Yes, I am sure you have heard by now. Unless, that is, you’ve been living under a Geodude.
But as you probably know, Clefairys and Pidgeys and Eevees recently began to take the world by storm. Combat Power became a nationally-recognized unit of measurement. Churches became Pokéstops, bowling alleys became Pokégyms. Most of all, loitering reached an all-time high at public landmarks and even on private property.
Of course, because the buzz about the new iOS augmented-reality game Pokémon Go was incredibly high, social media has been steeped with response. Many highly positive, many highly negative, most of the conversation being drawn towards how the game is affecting people. No matter the arguments, the central question seems to be the same for everyone, especially Christians: “Is this okay for me to spend time playing?” But the answer is not as black and white as we might think.
The game, more than anything, has brought me pause concerning what role sport and play should have in the Christian life. The truth is, there is little to no difference between Pokémon Go, fantasy football, hiking, sewing, playing piano, metal detecting, and collecting antiques. They all consume time. They all are preferred by some, not by others. None of these hobbies or passions intrinsically carry inside of them theological, “important” matters.
Or do they?
Setting The Stage
It doesn’t matter the medium you choose – crafts or games or music – the reality is that one of the purposes behind our very creation is that we might play. As John Calvin rightly put it, the world itself is a theater of God’s glory, and we have been offered lead acting roles in using its props and scripts to put on a show for the King. As evidenced from the very creation of the world, play is grounded solely in God’s good pleasure, not a constant evaluation of its benefits. Jeremy Treat offers some wisdom in this regard:
At the core of the definition of play is that it is autotelic; it is for its own purposes. Play need not be justified by its effects, be it psychological (peace of mind), physical (better health), social (learning teamwork), etc.; it is simply creatively delighting in and enjoying God’s good creation for its own sake.
Adam and Eve’s birth in an Edenic world was an invitation not to simply stand around and marvel at what was already before their eyes, but to cultivate its goodness, establish dominion over it, and ultimately use “play” as a reflection of our awareness of God’s good pleasure. Notice Genesis 1:28, where God charges man to “fill the earth,” as if the earth needed to be filled after God saw that it was very good! God makes clear that it is our duty, and delight, to immerse ourselves in bringing culture to the surrounding nature. All of this to say, our very creation demonstrates that play is not only okay, but one piece of what we were created for.
Playing the Game
Creation itself should indicate that it is of utmost importance that we play, but further, that we see all of our play in this life through its appropriate lens – that play and sport of any kind is a gift from God, and therefore a sort of form of worship. In other words, the very act of playing piano, for the Christian, is a way we worship when we understand it as a gift from a good Giver. The non-believer simply cannot experience the rich grace of a prime rib or a day spent canoeing in the same way a believer can. While common grace certainly exists, it is the believer that can look at all of life and see its theological implications. When I go to a baseball game with my family, smelling the smells and seeing the sights, I am thankful for the Giver.
Abraham Kuyper said that God joyfully claims every square inch of His creation as “Mine!” And when we understand this, we begin to see that our good gifts reflect the good Giver. So, how does watching baseball further the Kingdom? How does eating a warm brownie in complete stillness enhance our theology? What does playing music or a walk in the park do for our view of God? So much. Joe Rigney elaborates:
“It’s entirely appropriate, when confronted with tremendous gifts, to periodically compare love for the gifts and love for the giver. It’s good to be reminded that the giver—God—is ultimate. But then, once the supremacy of the giver is settled, the right and fitting response is to dive back into the pumpkin crunch cake and enjoy every last bite.”
We shouldn’t over-theologize what Pokémon Go or playing soccer is, but we certainly can recognize them as gifts, and, when used rightly, even for our spiritual benefit. We need to make space for trivial fun in our life, because that is where we feel the Father’s warm smile most often.
Staying In Bounds
Of course, every good thing can be spoiled. Every good gift can become distorted. We have to be careful to set up appropriate and necessary guard rails around how we play in the Christian life. Sadly, the temptation to get out of bounds with God’s gifts is heavy (remember Genesis 3?), and it coerces us into a life of struggle with excess or uncertainty with participation. I find myself, for example, dealing with the latter piece most often. I carry a sense of guilt around my disc golf outings, my piano playing in solitude, my reading a fiction book, because I forget what role play is supposed to have in my life.
Here are some guardrails I have found helpful in considering how I rest and play:
- Does my participation in this activity in any way dishonor God?
- Will this activity lead me into idolatry?
- Will living the Christian life become harder as a result of this?
- Will this negatively affect, or isolate me from, what and who is entrusted to my care?
- Does this activity violate my conscience?
If “Yes” is my answer to any of these, it’s probably best to find something else. These boundaries have a multitude of implications for the Christian life. For example, I don’t watch certain R-rated movies, because I feel they violate the first or third question, while other ones do not. The fifth bullet point is also significant. Throughout his first letter to Timothy, Paul continually exhorts his mentee towards a “good” and “clear conscience.” Neglecting the important act of evaluating our conscience’s standing can lead to a shipwrecked faith (1 Tim. 1:19).
In short, good guardrails protect us from veering into the traps of idolatry and hypocrisy. They keep the Giver the focus of why and how we do what we do. They force us to think of the broader implications of our actions. Think of it less as a check-list and more as a way of reflection.
Rigney writes that “every enjoyment has the capacity to be a tiny theophany, a touch from God’s finger.” I believe him. When Paul suggests we should “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), I think he’s saying the same. All of our enjoyments, our activities, our hobbies, have the potential to lead us Godward. So, dear brother and sister, collect shells to the glory of God, basking in His creation. Play Pokémon Go to the glory of God, building relationships with spouses or strangers. Take up your guitar to the glory of God, enjoying the serene solitude of time with Him. Join your children on the roller coaster ride, find your reading chair and a great novel, throw the baseball, paint; it’s what you were made for. To feel the smile of God is never a waste.
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” – C.S. Lewis
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