power. Innocence is lost.

This loss of innocence is nowhere better demonstrated than in the following cultural mandate: Thou shalt monetize any hobby you enjoy. This mindset forcibly strips play of its intrinsic worth. Your leisure activities are only worth as much as their extrinsic potential, the money, fame, or power you earn from them. In such a case you are pressured not to enjoy your hobby at all for its intrinsic qualities, but only as a means to something else. In that sense, you ‘see through’ the hobby to what ‘really’ matters. But you can ‘see through’ money or fame too, as means to still other things – hence rendering the whole world void of enjoyment. On this reductionistic impulse to see through all, C.S. Lewis explains,

You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.[32]

Once you ‘see through’ everything, you are left with nothing and can enjoy nothing. So play teaches us to enjoy intrinsically good things rather than only pursuing things for their extrinsic rewards.

Learning to savor such intrinsic goodness is indeed an act of spiritual warfare. The devil quite literally wants us to lose touch with the goodness of the created world. C.S. Lewis points out in his satire The Screwtape Letters how Satan seeks to keep us from intrinsic pleasures as a strategy for corrupting our souls. Screwtape, a senior demon, chastises a younger demon for failing to keep his ‘patient,’ the human he is assigned to harass, from simple leisure:

And now for your blunders . . . You first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there – a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words you allowed him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this? The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality.[33]

Thus, it seems that play gives us regular touchstones of reality upon which we can resist the shabby imitations of pleasures with which the devil seeks to tempt us. Satan knows that when we enjoy the intrinsic worth of a good creation, we discover a posture of wonder and awe: the posture of a subject, not a lord, a creature, not a creator. We behold the stars, and feel small, and know that we are not God. As we relearn how to be children, we learn what it is to be a good creature in a good world. We rediscover a taste of Eden. We begin walking in our identity as sacred sons and daughters.

Exuberantly enjoyed play reminds us how to be a creature again, how to live in our Genesis 1 identity, living in harmony with the creator-creature framework we were designed for. Instead of striving to be the brightest star in the night sky or the tallest tree in the forest, we learn to be content with simply being an exquisite star or a lovely tree. We relearn how to enjoy baking simply for the pleasure of shaping the dough in our hands, rather than hanging our enjoyment on whether we defeat neighbor Beth at the annual pie derby. We learn to delight in the goodness of existence for its own sake, reveling in our status as good creations of a good God, regardless of how we stack up against others. We need not dominate others in our chosen sphere; we need only to behold the good glory of God. We need only to play.

Remembering the Glory of God

The practice of play allows us to experience the goodness of God, without which we cannot glorify Him. The Westminster catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”[34] But before this statement can be meaningful to us, we must get underneath the ‘Christianese’ to the heart of the matter. What does it mean to glorify, or worship, God? Is it singing worship songs endlessly? Is it being at church? Is it strumming a harp on a cloud? Worship is in fact glorifying, or proclaiming the glory of, God. So far, so good. But what is glory? It is all that is good, true, and beautiful – everything that is excellent and praiseworthy. We praise God because He is the essence of all that is good and beautiful and desirable.

So how do we encounter the goodness and beauty of God? Play is one crucial means by which we discover – and remember – His goodness. When we enjoy His creation, we are reminded of the character of its Maker. So leisure enables us to worship God by giving us time and space to remember how He and His creation radiate the good, the beautiful, and the true – His glory.

In fact, I would suggest that the reversal of this question of the Westminster catechism leads to fruitful reflection: The chief end of man is to enjoy God and, as a fitting response, to glorify Him forever. Scripture tells us to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”[35] God invites us to experience His goodness for ourselves. We cannot authentically glorify God – that is, proclaim His goodness to others – before we discover the fact of His goodness for ourselves. We must experience how enjoyable He is. And so, we need play. We need to remember, daily, that God is good. As embodied beings, one powerful means of remembrance is through the playful enjoyment of God’s good creation.

