It doesn’t make sense to thank someone for something they didn’t do. If my wife makes me a sandwich, I might thank her dad for raising her and giving her to me, but I won’t thank him for the sandwich. But Paul thanks God for everything, because God is the ultimate cause of every good thing.
Paul thanks God for the faith, love, and hope of the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:2-3) because these things show that God chose them (1 Thess 1:4-5). So Paul thanks God that when the Thessalonians heard the word of God, they recognized it as the word of God (1 Thess 2:13). When we see God as the source of every blessing, we will be able to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18, ESV).
In the current issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Dr R Rowland argues that mentally healthy people have a right to “gender-affirming healthcare” (i.e. hormone therapy or surgery to appear like the opposite gender), because they have a right to live and act with integrity. Rowland argues that “to live with integrity is to live in line with one’s ideal of what a good or meaningful life for one looks like.” This requires “authenticity” that can be understood as self-discovery of one’s “inner voice” or as self-creation. If someone’s idea of a good and meaningful life includes being perceived as the opposite gender, then to live with integrity he must overcome his natural limitations and change his appearance.
This article, which claims to represent the “standard view,” seems to be written from an existentialist worldview. According to this view, humans are not bound by their own nature, but define for themselves what a good and meaningful life looks like for them. Our bodies are limitations that should be overcome to fulfill the wishes of our “inner voice.”
The Lord tests Job’s integrity by allowing Satan to ruin his life. Job passes the test because he is “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 2:3). The standard is not Job’s inner voice, but his complete conformity with what a man ought to be. His wife speaks with authenticity but not integrity: “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.”
Job describes his integrity in detail in Job 31. He is free from lust and deceit (1-12). He listens to the complaints of his slaves, shares every meal with widows and orphans, and clothes the naked (13-23). He does not trust in wealth or worship the sun (24-28). He loves his enemies, confesses his sins, and does no injustice (29-40). This integrity is rightoeusness, internal and external, that conforms to God’s standards of what a man should be.
A man of integrity will act as a man ought to act, and a woman of integrity will act as a woman ought to act. God made men and women different because they have different roles, so integrity will not look exactly the same for them. Humans are not souls trapped in a body; our gendered bodies are an integral aspect of our humanity. To act with integrity, a man must become the kind of man God created him to be, and not abdicate his role in an attempt to become something else.
Boaz shows integrity on his farm and at the city gate, and Ruth shows integrity in her relationship with her mother-in-law. They both fulfill their distinct gendered duties by raising their firstborn son: Boaz preserves a dead man’s name and strengthens Bethlehem, and Ruth cares for her mother-in-law and for the next generation (Ruth 4:9-22). Integrity looks different in the roles of husband and wife (1 Peter 3:1-17). Paul’s commands to old men, old and young women, young men, and pastors are related, but not identical (2:1-8).
Gendered integrity begins on the inside, but is expressed in external appearances. A man should look and act the part of a man, and a woman should look and act the part of a woman, from the inside out. This is why cross-dressing is considered an abomination under the law of Moses (Deut 22:5), and why Paul speaks confidently about hair length and head coverings for women (1 Cor 11:2-16).
Integrity does not begin with introspection or self-creation. A man of integrity conforms body and soul to what a man ought to be. A woman of integrity conforms body and soul to what a woman ought to be. The Bible has no category for a man trapped in a woman’s body; there are only men and women, whose gendered bodies are integral to who they are and to who they are called to be.
How do you know you’re saved? Some evangelists are looking for one particular answer to this question, and any other answer will lead them to question your salvation. What they want you to say is something like “I know I’m saved because Jesus died for my sins and I trust in him.” Yes, that is the ultimate reason why anyone will be saved, but how do you know that Jesus died for you? How do you know that you truly trust in him?
This kind of evangelist might quote 1 John 5:13 to prove that you can know that you’re saved:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.
What these evangelists will not do is walk you through “these things” that John wrote to believers. As stated in this verse, one of the purposes of 1 John is to describe the evidence of true faith, so believers can come to full assurance that they know God. Read 1 John with this in mind, and you will see that this is one of the constant themes through the whole letter.
