We all do it. We all recreate. If you want to start a lively discussion among friends or even strangers, just ask them what they like to do to have fun. Those of us who seek to live an integrated life in which our faith in God is actively woven through every fabric of our existence had better develop a theology that includes recreation as a vital element. Otherwise we could be accused of being inconsistent in our systems of belief.
I have devoted much time in reflection and study of this topic. Perhaps this is because I enjoy playing so much that I hope to justify the time I spend in the pursuit of recreational happiness. But I honestly believe that God is pleased when our frolic bolsters our faith and when the end result of an afternoon of play causes us to well up in gratitude to the Lord of creation who made it all possible. So allow me to take a crack at developing a theology of recreation that may settle into your soul, giving you reason to rejoice in the God of rest and refreshment.
Genesis recounts the story of creation which culminated in God’s crowning achievement: man who is made in His image. When God finished creating Adam and Eve, He “blessed them and said to them ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth'” (Genesis 1:28). This is known as the Dominion Mandate. Most theologians agree that this mandate has not been revoked, and that mankind, more specifically redeemed mankind, is still charged with filling and subduing the earth.
There is every indication in Scripture that humans were created in a perfect, yet limited, state. That is, even though Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, and their capacities had not yet been marred by sin, they did not have the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence (they were not all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-present) like their Creator. As created beings they were dependent on God. They tended the Garden of Eden, and they fellowshiped freely with God as He walked with them in the cool of the day. Their work was equivalent to their existence. Joy was abundant as was their sustenance. Every physical and emotional need was met. Adam didn’t knock off at 5:00 PM and come home to a hot meal cooked up by Eve. Instead, his whole life and reason for living was fulfilled in the charge to tend the garden that God had given him, and it consumed he and Eve. They didn’t feel the need to find diversions from a mundane world of repetitious labor. There was no dicotomy, work vs. play, in the garden.
This all changed when they chose to disobey God’s single prohibition not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which was in the midst of the garden. Among the results of the fall was God’s cursing of the ground (Genesis 3:17-19). Adam was removed from the garden, and he (and his offspring) would eat bread “in the sweat of your face” as God explained to him in the curse. No longer could Adam simply tend the garden and freely eat of its fruit. Now he, Eve, their children, and their progeny would need to work, and work hard, to stay alive. Their pre-fall condition of carefree, joyful living was ruined.
As children of Adam and Eve, this is our condition today. We live in a world that is waiting to be “delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Through the life, death, burial, resurrection, and glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ, this delivery process has begun, and it will be consummated when God establishes a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). But for now, there exists a gap between the ideal life that will be ours in eternity and the life we live on this broken earth in the here and now. We must work by the sweat of our brow, and only through diligence does the earth yield its fruit thereby meeting our needs.
But the pages of Scripture are filled with promises that are both now and not yet. God promises to meet all our needs now, but they will be finally met in eternity. He gives us joy and peace now, but we will have perfect joy and peace in the future kingdom. He even indicates that the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us now as a guarantee, or “down payment,” of the things that will be ours in the resurrection:
While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God Himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee He has given us His Holy Spirit.
2 Corinthians 5: 4-5 (NLT)
I believe that God’s truth is marching on, and that His word is bearing increasingly good fruit in the world today. He expects His people to carry out the mandate to fill and subdue the earth. Jesus will return for “a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5: 27). In the Old Testament story of the prophet Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel saw a rock that crushed a four-tiered statue (representing four kingdoms that would rule the known world in the days before Jesus). This rock, which represented the Kingdom that would be established by the coming Messaiah, became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. This is the same kingdom to which we belong and whose King we serve! The complete fullness of the kingdom of heaven will be established when Jesus returns but, until then, the influence of God’s word as manifested in His people is ever increasing.
This is true in individuals as it is in culture. The effects of the curse are being reversed as God’s word bears fruit in His followers. As each individual Christian obeys the truth, and as he continually discovers the purposes for which he was created, he finds joy in fulfilling his part of the dominion mandate and the Great Comission to “make disciples, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
I believe that another aspect of the increasing effectiveness of the gospel is that we, as a culture and as individuals, have more discretionary time than ever before. Advances in technology that have allowed for more efficiency have been one benefit of societies where peace and order (by-products of a Judeo-Christian based morality) are the norm. This means we have the ability to spend more time in recreational pursuits. Rather than having the mindset that recreation is a waste of time, we should, instead, seek to redeem the time we spend in our play, seeking how to glorify God in the process.
I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.
– Eric Liddell, Scottish missionary to China, and gold medalist in the 1924 summer Olympics as depicted in the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire”
As believers, we should be driven by more than simply the need to survive or by a desire to make a lot of money. God’s purposes should become our purposes, but we have good reason to believe that God may place within us deep desires that give us joy when we have the opportunity to pursue them. It’s not unreasonable to hope and believe that the things that bring us the deepest levels of enjoyment could also serve to compliment and bolster our work. Or better yet, these things could become our work! A quote by novelist James Michener I discovered recently has challenged me greatly, and I think about it often:
The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.”
– James A. Michener
God has placed within our hearts a longing for the things Adam had in the pre-fall garden and that will be ours in the new heaven and the new earth. We crave the things of heaven. I hope it is not too idealistic or whimsical to believe that the joy we experience in our recreational life now is a kind of preview or foretaste of the perfect joy and freedom we will experience in the life to come. With the right attitude, taking precautions not to become selfish or narcissistic in our recreational pursuits, we too can “walk with God in the cool of the day.” We can use our times of recreation as opportunities to worship our Creator, to glory in His magnificent creation, and to express gratitude to Him as the giver of every good gift (James 1:17).