Play is, of course, by no means the only means of such grace; we can also encounter God’s goodness through prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist, and the community of saints. But without a posture of humble creaturely enjoyment, such practices can become mere rituals done for the sake of religiosity rather than for relationship with God. So play can train us to relearn this posture of receiving due to no merit of our own. We receive the lavish, exuberant love of God in His creation – the endless waves at the beach, the exuberant colors of sunset, the endless variety of the animal kingdom, the exhilaration of playing with paint or clay or words or fabric or spices or musical notes, the abundance of a feast with friends. God is a fountain of generosity and grandeur. We must remember how to drink.

A life without play is a devilish trap: without it, we are unmoored from the solid earth and forget the nature of reality and of the Gospel. We are sucked into the airless vacuum of constant striving, blind men and women on an eternal marathon who dare lead others in our footsteps, the blind leading the blind, digging our own graves and falling into the pit. We almost irresistibly become lords of our own parched realms.

Even such sacred spheres as formal ministry or parenthood can become spheres of striving if they are done without enjoyment. If even these worthy activities are not done for the joy intrinsic to the activities themselves, they are done for something other than themselves. When we forget the Gospel and the intrinsic, irreducible value of every human being, then congregants and children alike can become a means to some other end. Even these good and sacred activities can be desecrated. We can wander into the desperate and doomed quest of the prodigal son’s older brother, building a solid porch of good deeds to stand upon steadfastly, deaf and dead to the pleading of our Heavenly Father who begs us to come in and enjoy His bounty.[36] Hence, we see children birthed and raised not for the sheer joy of cherishing each one’s unique creation and personhood, but as a means to winning culture wars and as a means to express ideology. See, for example, the Duggar family in the Shiny Happy People documentary.[37] Or we see abusive church authorities, such as Mark Driscoll and countless others, exploit God’s people for personal gain and glory, rather than shepherding God’s sheep out of the sheer joy of loving and nurturing image-bearers who are in the worldly sense vulnerable and powerless.[38] Jesus exhorts us, “But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”[39] People are not a means to some other end, such as the social capital, wealth, fame, opportunities, or power they are associated with. Rather, every person must be cherished as intrinsically precious image-bearers.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[40] Those who play as God’s children are humble, walking in awe and wonder, remembering that their worth comes from the hands who created them rather than from what their own hands create. We too quickly forget. We forget that our value comes from existence rather than from activity. If we neglect play for too long, we slip from a posture of delighted creatures to parched creators, desperately seeking to create our own value and worth through the works of our hands, rather than reveling in our birthright. But our worth is bound to the sheer fact of our existence, because of who crafted us. No incidental fact can change our worth in the eyes of our Creator – not our sin, not our circumstances, not our trauma. This is the Good News of the Gospel. God loves us for the sheer fact of our existence, the fact that we are His creatures, His creation, not due to any performance of our own. We are imbued with infinite worth. We can rest and relax into the Gospel. We can delight in Him and His creation, enjoying Him and the works of His hands forever. This is a Gospel that is truly good news.

Leisure should indeed not be an excuse for a self-centered existence cut off from our aching world. But at the same time, God never called us to save the whole world and create an earthly utopia. Rather, He called us to make disciples and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our human limits should remind us that we are not called to save everyone – only those we are able to reach as we tend to our own souls. We honor His design by honoring the limits of our bodies. In fact, chronically breaching one’s limitations can betray an idolatrous desire to be God, to be omnipotent, rather than trusting Him to be God and allowing oneself to be finite.[41]

Jesus Himself baptizes our limits by taking on a human body.[42] Even He respected His own human limits. Even He limited His immediate earthly family of disciples to twelve. Jesus did not allow His schedule to be determined by the infinite needs of the crowds. Instead, He would leave the crowds behind to tend to His own soul. As Christian anthropologist Kelly Kapic states in You’re Only Human, “The doctrine of the Word became flesh means that God himself affirms our flesh as good, and that affirmation liberates us from apologizing for our creaturely limitations . . . We must not apologize for what the Son of God freely embraces.”[43] If Jesus needs to rest and savor the presence of the Father despite the pressing crowds of need, how much more do we. If He calls His disciples away to get some rest, how much more do we need that rest.[44]

Besides, before we can love our neighbor, we must love God. And those of us who tend towards workaholism can so fixate on the mission that we forget how to receive the love of God, how to bask in His goodness, or how to experience the Gospel. Hence, we need regular reminders of how to be creatures, receivers of God’s abundance. We must play.

