Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
I love games. As a child, my Mom, Dad and I spent many happy hours huddled over a game board, popping, spinning or lowering a cage on unlucky mice. I was able to pass along this tradition so that even in the era of video games, my kids and I spent afternoons trying to figure out whodunnit, conquering the world or building on Park Place. But we started out, like so many do, on games like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. These are simple games with simple rules, and ones that adults tend to tire of quickly. And I think I know why. These are games of pure luck. Unlike many other games that require knowledge or strategy, Chutes and Ladders is just luck. When you play Candy Land with a 3-year-old, you truly have just as much of a chance to win or lose as they. I think that may rattle some of us. As we grow older and master games like Scrabble or Clue, we come to believe that skill and strategy ensure our success. We downplay the effect of pure, random chance on winning or losing.
But in Chutes and Ladders, you won’t have to ‘let them win’ because they could beat you on their own. A roll of the dice decides your fate. And this is my point. The randomness of luck, the fickleness of chance are lessons worth learning and worth remembering into adulthood, because life has this aspect as well.
It occurs to me that in every situation of life, the ‘Serenity Prayer’ applies:
Lord, help me to 1. Change the things I can, 2. Accept the things I can’t change, and 3. Give me the wisdom to know the difference.
We put so much emphasis on changing the things we can. We encourage getting a good education, being honest, working hard, saving money, avoiding bad friends, avoiding bad habits, etc. The massive number of ‘self-help’ and ‘do-it-yourself’ books testify to how much we emphasize changing what we can. And at some point, we may come to believe that we can change anything or everything. We may have even had great personal success at doing so, and therefore convinced ourselves that if we could, anyone can.
But what about that ‘accepting the things I can’t change’ part? Scientists and inventors have spent much of the last 2 centuries making the impossible possible. I love that. I do. But I wonder if that hasn’t filled us with hubris to think we can change anything. I think there are many ways to improve our human condition. We no longer live in a Dickensian world of workhouses, child labor and dangerously unsafe factories. Yes, there is still work to do. I suspect there always will be. But even in the most egalitarian society, there will always be poor, there will always be people who need assistance.
We don’t like to admit that part of life is a roll of the dice. We didn’t choose the family we were born into. We didn’t get to choose our gender, our race, our looks, our income level, our disabilities, nor whether any of those would be a hinderance or help in the time, country and culture we were born into. In many games, players start out on the same square with the same amount of money. Then, using skill and strategy, they acquire more and go farther. In life, players don’t all start equal. And sometimes all the skill and strategy they can muster will not overcome that disadvantage.
Now for the wisdom part. Should we accept that part of our society will always be disadvantaged and give up? Certainly not. We should always strive toward social justice and bringing God’s will to earth as it is in Heaven. But realistically, human sin (greed, bigotry, crime, exploitation, selfishness, etc.), poor decisions (not changing the things that could be changed) and the randomness and luck of life chances all but ensure that poverty will always be with us.
So, despite our desire to pat ourselves on our back for what we’ve achieved, we must acknowledge that much of life is just random luck. And if you’re resisting that thought, remember that all that we have and all that we are, are from God anyway:
Lord our God, all this abundance that we have…comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. -1 Chronicles 29:16
We say ‘the less fortunate,’ but we need to embrace that truth. Sometimes people just have bad luck, fewer chances, more disadvantages. Acknowledge the luck of your advantages and blessings and share freely with others.
And the next time you play Chutes and Ladders with the kids or grandkids, help them to learn humility by pointing out that winning is random. Let them lose. Let them win. And let them see there is no place for gloating. There, but for the grace of God, go us all.