Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

One of my favorite game shows growing up was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?  Children contestants answered trivia questions about geography in a hunt to find a criminal named Carmen Sandiego.  The winning contestant got to go to the finale, and, oh, what a finale it was.

Painted on the floor was a huge map of the United States.  Off to the side were plungers.  The host would read clues for a state, and the child would have to run with a plunger to the right state, and place the plunger on that state.  In order to win, the contestant had to find 7 locations in 45 seconds, running back and force from the plungers to the map.

To make things more chaotic, each plunger had a siren on it.  If the plunger was placed on the right location, it would light up with a siren.  But if it was placed on the wrong location, a “try again” sound would be heard.  The contest only got two tries with each question, and then (s)he had to move on to another question.

Running at a mad dash with distracting flashing lights, sound effects, a slim 45 seconds, and, worst of all, the geography knowledge needed made the game seem so chaotic.  Winning the game seemed almost impossible to me with good players and, I knew if I’d ever gotten the chance to play, would have been impossible for me to win.

For a lot of people, salvation seems like the last round of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.  They try to grab up good deeds and run them all over the board.  When they make big mistakes, they feel frustrated, angry, discouraged, and worried.  They try to fling the good works as fast and far as they can,hoping to get something in the right place at the right time.  And they keep running back and forth, out of breath and out of time, until burnout wipes them out and they sit down on the sidelines as another loser who bites the dust.

For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves. It is God’s gift, and is not on the ground of merit— so that it may be impossible for any one to boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, Weymouth)

Why is it we struggle so much to understand grace?  Maybe because we have a game show mentality about God.  We think we are contestants and that, if we are smart enough, possess enough willpower, or are good enough we will somehow win the game of life and be awarded the prize of Heaven.

But we don’t have a clue what we’re talking about.  I had no chance of winning Carmen Sandiego when I knew so little about the states, and we have no chance of “winning” at  life when we know so little about righteousness.

The Bible teaches that we are so off base when it comes to God’s standard that we are hopeless in and of ourselves.  We can study up all we want, and we can run around like mad men all day long, but because of our sin, we will never, ever live the perfect life God desired when He made us.  When we think we have the right answer, we place the marker only to discover Satan has tricked us into another failure.

On one episode of Carmen Sandiego (that never aired) a contestant named Jasmine Doman won the game and made it to the final round.  She had the opportunity to show what she knew and try to be good enough to win the prize.  The prize: she would get to travel anywhere in the U.S. she wanted to go.  But when she was running across the map, she slipped and broke her arm.

Unable to play, helpless to win the prize, she was out of the game.  But the studio decided another contestant named Ed Mann could try to win the prize for her.  If he won, she would get the vacation she had no chance of winning on her own now.

Ed knew what he was doing, and in 32 seconds (with 13 seconds to spare), he won the game for her.  Jasmine got the prize after all.

This is such a good picture of what Christ does for us.  The Bible tells us that we were out of the running, out of tries, out of time.  But then Jesus Christ came into history and completed everything we had left lacking.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, NIV)

The next time you feel you’re on a game show in a frenzy trying to win, remember that God has already won for you.  He has conquered sin and paid the penalty for us.  All you have to do is believe in what He’s done.  It’s time to stop running around at breakneck speed and making more problems for yourself.  It’s time to stop trying to win a prize that you will never win.  And it’s time to stop trying to win a prize that has already been won by our King.

It’s time to quit the game show and rely on Christ.

. . I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. (Philippians 3:7-9, NLT)


Information from Wikipedia article, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (game show), accessed June 9, 2014

Olympic swinging, and why my effort isn’t enough

I had a lot of problems getting friends as a teenager, but as a kid I had a system.

It was called impressing them.

My friends and I played a game called “Olympic swinging”.  We would grade the form of the swinger, the landing of the swinger, and–most of all–the height from which the swinger jumped off said swing to stick the landing.

I was no good at form.  And I was no good at landing.

But I was good at jumping high.

