Monday, July 11, 2011

The Theme of "Hide and Seek" in Godly Play

Play is an essential part of childhood. Parents begin instinctively playing "Peek-a-Boo" with infants.  Not only is this game interesting and fun for babies, but it also has an important pedagogical element.  Babies learn "permanance" in a concrete way:  that people and objects do not simply disappear just because our view is blocked. Since play is such a foundational part of childhood regardless of culture, it stands to reason that God interacts with children as well in playful experiences.  In fact, God invites us to play with him our whole lives.  It's just that as adults we forget how to play sometimes.  The ability to play with God even as adults is part of what Jesus meant when he said that we must be as children to enter the Kingdom.

One game that God plays with us our whole lives is "Hide and Seek", and by this I mean the phases in our spiritual lives where God is sometimes very present in an almost tangible way and other times when we can't seem to find any traces of him. Rebecca Nye writes in "Children's Spirituality: What it is and why it Matters" that " . . . mystery is a close, mostly unthreatening friend in childhood."  Many childhood games, including "Hide and Seek" and "Peek-a-Boo" deal with the unknown and trying to figure something out. Nye writes that children have limited knowledge and are conscious of this. Therefore, mystery is a companion and does not necessarily cause anxiety.  I see this in the way my own children interact with God.  They rarely ever wonder if God is there.  He just is and they accept this.  Sure, they do ask questions a lot as to why they can't see him, but there is no underlying worry that God is not there or will not help them. But as adults, we often seem to unlearn this and fall into the trap of worry and anxiety when faced with unknown circumstances.

This contrast of God revealing himself and hiding himself is a reoccurring theme in the Godly Play stories as well as the Biblical narrative up on which the stories are based.  One of my favorite examples is "The Great Family" in which Sarah and Abraham (and the children listening to the story) learn that God is not in this one place or another, but everywhere they go. The Advent and Lenten stories speak of waiting for God and following his cues in finding out what Christmas and Easter are all about.  Examples in the Biblical narrative include the story of Esther and the account in Acts 27 & 28 of Paul's shipwreck near Malta.  In both cases, God seemed to not be present (in Esther he is actually never mentioned!) and the worst imaginable things appear to be happening. However, in the end God reveals his active involvement in a relevatory way that has lasting positive consequences for their lives. Just as Mom isn't gone forever when she disappears into another room, God is not gone forever when we don't see direct evidence of his working at a particular phase of our lives.

In my own life, I became acquainted with Godly Play at a time when I felt abandoned by God and had all but lost faith in the church (even though I was a church-planter!).  Though I knew logically that God was there and wasn't ready to simply discard my faith, my emotions and intuition were contradicting what I knew to be true about God.  Learning to play "Hide and Seek" with God as an adult has helped me to understand his character and heart in a fresh way and to deal with the underlying fear that was paralyzing me.

All of this talk about play can lead to the question of whether or not God is being cruel by "playing" with us.  Is he? The answer depends on how we understand play.  Martin Steinhäuser and Jerome Berryman write in "Godly Play: Einführung in die Theorie und Praxis" write about the differences between "true play" and "pseudoplay".  True play is voluntary and involves skills such as creativity and problem-solving. All participants are actively engaged in the game.  Pseudoplay, on the other hand, is forced, manipulative, and robs its participants of energy.

God, because of his grace, invites us into true play. His intention is not to break us when he hides himself, but to lead us into deeper revelation and relationship that come through playing with him. When we understand this, we become active participants in the greatest game of all and are changed by it, instead of being trapped in the role of a victim. Let's learn how to play with God again and teach our children to do the same.


  1. Loved this! Thank you for such beautiful insight!

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post Sheila! I love it and will be thinking about it in the days to come!

  3. Jess and Leslie, Thank you for reading it! I'm so glad that that this post spoke something to you.