Work, Rest, Play and utility

Al has done some thinking about the concept of play. He wrote a good essay on the subject of play where he introduces his view that play can not, by its nature, contain utility. He reiterated that in the comments of my post on utility. Given my views on utility it seems likely that I’ll disagree on his conclusion. And I do. Here’s why, in Venn diagrams.

My friends Kutz and Simone differ on whether we should look forwards, or backwards, when approaching such questions of ethics. So I’ve covered both.

I think play is of most value the more overlaps that occur in these diagrams. Rather than of least…

While I think the externalities in the current situation are of merit, for example, I enjoy sleep (which is just rest) and playing computer games (which is just play). But I enjoy sport more – which is fun (play) and exercise (work). I think areas of overlap are of greater value as rest. We intrinsically know this in our approach to finding a job. We look for, and get the most out of, jobs that are a combination of work and rest (something menial where we can let our minds focus on things that give us pleasure), or work and play (something that we actually enjoy), otherwise we need to be financially compensated in order that we can enhance our experience of play and rest outside of work.

So if I take pleasure from cooking and end up with a meal for myself and others at the end of an enjoyable, and restful, process, I think that’s better. If I give that meal to somebody else it also nicely fits in with my gospel utilitarian framework.

I think taking the things that give us rest, and using them for the service of others, is pretty much the best way to rest.


al bain says:

You see, the great strength of my thinking at the moment (*cough cough*) is that I look backwards, forwards and round about. But having said that audaciously arrogant but (please hear me dear reader) tongue-in-cheek statement, I’m the first to admit that my mind is not totally settled on this.

Tim Chester said at a conference I was at last week that if you can’t come home from a days work and kick off your shoes, put your feet up and read a trashy novel then you don’t really believe in grace. Your inability to rest/play for its own sake reveals your heart. By “trashy novel” he means a book that has no importance for anything except entertainment.

I agree with him. That’s why I think that your gospel utilitarian framework will mean that people will feel needlessly guilty about enjoying God’s creation by themselves (or pretty much doing anything by themselves).

Still, I’m interested to know what others are thinking about this.

Nathan Campbell says:

Trashy novels extend your vocab and work your imagination. Plus they probably engage a critical part of your mind, if you’re making a critical judgment on the book’s quality…

I think it’s actually very hard to remove all utility from play.

Nathan Campbell says:

I’m also looking for sermon illustrations when I read anything… it doesn’t stop me enjoying what I’m doing, but it gives everything a sense of utility.

al bain says:

I think it’s actu­ally very hard to remove all util­ity from play. I agree.

That’s because we Protestant Christians have a guilt complex. And we shouldn’t have. Not if we really drill down into what grace is about.

Nathan Campbell says:

That’s not what I meant. I mean there is no action of “play” that does not have some inherent utility.

Damien Carson says:

Without being disrespectful to a legitimate line of psychological inquiry… I wonder what the end result of nailing jelly to a wall – the relationship between jelly, nail and wall – would look like, expressed in a Venn diagram?

Nathan Campbell says:


Please see my next post.

simone r says:

I am such a fan of venn diagrams. I want to do an educational one but daren’t.

I love your representations of work, play and rest. Can’t wait for the new creation. That’s exactly how I imagine it. I currently try to spend as much time as possibly in the work-play-rest overlap in preparation for it.

Al – Why is it not possible to work and rest and play together in gospel work? Not always, of course. When we are reading the bible with our kids it feels like all three.

al bain says:


Al — Why is it not pos­si­ble to work and rest and play together in gospel work? Not always, of course. When we are read­ing the bible with our kids it feels like all three.

Because I understand Biblical play to be a stand alone category. In your scenario, however restful and enjoyable and edifying it might be to read the Bible with your children, you are not playing.

Nathan says:


Can you give me an example of play without utility?

