Winning at the Main Thing

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Do you think this is a game?”

That’s a cliché of choice, for both taciturn parents and blustery rappers alike. It communicates an obvious truth—real life is not fictional, imaginary, or inconsequential. It is, by definition, not a game.

But I’ve always thought that
rhetorical device is a little bit unfair.

Because first of all, let’s be honest—as Americans, we love games. We love professional sports, gambling, and video games. Many of us even love making up our own games on the spot, Calvin-and-Hobbes style.

So to say, “This isn’t a game,” as if to say, this is something important, is kind of reductive and maybe even ignorant. Because games are important; if they weren’t, we wouldn’t spend so much time on them. They can be learning devices—how many of us got our first taste of capitalist bloodlust playing Monopoly?—or vehicles of self-expression (think customized video game avatars), community-building (pickup basketball in the street), or the social lubricant that makes business possible (taking clients out for golf or paintball).

Games are so ingrained in our culture that we take our cues from them, linguistically and thematically. That’s why a good business proposal is a “slam dunk,” or someone successful is known as a “gamer.” It should be no surprise, then, that even the Apostle Paul used gaming metaphors. In 1 Corinthians 9, he compared discipleship to preparing for a big race.

Games are so ingrained in our culture that we take our cues from them.

Not being a marathon runner, I’ve never particularly resonated with that one. But my favorite gaming metaphor comes from board games.

See, many of the best board games take a while to learn. There are usually complicated sets of rules, full of cards, figurines, currencies, modifiers, et cetera. Sometimes when I’m learning from someone who knows how to play, they might start delving into the intricacies of gameplay strategy before they’ve laid out even the most basic ground rules, and I often find myself interrupting with a hugely important question:

“Excuse me, but what’s the ultimate goal here?”

Sometimes it feels rude, but I have to ask. Because no matter how many times you tell me how many hit points something is worth, or how many resources it takes to build that thing, none of it will stick in my head unless I can orient each choice, action, or counter-action toward a specific goal that functions as the point of the game. And I like to learn that thing first, because I know that later when I’m in the thick of things, I’ll need to remind myself of the main goal in order to plan my strategy.

So if I’m playing, for example, Ticket to Ride, I have to remember to connect my trains to my destinations; if I don’t fulfill that mission, it doesn’t matter how many trains I’ve laid down or how many cards I have in my hand. Connecting those destinations is the key to winning the game; the rest is just details.

The rest is just details.

I think that is why Jesus boiled down the Ten Commandments into two—he understood that the human life is full of really important, necessary things that can distract us from our calling. Getting an education, raising children, pastoring a church, starting or running a business—these are all important pursuits, things that we can do to honor God by reflecting his attributes and building his kingdom.

But we should never lose sight of our ultimate goal as Christians, which is, essentially, to love God and love other people. That’s the main thing. The rest is just details.

So winning at the game of life (as opposed to The Game of LIFE™) requires a strategy best expressed by singer and songwriter Scott Krippayne: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

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