God’s Game

300px-Bufo_americanus_PJC1It seems to me that there are two contradictory sets of underlying assumptions about the plan of salvation. One is the “salvation as a game” perspective and the other is “salvation as a journey” perspective.

The key difference between a game and a journey is that in a game the rewards are given by people, while in a journey the rewards are obtained from nature. For example, money, gifts, recognition, and grades are rewards given by people. In a game, someone has the authority to bestow the reward. In a job, your boss has the authority to grant your paycheck; in a sport, the referee has authority to bestow points; in school, your teacher has authority to assign grades; in court, the judge or jury have power to decide a victor.

In a journey, however, the rewards are not given by an authority – rather they are obtained from nature. The mathematician seeking a more efficient algorithm, the inventor working to build a new solar cell, the athlete striving to train her body, and the carpenter working to build a house are all examples of individuals on journeys. Their rewards grow directly from their work, and are not granted by any human authority.

To illustrate, compare learning—a journey—with school, which is a game.

Learning—a journey

In the journey of learning, the goal is to obtain certain knowledge. The only way to obtain knowledge is through study and experience. There is no adjudicating body to which one can appeal. If calculus is difficult for you, you cannot appeal to your teacher to make calculus become easier.

School—a game

In contrast, if you’re failing your calculus course, you can appeal to your calculus teacher for a better grade. This is because school is a game, and the goal isn’t learning, but rather grades. Since school is a game, the link between the work and the grades is arbitrarily defined, and can be altered. A calculus teacher cannot make calculus easier or harder, but she can make the class easier or harder. She can give one “A” or many “A”s.

Of course, the teacher hopes that the students will receive more than just grades. He wants them to receive an education! And so there is a connection between games and journeys. Teachers select assignments (games) that they hope will impel the students toward real learning (the journey).

So let’s bring these concepts of “game” and “journey” back to the plan of salvation. A commonly held view of God is to see Him as the arbiter in a great game. In this game, salvation in heaven is the reward, and it is granted by God, the authoritative body.

  • If you believe that heaven is a gift;
  • if you believe that God could reach down and put you into the celestial kingdom now;
  • if you believe in a literal judgment day when God and His angels will decide the eternal fate of your soul;
  • if you believe that the entry to heaven is guarded by sentinel angels who will grant entry only to those who have undertaken certain covenants and ordinances;
  • if you believe that salvation is about living in a literal place that we call “heaven”;
  • if you believe that you are literally perfect at the time of baptism,

then you believe in “salvation as a game”. In this game, God has arbitrarily determined the rules, and He grants salvation to those who “win” according to those rules, like a gold medal is granted to runner who crosses the finish line first.

In contrast,

  • if you believe that salvation is a process of literally becoming something different;
  • if you believe that works are relevant to salvation;
  • if you believe that perfection at baptism is symbolic rather than literal;
  • if you believe that salvation is about achieving peace, understanding, charity, or other personal qualities;
  • if you believe that the celestial kingdom must be built by those who will inhabit it,
  • if you believe that “the saints could make a heaven out of hell”,

then you believe in “salvation as a journey”. In this journey, earth life provides us with the experiences, trials, and learning necessary to undertake the transformation of salvation.

My concern here isn’t that one perspective is “better” or “more accurate” than the other (as though I could know!) Our church contains both games (temple worthiness, for example) and journeys (a full-time mission, for example). My concern is that we don’t distinguish between the two. This is especially evident in our discussions on grace (game perspective) vs. works (journey perspective). The two perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive, and can even complement each other (just as the game of school is intended to complement the journey of learning). I feel it’s important to understand and acknowledge these perspectives because each has a powerful influence on how we interpret our relationships with God, others, life, and eternity.

25 comments for “God’s Game

  1. Owen
    June 27, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    It’s totally arrogant of me, but I think of the game perspective as a lesser law sort of thing. Anyone can understand it, so it’s a good starting point, but I have a hard time imagining not moving “beyond” it and still managing to stay sane/kind.

  2. June 27, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    What if you believe all the things in both bullet lists simultaneously?

  3. jks
    June 28, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Very interesting way to think about it.

  4. Olive
    June 28, 2010 at 5:58 am

    This is how I feel about people who think that God ‘gives’ us trials like life is a game, and He is throwing out these little obstacles to be conquered. Like He is a puppeteer and we’re all hanging by strings. Like every little tiny thing that ever happens is by God, from God, because of God. (not that I don’t believe God is all) I, too, feel like this is immature thinking. Like they never got past Primary.

