January 22, 2021

I’m A Poor Player

I love chess. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. I’ve kept my first chess sets. I can recall every hand held set I ever took to school when I was told not to. I still stalk ebay looking for a particular plastic set that I wanted when I was a boy, but could never afford.

I coached our school’s chess team for 5 years and loved every minute of it. Those were some of my very best times with students. Every so often, I’ll go on a riff reading chess books, studying games and playing chess computers for weeks at a time.

Of course, I love the gear. I have an Isle of Lewis set that I ordered from the UK at a shipping rate I don’t want to discuss. (Actually, I have two.) I just bought a Chinese style set that I don’t need. I own two tournament sets. I’d be really happy to run the chess room in any pub anywhere. Hire me.

I’m a fair study of the history of chess. I’m average in a few openings. I can teach the game well and do basic analysis for beginning students.

But I’m a bad chess player. Very, very bad.

Chess is a very unforgiving game, especially against any competent player. If you want to know what I mean, set your chess computer to the level of anything above an amateur and see what happens to you if you play anything less than perfection.

Chess isn’t a game for blunderers and people who make serious errors. You can tell a computer to take it all back, but after years of making the same mistakes, that sort of cheap grace doesn’t go very far in making a real player.

I’m not mentally equipped to play the game well. My ability to concentrate is sporadic. My mind works with multiple topics and makes quick judgments. I see my own actions, but rarely calculate consequences with any real accuracy. My move always seems like the best move. I like to believe that my errors will be overlooked, and of course, that’s never the case.

So I have a house full of nice chess sets and books. I can keep a game going while I’m working on other things. (I’m getting cooked right now by Sigma Chess.) I can teach the game, appreciate the game, tell you stories about great chess players. But I’m a very poor player and always will be.

Sound familiar? Anyone?

I know a lot about Jesus. I have a lot of books about him. I know stories about great Christians. I’m a very good teacher of the basics of Christianity. I’m great at explaining how to get started. I have all the standard information memorized.

I study the Bible, and I know it well. I teach it and I can answer most of your questions. I think I’m right most of the time, too. (Surprised?)

I enjoy the music, the worship, the fellowship, the discussion. I can play the songs. I can lead in prayer and preach a good sermon. I like liturgy, church history, reformation theology…even Christian blogs.

I’m an educated minister, a trained amateur theologian and a writer with a decent reputation. I have a lot of mail saying I’ve been helpful to people wanting to live this Christian life. I’ve tried to pass my faith on to my children and to live it out at home.

But, like chess, living out the life of a disciple can a very unforgiving business. I blunder, make wrong moves, throw away opportunities and live by a double standard. God can’t point at me with any pride and say “There’s someone doing it right.”

I’m just not very good at following Jesus. I’m a “poor player.” I collect the stuff, the stories and the information. I hang around and admire, even hope to imitate. But I’m not much of a player at living out this Jesus business.

I’m better than the beginners, but I’m nowhere near the saints. I have a lot of “know” and very little “do” in my Christianity. I’m more of a fan than a follower.

Of course, religion is like chess. The Kingdom of God, thankfully, is not.

The Kingdom of God is a very forgiving place. My blunders and short-sightedness; my poor playing and missed opportunities; my laziness and distraction…..Jesus knows about them all. Jesus seems to enjoy calling people like me- and you- to be disciples, even when he knows what we’ll be like.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples were very poor players, and sometimes Jesus was frustrated with them. But mostly, he kept showing them- over and over- grace, the Kingdom, the cross, the Gospel. Over and over and over.

The Kingdom has the high call and the deeper life, but it also has the grace to catch me and the laughter to let me keep on trying. The Kingdom asks us to live like God’s people, but the Gospel forgives and perseveres with us when we’re utter losers.

It is ridiculous that I’m a Christian. But I am. It’s ridiculous that I, with my record and likely future, call myself a minister. But I am. It’s ridiculous that I can have the Holy Spirit poured out in my heart and I can live with “Abba, Father” as my homing cry. But the Kingdom of God is like that. Ridiculous. Gracious. More than generous.

My “game” isn’t what’s on display here. Oh yes, I’m playing (or running, to quote Hebrews,) but the race is won, the game is over. I’m part of a team where the victory has already been announced, but the games go on, just to make Jesus look good.

My poor Christianity is discouraging and sometimes disgusting. It would make a lot more since if I were cut, told to quit and sent out.

Instead, I’m included. I share the victory. I have a place at the table and in the Father’s house.

Grace changes my perspective on the game. It is what it is, but grace is a greater thing, a deeper, more beautiful thing. I must be careful not to become a fan of the game and forget why I’m here at all. I must remember that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of rules and morals and taking stands in the public square, but of righteousness and joy and the Holy Spirit. I’m not called to be a trophy Christian, but to be a trophy of his grace.

