The Sacred Duty of Play

Sep 14 / Terra McDaniel
Why We Work Too Much

I don’t know about you but I’m tired. I am worn out by pandemic life, hostility, contempt, racial injustice, and violence. I’m exhausted by the extra energy required to connect via screens. I’m weary of wearing a mask on hot summer days. I don’t think I’m alone.

Most of us are more anxious as we continue figuring out how to make it in this strange time. Our days are longer with more meetings. Parents continue to juggle work and childcare during Covid as a new school year begins. Unemployment is skyrocketing and livelihoods will be impacted for decades to come, particularly for younger generations. And our friends in the Pacific Northwest are facing horrific wildfires. (This is a good time to say that if you’re experiencing catastrophic loss, this essay is not for you—at least not today. I invite you here or here instead.)

Which means we are working more and harder than ever. We want to care for ourselves, our families, and others while creating good in the world. But those in ministry and helping professions are particularly vulnerable to being over-responsible. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of us were born into religious and cultural contexts that over-valued productivity. It wasn’t merely encouragement to work faithfully but a subtle (and sometimes overt) advocacy of working past exhaustion as a habit rather than a rare exception.

How did that happen when Sabbath was named among the ten commandments and is the instruction given the most explanation (Exodus 20:8-11)?

It may have something to do with a longstanding misunderstanding of the difference between sloth and rest. It’s probably related to the Protestant work ethic. Puritans and other early settler, Max Weber argued and believed the quality of their faith was revealed by their diligence and success or lack thereof. Americans continue to be more likely to compulsively work than people from anywhere else. Many teens are learning to over-emphasize career.[1] All of which means that while it’s undeniably harder for most of us to find time to take breaks in this season, it might be even more difficult to give ourselves permission to do so.

We Need Play

The truth is rest and play are built into the fabric of creation. God walked with the first humans daily and rested on the seventh day of creation. Play is implicit in the idea of the Trinity existing in a state of perichoresis—divine dance. Brueggemann believes the Biblical emphasis on God’s rest on the seventh day of creation demonstrates “the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work” which is great news.[2] Instead, we are invited to recognize “God and God’s people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production,” which frees us from being “defined by busyness or by acquisitiveness.”[3] In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown emphasized “the importance of rest and play, and the willingness to let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.”

Play is one of the things sabbath is for. It is a gift meant to free and revitalize rather than constrain (Mark 2:27-28). It’s a way to practically live into not worrying about our lives and trusting a good God to provide (Luke 12:22-26). It helps us re-center in the now instead of worrying about the past or obsessing over the future. Play isn’t numbing or wasting time. It is delighting with God in life’s good gifts. And play is good for us. It is linked to the creative process, problem-solving, and language learning.[4] It offers glimpses of our true selves.[5]

How to Play More

If you are a recovering workaholic for Jesus like me, playing more may seem silly or frivolous. But engaging things that rest and refresh our souls are essential chances to prioritize God, creation, and humans (self and others) above constant productivity. They are a needed break from all that’s hard and heavy in the world. Sojourner Truth said, “Life is a hard battle anyway, and if we can laugh and sing a little as we fight the good fight of freedom, it makes it all go easier.”[6]

You may need to start small because you are managing extra responsibilities or because you are relearning how to play or both. I encourage you to spend some time remembering what you did for fun when you were a child and finding ways to make more time for those things in your life now.[7] Look for what brings you joy and energy, for what fills you up. As often as possible, let your play give you a break from your screens. As you make room for more rest and play in the midst of the good work that is yours to do, my hope is,

“Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.
As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.”[8]

[1] A recent Pew study found that the majority of teens surveyed valued finding an enjoyable career above marriage or caring for the needs of others. Read the full report here:
[2] Brueggemann, Walter, Sabbath as Resistance, John Knox Press, 2014, 6.
[3] Ibid., 6, 31-32.
[4] Garvey, Catherine, Play, (Harvard Univ. Press, 1990 (1977)).
[5] Berryman, Jerome W., Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education, (Augsburg Books (1995)), 11.
[6] Mabee, Carlton, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, (NY Univ Press (1993)), 230.
[7] When Carl Jung was 38, he started playing with blocks again to tap into his 11-year-old self. For more, see Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, Harper (2009), chapter 5.
[8] O’Donohue, John, To Bless the Space Between Us, (Doubleday (2008)), 127.

Terra McDaniel

Terra is a spiritual director, pastor, teacher, and writer who loves making space for people of all ages to tune into their own souls. Terra is convinced that the Spirit is working both within the church and outside it and feels particularly called to host those who feel spiritually homeless. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and