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Faith and Values: Jesus didn’t play zero-sum games

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 1, 2019

Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for the Spokesman-Review. COLIN MULVANY (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for the Spokesman-Review. COLIN MULVANY (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Paul Graves For The Spokesman-Review

“I win, you lose!” or “I lose, you win!”

Those are the stakes in what’s known as a “zero-sum game.” The term is used in everything from economics to politics to neighborhood relations. It even comes up when describing family dynamics.

People compete for the same resources, so whatever I win, you lose – and vice versa.

From benign bicyclists ignoring stop signs to increasingly toxic shoving matches to the horrors of mass shootings, zero-sum games are played every day. Violence in all of its escalated forms testifies to the bully’s illusion that winning the zero-sum game makes you a real winner.

Our religious doctrines are pockmarked with winner/loser theologies – zero-sum games on steroids. Yet along comes Jesus and effectively says, “God won’t play your zero-sum game of scarcity. Neither will I!”

Jesus knew that God’s immense plan for the world was based on abundance, not scarcity. Scarcity encourages hoarding. Abundance encourages sharing.

Every one of us has played a zero-sum game in our personal lives, in our communities, in the complexities of local, state and national politics, or in the sanctuaries and kitchens of our religious centers. Each time we play “win/lose,” we pay homage to the idol of scarcity. Abundance is a faint memory at best.

In Luke 12:23-34, we see Jesus encouraging his disciples to not worry. Do you worry about little things, big things, unimportant things, important things?

Jesus reminds us how God takes care of birds, animals and flowers and that we “count for more.” So trust in God’s generous grace rather than in your fear of being left out.

Where do you suppose Jesus learned to trust God more than human fear? Most likely, there were many moments that led him to embrace that truth. But I’m sure one of the key moments we can read about is his moment of baptism.

As he stands up in the river, Jesus hears a voice say, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” But if you think that Jesus is the only one to hear that voice, think again! That message is for us also. Yet we either may never hear it, or not believe it’s meant for us.

Jesus believed what the voice said about him. And he spent his ministry compassionately trying to convince his followers the voice was also meant for them. He claimed his identity as a child of God. He didn’t need to play the zero-sum game.

He and most of his followers didn’t have an unending supply of material goods, or religious or political power. But they did experience a simple abundance of love that affirmed their ultimate value as human beings. Hmmm… perhaps that’s a clue as to why we play zero-sum games.

For the most intense game-players, it seems like their human value is recognized only in their winning. Or, perversely, in someone else losing. “See, I’m better than you are because I have more medals, more money, more control, more …” (Expletives deleted come to mind here!)

The solution to our tendencies to over-worry, or be rudely competitive, or smirk at the put-down of a person or group who is different than we are, is simple: fully embrace your identity as a child of God.

But for us to embrace that solution is so complicated and inconsistent because, well, maybe we really can’t believe the solution is so simple. So we play the games hoping to win our “share” of God’s favor.

Sadly, we don’t hear God’s grace constantly declare, “The game is over! No one needs to win what I give you freely and lovingly.”

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at

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