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Play is Spiritual – My Journey of Becoming a Child Again

“You’re kind of intense sometimes.”

Those were the words from my (awesome) wife to me. We were processing some observations she’s had about my life recently. Most notably, how I’ve been a grouch. To me, I don’t think I’m being a grouch. I think I’m intense and passionate.

Intensity is something I pride myself in. It’s an edge that I see lacking in our world. In a world of wishy-washy commitments and pursuits, I think we need more intense people in the world. We need more straight backs and people that operate with clarity, purpose, and vision (I still believe that).

Only that sometimes this intensity comes to haunt me.

Sometimes I would sit on the couch at the end of the day wondering what to do next. I’ve killed my to-do list already. Hit my goals. I have performed brilliant (yes, I’m an enneagram 3). But I realized one day–I wasn’t happy. I was a jerk. I manifested this angst and projected it onto others. I look down on others and their inability to do as much as I do. I prided myself in having my life together, but I can act like an a-hole sometimes. Why am I like this? Is this intensity all from how God wired me?

As I reflected on this, I felt God nudge me with a question.

He asked, “Phil, when’s the last time you had fun?

What a strange question, God! Fun? Why would I have fun? Work is fun. Accomplishing stuff is fun. Stacking trophies are fun. Only that it isn’t up to a point. I thought more about it, and I came to the sad realization that I do not remember the last time I did something just for fun. I did not remember the last time I did an activity and went, “Wow, that was fun!”.

Something has been lost in the pursuit of achievement that God probes me about. And it has to do with the concept of play.

As I have been mulling this over, God started to show me that as much as I do stuff in my life, the play has lost its place in my
life. But I didn’t understand! Why do I have to play, God?

Then we had a conversation.

He said: “Phil, what is a child that can’t play?”

I thought about it. What kind of children can’t play? Well…it’s children that have to work, of course. My parents would tell me their stories of growing up in the post-war era. My mother’s oldest sister didn’t get to go to school as a young child. Because their family was so poor, she had to work in the factory even as a child. A child that can’t play is a child that has to work.

God continued: “Phil, look at your kids–why do they play?”

I thought about my three young girls. As much as it drives me nuts sometimes, I cherish and love the sound of them running up and down the hall screaming their silly head off. And I realized–they can play because dad and mom make it so. Even though they probably don’t have words for it, deep down, they know that dad and mom pay the bills, keep the ship running, and make sure everything is okay.

Then God turned it back towards me, “Phil, why can’t you play?”

I compared these stories of my parents’ upbringing with my own life story. And I realized a haunting truth–I don’t play because deep down inside lays a heart that believes I am solely responsible for holding my world together. Deep down, a child is forced to work in the factory of life. Deep down, a child has taken American personal responsibility too far. There lies a child who cannot tell the difference between a responsible person and an orphan left to fend off the world by himself.

It’s a sad realization to feel that the kid Phil has died somewhere. When I realized this, I mourned. Nearly cried (I rarely cry.) I mourned, knowing that deep in my heart lays a child that wants to play. He wants to see the world is safe and that everything will be okay. He wanted to know that a Father in heaven told him not just what to do but would play with him. (Yeah, my dad rarely played with me as a kid).

Play is spiritual.

That seems like such an uncanny thing for Christians to say. But something that God has been teaching me is: Play reveals what world you believe you live in. A person who can play in life fully believes that this is our Father’s world and everything will be okay. A person (like me) who can’t play is probably still struggling with being an orphan. They believe they have to uphold the world they live in.

However, play is… hard. At some point in our lives, we become adults. We have jobs, bills to pay, and responsibilities to take care of. Endless responsibilities! The concept of play gets reduced to crashing on a couch eating Chinese leftovers and watching Netflix. It’s an adult paradise bereft of imagination and carefreeness.

I thought long and hard about what would I would find fun. And the last time I had fun was when I played basketball. Coincidentally (or not), I haven’t played basketball in over a year. I remember running up and down the court, jumping, shooting, and (occasionally) talking trash. When I shared this discovery with one of my close friends, he confirmed something I needed to hear. He said, “I miss basketball-Phil.” Basketball Phil was carefree. He didn’t care about the score. He danced. He made friends. He laughed. And he didn’t play alone. He knew it was just a game and that he would be okay.

This day I discovered this. I went to the store and bought myself something I hadn’t touched in a while: A basketball.

And I went to a park (like a kid) and played. Alone. As a full adult. I knew something that the orphan didn’t know–God was watching me. And he delights when I play.

The journey of being a child is not easy. It is something that God is still calling us to do at some point in our lives. Isaiah reflects on this concept of how, even as old people, we are called to be little children:

Even to your old age and gray hairs
I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Isa 46:4

I hope that I can say that when I die one day. I can play and be nourished by a Father who delights in our play even in my old age.

Phil Chan
Phil Chan
Phil has been writing for over 15 years. His passion is to help people see God and to live a life that matters.

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