The Chess Master

May 28, 2000

A recent article by Philip Yancey contains one of the best illustrations of the free will-predestination problem I have ever read. The “problem” simply stated is this: How can God be in charge of everything that happens and still give humans the power to make free moral choices? It’s easy for us to go to extremes in trying to answer this question. Either we argue so hard in favor of free will that we virtually push God out of the picture or we stress God’s sovereignty so much that humans end up looking like robots. Both answers are wrong. Yancey begins by noting that during his high school years, he became a pretty good chess player, winning most of his matches. Then he put the game aside for 20 years until he began playing against someone who had never stopped honing his skills. The results were humbling. He couldn’t beat the other man. No matter what opening gambit he tried, the chess master had an answer. If he dared to use some unorthodox strategy, his opponent would simply incorporate Yancey’s moves into his own winning game plan. It didn’t matter what he tried, Yancey couldn’t beat the chess master. Both his “good moves” and his “bad moves” equally served the chess master’s purpose.

In the same way all our “moves” in life fit into God’s overall design. Proverbs 19:21 reminds us that “many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” We can do what we want, make whatever plans we like, make the best deal we can get, go where we want to go, and say whatever we want to say. But in the end, God always gets the last word. His purpose will stand.

Yancey comments (rightly, I think) that God grants us freedom to make our own “moves.” Because we are sinful, we inevitably end up rebelling against God. But it is the wonder of God’s grace that even our rebellion ends up serving God’s eternal purpose. He wins in the end.

This radically transforms how we look at life. Even our failures end up as part of God’s plan to make us like Jesus. The words of Ernest Hemingway come to mind at this point: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” We are all broken people, broken both by circumstances and by our foolish choices. But even our failures when surrendered to God can make us “strong at the broken places.” To quote Yancey: “Many people find that a persistent temptation, even an addiction, is the very wound that causes them to turn in desperation to God, so that the wound forms a beginning point for new creation.”

Here is the irony of it all: When we play against the divine Chess Master, he always wins and by his grace our defeat is turned into ultimate victory.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?