Classical theology has commonly associated many attributes with God: transcendence, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence. But playfulness? At first glance, suggesting that God is playful might seem a bit irreverent. We tend to balk at characterizations that appear to make light of the almighty Creator of the universe. Yes, Scripture stretches language in the ways it talks about God, but surely we have to draw the line somewhere – don’t we?
The Bible would seem to suggest otherwise. Alongside all the more common attributes it ascribes to God, Scripture also offers abundant evidence of his playfulness, of the delight the Lord takes in creation. Every few weeks while praying the Liturgy of the Hours I am struck by these verses from Psalm 104:
There is the sea, vast and wide,
with its moving swarms past counting,
living things great and small.
The ships are moving there
and the monsters you made to play with. (Ps 104:25-26)
Anyone who has spent time on YouTube watching amusing animal videos understands what the psalmist is talking about. The book of nature is replete with evidence of God’s sense of humor and the sheer delight he takes in creation.
Perhaps Chesterton puts it best in a well-known passage from his classic Orthodoxy:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
We may grow bored with the world and forget just how strange and marvelous it is, but God doesn’t. Indeed, the fact that God continually sustains creation in existence suggests that ennui is a symptom of our fallen nature, not something that affects the Almighty.
Scripture also attests to the particular delight God takes in his human creatures. In a famous passage from the Book of Proverbs that shares some similarities with Psalm 104, Lady Wisdom speaks of her role in the creation of the world:
When [God] set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the sons of men. (Prov 8:29-31)
That God shares this “delight in the sons of men” with Lady Wisdom is evident from the way he interacts with them in Scripture. Would a stodgy, humorless God have a laugh at the (apparent) expense of a barren elderly couple, later allowing them to join in on the fun? Would a mirthless Creator choose a man with a temperament as solid as shifting sand as the foundation of his Church, giving him a name wholly unsuited to his character? Delight, it would seem, is a fundamental aspect of God’s relation to his creatures.
What are we to make, then, of this playfulness? Is it, like the other divine attributes, something that distinguishes God sharply from us? Do we have to negate the attribute of playfulness from God in order to maintain the profound distance between the divine nature and human nature? To be sure, whenever we compare ourselves with God, we must be on our guard, lest we refashion him in our own image. It simply won’t do to say that our delight in creation is identical to God’s. At the same time, neither will it do to say either that we should suppress our instinct for playfulness, or that we ought to deny the delight God clearly takes in his creatures. Paradoxically, it would seem that the more we ourselves take delight in creation, the more like God we become. Though this might seem counterintuitive at first, perhaps it shouldn’t really surprise us. After all, the one who loved creation so much that he took on human flesh and teased Peter with his new nickname also once said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).
Image: Steve Snodgrass, Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas)