Playing the Trump Card
Ever play any card games, something like Spades, Hearts, or Euchre? If you have, you know that many card games that have what are called “trump” cards. A trump card is a card from a particular suit that when played, “trumps” or overpowers any other card from the non-trump suits. Generally, one has to follow suit, but if you don’t have a card of the suit being played, you can throw a trump card and that trump card will win the hand. In other words, if you are playing a card game and hearts is designated as “trump,” a 2 of hearts trumps or overpowers and captures an ace or any face card from a non-trump suit.
I ask this because we’re all in the game, whether we like it or not. It’s called the game of life. As you have realized by now, there are a lot of power cards in this game and you usually don’t control them. This is particularly true if you’re a gangbanger. There are the aces, and kings, and queens of life, and they somehow seem to control everything. People like supervisors, bankers, politicians, policemen, and teachers all seem to have the power cards. You sit at the table hoping that fate deals you a fair hand, but what you don’t know is that you sit at a table where the cards are rigged. Everyone else holds the power cards. It’s not clear how they got them or what they had to do to get them, but they have them, and they use them. Others in the game may not want to admit it, but the game is stacked against you and they know it.
The truth is that many of you are gambling your lives away by just being in the game. It’s true for me as much as it is for you. It’s even truer, and more serious, in the spiritual realm where many of us are gambling with our eternal destinies, throwing our souls into the pot and hoping to score big in this game of life. In all truth, when you gamble like that, you are in a bad position from the start because Satan holds most of the cards in this earthly gambit. He’s sitting at the head of the table with all the chips in front of him and a smile across his face. He’s smiling because, if you could look over his shoulder, he’d be sitting there with a full house of three aces and two kings.
Before we continue describing the progress of this spiritual card game we’ve gotten ourselves into, let’s evaluate our position. Our lives are all far from perfect. In many of our lives the imperfections are even glaring. They stand out for everyone to see. We’ve killed someone, gotten caught with another person’s spouse, stolen money from our employers, and cheated in innumerable ways, all glaring defects in our character. This may be especially true for a gangbanger, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are any better. Our thoughts and sins may not have lit up the public media like those of a gangbanger who is on trial for murder, but they are just as damning. Our own sins may come to light some day in this world, but maybe they won’t. If not, they will be revealed in eternity in which case, we will still need the same help as the person with the glaring media-hyped sins. Sin is sin and needs a remedy.
The Bible is very clear on sin. It points out sin and describes it on varying levels of intensity. Not that this is all that necessary because all of us know deep down what is right and what is wrong, what is good, and what is sin. We possess an innate sense that tells us when we are doing something in opposition to God’s desire for our lives. Still we choose to do it. This is sin. The Bible makes it clear that sin, no matter how small or how big, separates us from God and that a remedy for that separation is needed in order to restore that relationship. Sin can come in the form of inappropriate relationships, bad or evil deeds, dark thoughts, and just plain selfish desires. Sin is not only something bad that we have done, but as Paul taught in Romans (7:7-13), and in agreement with what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:21-22 and 5:27-28), sin can be as small as a wayward thought. Gangbanger, if you ever hated an opposition member, even if you’ve never touched him, you’ve earned yourself a trip to hell. If you ever looked at a girl (or guy) with sexual desire, you’ve established your eternal abode in hell. Sin starts in the mind. It starts small. It’s a thought, an image, a desire. In the end, it’s death.
I suppose that our primary context for knowing about sin comes from the 10 commandments found in the Book of Exodus (20: 1-18). These are the “thou shalt nots” that function as the core of the law and at the center of the “rules” that people often get so bent out of shape about. These are the commandments that were expanded in the books of Moses and throughout the books of the prophets into the rules and laws of the Bible that people do not like. Well, we may not like them and may not obey them, but they are there for a reason. Those rules are not there to save us because we could never keep all of them. Paul admits as much in Romans. No, those rules are there to act as a mirror so that when we look into that reflection and see all of our imperfections, we will brought to the point where we want to do something about it.
Our response to the reflection we see in the mirror may vary. Some people will not like what they see and simply get rid of the mirror which, of course, does not change the reality of the imperfections it exposes. Those imperfections are still there for all to see. Others, however, use the mirror as a tool to try and deal with the imperfections, constantly looking into it and using it as a guide to spiritual health and well-being. The user must remember, however, that the mirror itself cannot clear up the imperfections illuminated in the mirror. It simply provides a reflection of a reality that can’t be seen with eyes that are merely looking forward. That reflection can, however, point out the obvious flaws and indicate to the viewer that he/she may want to consider the need for a doctor. That’s what the Old Testament laws do. They point out the need for a spiritual doctor that we might not know without reflecting on those laws. Then, in the New Testament, we find that Jesus is the only person capable of providing a remedy for the infection of sin. That’s where Love comes in.