Al Bain says:

Walking. Running. Fishing. Listening to Music. Playing pretty much any sport that doesn’t involve deliberate violence. Watching TV. Doing a jigsaw. Reading a trashy novel. Looking at the stars. Singing. Dancing.

Now. You could do all of these things for a number of reasons (e.g. you could walk to lose weight or run to win money or fish to feed the family etc). But if these activities are not ends in themselves (i.e. if pleasure is not the end) then I would say that they aren’t Biblical play.

It’s not that they cease to be enjoyable or that they cease to be Biblical. It’s just that they don’t reach the higher standard of Biblical play that I think Scripture speaks of.

Please someone let me know if this is becoming a tennis match. I know what you’re doing Nathan you sly fox. You’re drawing me into an … ahem … online argument.

Nathan Campbell says:

Walking: burns calories, even if you don’t want it to.
Running: burns more. Regular running involves developing discipline and self control.
Fishing: provides dinner.
Listening to music: provides creative inspiration.
Playing sport: see running, add relational factors if it’s a team thing.
Watching TV: depends on the show. Educates, informs, provides fodder for gospel conversations.
Doing a jigsaw: improves problem solving abilities and spacial awareness.
Reading a trashy novel: see TV.
Looking at the stars: Develops astronomical knowledge, helps us ponder God’s creation deeply.
Singing: entertains others.
Dancing: See running. Possibly also works to attract a mate.

All of these activities have an overlapping utility which functions as an end, if not “the end”… do you have to be oblivious of these ends in order for the activity to be play?

Al Bain says:

All of these activ­i­ties have an over­lap­ping util­ity which func­tions as an end, if not “the end”… do you have to be obliv­i­ous of these ends in order for the activ­ity to be play?

With my definition of play then those ends ought not be the motivation.

I’m not saying that there will not be some accidental purpose that is achieved when we play. It just ought not be the reason for doing it.

My essay obviously wasn’t that good. It seems that my main thesis hasn’t been understood.

Nathan Campbell says:

I think I understand it.

I just find it much more difficult to split ends to find a primary end.

Like I might choose one type of play over another because all things considered I enjoy them both the same but one has more utility.

And I think truly Godly play is play that seeks to enjoy creation, serve others, and honours God all at the same time.

For example, I play soccer for my team, not for myself, I hope I do it in a way that honours God, and I thoroughly enjoy the biomechanics and physics involved in the game – and the human element. Soccer teaches me about the human condition and about myself.

And yet, you seem to be saying that because I am aware of these things as I play I am not truly playing.

Nathan Campbell says:

So when you say that we are too utilitarian in our play I agree – but I think to suggest that involving utility in play ruins its ability to be called “Godly play” is not right.

So, I’ll take your argument to justify playing computer games when my wife says I should be studying.

But I’ll argue against it if you say that when I choose to play more productively I’m not taking the optimal path of play.

simone r says:

where does blogging fit in, Al?

Damien Carson says:

Al: I thought your article was good – it’s certainly a neglected topic in applied theology. The Venn diagrams are good because there are alot of activities where the distinctions are very blurred. If Christian play, regardless of it’s definitions, is an expression of who or what we were created to be, then it immediately becomes something more than play, ie. Gen 1:31a worship.

Along those lines, I like the way Nathan has expressed the expectation of the work/rest/play relationship in the new creation. I like it because it’s probably also how you’d express the gathering of God’s people to “bow-down” worship Him on Sundays. Your thoughts might have (i’m no expert!) some real potential to contribute to our thinking about Christian worship.

Al Bain says:

Simone. What do you mean? For me blogging is about conversation. And conversations can be for a myriad of things. If you’re asking whether it’s work, rest or play then it’s rarely, if ever, play.

Damien. Thanks for that. I think that there is a real sense in which biblical recreation is re-creation. I’ve called it “play” but you could call it anything really.

