Wednesday, August 23, 2023 | Trey Comstock
Imagine for a second that you’ve failed in your attempt to lead 11 men in stealing $160,000,000 from the 3,000 block of Las Vegas Avenue. Otherwise known as the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand. You and your tattooed and always eating partner in crime find yourselves the guests of the Las Vegas Police Department, who have kindly placed you in separate accommodations to be interviewed. This tactic by the cops proves key. You don’t know what he gives up, and he won’t know what you give up. They don’t have you dead to rights. If you both can stick to the lie, you’ll get away with it. However, the threat of serious jail time hangs over the both of you. Can you count on him to lie? Will he tell the truth in exchange for less jail time? If he tells the truth, and you lie, you face much worse consequences. What’s a prisoner to do?
The key to winning the Prisoner’s Dilemma is coordination. If both prisoners lie, everyone wins. The cops fail to drive a wedge, and you both get away. However, as soon as someone tells the truth, no one gets the best outcome. Without knowing what your buddy’s going to do, do you risk your hide by lying? Or, accept the lesser to two evils, tell the truth, and blow it for your buddy? You have to trust the amount of honor among thieves, which, famously, is a fairly shallow reserve. Most people take the option of telling the truth for the sake of a lower sentence because the risk of getting caught in a lie outweighs the hope of winning.
We live in a constant Christian version of this dilemma. We may not be trying to get away with the heist of the century because the house always wins, but we do fail to coordinate and thus fail to achieve the best result for God’s Kingdom. Paul opens Romans 12 with a direct instruction,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 NRSV)
We must lay it all on the line for God. How we can appropriately respond to God’s grace in our lives is by giving ourselves wholly over to the service of God and, by extension, wholly over to the service of God’s Kingdom. One should not read “bodies” completely literally. Instead, Paul wants you to see the need to hand over the entirety of yourself to God and to use your specific gifts on behalf of God’s people. Imagine what our world would be like if all two billion Christians did exactly this, if we coordinated, and each gave it all for God.
But, we don’t do that. Much like our prisoners, we face the question of what if I commit but everyone else doesn’t? If I give myself fully over to God, and everyone else just goes on doing whatever they want, I’m just going to live a life of getting trampled, taken advantage of, and left without a caretaker. It’s the same problem as with Paul’s language around mutual submission in marriage. A wife should submit to a husband and a husband to a wife, so that everyone has someone to look after them. If only one submits, the other takes advantage and gets a free ride. When some commit and some hold back, those that do commit bear more of the burden than they should and often get left without anyone to take care of their needs.
Every church that I’ve ever served, worked for, or attended had a small group of people keeping the whole operation going. These folks have indeed given themselves over to the service of God and should commended for their Godly service. However, time and time again, I watch as these folks burn out, as church turns into a job, and they feel left carrying the weight of the world, while others simply get to attend and enjoy the benefits. As a pastor, so much of the last ten years of my life has been trying to bring sustainability, new recruits, and additional resources to these unequal situations. Often, when a volunteer comes into my office to quit, their issues centers on burnout. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years.” “I feel like I’m the only keeping this going.” “This shouldn’t just be my responsibility.” Richer churches hire staff to try and plug these gaps, but most of the staff who come into my office to quit say the exact same thing. “I can’t do this anyone. I don’t have the support. I feel like I’m doing it by myself. No one is taking care of my needs.” I get the hesitancy that people have for getting involved. They fear that they will end up carrying the whole world and get trampled. It can seem more appealing to hold back, to just put a toe in, and let other folks do the heavy lifting. See the problem?
The world and the church as God designed it means everyone giving their all, fully committing, handing it all over to God’s control. This way, the work of the Kingdom gets done, and everyone has someone to take care of them. To do this, we must coordinate. We must all commit the whole of our beings to God. We give of ourselves and trust that everyone else will do the same. In some ways, this feels like a bigger leap of faith than simply trusting in God. We have to ourselves respond to God and trust in God working in others. That way, we can all overcome the Church’s Dilemma.