In a Gnosticized faith, the body and play are antithetical to true spirituality. Faith is defined by workaholism, utilitarianism, and productivity. Engaging in leisure and stillness feels fundamentally like selfishness. So we must push back on the Gnosticism that infects our faith by relearning how to play, receive, and be still. If we would seek spiritual health, we must legitimize and practice leisure as a crucial activity for the child of God. Then, and only then, will we practice the art of remembering.

This is why we Sabbath. We play to remember. We must enjoy the glory of God, that we may glorify Him. Too long without leisure and we become wanderers in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, a barren wasteland of our own striving, where there is no water, a world of nonsense and contradiction, a heap of broken images.[45] But thanks be to God, a cock crows. The curse is broken. In Christ comes a rush of spring rain.


Citation Information

Jasmin Biggs, “The Curse of Gnosticism and the Cure of Play: Why Leisure is Essential for Spiritual Health,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 1-32.


Endnotes

[1] G.K. Chesterton, “Oxford from Without”, in All Things Considered, accessed 8/13/23 at https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2017/09/heaven-playground-gk-chesterton.html

[2] K.J. Ramsey, The Lord is My Courage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 236.

[3] John 10:9-10 (ESV).

[4] Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV).

[5] Christopher Stead, “Gnosticism,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998, accessed July 29, 2023, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/gnosticism/v-1#:~:text=Gnosticism%20comprises%20a%20loosely%20associated,the%20destiny%20of%20the%20latter.

[6] Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet,” Poetry Foundation, January 2001, accessed August 13, 2023, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=41087.

[7] Genesis 1:26-27, (NET).

[8] Genesis 1:31a, (NET).

[9] Andy Crouch, Video: “Andy Crouch: Culture Making: The Good News in a Changing World (Part 1) – Biola University Chapel” (YouTube: Biola University, Jun 18, 2013.) This section cites from his book lecture, 10:08-15:24, accessed 8/11/2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTT6Wshs7NQ&ab_channel=BiolaUniversity. See also: Andy Crouch, Culture Making (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kelly Kapic, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022), 22-23.

[12] A common catch-phrase in Reformed circles.

[13] Richard Niebhur, Christ And Culture (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

[14] 1 Samuel 13:14, New International Version (NIV).

[15] 2 Samuel 11 (NIV).

[16] Psalm 8:3-5 (NIV.

[17] Ibid., Andy Crouch, 13:30.

[18] Alan Noble, On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden & Gift of Living (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2023), 99.

[19] Philippians 3:12-14 (NET).

[20] J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2014), 65.

[21] C.S. Lewis, “Appendix” in The Abolition of Man, in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2017).

[22] Psalm 19:1, 4 (NIV).

[23] Romans 1:20 (NIV).

[24] Acts 17:16-34

[25] Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020), 40.

[26] Mark 12:30

[27] Ramsey, 155, emphasis in original.

[28] Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty”, in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, Ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 461.

[29] Psalm 19:1, Genesis 1:28

[30] Luke 18:16-17 (NET).

[31] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; repr., Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 2009), 92.

[32] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 730.

[33] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 221.

[34] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, 1648, accessed August 13, 2023, https://www.apuritansmind.com/westminster-standards/shorter-catechism/

[35] Psalm 34:8a (NET).

[36] Luke 15:11-32

[37] “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets”, Amazon Original documentary, accessed August 13, 2023, https://www.amazon.com/Shiny-Happy-People-Duggar-Secrets/dp/B0B8TR2QV5.

[38] Mike Cosper, The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill, podcast audio, published by Christianity Today from 2021-2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/podcasts/rise-and-fall-of-mars-hill/.

[39] Luke 14:13-14 (NET).

[40] Matthew 5:3 (NIV).

[41] Kelly Kapic, You’re Only Human, 12.

[42] Ibid., 43.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Mark 6:31

[45] T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”, Poetry Foundation, accessed 8/13/2023, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.