    I feel like life is much more organic. We have trials because this world and our bodies are mortal and subject to agency. We learn and grow in spite of our trials, not because of them. And they aren’t handed to us on a silver platter, they just happen…and God is there to help us through. Hes not sitting around thinking up wars, famines, natural disasters and diseases just to spice things up a bit. Those things happen because of the nature of life and agency and biology itself. He created the world and laws that govern it, but I don’t think He ‘sends’ horrible stuff our way to teach us a lesson.

    I guess that is in direct contradiction to all the stories we learn in primary. But isn’t that kind of the point? To get to the meat after the milk? Shouldn’t there be MORE to the gospel? More learning, deeper understanding?

  5. Craig P EARLS
    June 28, 2010 at 8:29 am

    @Rob Perkins,
    Perhaps your answer is that there is no difference between God and “Nature”…

  6. Enna
    June 28, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Wow, great post. Keep ’em coming Dane!

  7. Warren S.
    June 28, 2010 at 8:50 am

    This was suggested by Covey in “The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations” in 1970. Instead of “game” he calls it the legalistic viewpoint. He also suggests an additional viewpoint that he calls definitional. The definitional viewpoint is primarily concerned with defining gospel terms. Instead of “school” he calls it the behavioral viewpoint.

    He points out that all of these viewpoints are used by the scriptures to teach.

  8. Dane Laverty
    June 28, 2010 at 9:41 am

    #1, Owen – While I believe that both approaches can be valuable, I certainly have my preference between them.

    #2, Rob – Could you expand on that for me? Some of those bullet points are easier to reconcile than others.

    #3, jks – Thanks!

    #4, Olive – You say, “He created the world and laws that govern it, but I don’t think He ’sends’ horrible stuff our way to teach us a lesson.” If you view God as the omniscient creator of the rules, then He is also responsible for the “horrible stuff” that happens as a result of them, as opposed to if you view God as bound by pre-existing rules. The first God lends Himself (though not necessarily) to the salvation-as-a-game perspective, while the second fits better in the salvation-as-a-journey perspective.

    #5, Craig – Let me extend to the you same invitation I gave Rob: can you expand on how you would reconcile the points in the two lists?

    #6, Enna – A thanks to you too!

    #7, Warren S. – Sounds interesting. I’m not familiar with it. I’d be curious how a third viewpoint would contrast with the first two.

  9. harpchil
    June 28, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Here’s another example of the “game” mentality. I was recently invited to sing in a choir for a temple dedication. When I was called by my stake president, he explained that one of the conditions for singing in the choir was that all men had to be clean-shaven. That bothered me a little bit, since I have had a goatee for the past several years, but I decided that singing in the choir was more important to me than having a beard for that one weekend.

    I hadn’t thought of it in quite this way, but I really was just “playing the game.” I thought the rule was stupid, but I didn’t get to make the rule. I only got to decide whether that rule was offensive enough to me that I would opt out of the game.

    The odd thing to me is that several people have spoken with me (especially during the week where my chin was fully exposed) and expressed their appreciation of my faith and my obedience, and how I am somehow a person to be looked up to. It left me in the weird position of having to decide whether to just say, “Thanks, it was a great experience,” or whether to just paint it in the stark terms of “That was the rule, I just played the game.”

  10. June 28, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I agree with Olive’s approach. But this leads me to question the role of God in the Book of Mormon where the prosperity of the people was apparently conditioned upon their righteousness. Does this not seem like the “game” approach? Or should we interpret this to mean that the people prospered because living by the commandments created the conditions to have prosperity, like living the WoW grants longer life from its obvious natural benefits? Could we be chalking up to God what is really just part of the journey and giving God credit for being the creator of the journey?

  11. bryanp
    June 28, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Response to #9 harpchil

    I chuckled when I read your response. I’ve seen that happen several times. Yes, I see it as playing the game. It’s just like I was told by someone that the suit is the uniform of the priesthood. I burn up rather easily in sacrament meeting wearing a suit, so I just wear everything else except the jacket. My question is, just what exactly is the point of having the goatee shaved off? To make you look like everyone else? I joined the church 29 years ago. One thing I’ve seen is that we have this notion that when a person joins the church, they need to conform and look and walk like a missionary fresh out of the MTC. Forget individuality, forget agency…but we preach it. We can push this too far in one direction. On the other hand I understand that our appearance does in many ways represent us and says a lot about us. But to hold people to the standards of the MTC look alike, I don’t buy into that. I could really care less if my bishop or stake president has a beard or even at that, hair down to his shoulders. Appearance can be used as a tool of deception.