So how can you know that you have eternal life? John lists several signs throughout his letter, which can be summarized in the image of walking in the light. First, the light represents God’s holiness. God’s children imitate their Father by obeying Jesus’ righteous commandments, loving their brother, and living like Jesus. But far from indicating sinlessness, walking in the light means willingly confessing sins instead of hiding them in the darkness. Finally, the light represents the truth of the gospel. Those who have truly come to know God will not be led away from the church by heresies, but will remain in the true teaching of the apostles.
We know we have eternal life because we have been changed at the deepest level. Our ultimate allegiance has shifted to Jesus, and we love our brothers. We look forward to Jesus’ coming, and we seek to do his will in this world. A struggle against sin can lead people to doubt their salvation, but the fact that we are fighting sin often shows that we have switched sides in the battle. Before, we served our lusts and pride; now we hate them and confess their wickedness.
When someone asks you how you know you’re going to Heaven, the right answer is because you walk in the light. If he scolds you for this, just keep reading passages from 1 John until he collapses into a puddle of self-reflection. You know, because you love your brother and want to bring him further into the light.
You will misunderstand Jesus’ kingdom if you fail to grasp the organic metaphors that describe it. It is a seed, a field, yeast. His people are sheep, branches, and living stones. Jesus’ kingdom is alive, and functions on the same principles as every other living thing He made.
Some people think that Jesus and the leaders in His kingdom reject power. They fail to see how He brought the powerful kingdom described by the prophets. But the prophets themselves compare the coming kingdom’s power to organic life.
In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.
Isaiah 27:6, ESV
Filling the whole world with fruit is no small feat. It is much more impressive than collecting taxes and enforcing laws. The only reason it might not look impressive is that it takes a long time.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
Creation and multiplication are more powerful than destruction. Jesus focuses on building something good and lasting before removing imperfections. When the mustard seed was planted, every other kingdom was essentially defeated, because they could not stand against the power of life that would soon overshadow everything they had built. They could not stop the leaven of the kingdom from transforming their kingdoms from the inside.
As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
Jesus’ kingdom is powerful while it is small. His divine claim to authority strikes at the root of any competition. Goliath was wrong to laugh at David’s stone, because in God’s hands it was powerful. A mustard seed of imperishable life will grow, and no one will stop it.
Christians exercise life-giving power as they speak the message of the kingdom. Sometimes the word takes root in someone’s heart and produces fruit, a hundredfold or sixtyfold or thirtyfold. Other times the word is ignored, and the hearer is left with a real threat of judgment. In both cases, Jesus’ power is on display. If it seems weak, that is only because it takes time to see the results.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.
1 TImothy 6:17, ESV
I have managed to write a lot about fun without defining it, but my new working definition is “excited enjoyment.” Dictionaries seem to define “fun” as mere enjoyment, but this seems to be too broad. Fun comes from the excitement of novelty, creativity, competition, fear, arousal, or anticipation. Fun has the power to absorb our focus to the extent that it is tied to strong emotions. This is why fun is so memorable.
You can enjoy something that is comforting, relaxing, good, tasty, or beautiful without having fun. A steak is enjoyable, an onion ring volcano is fun. Cuddling is enjoyable, foreplay is fun. Sunbathing is enjoyable, body surfing is fun. The beatitudes are enjoyable, imagining a man with a plank in his eye trying to remove a speck from his friend’s eye is fun.
The previous paragraph is too simple, because the line between fun and other types of enjoyment is subtle. A software programmer might have a mild enjoyment of his work, or he might have fun as his logic and creativity are absorbed by his task. An adult may experience a ferris wheel as a pleasant ride while a child is full of wonder and excitement at being raised to new heights. Wine tasting is a fun method of enjoying aesthetic pleasure.
God made the world lively and diverse, full of new experiences and challenges. It is good to enjoy these things, and it is also good to be excited about them. God commands his people to enjoy food and drink, work and rest. I expect to write a future post on the importance of celebration in the Bible. This is not necessarily a command to have fun, but having fun is one important way that we enjoy God’s creation. The world is an exciting place, and this shows that God does not want our enjoyment of it to be monotonous.
The excitement associated with fun can be addicting and destructive. When we seek fun apart from God and His righteousness, it can become a powerful idol that demands more novelty and transgression. The Puritans, along with many other Christians, almost never commend fun without warning of its dangers; but this caution is often a killjoy. My advice for now is to follow these three simple guidelines, and then lighten up and enjoy yourself: 1. obey God, 2. don’t neglect your duties to your neighbor, 3. praise God for whatever you enjoy.
