Chutes and Ladders: When Bad Things Happen to Good People
I just spent the last twenty minutes trying to console a heartbroken child.
After a productive therapy session, we were wrapping up our time together with a game of Chutes and Ladders. He was winning, and could barely contain his excitement as he moved closer to the finish line.
Then on his last turn, he landed on the dreaded 87th square: a picture of a child balancing precariously on a ledge, reaching for a jar of cookies (presumably) without permission. This meant my client had to move his game piece backward nearly 65 spaces, effectively ruining his chances of reaching the finish line first.
He begged for another chance. I shook my head and gently reminded him of the importance of playing fair and following the rules.
Tears were shed. Cards were flung. Words that would make a sailor blush poured from my preschool-age client’s mouth.
Adapted from an ancient Indian board game and introduced in the United States by Milton Bradley in 1943, Chutes and Ladders teaches young children a basic lesson in morality. Good deeds, such as returning someone’s purse or rescuing a kitten from a tree, lead to rewards. Bad decisions, like pulling a cat’s tail or attempting to ice skate on a frozen pond, result in serious consequences.
I’ve built my life around this idea that if I do enough good things, then good things will happen to me. I spent my teenage years volunteering at the local nursing home, taking summer mission trips to Costa Rica, and serving as the president of the church youth group. I graduated from a top-notch Christian university, and I have a seminary degree under my belt. I’ve made a career out of helping traumatized children and families. Surely all those good deeds would help me to move up the ladder quickly and keep me from experiencing too much pain.
This past January, I lost my grandmother to a particularly aggressive form of cancer. Her death was the first in a string of personal and professional upheavals that felt like someone had pushed me down the slide and I was now barreling down the chute at breakneck speed.
Over the course of the next several months, everything I had ever believed about doing good and life being fair came crashing down around me.
I dragged myself into a colleague’s office one snowy afternoon, sank into his leather couch, and unleashed a tirade of hurt and anger that surprised both of us. Where was God? Didn’t He remember who I was? The preacher’s son, the nice guy, the rule follower. Why had He let this happen?
My colleague told me that I reminded him of the Prodigal Son’s older brother. You know, the one who stayed behind and worked in the fields while his younger sibling spent their father’s fortune on prostitutes and parties. He is irate when his wayward brother stumbles home, out of money, and their father throws a lavish “Welcome Back” party. The older brother corners his dad and holds nothing back when venting his frustration:
“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and have never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30, NIV)
I don’t like being compared to the Prodigal Son’s older brother, but I have to admit we do have a lot in common. I feel hurt and angry, because, despite my “nice guy” status and all my rule following, life hasn’t turned out quite the way I had hoped.
I’ve come face-to-face with my sense of entitlement these last few months. I may not be throwing cards across the room or filling the air with profanities, but my attitude this past year has been anything but Christ-like. Rather than inviting the Holy Spirit to come into the mess that is my heart and heal my brokenness, I blame God for not holding up His end of the deal. I stress over the small things instead of remembering His faithfulness and resting in the fact that He has always provided for me.
I haven’t climbed as many ladders as I would like in 2015. But, I’m learning that the God who celebrates with me at the top of the ladder is the same God who comforts me when I’m lying in a heap at the bottom of the chute, covered in dust and disappointment. He picks me up, brushes me off, and encourages me to keep climbing. He doesn’t give me answers to all my questions, but He does give me hope.
It’s a hope big enough for all the prodigals and all the rule followers out there.
A hope big enough for you and for me.
Ben Arnold is a regular contributor to the Soul Care Collective.