Gary Ware says:

Sorry to come in late and only give the comments a quick skim.
Been travelling for a few days.
You’ll probably understand what I mean when I say that I think your original creation schematic should be the same as your new creation schematic.
The difference being that in the original creation humanity could choose to separate the circles and in the new creation they can’t.
Apart from that difference I don’t think there are others.

Donna says:

At the risk of asking a dumb question, could you please explain your definitions of work, rest and play?

What is “rest” apart from sleep? How can some activities be all three (I assume that rest is passive and the other two are active – do you not assume that?)

Seems to me that you define play as being enjoyable, and work as it’s opposite, that is not enjoyable?

I’ve been thinking about this a little recently, here are my thoughts.

Of the three, work, rest and play, two are active and one is passive.

Rest, is passive, recuperation needed to continue active tasks – most prominently sleep, but also those periods of doing nothing, just letting your brain sort through the day and tie of loose ends (usually happens before I go to sleep…). (I was wondering whether to put computer games into this category, but I’m not sure about that, I’d either put them here or create another category “time wasters”;-) ). Things in this category don’t achieve much (apart from future ability to keep doing stuff), and they’re not really glorying in God’s creation either (which brings me to the other two..

Work is of course, active. There are two componsent: 1. It’s a person creating a change in the world. 2. There is also the need there to complete a task or achieve something.

Play (or I like to think of it as ‘Sabbath’) is also active, but in contradistinction to work, play is enjoying God’s creation as it is – not trying to change it. Delighting in what is.

So fishing can either be play or work, depending on whether there is the imperitive that you catch fish. Exactly the same actions in different people can make the action fall in a different category. A poor fisherman in India who needs to catch 4 fish so his family can eat is engaging in work. An Aussie husband who does the same thing, but if he doesn’t catch any fish, it doesn’t matter because there’s plenty in the fridge, and he goes fishing because he loves it, is engaging in play. The Indian fisherman may enjoy his work, but it is still work, because the responsibility to achieve results is still there.

I imagine in the new creation, there will still be a differentiation between work and play because we will still have responsibilities. But they won’t be onerous or difficult like they are now. Work will be there, but it will be enjoyable.

Do I sound off the mark?

Al Bain says:

How are you going with those definitions Nathan?

I like the way that Donna is going on this. play is enjoy­ing God’s cre­ation as it is — not try­ing to change it. Delight­ing in what is.

That’s where my thinking is going too.

Nathan Campbell says:

Yeah, because as a corollary I would define work as “that which brings order” to creation.

I would say that play can also be bringing order to creation for the primary purpose of pleasure.

That would be my distinction.

Nathan Campbell says:

How are these, for definitions…

Work = Activities for bringing order.
Rest = Activities for rejuvenation.
Play = Activities for pleasure.

I still think the best actions tick two or more of those boxes at once – but all actions should tick at least one, and you should be aiming for a balance.

That’s also what I was going for with the Venn diagrams (or my definitions underpinning the diagrams).

al bain says:

On what scriptural basis are you restricting all actions to this trichotomy?

Nathan Campbell says:

I don’t know that I’m restricting all actions to this trichotomy – because I think “worship” is probably another element that could be added to the Venn diagram (that would overlap heavily with the others but have a non-overlapping bit too).

I’d say it’s more on the basis of natural revelation (ie it matches my observation of the world) rather than special (ie it is specifically defined in the Bible (for those unfamiliar with the terms)) that I see the definitions being created (except for work and rest which I reckon come from Genesis 1-3). Though, possibly Ecclesiastes? And a bit of Proverbs…

Al Bain says:

It was your comment that all actions should tick at least one that got me wondering.

I think the three categories we have been talking about are helpful. And probably the easiest way to think about our ethics. But I’m not going to say that they are the only 3 categories (even if I can’t think of a fourth at the moment).

wayne says:

I like this. I am not good a play.
My rest is often ruined by overlapping with work.
My play is often ruined because of lack of rest and by work.
My work is ruined because of lack of play and rest.
When they overlap it’s a disaster.
God separates work and rest before the fall.
So I don’t think they will merge in the new creation.