As Paul knew how to be content with abundance or need (Philippians 4:12), Christians should learn to be happy with or without fun. Fun is an opportunity to glorify God, spread joy, and build community; but in difficult times when fun is hard to find, Christians are sustained by the deeper joy they have in God.
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
James 1:17, NASB
When I started studying “theology of fun,” I was skeptical of anything that did not argue straight from the Bible. However, there is a place for learning from general revelation. In the beginning, God made everything, and it was all very good. We can learn a lot about God and His intentions for the world just by looking at the world with open eyes, even when God’s good creation is perverted by sin. Goodness and beauty are inseparable from truth, because God’s true intentions for the world can be seen in everything that is good and beautiful.
Anne of Green Gables seems to intentionally refute anti-fun Christians by showing that fun and creativity are good and beautiful, and therefore come from God. The foil for this perspective is Marilla, a woman obsessed with appearing proper in the eyes of her neighbors. Marilla is introduced with the best sentence of the book:
Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously; and here she sat now, knitting, and the table behind her was laid for supper.
Marilla fails to see the goodness of sunshine because she refuses to believe in one of its God-given purposes. The sunlight dances across the beautiful scenery, illuminating life and producing joy. The proper inference is that God intended for the world to be lively, to be actively enjoyed for His glory. If God made the sunlight to dance, perhaps he also made humans to dance, joining and observing the joyful movement of the cosmos. Marilla cannot see the goodness of dancing because she reasons from the bad premise that life should always be serious.
Marilla was a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves; her dark hair showed some gray streaks and was always twisted up in a hard little knot behind with two wire hairpins stuck aggressively through it. She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was; but there was a saving something about her mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humor.
This description is an unflattering depiction of the rigidity that Marilla strives for; there is nothing attractive about hard angles. The thing that would make Marilla beautiful would be a sense of humor. The ability to lighten up and have a good time is not only socially appealing, but enhances a person’s physical appearance. This beauty shows the goodness of fun like a rose shows the goodness of sunlight. The beauty is a sign of life, and it is nourished by the enjoyment of friendship. A person without a sense of humor is not reaching her full potential, like a flower that fails to bloom in the shade.
I’ve only scratched the surface, but I think I’ve managed to make this point: God intended humans to actively enjoy His world together, to build community and glorify their Creator.
Christianity has a history of being anti-fun. After all, what role could fun have in a sober life of self-denial and service? The medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas saw that it would be irrational and sinful to exclude fun from the Christian life, because fun is a necessary form of spiritual and mental rest.
Augustine says (Music. ii, 15): “I pray thee, spare thyself at times: for it becomes a wise man sometimes: for it becomes a wise man sometimes to relax the high pressure of his attention to work.” Now this relaxation of the mind from work consists in playful words or deeds. Therefore it becomes a wise and virtuous man to have recourse to such things at times. Moreover the Philosopher [Ethic. ii, 7; iv, 8] assigns to games the virtue of eutrapelia, which we may call “pleasantness.”
I answer that, Just as man needs bodily rest for the body’s refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, since his power is finite and equal to a certain fixed amount of labor, so too is it with his soul, whose power is also finite and equal to a fixed amount of work.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, q. 168
Aquinas goes on to support the use of fun as spiritual rest from a story told by the desert fathers. The apocryphal story about the Apostle John makes the point that a man can only do his best work if he takes time to rest. Aquinas seems to tell the story inaccurately, so you can read the primary source in the screenshot below:
But play and joking are not only for our own benefit. Though he sees more danger in excessive fun, Aquinas argues that “there is a sin in lack of mirth:”
Now it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment. Wherefore Seneca says (De Quat. Virt., cap. De Continentia): “Let your conduct be guided by wisdom so that no one will think you rude, or despise you as a cad.” Now a man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher states (Ethic. iv, 8).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, q. 168
The Bible teaches Christians to live in cycles of work and rest. God ordained night, the Sabbath, and feasts as times to rest. In times of rest we gratefully enjoy God’s creation, and are refreshed so we can gladly go back to work. Jesus understands the Sabbath as a gift to man to bring wholeness:
And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
Just as Christians should rest and let others rest, Christians should have fun so that they and others may be refreshed. The spiritual and mental rest that we enjoy in games and jocular conversation is a gift from God that should be gratefully enjoyed and shared.
stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills,
into shapes of every kind.