I’m a poor chess player, but I’m trying.

I’m a poor Christian, but I’m trying.

The difference is that all I’ll ever be in chess will be the sum total of my efforts.

But all I am and will ever be as a Christian is because of Jesus and what he has achieved for me in my place. In the Kingdom, my game is secondary. My faith, even as a loser, glorifies the King who saves me. Whatever happens in me- as imperfect and incomplete as it will be- will never be more than the evidence that his grace refuses to quit, give up or send me where I deserve. To the praise of the glory of his grace, I will live, die, live again and reign with him.

In the present, God delights in what his son has done, and that delights spills over even to my poor playing. In this Kingdom, I am free from condemnation. Free to grow, free to fail, free to be myself and free to try again. What I will be is God’s promise. I live my life in his grace and love; out of that good ground, the fruits of his Spirit will grow.


  1. Borrowing from Amy, who borrowed from Flannery, i think i could be a saint if they killed me quick. Otherwise, that’s me, brother.

  2. I love grace and I believe this post will be an encouragement to many.

  3. As Keith Green sang, “I know that I would surely fall away, if not for grace, by which I’m saved.”

  4. “The difference is that all I’ll ever be in chess will be the sum total of my efforts.”

    Another key difference is you get to cheat at being a Christian..You have the Holy Spirit to guide you and comfort you at every move, like having Alexandra Kosteniuk whispering the next move in your ear. Plus it is like an open book test, you can use your bible right along , where using a chess book might not be allowed.
    Actually we are encouraged to cheat, and the improvement in the game is not even ours, but is of the Spirit improving our opening moves.
    “out of that good ground, the fruits of His Spirit will grow.” amen.

  5. I have a bit of a different take on this – Either we’re Christians or we’re not. As fallible humans, in a sense we could all do better. However, using the terms “good Christian” or “bad Christian” – hmmm! If we are new creatures in Christ, that’s exactly what we are, new creatures. If our lives are characterized by unbelief or a sinful lifestyle, should we not ask ourselves if we are indeed new creatures in Christ?

    If God the Father looks at me through the blood of His Son, then I am His beloved. I may mess up, and others may do more good things than I, but I fail to see how that makes them a “better” Christian. Actually, I don’t like the term “Christian”. It has way too much baggage. I like the terms “believer” or “Followers of Jesus” much better. To me, they imply less, and more.

  6. My pastor always says, “There’s no such thing as a good Christian.”

    Sometimes that is hard to wrap my mind around having been raised in an environment where I was taught to be a “good christian” (aka not like the bad ones) and I was always told I was good christian.

    Now as a result I find it very difficult to automatically see people as God sees them and not judge by religious standards (or, as I was taught, be a good “fruit inspector.”) I’m starting to see that often my failures is a direct result of my human effort to achieve godliness. I work real hard on my game and sometimes wonder if it ever shows.

    We all sin. But those of who have Christ have been made righteous! Hallelujah! Where’s the party at?
    I am so thankful that God is teaching me to live more and more out of the indwelling life of Christ in me.

    Imonk, God has used you as a guiding light in my journey. Thanks!

  7. Great post. One of the best essays I have encountered in several weeks! Yes, it all sounds familiar, both the chess and the struggle to master the Christian faith.

    This morning I thanked God for His grace that allows me to even darken the doorway of my church. Without His grace, who knows where I’d be. Kneeling in silent prayer, I watched others who seem to be living their faith more fully and seem closer to God than I. I was even more humbled when a “living Saint” wandered past. A girl of about three. Baptised and in a state of grace. Would that she could, or would, pray to the Most High God for sinful me. The prayers of a rightuous man (or child) availeth much.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re bringing yourself and hundreds of us closer to God. I suspect the game at hand is better than you think.

  8. Amen.

  9. I think my favorite statement above was, “I’m part of a team where the victory has already been announced, but the games go on, just to make Jesus look good.”
    Amen brother!

  10. This was a post that made me sigh…in a good way. I love good writing and this was good. I love interesting perspective and this was interesting. I love honest assesmnent and this was honest. And this line was so inspired:
    “Religion is like chess. The Kingdom of God, thankfully, is not”.


  11. This was good. Uplifting and encouraging.

    I also own my first chess set, hand made by my dad’s sister (for him) in a high school wood shop class. I now own several more, plus around a dozen books on the subject, and a handful of chess programs. (My son even has a computerized Lego chess game, where the pirates & soldiers, or cowboys & Indians, act out the moves.)

    I own well over a dozen Bibles, several commentary sets, plus books on theology, hermeneutics, preaching, teaching, and the list goes on.

    Yet, I find that neither my chess game nor my lifestyle improves without much attention. I need to study those books, and practice it everyday, to make an improvement.