The prophets and the apostles all talk about sin a lot, so we sometimes think that their message is primarily about the things you can’t do because they are outside of God’s plan for us. Paul often writes, for instance, in all-encompassing categories of activities that are contrary to God’s original plan (such as in I Cor. 6:9). These are categories of behavior drawn from the Old Testament laws that include all of us. Because we are sensitive to our own rebellion and failings, we may fail to recognize what Paul is really saying. Because we don’t like one categorization of sin that may apply to us, we toss out the whole passage and ignore the underlying thrust of what the passage was intended reveal. The funny thing is that, if we are honest, we would have to admit that if we were to exclude that one part of the passage we don’t like, we would STILL be covered and accused by other parts of the passage! In a simpler passage to the Romans Paul says it more clearly when he write that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” It’s as simple as that. All the prophets and all the apostles do the same when they speak of sin. Their words are meant to be a mirror that reflects who we are and what we’ve done, to show us that we are in need of something more than our own efforts to gain salvation. That’s where Jesus comes in. That’s where love comes in and takes hold of us. Jesus came as the fullness of love and died on the cross for our sins because of that love. Paul tells us that those who accept that sacrifice become “new creations “in Christ (II Cor. 5:17), and above all, that means we become creatures where the love of Christ is abundantly reproduced for others to see. That love, in turn, becomes the greatest testament or proof of our relationship with God. That’s what characterizes our lives and guides our activity. Let me share with you what Paul writes in I Corinthians 13:
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
This chapter of scripture is the truth that lies at the core of Paul’s entire theology and emerges from Jesus’ own teaching where he said (Matt 22:37) that the greatest commandment was to
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.’ And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It’s the same truth that other prophets and apostles also saw (Deut 6:5). There are certainly other theological issues we can speak about within the microcosm of Paul’s teachings, but this particular truth reveals what he understood to be the macrocosm out of which God’s plan and purpose originated. This was a plan and a purpose that is played out in Jesus’ substitutionary and atoning death on the cross. Without that love being displayed in Jesus, we are lost, and just as truly, if that love is not being displayed in our lives, we are just as lost. Why, because when a person becomes an authentic Christian, the love of Jesus is reproduced in his/her life. If it’s not there, it’s a good bet Jesus is not there. It’s a truth that the Bible makes clear, and a truth that is available to all who ask, to the gangbanger as much as to the athlete, the lawyer, or the doctor.
After thinking about all this, I believe that people misunderstand the purpose of the law and the commandments of God. We have all heard people say that God hates this and God hates that. In all honesty, I’m convinced that God does not like, appreciate, or condone certain behaviors. The word “hate” has been used to describe God’s lack of appreciation for behaviors that he is not pleased with. Those include anger, pride, selfishness, lying, theft, and a whole host of other activities that he has not sanctioned. All of us are more than covered by that list alone, to which many more “thou shalt nots” could be added. The point is, however, that God is larger than his lack of appreciation for what we have done wrong. In the end, God provided a force that outweighs hate and that force is love. That is why Paul can write in Romans 13:8-10:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
In the end, these lists and descriptions of sin, these rules and commandments, are not meant so much to harangue and castigate us about sin, but to reveal to us our true nature and to make us aware that our nature has led us far beyond the bounds of God’s intentions for our lives. Although the lists of commandments can seem stunningly harsh, I am convinced that the list of commandments and expectations found in the Bible are not intended to show that God hates us because it’s clear throughout the Bible that he loves us. That’s clear in both the Old and New Testaments. If there is anything that he hates it is the separation that sin brings to the relationship between him and us, and the Bible is all about restoring that relationship. That’s why 2 Peter 3:9 states that:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
The commandments of God are not meant to be so much a promulgation of hatred and punishment as it is an explanation of the rift between us, more of an invitation to safety and deliverance. They are meant to serve more as an explanation of why the sacrificial death of Jesus was necessary. They are meant to show us just how short we fall in terms of meeting God’s demands on our lives, and are intended to lead us to the knowledge that it is humanly impossible to achieve the perfection needed to share in God’s abode. That list of commandments is meant to lead us to the answer and not to keep us from the answer.
