In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner. It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful. In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.
A zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.
The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation. They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have. This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.
However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple. We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks? I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?
Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough. Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?
Do people get what they deserve?
We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned. This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt. This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.
Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.
That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him. They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.
People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes. When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man. He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor. He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation. He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect. Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message. I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.
The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve. He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.
Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference. Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love. We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.
That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us. We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge. If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well. If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.
If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?
Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right. No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever. Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.
A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin. Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.
True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others. Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd. No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.
It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God. Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan. Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.
True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love. If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us. It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)
Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee. Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin. In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.
Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them. No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves. True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.
Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?
Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?
Shut up about your good life—people already know! Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.
Actions speak louder than words.