    Okay, about game or journey. I say more journey, but I have to say I have a hard time buying into the “Saturdays Warrior” version of the premortal life. I do believe that Heavenly Father, who understands us completely, discussed with us about what would need to happen to us bring about the desired changes and eventual happiness. I believe that we made a covenant to submit to all things that he saw fit to put us through. I keep this in mind when, I’ll admit, I feel I’ve gotten the shaft at times. I did ABC and D didn’t happen. I was told it would. I followed the prescribed recipe. But as a young church member that is what I was told. It comes from all those sacrament talks I naively sat through believing that just because brother so-and-so did this and that, I could get the same results. I woke up one day realizing that we should all be careful about trying to administer our personal spiritual experiences as blanket antidotes, telling people that if I did just they did, I would be blessed. Basically, your faith really gets tested when answers don’t come or you did ABC and D didn’t happen or when the “gifts” don’t come. Question is, do we love Heavenly Father and his son and that which is right enough to keep on doing it when life gets really tough.

    Sorry, it’s Monday morning.

  12. bryanp
    June 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Response to #10 Hans

    I believe that living the commandments creates the environment for prosperity. The gospel respects and upholds agency. On the other hand, there are people who adhere to the Word of Wisdom who die of cancer. Again, it was nothing of their own doing, it just happens. Again, I followed the counsel to get a degree. I did it and because of economy and external situation, I’m making less money than I was in 1997. Again, is the the test of the journey? I would like to think so.

  13. June 28, 2010 at 2:25 pm


    I tend to agree with your approach. But I was raised the way you said where I expected that after I did ABC that D would happen and it didn’t. Our current teaching environment doesn’t seem to caveat this too much so there is big disappointment or disillusionment in God’s ability to intervene for the better when it doesn’t ever happen.

  14. Dane Laverty
    June 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    re: #10 & #12 – Games are designed to encourage us on journeys. I believe that’s the case with the church. The church provides a game-like environment (with rules, goals, and referees) that is designed to encourage us to live in accordance with the laws of happiness and prosperity. This doesn’t mean that the church invented those laws — they’re just inherent to life here on earth. It doesn’t necessarily even mean that God created those laws — they may be inherent to all existence. But if we live according to those laws, it doesn’t matter why we think we’re doing it. The nice thing about laws is that they work irrespective of the beliefs of the person who obeys them (or fights them).

  15. June 28, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I don’t think I’ll ever get the “God makes the rules, so He’s responsible for it all” reasoning.

    By that same logic, I’m personally responsible when I tell my daughter not to touch the stove, and despite my repeated warnings, she does so anyways several times without consequence, and then eventually does it when the burner is on and burns herself.

  16. Dane Laverty
    June 28, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    SilverRain, those are two very different situations. In your case, you didn’t create a universe where touching the hot stove will result in painful burns for your daughter. You didn’t create a biological inclination toward cooked food, resulting in a need for hot stoves. You didn’t create a world where people undergo painful experiences. Rather, you found yourself in such a world, and you’re doing your best with it. You’re trying, often in circumstances out of your control, to provide your daughter with the knowledge and experience she will need in order to live a happy life. If God found Himself in a universe where painful lessons are required, then He isn’t culpable for them — like you, He’s just doing His best to guide us through laws that He didn’t create. However, if God created a universe of pain when a universe without pain could have been just as effective, then it’s hard to call God kind. The analogy would be if you put a hot stove in your daughters room and then expected her to figure out on her own not to touch it.

  17. Mark D.
    June 29, 2010 at 1:33 am

    In this game, God has arbitrarily determined the rules, and He grants salvation to those who “win” according to those rules

    The key to reconciling the “game” perspective and the “journey” perspective is to recognize that God does not have power to arbitrarily determine the rules (Or if he did, he exercised it while timelessly creating the universe out of nothing).

    Or in other words, there can only be a “game” worth playing if the rules of the game are based on timeless, eternal principles that actually lead to the claimed destination.

    If God isn’t timeless or limited in some other way, the only remaining alternatives are chaos and Calvinism, both dangerously close to the theology of not having a theology.

