Playing The Game... Or Not

 
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Is life a game we play? Is the purpose of life simply to enjoy living, whatever that means to each person? When we think about how much pain and struggle go on every day, it's hard to see how life can be enjoyed, how living is worthwhile, except in spurts. How can anyone think life is a game?

Life seems more about doing battle than scoring points, rolling the dice, and crossing a goal line. Or, maybe we don't like how that analogy makes us feel. Maybe, we like to imagine that life really isn't about doing battle. It's not really a mess. For us, somehow, all the pain and struggle amounts to something in the end, like an oyster suffering to make a pearl.

The thing is though, even if we do believe life is a game played on our terms, then what about God? What part does God play in our pain and struggles? Does He play with us like a child plays with an insect, like a child pulling off a fly's wings? Maybe our pain is a direct consequence of God making a game of our life. He's playing the Baptist game with him, or the Lutheran game with her, or the Roman Catholic game with them, or the Bible game, or the worship game. Maybe our struggle is a direct result of not knowing the rules to whatever game God's playing with us, like the difference in rules between Monopoly, poker, and chess.

If that's true, then life isn’t played on our terms. The true purpose of our life can't be known until we've first figured out the rules God plays by. And maybe this is the purpose of Jesus and the Gospels, to teach us the rules of the game God plays with us. If we play by the rules Jesus sets out for us, if we follow His example, if we suffer through the game of life God plays with us, then when we get to the end we're rewarded with eternal life: happiness and good feelings forever.

And maybe that's the meaning of life: play by the rules, take up our cross and follow Jesus, and in the end we'll receive a shiny medal... or not. And there's the rub. There's the motivation for our living (and our religion) in a nutshell. It's this "or not" that keeps us going even when we’re not okay—when we break down and cry out for help.

But maybe we don't like that scheme either? Maybe we want to escape this "or not." But, how do we do it? Well, for starters, we'd better get up, dust ourselves off and go to church. We'd better suffer God gladly, struggle through life (come what may), and get to the end so we can win the prize.

But, is this good news? Is this the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Is this the mission of the church?

Not unless we imagine enslavement is good; not unless we believe the life and teaching of Jesus is meant to lay an impossible burden on us and everybody else. If this is the purpose of life for us, and the reason to get out of bed every morning—playing by the rules so we can win a trophy called "eternal life"—then we've missed the point in the same way an atheist misses the point. It's why we've gotten ourselves into the kinds of painful situations that hurt and confuse us.

Jonah wasn't swallowed by a giant fish because he refused to play God's game God's way. Jesus didn't get raised from the dead because He knew the rules of the game better than anyone else who's ever lived, so He was rewarded with the ultimate trophy: eternal life.

Whatever we call “god,” how we act out our “religion,” what we call “living,” if its name isn’t Jesus, it’s a sham.
— Donavon Riley

Jesus says "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." So whatever isn't Jesus or with Jesus is going to lead us the wrong way. Whatever isn't Jesus or with Jesus is a lie. Whatever isn't Jesus or with Jesus is dead. This means that our pain and struggles, like everyone else's pain and struggles, are consequences of trying to live with one eye (or no eyes) on what Jesus is doing for us, and one eye (or both eyes) on what we want to get for ourselves.

Whatever we call "god," how we act out our "religion," what we call "living," if its name isn't Jesus, it’s a sham. Our believing and worshipping and living are just leading us to more experiences of pain and struggle. We didn't do anything to earn being born. We didn't do anything to prove to Jesus we're worth dying for.

We don't see that everything we are and everything we have are gifts from God—in birth, and death, and new life. And in this way, life, because it's all gift—even our pain and struggle so long as it points us to Jesus' pain and struggle to win us back from sin and death—is a game that God intends for us to enjoy.

The purpose of life in Christ IS the living because Jesus is our life and He is living.

And so now, the pain and struggle we experience is God pulling us away, separating us from everybody and everything that isn't Jesus. Our pain and struggle is everyone and everything that isn't Jesus, trying to pull us away from Him. And so, now, we hurt and we hurt other people because living is messy and the rules blur and change constantly. But we will see Jesus again, and we will be happy at His coming again, and then, at that time, at long last, no one will take that happiness away from us.

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'.