I recall from years ago the following match between two politically divided opponents, and the outcome that shocked a generation.
The reigning regional chess champion sat on one side of the table, pitted against a newcomer with a record-setting win streak. And as if the intensity between these opponents was not enough, it was common knowledge that both competitors were also outspoken advocates of polar-opposite political platforms. This was in the Soviet Union during a particularly intense political era, and the opposite—and often combative—words that these two men stated publicly could not have placed them at greater odds. The political intensity in the room during this match was unbearable.
The game lasted for hours. Between plays the competitors would consult with their panel of advisors. The feeling was shared that the stakes were high and a loss of this magnitude would be too painful, too humiliating, for the players and their prized political ideologies.
At endgame, with their final pieces in balance across the board, the intensity could not be contained by the onlookers gathered in the viewing area. Harsh words erupted between the fans, yelling started, and a fight broke out. This volatile reaction resulted in a pause for the game while security restored order to the room.
During this pause one of the competitors observed something about the game that no one else had noticed until this point. It was a winning strategy more compelling than any move he had made up until this point.
As they settled down opposite each other once again, the adjudicator called the game back into session. A moment later the winning move was played.
Jaws dropped; the room went silent.
Then, as the brilliance of this move dawned on the onlooking room, cheers arose. Former enemies embraced across the gallery, and bygones slid off shoulders, replaced by pats on the back and genuine smiles of affection. The transformation in the room was instant. The newcomer reached forward to shake the hand of the regional champion that he had apparently lost to. Instead, the regional champion enveloped him in a warm embrace.
The fact is that in that final move, the newcomer with a perfect winning streak won the game . . . by intentionally losing it. He did this by placing his chess piece, without advice from his panel, and with calculated precision, in the very place where he would suffer the winning blow by his opponent. But his opponent was unwilling to make the final move. The game was recorded as a draw. Front-page news and a lesson for the ages.
That small move, made at the right time and with the best of intentions, cost one man a game of ivory miniatures. But it won a divided people the understanding and grace that they needed toward each other.
The tale bears analogy in a variety of areas. But today I’m reminded of a particular “game” that I see from day to day, one that is for many an equally intense struggle, but with implications of much greater consequence. What is it? Just a look into Facebook and/or Twitter, and you won’t be hard-pressed to find brothers and sisters who call themselves by the name of Christ, yet vigorously hurl words, insults, and bitter sarcasm at one another. Gossip and backbiting follow via iMessage and texts, and this between saints. This vitriol is not confined to social media. Words are shot over the pews during Sabbath School disagreements, or over an after-church Sabbath meal regarding guests who are not present to defend themselves. The topics may be political in nature, or theological, or other. Worse yet, we may in fact be so very right that we treat the other person wrongly and, in so doing, lose the game.
What will it take for us to live Christ’s humility in real life?
I have given into temptation and made these kinds of uncomplimentary statements toward another brother in Christ. And I have felt the sharp pangs on the receiving end as well. Our best option, I realize, would be to all look at the Reigning Champion, the one who showed us how the game is played, and how the game is won. We have good counsel to follow: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3, 4, NKJV).*
Continuing in this chapter, we hear the best counsel possible, pointing us to the incomparable example of our Reigning Champion. The passage I quote is well known and well loved. It is among the earliest examples of Christian hymnody, and speaks of a humility that has no equal in the history of humanity, of earth, or of the universe. It is the humility of one member of the Godhead who subjects Himself to another, His Father, for the sake of saving humans. His humility not only leads to God’s giving up His divine prerogatives to become a human person, but of then surrendering His human rights and accepting their violation and all the injustice involved, in order to show more completely God’s character and work of love, so that whosoever believes in Him through the witness of His Son should gain everlasting life. I have chosen to quote several lines of this beautiful early Christian hymn that describes Christ’s journey of humility and humiliation for the sake of our salvation:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (verses 5-8, NKJV).
Jesus showed us how the “game” is played when He laid down His life and in so doing demonstrated the greatest love ever revealed to humanity.
We all know this. These familiar verses are not news to Christians. The question is, What will it take for us to live Christ’s humility in real life? What will it take for me not to assail my Sabbath School teacher with sarcasm that helps no one? What will it take for me not to hit that reply button with the snarky comment in response to someone I barely know on social media? What will it take for me not to click that “Like” button and gloat in support of one person’s theological argument over another, thereby creating sides and intensifying animosity?
What will it take for me to love the person I disagree with, dislike, or even despise? Yes, I need help with that last thought too.
And what could happen if my snarky, sarcastic manner were replaced with love and acceptance? The question is not about ignoring the issues. It is about how I can love the one I find so unlovable, the same way that Jesus loves me. Can I do it with His patience, longsuffering, and understanding, if they are wrong and I am right?
Some say, Well, sometimes love is tough. If you care about someone, you tell them the truth the way that it is! But Jesus says, “No, a thousand times, no.” Why “No”? Because while truth telling is fine, that line is mostly about meanness parading as honesty. He who sat patiently with the tax collectors, listened to the Roman centurion, cared for and loved the demoniac, and respected the ill-rumored Samaritan woman at the well shows us the way again and again. And it is not through combat.
Jesus shows us that only love will win, and there is no such thing as cruel grace.
In any family there will be disagreements and the potential for division from time to time. And it’s no different if the family is a church family. One group feels convicted to push almighty doctrine as the end-all, be-all. Another group feels that all that emphasis on doctrine shoul
d be replaced by Jesus, perhaps even Jesus alone. Thus good intentions lead to lines of scrimmage being drawn and increase the potential for retaliation.
Or perhaps doctrine versus Jesus is not what draws the battlelines in your church or home family. For among us all we surely have seen similar tensions arise over some other pair of topics, as camps are demarcated and divisions appear.
How will we each respond next time around?
Right and wrong are important, make no mistake. But Jesus teaches that the first move, the winning move, is ever, only, love: “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10, NKJV). From time to time your home or church group may experience challenges to its harmony from without and from within. Remember the answer, the endgame, the winning move: only love, Christ’s condescending, cross-bearing love can pave the way for understanding, mutual respect, and healing. His love is what the world will see in His people that will trigger more than applause and handshakes in a gathering of Soviets somewhere. Rather, it will bring the climax of God’s great restoration movement to oneness and eternal embraces that His remnant movement is raised up to accomplish in every nation, tribe, language, and people everywhere across the world.
*Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Adam Brass, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States, works at a national lab and serves his church as a music minister.