    My son is now playing in inter-school chess tournaments, and he isn’t very good. I never played with him in the past. God help me to improve his game playing, as well as his Christian walk. I need to be involved in both, if he’s going to improve.

  12. “Jesus knows about them all. Jesus seems to enjoy calling people like me- and you- to be disciples, even when he knows what we’ll be like.”

    Amazing isn’t it? Sometimes this blog is like worship song service. I enjoy it so much even though I feel outclassed by so many of the writers. All the voices blending and pointing the praise and wonderment to the Lord. Each voice is different and yet the melody blends, rises and lifts. Well, at least most of the time.

    I look forward to many more blogs.

  13. Very nice post, Michael.

  14. Amen, Michael. Another beautifully encouraging post.

    On a completely different note, I think your school’s chess club and my school’s chess club need to have a throwdown. We’re only, what, 2 or three hours from y’all…

  15. You just gave me an epiphany, im.

    A couple of years ago I had a prescient dream about a horrible accident that could have killed several people but due to the unselfish actions of a bystander no one was seriously hurt. The “accident” (a building being blown up) appeared in the dream to be a supernatural event and it all came true later that same day, but as reported on local news was caused by a natural gas leak. I kept rolling this over in my head when a couple of weeks later the Indonesia tsunami happened, and the worst natural disaster in recent history turned into the biggest international humanitarian effort ever. What I came to understand is the principle that God allows terrible “accidents,” not as punishment for evil and sin (the man born blind), but so that his Glory can be shown through them.

    Much of my has life of recent years has been a series of terrible personal “accidents”. My childhood certainly was this as well. And yet God’s Glory has been evident over and over. Maybe all I need do to make this better for me is to thank Him instead of complaining constantly.

  16. Wonderfully expressed. And as Willoh suggested, one of the beautiful things about living in grace, as opposed to chess, is that we are free in Kingdom life from having to devise strategy or outwit an opponent. Chess demands a winner and a loser. In the grace of God, we live under the cover of the one victor. And yes, He sure looks good.

  17. Outstanding analogies to the rules, things, culture and ethos of chess (a war game, after all) and full-contact religion as played in America 2009. What a line: Religion is like chess. The Kingdom of God is not.

    Brilliant essay, Imonk. Some of your best work.

  18. The Kingdom’s softball team is amazing, with spiritual cripples at the bases, one armed batters, and blind pitchers. “Trophy of his grace”… amen!

  19. Tokah — I was sent the Youtube of the guy in Australia born with no limbs — just feet on the bottom of his hips — who is a motivational speaker, So moving.

    A friend sent it to me because I told her of my friend and former next door neighbor who was born without arms. Joe is a crack auto mechanic and taught me how to do break jobs using his feet, of course. Once I was trying to get the starter off my truck and was grunting and cursing under the engine because I couldn’t reach the top bolt. The truck was up on tire ramps, and it would have been very difficult for me to climb up into the engine compartment, and I have all four limbs and all my fingers and toes. Suddenly the truck heaved and I thought it was slipping off the ramps. But then I saw a bare foot reaching down to the starter and heard Joe’s voice say, “Hand me the wrench.” I obeyed and he loosened the bolt. I still don’t know how he got up there.

    The last time I saw Joe he stopped in front of my driveway to say goodbye. He was in his brand new limited edition Ford Rausch GT (he steers with his left foot — no special adaptations.). He was moving his family to eleven acres in the Poconos which he bought with the proceeds of his Internet business.

    It makes me realize that all my problems are in my head.

  20. quit trying and be.

  21. This was something I needed to read as the last 24 hours have been some of the saddest that I’ve had to go through (and not only myself, but a fair number of people in my youth group as well).

    This is going up as another item to be read over prayerfully during Lent. Pax

  22. Memphis Aggie says

    Really liked this one, well done Michael.

  23. One of the best written and most heartfelt posts I’ve seen in a while.

    You have expressed things that have been tossed around in my head and heart but haven’t been able to speak.

    The two-edged sword has found its mark.

    Thank you!


  24. iMonk,
    Amen brother. Sometimes, I think we don’t emphasize it enough–the Gift of Grace and the joy and love it sustains you with. I needed this today.

  25. Steve in Toronto says

    Hello Michael

    Here are two terrific mystery novels in which chess and religion figures promptly. The first is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon and the second is The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter. Both offer wonderful insights into other cultures (real and imaged) as well solid entertainment. Of the two I would say that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is the better book. Chabon is an extrodinarly gifted writer and his portrait of an imaginary Yiddish community in Alaska is rich and nuanced although marred by a few stereotypical portraits of evangelical Christians. Carter’s prose is more workmen like and he does not have Chabon’s gift for characterization but his book works well as both a sociological study of an affluent black family and first rate thriller that is also intellectually provocative. You will enjoy them both immensely

    God bless

    Steve in Toronto

  26. It is a member of the site.

Speak Your Mind