by Andrew Hanson  |  11 November 2020  |  

In his book The Games People Play, Dr. Eric Berne offers this definition of game.

A game is a series of complementary transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or “gimmick”…. Every game is basically dishonest, and the outcome has a dramatic, as distinct from merely exciting, quality.

The book describes a series of such games: marital games, party games, sexual games, underworld games, consulting room games, and finally what he calls life games. 

There’s a board game called “Life” that is, obviously, not life. Human beings don’t live in a game world. However, some Christian authorities would suggest that God endorses a model of life that is a bit like a game. They are not shy about telling you what the rules are. The rules, as they give them, stipulate that inasmuch as God is all-powerful and ever present, that if you, your family, your religion, your associates, or your country are ignorant of God’s rules or choose not to follow them, bad things happen. Some offer their own lives as evidence: they (or their church, their country, or their family) are blessed financially and live fulfilling, joyful, and healthy lives because they know God’s rules.

What concerns me are the consequences of regarding life as a game. If the rules stipulate that God is all-powerful and ever-present, it follows that bad things happen because He causes them to happen because we need to be reminded of His rules. Miami will suffer a hurricane because it was the site of a homosexual conference. Tsunamis punish the wicked. Young people die in automobile accidents because parents or church congregations need to be shaken into a spiritual revival. Children die as punishment for the sins of their parents.

If Christians believe that God loves them, then the good things that come their way are easily explained. It’s the bad things that require explanation. Because God loves them, these bad things must be reminders that they have violated God’s law, and consequently God didn’t choose to protect them. If they are unaware of a transgression, they pray to discover what they have done to deserve this “reminder.” When their prayers are not answered, they may question the evidence of their senses and the power of their reasoning. This unease, or psychological trauma, may motivate them to consult religious authorities who promote life game answers.

On the Spectrum website in a post of June 23, 2020, Blomstedt tells this story in a conversation with Bonnie Dwyer and Alita Bird:

My mother was a pianist—a very fine pianist. She studied with the best teachers the country had. She played only classical music. (Music for us is only classical—the other is just trash.) She was a real musician. But she never concertized because she got rheumatism when she was 20 or 21 years old. Her hand had become crippled and she had to be in a wheelchair. My father thought that if he prayed, she would recover. Because that is what Jesus says: “Ask and it will be given.” But he prayed and nothing happened. According to his philosophy that meant something must be wrong in him. I can still hear his voice, locked in his study, crying out to God: “Show me what is wrong in my life! Why don’t you hear me? You promised to heal my wife! Please show me, show me! But she didn’t get better. If you are that rigid… that can kill you.

Some are so desperate for the game to work as it should that they may come under the spell of a charlatan who asks them to pay for his/her continuing life game advice. Some megachurches meet in huge athletic stadiums. This is a mark of success. Plus, huge crowds can dispel critical thought and quiet the fear that always lurks when blind faith is a motivating force. Fifteen thousand Christians can’t be wrong—or can they? The pastor of one large church in Texas lost his parishioners when he declared that he no longer believed in hell. He was breaking the rules! Perhaps those folks began their search for another successful grifter—one who did play by the rules they’d been schooled to believe in.

Of course, other outcomes are possible, including the realization that in this life, bad things happen, and God is not responsible for them. Job discovered, much to his surprise, that life isn’t a religious game. He saw that the religion of his day was a life game, “a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially,…. basically dishonest.” When he voiced that discovery, the men who attempted to comfort him were no comfort at all. 

One important reason why I’m a disciple of Jesus is that He didn’t play life games. He was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. He wept over the fate of Jerusalem. He spoke words of comfort to the brokenhearted. He healed sinners without regard for race, creed, gender, or economic status. His words and demeanor enchanted little children. He forgave his tormentors.

Inevitably, it got him crucified. But His death helps us understand that religious life games, motivated by fear and blind faith, can murder compassion and torture the innocent.

Life is not a game, nor is our relationship with God.

Andrew Hanson grew up in Glendale, California, and retired as an education professor from California State University, Chico. He has published essays, poems, an online magazine, and books.

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