Can rest and play overlap? I think they are closely related and can overlapping.
Work is definitely a different circle.

Nathan Campbell says:

Do you think work and rest will merge with play in the new creation though?

Do you agree with my definitions (a couple of comments above)? I think what we do in the new creation will tick all three of those boxes. Incidentally, I think what people do in retirement also often ticks all of those boxes.

wayne says:

Why does my comment need approval. You are not a very trusty chap.

Nathan Campbell says:

Only your first comment needs approval. Now you can comment with impunity.

Hey all,

Firstly, Nath, what’s the purpose of this diagram? What does it help you to do or understand?

I must admit in my thickness to not ‘getting it’.

Your main thesis seems to be “the more overlap between the circles, the more value the play has”. I think this really confuses issues.

The play element of the activity has its value in play. The work element has its value in work. The rest element has its value in rest. I don’t see any inherent multiplicatory effect from the convergence of the categories.

The only increase in value, it seems to me, is the stuffing of more ‘things’ into a single activity, thus you’re ‘gaining more value’ from the time. I’m just not sure how the diagram helps.

Sorry if I’m missing the point, but I’m just not on the same wavelength as you here, I think. Am I getting it?

Nathan Campbell says:

The purpose was essentially to express how I diverge from Al’s definition of play (that it must have no utility in order to be “play”) in a form that is helpful for visual thinkers.

I also wanted to consider what play looks like now as compared to pre-fall and the new-creation to help make my case.

I think the more boxes an action ticks the better the action. That is not to say that play as an end in itself (for example just playing Playstation) is not good, but I would rather play as a means to other ends, like playing playstation with friends. Or playing sport for the dual purpose of exercise and fun, or for the triune purposes of exercise, fun and fellowship. So if it comes down to a choice of how to spend my leisure time between Playstation by myself and sport with others – the enjoyment components being equal – I will choose the one that ticks other boxes over the one that is arguably less good. Still good, in that it is “play” which is part of enjoying creation, but less good. In my book.

*nods* I get it.

But you didn’t need a Venn diagram to say that.


Nathan Campbell says:

Oh, and Wayne,

I think the category “job for which I earn money” should stay in the work part of the diagram that doesn’t overlap with the others. But I think it’s ok to “rest” by doing something order bringing (which is my definition of work). So gardening is “work” but it can also be “rest” and “play.”

Nathan Campbell says:

You need to read up on learning styles.

My approach to communication is never just a question of the barest minimum I need in order to communicate this to Pete. That would be very boring. Just one or two big words.

I think I could Venn diagram the number of truths better communicated with the aid of Venn Diagrams.

wayne says:

Gardening is not rest or play, it’s work. This fits with the bible. In Eden, pre fall, gardening is work.
I do gardening on my day off.
It’s enjoyable, it’s refreshing, but it’s work.
It’s just a different form of work than what I normally do. A form of work that brings pleasure.

Having a beer or a game of cricket in the garden with the kids, that’s play.

wayne says:

For Al: is it possible that when work becomes so opulent as to be clearly non-utilitarian, it can be play.
For example I took 8 hours to cook a V8 vanilla cake with $60 worth of vanilla beans in it. That was fun. Certainly something to feel guilty about if I have a utilitarian ethic.
No. I think it was still work. enjoyable work. Eating it was play.

hehe… ah, Nath.

I’m not actually forgetting about learning styles at all. I’m actually worried about the wrong impressions that an oversimplified Venn diagram can give due to ambiguity in meaning.

Let’s take your third diagram above, as a frivolous example. Is ‘play’ the entirety of the middle circle? Or is it only the intersection of all 3? The labelling suggests the latter while logic and your explanation suggests the former. If you didn’t understand the explanation then you’d be confused by following the diagram.

I’ll leave it at that.