Gregory Nazianzen, quoted in Man at Play by Hugo Rahner
In chapter 1 of Man at Play, Hugo Rahner expertly traces the concept of “Logos at play” from Proverbs 8, to Greek philosophy and myth, to church fathers, to medieval thought. In Rahner’s words:
It is that both creation and incarnation are expressions of God’s love, and this love, though full of meaning and purpose, is a love that works in creative freedom wholly ungoverned by necessity or constraint…
God’s acts of creation and providence are play because they are meaningful but not necessary. They are done from joy, and not from any external constraint. God shows off what He can do, playing with men and making things for them to play with. The main Bible passage behind this doctrine is this statement from lady Wisdom:
then was I beside him as artisan;
A I was his delight day by day,
B playing before him all the while,
B’ Playing over the whole of his earth,
A’ having my delight with human beings.
Proverbs 8:30-31, NAB, chiastic structure mine
Observant readers might notice that I use a Catholic translation above, and this is because Protestant translations tend to use the mild word “rejoicing” instead of “playing” here. This is a mistake because “rejoicing” does not necessarily imply fun, but fun is never absent when this Hebrew word is used. It is variously translated “laugh” (the basis of Isaac’s name), “play,” “celebrate,” “dance,” “amuse,” “mock,” etc. Yahweh delights in His Wisdom as she has fun helping Him create the world.
But no translation is perfect, and I think the NAB makes a mistake by ending with “human beings” instead of the literal translation “sons of men” (or even “sons of Adam”). Since Adam’s sons were born after the fall, this literal translation continues Wisdom’s delight into the fallen world in which we meet Cain and Abel, Lamech and Enoch, Nimrod and Abraham. We are Wisdom’s workmanship and delight even today through God’s wise providence.
There is a long Christian tradition of applying this description of Wisdom to God the Son, the Logos. Like Wisdom, He was eternally begotten by the Father, the Father delighted in Him, and all things were made through Him. But whether or not Wisdom merely represents God the Son, this passage teaches that God’s acts of creation and providence are a form of play.
Application and Fun Encanto Reference
I walk in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice… Now therefore, O sons, listen to me, for blessed are they who keep my ways.”
Proverbs 8:20, 32, NASB
Rahner explains that we are God’s play things, and the world is given to us as our play thing. God plays by making things from nothing, and we play by creatively using what He made. God delights in Wisdom’s play, and, when we walk in her righteous paths, God delights in our creative play as well. We were made to rule over creation in God’s place, taking the materials He made and bringing them to their telos. We create families, houses, graphics, and products. We write stories, software, music, and instructions. We invent recipes, dance moves, workflows, and games. Whether at home or at work, we play when we joyfully add creativity into our tasks.
The powerful fun of creation is illustrated in “What Else Can I Do?” in Encanto. During this song, Isabella casts off artificial constraints and creates with joy and self-expression instead of mere utility and “perfection.” She tests the limits of her abilities and creates a stunning variety. She also plays with her sister by dancing, taking risks, and getting messy; through this creative play they get to know each other better, and organically grow more fond of each other. On the surface it looks like a rejection of beauty, work, and femininity, but in reality these are brought to their potential as Isabella joyfully brings all of her creativity into her creation. There are no straight lines in nature, and this complexity adds to its beauty. The work that Isabella has put into being the stereotypically perfect young woman allows her to play with a very feminine agility, balance, and flexibility, like a master pianist who can express herself even while playing sheet music.
Some of the themes about fun I have been drawing out of the Bible are illustrated in a great work of literature. If you have seen the movie, you will remember that the orphan Cosette lives with the swindling Thenardier family, and is mistreated by them until she is adopted by the repentant criminal Jean Valjean. This story as told in the original novel demonstrates the goodness of play, the potential of sin in play, and the prerequisites of play; and it illustrates why we can play in the Kingdom of God.
