I’ve grown fond of role-playing games.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, a role-playing game, or RPG, allows a person to create a character in an epic story and develop his or her skills and abilities while also making choices that dictate his or her morality. These choices are often accompanied by consequences that steer the story in various directions. Along the way, the player character picks up traveling companions and fosters relationships with them.
After playing video games for many years, you get used to certain tropes or plot devices used in RPGs. Doing good will often grant you favor with a paragon of virtue who’s traveling with you. Indulging in your rogue side will most likely do the same if you’re dealing with a more mischievous or evil person. Each moral choice can even have an impact on how your character appears, with some games ever so slightly altering the texture of your face as the story progresses to be more clean and angelic if you’re on the side of good – or decrepit and Dorian Gray-esque if you’re on the side of evil. Completing various tasks in these games is also a fairly linear process. You get experience points (XP), the accumulation of which allows you to “level up” to advance your core competencies, at least until the game’s “level cap” is reached.
If only life were that simple. For a long time, I thought it was.
In my last post, I mentioned that I would try to connect the dots between growing up in a cult-like organization like IBLP, how its defining characteristics often manifest themselves in the world at large, and why these approaches to life are ultimately unhealthy. This post’s topic is a big one: an attachment to cause-and-effect relationships. I like the term that counselor Larry Crabb uses to describe this in his book The Pressure’s Off – the Law of Linearity. Basically, it’s the idea that if A leads to B, and B is something desirable, then it’s our mission to seek out whatever A is so we can get B. If we pray the right prayer, if we follow all the rules, if we live up to a set of expectations we saddle ourselves with – everything will turn out alright.
While attending IBLP’s “Basic Seminar,” I discovered that this sort of approach was used quite heavily to convince attendees of the veracity of the organization’s doctrines. Affirming anecdotes often accompanied these claims: God blessed people who “got it right,” while those who didn’t abide by the principles or remain within their authority structure had God’s blessing removed from them. As a presentation, it was effective not only because fear can be a powerful motivator, but also because it appealed to our desire for instant gratification and superiority over others.
When I was little, this sort of paradigm felt oddly comforting. Growing up in a noisy suburb near San Francisco, I felt helpless. I was that dorky kid with the huge glasses who’d often have to endure bullying, even at church. I was also a homeschooled, only child. I had no siblings off whom I could bounce ideas and discuss what I was being taught. All I had were my parents (granted, they were – and are – wonderful!). Even when I would get out of the house and mingle with others, I was unaware of how to interact with them, especially since we were led to believe that we were the “elite Marines” of the faith and a notch above everyone else, even within our church. The Law of Linearity felt so ideal. If I were to just follow all those principles, exhibit all the character qualities I was taught, set myself apart from everyone else just enough, make sure my countenance and smile were bright enough – it would all be worth it in the end, right? Eventually, when the promised results didn’t happen, the pendulum naturally swung the other way. I discovered the ugly flipside of this viewpoint and found myself in a rut where I would continually ask, “What’s wrong with me?”
Curiously enough, one of the books of the Bible that IBLP materials often twisted or left unmentioned entirely was one that painted people with a linear mindset in a negative light: Job. Here, we see a righteous man tested by God. His family, possessions, and even his health are all swept away from him, though he refrains from cursing God. Eventually, he regains all he had – and then some. The funny thing is, that’s all the story ever was in IBLP. There was no mention of Job dialoguing with God or questioning Him. We barely heard a word about Job’s friends, who exhibited the Law of Linearity in spades, telling Job that he must have sinned and brought these calamities on himself. It all boiled down to Job getting stuff in the end because he did the right thing. How sad is that?
Cult-like organizations aside, we are all susceptible to the pull of the Law of Linearity. We have to fight the urge every day. Why do we subject ourselves to such an endless treadmill? Perhaps it has something to do with a deeper issue, one that extends far beyond growth and time. Simply put, we are addicted to predictability. If we can live a life where every variable, every choice, every consequence is clearly defined for us, we can attain control over our lives – or at least the illusion of control. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m the last person who would ever suggest that consequences don’t exist or that seeking out personal development or spiritual growth is inherently bad, especially in the context of love for Christ.
But this is a mindset issue. Thinking constantly in cause-and-effect terms shifts our perspective from the nurturing necessary for growth to take place to a mechanistic set of steps that effectively casts aside the work of the Holy Spirit and the timetable within which he works to accomplish His will. There is no room for God to exercise his grace or sovereignty, to “[make] his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and [send] rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Even more, by placing this burden on ourselves, it becomes even easier to inflict it on others and expect the same results from them too, perhaps even taking our frustrations about ourselves out on them whenever they don’t meet the expectations we set.
I’m reminded of the movie Kung Fu Panda, in which the ordinary, titular panda Po finds himself at the center of an ancient “Chosen One” prophecy. Though he is destined to be the legendary Dragon Warrior and defeat the villain Tai Lung, his trainer, the red panda Shifu, does not take into account Po’s needs as an individual and tries to rush the process with strict training regimens. While speaking with kung-fu Master Oogway, Shifu is frustrated, both at his inability as a trainer and Po as a challenging student:
Oogway: My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours, until you let go of the illusion of control.
[points at peach tree]
Oogway: Look at this tree, Shifu. I cannot make it blossom when it suits me, nor make it bear fruit before its time.
Shifu: But there are things we can control.
[kicks the tree so that peaches fall]
Shifu: I can control when the fruit will fall!
[slices a peach and throws the pit to the ground]
Shifu: I can control where to plant the seed! That is no illusion, Master!
Oogway: Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.
Shifu: But a peach cannot defeat Tai Lung!
Oogway: [folding dirt over the peach pit] Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide it, to nurture it. To believe in it.
Eventually, Shifu finds a way to reach Po and train him in time for Tai Lung’s arrival, but it happens only when he takes a step back to understand what drives Po – and through a lot of patience with this “peach.” For my fellow Christians, it’s my prayer that we can ditch the formulaic approach and recognize the freedom we have in Christ to be works in progress. To give others the room they need to grow.
To give ourselves the room we need to grow.