The Work of Play: Faith Like a Child in a Grown-Up World
Blog / Produced by The High Calling
When I was small, I would run as fast as I could with arms outstretched, letting the wind collect under makeshift wings. I was an airplane, a bird, or a dragon, flying over vast kingdoms. When the moon peeked through the dark at night, these wings would take me from my bed up into the sky, through stardust and past fiery comets—the curtains of the heavens opening wide to receive me. And I would meet with God—fly straight into his arms and let him rock me to sleep in his great lap.
As I grew up, I learned the limits of our natural world. The world grew smaller, and God seemed light years away. I came to understood that faith is being certain of what we do not see (Heb. 11:1), and my childhood nighttime meetings with an unseen God faded to a sweet memory. More and more, my knowledge increased and my faith grew; yet, more and more, I longed for that close communion of long ago.
A few years ago, I went walking with my two young sons on a snowy evening. I remember how they ran ahead, lost in the tumbling play that only brothers know, leaving me in a wake of laughter. I stood alone under that white sky and looked up. Was it true that I once flew through these same heavens; cheeks flushed and eyes pools of starlight?
When did I stop believing that with God all things are possible? Or, rather, when did my imagination become so small that I stopped expecting the seemingly impossible? When did my feet become so rooted to the crust of the earth that I let gravity weigh down my idea of who God is?
It could have been when I turned seven or eight years old. At least, that’s what Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development would suggest. He claimed that the preoperational stage of thinking, which spans approximately ages 2-7, is characterized by the development of symbolic thinking, memory and imagination—all of which allow engagement in rich make-believe play.
This thinking, based on intuition instead of logic, makes it difficult to grasp cause and effect, time, and comparison. Experts view this as a limitation, but my dictionary defines intuition as an insight into truth that is not perceived by the conscious mind. That sounds to me like the place where the Holy Spirit touches my consciousness—steering me this way or that. The world may view that as a limitation, but I wonder…
When our brains reach that stage when they are capable of logic, do the wonder structures in our brains have to shrink to make room? If so, how can we expand them again? How can we grown-ups, long past Piaget’s preoperational stage, recover the wild joy of wonder? How can I revisit that place where the Holy Spirit begins to touch my conscious and steer me again, offering his intuition and insight?
Jesus tells us in Matthew 18 that unless we become like little children we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he said. What might that look like? How do I come to Jesus like a child?
One answer came that cold day in February—lifted with laughter on the snow.
But what would play look like in my grown-up world? In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown says when we engage in true play, our sense of self-consciousness diminishes and we lose track of time. Play allows us to live fully in each moment.
I start to practice play, losing myself completely standing at the window, watching a goldfinch peel a sunflower seed. Hours spent pulling weeds in the vegetable garden pass like seconds—the scent of the tomato plant leaves intoxicates. And when the sun shines on water, leaving a rosy trail behind her, I’m drawn into the passage of light through water.
Play reminds me how it feels to be a child—innocent, everything new. God is inviting me to play each time he points my heart to beauty.
That evening in the snow, my sons’ laughter echoing through the streets, I felt the internal prompting. I felt the invitation. Once again, I lifted my arms up to my sides—stretched out my wings. This forty-ish mama let herself glide in circles, let the wind collect under makeshift wings.
And I flew. Straight into the arms of God.
- How has lack of play kept you from intimacy with God?
- How might play release you to experience and listen to the Holy Spirit?
- Play looks different for each person. What simple, playful activities fit your personality and can help you connect with God more intimately, becoming like little children?
The Work of Play
Play is not just for kids. If you are under pressure in your work, a spirit of play can lead to balance, creativity, and good health. In our hyper-productive world, we need to learn how to play again—at home, on the job, and even in worship. This article is part of our series The Work of Play. If someone you know needs to rediscover the joy of play, invite them to the conversation on The High Calling.