The Goodness of Play
Among the great cruelties of the Thenardiers is their refusal to give Cosette a doll. Cosette gazes into a shop where an expensive doll is for sale, and to her it looks like paradise. The doll “was joy, splendour, riches, happiness.” Cosette is rarely allowed to play with a toy sword, and she dresses it up and sings it to sleep. The narrator explains:
The doll is one of the most imperious necessities, and at the same time one of the most charming instincts of female childhood. To care for, to clothe, to adorn, to dress, to undress, to dress over again, to teach, to scold a little, to rock, to cuddle, to put to sleep, to imagine that something is somebody–all the future of woman is there. Even while musing and prattling, while making little wardrobes and little baby-clothes, while sewing little dresses, little bodices, and little jackets, the child becomes a little girl, the little girl becomes a great girl, the great girl becomes a woman. The first baby takes the place of the last doll. A little girl without a doll is almost as unfortunate and quite as impossible as a woman without children.
Play is inherently “charming,” and is also useful for preparing a child for the important work of adulthood. It practices and displays the good functions of humanity, including the creativity that imitates God (see Theology of Fun: The Play of Creation). The Thenardier girls further demonstrate their creativity by dressing up their cat and enacting a story in which one girl is surprised at how hairy the other girl’s baby is. As we reflect God’s creativity and display the goodness of humanity, we bring glory to our Creator.
Finally, play brings happiness. When Jean Valjean meets Cosette, she is ugly because she is unhappy. When they move into a convent together, one of the best results is that Cosette is allowed an hour of play every day.
At the hours of recreation, Jean Valjean from a distance watched her playing and romping, and he could distinguish her laughter from the laughter of the rest. For, now, Cosette laughed. The gloomy cast had disappeared. Laughter is sunshine; it chases winter from the human face.
The result of this joy is that, when Cosette is fifteen years old, she is remarkably beautiful. The sunshine of laughter causes the rose to bloom.
The Potential Sin of Play
While the Thenardiers beat Cosette and force her to work, there is a group of drinkers constantly having a lot of fun. They laugh and sing an obscene and blasphemous song while completely ignoring Cosette’s plight. Rather than enjoying and displaying the goodness of creation for the glory of God, they pervert creation and dishonor Jesus; and their complete lack of seriousness prevents them from helping Cosette.
The Prerequisites of Play
Unlike the drinkers, Jean Valjean is determined to bring joy to Cosette. There are three related things that prevent Cosette from playing. First, she is terrified of Mrs. Thenardier. Second, she is forced to work with few breaks. Third, she does not have a doll. Jean Valjean has the means and the desire to overcome these obstacles. As Mrs. Thenardier makes Cosette knit stockings, Jean buys the unfinished stockings at an outrageously high price so that she will be free to play. After Mrs. Thenardier kicks Cosette for touching the girls’ doll, Jean buys the doll that Cosette had dreamed of from the shop. Unlike the drinkers, Jean Valjean is serious about letting children play.
Play in the Kingdom of God
Jesus, through his seriousness and suffering, buys His people the freedom to play. When we were slaves to fear, sin, and poverty, he bought our lives at the cost of his. By creating perfect peace, He frees us to play:
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
Isaiah 11:8, ESV
Today we can play because the security, righteousness, and wealth of the new creation are already ours. And yet we are serious, because Jesus has called us to follow his example of laying down our lives to bring others into the joy of His kingdom. We are playful in our seriousness because nothing can take our eternal joy, and we are serious in our playfulness because our present joy is a foretaste of God’s eternal kingdom, bought at the high price of Jesus’ blood. The church must have fun, praise God for its freedom, and welcome the world into its joy.
Romance is more than fun, but fun is part of romance.
Abimelech knows that Rebekah is Isaac’s wife when he sees them laughing together (Genesis 26:8). They let the cat out of the bag by having more fun than siblings should have together. A husband and wife can laugh, play, and enjoy each other with an incomparable intimacy.
The lovers in the Song of Songs run together (Song of Solomon 1:4), not because of danger or urgent need, but from joy and excitement. Solomon leaps around like a gazelle, peeking through windows and lattices at the most beautiful woman, and invites her to join in his frollicking (Song of Solomon 2:8–10). Later, the play becomes more intimate:
Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit.
Song of Songs 7:8-9, ESV
The final verse of Song of Songs ends just as playfully:
Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices.
Song of Songs 8:14
Among the many joys of romance and marriage is a unique, playful intimacy. Lovers are swept by powerful emotions to laugh, run, and play together. Safety, joy, and desire overflow into active enjoyment. Romantic fun is a gift from God, and should be enjoyed for His glory.