So, what has the mirror of God’s word showed you of sin in your life? Have all the things you’ve done wrong vexed you? Have your murders haunted you? Has your adultery gnawed at your conscience? Have your sexual relationships led to an unfulfilling lifestyle? Have you harbored malicious thoughts that, while never carried out, have influenced other behaviors? Have your thefts burdened you with guilt? Has your anger and hatred hindered your ability to form productive relationships? Have your misconceptions left you farther from God instead of nearer? Does life seem hopeless with everyone else holding the power cards? If so, I want you to recall that there was a thief on the cross next to Jesus when he died. He was hopeless, dying indignantly, reviled, penniless, and mocked. In a last act of desperation, the thief asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his Kingdom. Jesus replied back saying, “I tell you now, that this very day you will be with me in paradise.” With those words, Jesus trumped all the bad things that the thief had ever done to other people, as well as all the bad things others had ever done to him. At the last minute, Jesus used his own passion to trump the expected outcome of the thief’s crucifixion and death. Instead of hopelessness and pain, we see in that moment the promise of hope and joy that only Jesus can bring. Love trumps all. And it’s the same for you.
When Jesus took our sin upon himself and died on the cross, he cornered the market on trump cards so that he could make a trump card available to you, and to me. His life and death, and his resurrection, showed just how willing he is to play the trump card on our behalf. This is a card each of us can call on. And even if we are in the deepest pit of hopelessness, like the thief on the cross, we can call for Jesus to play that trump card at any time. Satan thought that he had defeated Jesus by nailing him to the Cross, but all he did with that action was to assure us of the ability to play the trump card and win, even when we’re holding absolutely no chips.
So, the next time you go to- to-toe with Satan in the game of life, remember the trump card and who holds it. You don’t hold it in your hand, but you have access to the one who does. Remember that in this game Jesus ‘death changed the rules and introduced a new element to the game, the substitutionary player. Even when don’t possess the card yourself, you can call on Jesus. He’s your lifeline and when he takes your place in the game, he WILL play the trump card. Inexplicably and undeservedly, you win. Of course, while you’re playing your hand, Satan will try to overwhelm you with all his bluster and try to get you to throw it all in. He’ll try to get you to forget about who it is that holds the trump card. He seems to have a strong case. At first, he’ll throw down the Ace of Spades and say, “You murdered someone, maybe more than one.” Then, he’ll throw down the Ace of Diamonds and say you’re an adulterer, you had sex with so many partners you could never clean yourself up.” Then he’ll throw down the Ace of Clubs and say, “You’ve led so many people astray that God could not possibly want to have a relationship with you. And for good measure, if you’re not feeling bad enough already, he’ll throw down the King of Spades and the King of Diamonds and say, “ You’re a drug dealer and got no education, man, you’re a loser, you got nothin’.” He’ll try to close the conversation with something like, “God hates you so just give up and throw it all in!” You sit back and think. In essence Satan is right. You’ve got very little and you deserve to have even the very little you possess to be taken away from you. You deserve to lose it all. But that’s when you remember that Jesus is standing there right behind you with that trump card. That’s when you can smile and let Jesus stand in for you. It’s when you, like the thief on the cross, let Jesus trump everything bad you’ve ever done, and then let him trumps everything bad others have done to you! So next time you pull out the scorecard and see all the demerits; when you start to think about how unsalvageable and irretrievable you are, that’s when you call on Jesus and ask him to get in the game for you. James says, “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). In terms of what we’re talking about here, play that trump card and see Satan’s smirk turn to fear. Jesus will always play the trump card on your behalf, if you ask, and when he does, it’s game over. Love trumps all. You win. That’s when you get up and walk away from the table for good. That’s when you repent of all your “gambling” ways and allow Christ to call your game . From that point on, it doesn’t matter who has the chips, doesn’t matter who runs the game at the table, doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what’s been done to you. No more stacked games. Love trumps all, but only if you let it. The alternative is to give over control of your destiny to the one collects souls in this heavily rigged game of life. There’s hell to pay for betting on the wrong horse. My bets are on Jesus and the redemptive process where Love trumps all, so long as you play the trump card.
Two songs that speak to this issue:
What Love Really Means – J. J. Heller – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgGUKWiw7Wk
Testify to Love – Avalon – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRqo3xwgRnk