  18. bryanp
    June 29, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Response to #14 Dan

    It’s not that I think God created the laws, I think those laws (cause and effect) were already in existence. Heavenly Father teaches us to work within those laws. Some time back it was said in HP Group, your prayers will always be answered. I made the comment, would if you don’t get an answer? There was a blank look. I went on to say, that when you tell people that and they don’t get an answer, what about those who are weaker in the faith? Me, I think that prayers can go unanswered whether it’s for a period of time or until we pass through the veil. That’s a test of faith. It’s not that He is not a loving Father, it’s part of the training. I went on to say maybe there is no place in us to put the answer because we’re not experienced enough to accept the answer or to see it. Maybe it’s because He has all the trust in us to handle it on our own. But to teach people that the only way that answers come to our prayers is by this or that or such and such is misleading.

    I hope I’m making sense. Like I said, I lean toward journey even though I see that a part of life is having to depend upon others for our blessings. You know, the home teacher who can be inspired to visit there family for one reason or another and be the conduit of the blessing.

  19. Dane Laverty
    June 29, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Mark D., the solution you present matches my own beliefs. However, it doesn’t reconcile the game and journey perspectives — it takes the side of the journey perspective at the expense of the game perspective. And I think that’s great (and one of my stated purposes with this post): the goal isn’t to come up with an artificial solution that allows for both the game and the journey perspectives, but rather to acknowledge the incompatibility of the two, and then to reasonably discuss which of the two offers a superior theology.

  20. JAT
    June 29, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    In response to your 3:00 post, what would you say to these syllogisms–

    journey: sanctification

  21. Dane Laverty
    June 29, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    The distinction I most commonly hear is that justification is when you’re on the path and sanctification is when you’ve arrived. In that case, the terms can be applied to both the game perspective and the journey perspective. From a game perspective, justification is trying (and failing) to keep the commandments that God has set, and sanctification is successfully keeping those commandments. From a journey perspective, justification is living in accordance with the natural laws of growth, progression, and sustainable happiness, and sanctification is the attainment one’s full potential in accordance with those laws.

  22. Ron
    June 30, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Dividing it up this way is a bit arbitrary for my thinking and obscures some fundamental realities–for example, the accepting (as in D&C 88:33) of a gift does not seem to clearly be captured by either of these categories. There are a number logical templates one might lay over things, but often they tell us more about our own thinking processes than they do about reality.

  23. Dane Laverty
    July 1, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Ron, essentially what I’m saying here is that some rewards can be given arbitrarily (like money or grades) and some rewards cannot be given arbitrarily, but must be attained through specific kinds of work (like skill in playing the piano). If it’s a logical template, it’s a logical template of the most basic form, i.e. “Every reward is either of type A or type NOT-A.” I think that’s a hard proposition to argue against. You could certainly break A and NOT-A into subtypes, but that won’t invalidate the original proposition. For example, you say that “gifts” are not covered in my “game” vs. “journey” distinction. However, gifts are a sub-type of “game” rewards — they are rewards that can be given arbitrarily.

  24. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    July 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    GOD’s GAME? Really, Dane! GOD’s GAME? The Father of our spirits, who gave us the “breath of life” is playing a GAME of rewards for others to give away?

    HE sent His Only Begotten in-the-Flesh to suffer and be crucified for our redemption to promulgate a GAME, so that those who are the substitutes in His absence; can parcel out gifts that rot and be turned into dust?

    GOD, the greatest Gift Giver of the Universe created a place we called Paradise. What have His substitutes accomplished in the Gulf of Mexico?

    Which Rules did we eliminate playing God’s Game?

  25. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    July 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Dane, I didn’t mean to belittle the title of your posting. I am quite in agreement with its intended meaning. Indeed, the world thinks that it is God’s Game and that they have the winning hand.

    They have forgotten that it is not GOD, the Father, who is the player, but Jesus of Nazareth. The comments were to the point, observant, because we are indeed in a game.

    Jesus was rejected and crucified, because the Priesthood of the Temple of Herod disputed His interpretation of the 10 Commandments. Caiaphas, the High Priest, assumed the authority to re-interprete the Covenants with Abraham and Jacob/Israel. Hence that priesthood has incurred His wrath.

    After His resurrection Jesus was anointed King over Israel and He is now the Christ. The World largely still is ignorant and assumed that our prosperous blessings flow out of the Genius of man.

    Ever since I heard the Vision of Joseph Smith as a teen, I have always asked my self: Why would God and His Son openly show themselves in their Full Glory, now?

    The Words of His Father say it all. “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him.” My question: Will the Genius of man win over the Wrath of a Father in heaven?

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