Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Theology of Fun

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.  - Ecclesiastes 8:15

"Come on, Daniel! It'll be FUN!"

Over the back fence, I could hear Charlotte, my three-year-old neighbor, trying to coax her older brother into playing with a new water toy their mother had bought them. And with temperatures yesterday in the 90's by mid-morning, it shouldn't have even taken that much cajoling to get Daniel playing in the cool water.

But fun is what Charlotte wanted, and she thought two kids splashing around would be twice as much, well, fun. And after a bit more prodding, their mother was soon asking the two of them not to splash her so much!

Fun. How many times have you talked somebody into doing something with the same logic? Or consoled somebody who let one bad experience mar an otherwise enjoyable time with, "well, at least you had fun the rest of the time."


"Did you have fun?"

"We had so much fun!"

"It was a fun thing"

Fun, fun, fun.

It's become ubiquitous in our post-modern lexicon, so much so that most of the time, we're probably unaware of the amount of times we use the term in everyday conversation. In our church bulletin this past Sunday, "fun" was used to describe two different events being promoted.

Generally, we consider "fun" to be a positive thing, and use the term as an affirmation of something worthwhile and, sometimes, even something we deserve. We seek it, we revel in it, we want it for others, we'll even pay more for it that it's really worth. "Fun" is even like money - we're usually never quite satisfied with the amount of "fun" we manage to have.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "fun" dates from the 1680's, when it was a verb meaning to trick, or create a hoax.  You may have heard country folk with a rural dialect use this definition when saying "he's just funning you," meaning he's simply pulling a practical joke for amusement.

Most of us, however, use the term "fun" to describe something that's a pleasurable diversion, or an enjoyable activity. It's become as much a part of our life as anything else we do, even if we don't have as much of it as we'd like. We're taught that "fun" is even good for us, because all work and no play can lead to heart disease. Which puts people who find hard work "fun" in particular danger.

But has "fun" become excessively important in our entertainment-driven, narcissistic culture?

After all, Westerners probably enjoy the most "fun"-saturated society the world has ever known. Amusements, pleasures, and frivolities have been part of most civilizations since the Garden of Eden, and "fun" itself is not sinful. Yet even as we like to think our 21st-Century life is getting more burdensome and complex, we also expect our "fun" to be even more sophisticated, and as abundant as possible. We're told that we deserve to have "fun" because of how hard it is to earn an income and afford everything we're supposed to afford.  "Fun" is payback for all of the menial, conventional, responsible, unexciting chores that we wish we didn't have to do.

Wasn't That Fun?

It's not that God doesn't want His people to have "fun," even though the word isn't in the Bible.  God's Word includes numerous references to religious feast days, weddings, shared meals, and even sex, which were designed to be what we today would call "fun." God made a planet for us filled with natural beauty, and He's gifted people with creativity to express His craftsmanship and artistry for us to enjoy.

Isn't it hard to repress a smile upon hearing the delighted pleasure of a child? Isn't it hard to frown at good, clean humor? Isn't it hard to ignore the peaks of the Rocky Mountains or marvel at the incessant tides? Hasn't God designed us to appreciate "fun?"

But like everything else He created, we tend to overdo it, don't we?

We love money, even though money in and of itself is neither good nor bad. We fornicate, even though sex is a divine gift. And we let ourselves be driven by "fun," even though it's not really guaranteed anybody.

After all, how much "fun" do you think the underground Church is experiencing in China, the Middle East, and Indonesia these days? How about cancer patients down at your local hospital? Or forgotten senior citizens at your local nursing home?

"Fun" is not a reward for working hard, because plenty of people work hard in desperate conditions for little else but the misery of a similar tomorrow. Hundreds of children in China, for example, are being poisoned by unregulated lead pollution, and their parents who work in the factories contaminating their villages weep in agony over the fate of their sickened offspring.

Many Americans have been trained in how to hear words of sorrow about the unfortunates around the world coping with tragedy and dismal living conditions. We listen, we react with an appropriately grim shaking of our heads, and then we bounce back to whatever we're pursuing that will lead us to "fun."

Part of this, of course, is acknowledging the sovereignty of God, and that He is in control of all of these situations. Many of us who contribute financially, or even go on short-term mission trips, actually make a demonstrable commitment to help alleviate these stories of suffering. And to a considerable extent, to become wrapped up with all that's wrong in this would would make all of us blithering idiots, unable to process all of the good around us, and unable to appreciate God's provision for us.

Take the Fun Out of It

Yet I can't help but wonder how some of our fellow believers in other parts of the world would react when they hear we North American evangelicals gush so much about "fun." Is God disproportionately blessing us with "fun," while unfairly forcing His other children in China, Egypt, and elsewhere to endure torture and death on a daily basis?

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest otherwise, doesn't it, as you hear the same stories I have about how the underground Church in persecuted countries is flourishing. While the North American Church stagnates and festers.

Might it be that we're not appropriating the blessings God has for us in the freedoms and comforts we enjoy here as much as the persecuted Church is appropriating God's blessings despite their circumstances? How much are we taking for granted, or think we deserve? How spoiled have we become?

Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes commends to us the enjoyment of life, let us not forget the parable Jesus told of the rich farmer:

And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'

"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." '

"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'"

"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." - Luke 12:16-21

How can we reconcile these two descriptions of "fun" in the Bible? I think it's in the concept of joy, which as you'll notice, is actually absent in the story of the rich farmer. He was self-assured, enjoyed pleasure, and reveled in abundance, but he was not content. He hoarded without giving to others, two characteristics of people who lack the joy of contentment and service.

The man in Ecclesiastes may have been poor, or he may have been rich, but in this case, it doesn't matter, because he was GLAD. He was content in the Lord's goodness, whatever that looked like.

Nowhere in the scriptures are we directly told to have "fun." But we are told to be glad.  Of course, depending on your personality, being glad and having "fun" may or may not be mutually exclusive.  But I'd rather be able to be glad in circumstances that aren't otherwise "fun," rather than needing to have "fun" in order to be glad.

Splitting hairs? I don't think so. Daniel, while in the lion's den and the fiery furnace, probably wasn't having much "fun," but he was joyful in the Lord.

Those of us who can have both "fun" and joy at the same time are truly privileged. Yet isn't that privilege just one of God's many graces and mercies? How can we take that for granted?

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