Tuesday, June 08, 2021

A Zero Sum Game

“Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”

“Outwitted” is a translation of the Greek pleonekteō, which is closely related to another word that English translators consistently render as “covet”. So pleonekteō doesn’t really have all that much to do with wits or intelligence at all. Rather, it refers to a situation we may aptly describe with the phrase “zero sum game”.

Spiritual Chess

A zero sum game is any situation in which an advantage won by one side is lost by the other. When the total gains of both sides are added up and the total losses subtracted, they always add up to a great big fat zero, hence the cool name for the concept. Paul is describing a situation in which believers and the great deceiver are engaged in a contest. When Satan wins, we lose, and vice versa. And of course he covets every possible advantage over us.

All that etymological baggage is neatly packed into one little word my ESV translates as “outwitted”. Sometimes I wish I were fluent in New Testament Greek ...

In the passage above, the apostle Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to forgive, and standing united with them in doing so, because he recognizes there is something important that will be lost if they cannot bring themselves to reaffirm their love for the sinning brother in need of restoration. If they do not forgive, Satan wins this round.

The point is this, I think: that forgiveness, like chess, is a zero sum game. Every time you or I refuse to forgive one another, we ought to consider it a little bit like pushing a defenseless pawn into the path of one of Satan’s rooks or bishops. We are giving him an unearned advantage. We are sacrificing our own troops, and the only winner is the evil one.

Winners and Losers

Were God himself to engage directly in a contest with Satan, the spiritual “chess pieces” would be endless and the divine strategy absolutely indefensible. And perhaps that is the way the powers and principalities who have arrayed themselves against the Lord sometimes experience the unseen conflict in the heavenlies; I can’t say for sure about that. What I can say for sure is that is not the way the Lord has chosen to do battle on this earthly level, where he makes his moves through fallible, finite human beings.

Now, while God is infinite, the number of significant spiritual “moves” the average Christian will make in his lifetime is greatly limited by time, space and opportunity. Life being what it is, and time constraints being what they are, we Christians interact with one another far too infrequently, and while this restricts our opportunities to do good to one another, it also limits our opportunities to make colossal blunders that harm our relationships and cause spiritual damage. Satan too is a finite being — vastly more cunning, powerful and resourceful than we are, of course, but his opportunities to best each of God’s children are also limited by the brevity of our lives, the ease with which we are distracted, and the fact that with each temptation, the Lord has promised to make for his children a way of escape if only we will take it.

In short, the choices we make about how we deal with one another can significantly impact Satan’s win-loss record. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Strategic Forgiveness

So then, forgiveness is not just something we are commanded to do for others because God has forgiven us; not just a way of displaying our family likeness to our Father in heaven. All that is true, but forgiveness is also strategic. It is a way of holding back from Satan something he would otherwise successfully steal away: our reward, our confidence, or maybe even the ongoing Christian walk of our fellow believers.

Those opportunities, once stolen, may not be reclaimed.

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