Who’s to Blame?

The vast majority of games work with some combination of variance (luck) and skill. At one end of the spectrum, you have Snakes and Ladders, which is all variance and no skill, relying purely on the numbers that appear on the dice. At the other end of the scale is chess, which is pretty much all skill and no variance.

More often than not, a game has a bit of both. Take Monopoly, one of the most famous board games ever invented. It has elements of variance that players can’t control, such as the numbers that come up on the dice, and how much money is in Free Parking when someone lands on it, but there are also elements of skill. Whether or not you should buy a property is a skill-based choice, as is when you should put houses and hotels on your properties. The various elements of bargaining and trading properties are also skill-based.

I love playing strategy board games, where there is usually a lot of skill and a bit of variance. With this kind of game, it is possible to lose a game due to nothing but ‘bad luck’, but, on balance, the player who has played more skilfully should win.

But wherever there is an element of variance, it is always tempting to blame your loss on luck. I do it all the time, and it is one of the biggest reasons why people don’t improve at games. If you blame your loss on luck, you never face the mistakes that you made during the game that actually led to your loss. Only by learning from those mistakes can you actually improve at the game.

I do the same thing in life as I do in games. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

We blame variance when things don’t go well. We blame our circumstances on bad luck, other people, forces outside of our control, and God. But in doing so, we conveniently ignore the poor decisions that we made that really put us there.

Caveat: I’m not saying bad things are always our fault. A loved one falling ill is not your fault, nor is a drunk driver careening into your car when you’re doing nothing wrong. There are things that happen that are out of our control.

But a lot of things happen that we can control, and a lot of the time, we end up in a situation of our own making, but we blame external causes and use that as a mechanism to avoid facing our own part in the situation.

Let’s say you argue with a friend and fall out. Maybe you’re feeling hurt and upset. It’s easy in that situation to blame the other person for their irrationality and their lack of empathy, and in doing so subconsciously absolve yourself of any blame. Whilst this makes us feel better in the short term, it does nothing to heal that broken friendship or prevent something similar from happening again.

As Peter Rollins argues in his book The Divine Magician (which I’ll be reviewing in full in the next couple of weeks), this is a common pattern of human behaviour. In the book, he lays out a paradigm in which humans continuously strive for a goal (the sacred object). In the friendship example, the sacred object is a completely perfect, harmonious friendship. However, we are prevented from reaching that goal by a prohibition, in this case, the falling out.

However, the sacred object doesn’t actually exist, but the fact that the prohibition prevents us from reaching it allows us to imagine that it does. In order to feel better about not reaching that idealised state, we put a scapegoat in place and blame them for the prohibition – which in this example is the failings of the friend. By blaming the friend, we never have to acknowledge our own failings.

However, Rollins argues that the cross of Jesus, the Christ event, destroys the prohibition and shows that the sacred object is unobtainable. In doing so, the Christ event doesn’t allow us the comfort of blaming a scapegoat, but encourages us to see that addressing our own failings is the only way to transform a situation. I’ll use a basic table, adapted from Rollins’ model and including the board game analogy from the beginning, to illustrate this further:

Christ Event Friendship Board Game
Sacred Object Perfect union with God’s presence, located in the Holy of Holies Perfect, harmonious relationship A perfect, mistake-free victory
Prohibition Temple curtain Falling out Losing the game
Scapegoat God’s distance from us Friend’s failings Variance (luck)
Removal of Prohibition Removal of Prohibition (tearing of the curtain) Removal of Prohibition Removal of prohibition
Revelation The Holy of Holies is empty A perfect friendship doesn’t exist You can never play a perfect game
Outcome We are the temples of the Holy Spirit and that God isn’t distant. We are his agents of change. We can take responsibility for our actions and have a restorative, transformative impact on the friendship. We learn from our mistakes to improve next time we play the game.

Anyone, Christian or otherwise, can benefit from taking more responsibility for their own actions and blaming external factors a little less, but there is a further layer that Christians can grasp, as shown by the ‘outcome’ of the Christ event column above:

We have the ability to be a transformative influence in our circumstances because we carry the Spirit of God and we are aware that he has work for us.

One of the profound mysteries of the Christian faith is that God, as incomprehensibly powerful as he is, chooses to use us as his body on earth. What does this mean practically? It means that in the situation of the broken friendship, we have the ability to take responsibility and take steps to restore that friendship. How can we not? We are the body of Christ, the eternal force for reconciliation and restoration!

It means that we don’t stand by and pray that God or someone else would meet the needs of the person in front of us when we are perfectly capable of meeting those needs, and it means that we don’t avoid responsibility for changing a situation by shifting the focus onto a scapegoat.

This is challenging stuff, and I am only just starting to get my head around the implications of this for my own life, but this is why the body is not one person. God knows that we can’t do this on our own, so we’re called to be a church. To encourage each other, and allow each person to use the skillset that God has given them. Where there are humans, things will never work perfectly, but when there is a group of humans carrying the Spirit of God, there should at least be the drive to take responsibility and be the force for transformation that is encapsulated in the character of Jesus.

If we are going to be successful in this, then we can’t condemn others or ourselves for mistakes. When I play a game with someone who’s less experienced than me, I’m not going to berate them for a bad decision. If they want to get better, then I will try and help them to identify where they went wrong, and how to learn from that mistake, but I’m not going to say, “you’re awful at this and you should never play this game again”. I would hurt their feelings and lose someone who I could play the game with!

It’s the same in Christianity, and yet so often people disqualify themselves and others from making a difference because of the mistakes they make, rather than lovingly coming alongside one another and helping them learn for the future. It makes no sense that in a cause infinitely more important than winning a board game, we’re so much worse at helping each other out!

So let’s work together, to help each other see the power of what the Christ event did in tearing the temple curtain, to remove the scapegoating of others in our own lives, and to help each other take responsibility for transforming and restoring the situations we find ourselves in through the restoring power of Christ that we have experienced.

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