Today, I was faced with a dilemma. As you are probably aware, I try to live my life by the standard of living set forth in the Bible, and specifically, the New Testament. Thus, if put to the question, I would affirm that I believe the following command to be from God Himself:
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." (Col. 3:1-2)
On the face of it, this statement may appear to express a fairly innocuous and straightforward religious statement: spiritual things are more significant than physical ones. Nonetheless, it contains a principle that goes beyond this point, both in its scope and in its range of applicability -- namely, godliness is to be pursued before all earthly things. Thus, any activity is meaningless unless it somehow benefits one spiritually.
As someone who loves to play games, I find myself resisting this particular command. Yes, certainly discipline with godliness as the end result is a valuable thing to pursue, but what about the joy of planning one's strategy? The pleasure in playing one's cards in the best possible configuration? The thrill that comes with a hard-earned victory? Surely there must be some value in these things.
What, then? Should Christians eliminate from their lives every recreation and pastime except spiritual disciplines like fasting, silence, and prayer? Should I stop playing Spades and instead memorize Psalms so that I can recite a Psalm every four hours throughout the day? (I am not being overdramatic; some people actually do this.)
I think what I have established above is a false dichotomy of the physical in conflict with the spiritual. For those of us who must live real, everyday lives on earth, there can be no true separation of the two. Somehow, we must learn to live in a way that meets our physical obligations and needs as well as our spiritual ones. The balance is a fine one, but I believe it can be attained.
Instead of giving games up completely (which, in some ways, would be the easy way out), I am under the conviction that God wants me to use gaming to strengthen His hold on my life and to advance His kingdom. So what does that look like in practical terms?
Before answering that, I should probably address the question of what it means to play games. In a nutshell, I think it means to suspend one's disbelief and accept the rules of the game as absolute. There can be no transgression of them, regardless of how arbitrary they are (or seem to be). Moreover, a gamer must maintain a balance between realizing that the game is "just a game" and treating the gameplay as a vitally important activity (even though its importance springs solely from the fact that all the other players accept this seemingly arbitrary activity as important, too).
A game, then, provides the Christian with several valuable opportunities for spiritual discipline. Firstly, as with all human activities, it is a place to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Just as there is no law against these qualities, no game contains rules preventing the exercise of these attributes in word or deed. In some ways, a game is a better place than others to practice these things, because the risk is lower and the expectation of receiving these things is also lower (depending on who one's gaming partners are, of course). Regardless of the risk, though, gamers can clearly see when their counterparts are exercising grace, so games are an ideal place to practice these disciplines.
Secondly, games are a good place to learn how to place oneself in a position of humility. James tells us that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. When we play games, we learn important lessons, such as the fact that there are always more losers than winners and that winning is often a very artificial construction, and these facts can aid us in seeing that the vast majority of temporal successes are ultimately meaningless. Consequently, our success in these temporal matters is equally unimportant. Therefore, rather than exalting ourselves because we have gained ephemeral triumphs, we learn to diminish our own importance in light of our relative insignificance in the cosmos.
Thirdly, games help us to understand our own agency. We have choices about how we act and what we choose to do, but we are also at the mercy of other people's decisions, as well as circumstances outside our control. Games help us to gain a healthier view of reality, and for Christians, this should translate into a healthy respect for God's sovereignty and our own inability to make everything right by ourselves.
Games, then, should be more than just a waste of time for those who follow Christ. They provide a forum to grow, to discipline oneself, and, ultimately, to live out one's convictions. For those of us who have committed ourselves to setting our hearts on things above, they are a wonderful proving ground and a place to improve our spiritual conditions while simultaneously enjoying an aspect of our physical existences here on earth.
What do you think? I'd love to hear. :-)