What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch? Nobody’s tending the store. The wicked get by with everything; they have it made, piling up riches. I’ve been stupid to play by the rules; what has it gotten me? A long run of bad luck, that’s what—a slap in the face every time I walk out the door. [Psalm 73:11-14 (MSG)]
I remember playing Chutes and Ladders with my children. Based on an ancient Indian game called Snakes and Ladders, it’s a simple board game for youngsters with a goal of moving around the board and being the first one to reach the final square. If a player lands on a good deed space, he gets to take a shortcut by climbing up a ladder. If he plants seeds, for example, once up the ladder, he has a pot of flowers and has moved several spaces ahead. If, however, the player lands on a naughty square, he slides down a chute, losing several spaces. Eating too much candy, for example slides him down a chute with a tummy ache and breaking a window sends him down to get money out of his piggy bank. The game is supposed to reinforce the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad behavior has consequences. Unfortunately, in life not every good deed goes rewarded and not every bad one gets punished. Moreover, waiting at the top of life’s virtuous ladders are plenty of snakes just waiting to trip us so we ride that chute right back down again.
Perhaps that other children’s game, The Game of Life, is closer to reality since, regardless of how virtuous the player is, he can still be fired, have a mid-life crisis, or experience a stock market slump. Yet, in that game, the player with the most money wins and, while we all like money, we also know that no amount of money makes us winners in this life (or the next). Milton Bradley’s original game, The Checkered Game of Life, seems to reflect the unpredictability of life a bit better than either of the two games mentioned. In Bradley’s original 1860 version, players gained points when encountering things like School, Perseverance, Ambition, Wealth, Honor and Honesty. If they landed on squares like Gambling, Idleness, Intemperance, Disgrace, Poverty, Crime, or Prison, they lost points and, if they landed on Suicide, they were out of the game. Even the most virtuous of players had to navigate around or through those troublesome vice-filled squares before reaching the last square, Happy Old Age, with 100 points.
We don’t have to play a game or read the Book of Job to know that life can seem arbitrary and unfair. None of us control nature, time, chance or other people. Like the psalmist and Solomon, we can’t understand how it is that bad people can have smooth sailing while good people often struggle to keep their heads above water. Like Job, we’ve all had had times when life seemed incredibly unjust and we suffered from bad things we neither caused nor deserved. Nevertheless, we also had times when we’ve escaped the consequences of our own poor behavior, avoided the ride down the chute, and benefitted from life’s unfairness and unpredictability.
When we play a game, once there’s a winner (or the kids get bored), the game is over. Fortunately, our game of life here on earth is not the sum total of our existence—it is simply the prelude to the real one that will last forever. Whatever seems unfair or wrong here on earth is only temporary. In the end, something very bad will happen to those who don’t know Jesus and something very good will happen to those who do! Moreover, as Christians, we know that, no matter how the game ends in this world, we are all winners in the next!