I got automatic tens from almost all my friends because of my bravery.  I would leap from where they would not, over and over and over.  The one time I had a friend jump from the same height I had, I immediately broke my old jumping record and became more daring than ever.

I had almost no fear.  I was so excited to know I would get another perfect ten, I would leap from great heights, heights so high that I couldn’t possibly land on my feet (well, that and my coordination).

I loved this game.  I loved it until my mother looked out the window one day and saw my Olympic jumping.  We had a long discussion about Olympic jumping, in which I gave a moving argument for why taking away Olympic jumping would basically shatter my dreams, ruin my career, and destroy my life, in a nutshell.  We agreed to compromise.  I would still jump from a bit higher than my friends, but no more extreme jumps.

I have to grin thinking back on those days, because I revealed something very real about my personality through my Olympic swing jumping.  I knew I wasn’t coordinated.  I knew I wasn’t graceful.  I knew I wasn’t athletic.  But I knew I could be brave (or fool-hearty, depending on how you look at it).  I was willing to take risks with myself that others weren’t, and they paid off.

In other words, I could earn 10’s for myself with sheer effort.

It was this very thinking that caused God and me to have problems, right from the start.

I knew I couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments.  I knew I couldn’t even get close.  But I thought that maybe I could make an appeal to God that was so perfect that He would forgive me.

Sometimes tens or maybe even hundreds of times a day, I would pray for salvation.  I would pray and pray.  I kept trying to form a prayer that was good enough that I could earn a perfect 10 and be saved.

But I always ended up with less.

And not just less, but less and less.  My prayers seemed to be getting worse.  I went from an 8.0 to a 7.6 to a 7.9 to a 6.5 to a 6.8 to a 5.4 to a 5.9 to a 7.0 to a 3.2 to a 4.6 to a 4.4 to a 3.9 to a 4.1 to a 3.8 to a 3.4 to a 1.5 to a 2.5 to a 3.1 to a 2.6 to a 1.2 to a 2.5 to a 2.1 to a 1.9 to a 1.7 to a 1.8 to a 1.7 to a 1.4 to a .5.  And pretty soon, my prayers didn’t seem to be counting at all.  I didn’t seem to be making any scores.

I think I made a pretty common mistake when it comes to understanding salvation.  I was so focused on my effort in asking for salvation that I forgot nearly all about God’s grace in saving me.  This has to be a little like applying on Extreme Makeover for a free house and being so intent on your appeal that you forget the power is in the hands of the management team at E.M.

Still, though, that’s a deceptive analogy, because the better your plea, the more likely it is you’ll get chosen by the E.M. team.  But with God, salvation is a free gift, and not one that is limited in its availability (i.e., E.M. only usually fixes one house a week on their series, and this is not even every week in a year).  Salvation is also not based on merit (or assigning value to how much effort is put forth in the asking).  Jesus makes it astonishingly clear that everyone who asks will receive.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8, NIV)

With the management team of God, God, and God alone, decides who receives salvation and who doesn’t.  As much as most of my friends were impressed by my high jumps, God is not impressed by our boldness in trying to please Him.  God does want people to be bold in seeking Him, but the problem is, boldness or bravery or daring just isn’t going to come close to being enough for salvation.  That’s something like saying a brave heart surgeon is enough to insure the success of the surgery.

If the surgeon knows nothing about hearts, or always messes up when (s)he tries to operate on hearts, no amount of bravery is going to save the operation.  In the same way, no amount of bravery alone is going to save us from our sins.  We need a perfect sacrifice.  We must count on Christ.  Not only is Christ able, but He is the most brave person ever, and He was willing to die for us.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, NIV)

Earlier I said that God and me had problems because of my Olympic swinging.  That is a very startling way to talk about the God of the galaxies.  There is no irreverence meant here, instead a very astonishing discovery I have made about God[1]: He wants to help us.

But I discovered something I found rather challenging about God.  He does not compromise.  I have not been able to convince Him that salvation should be at least 90% my effort, or 50%, or even 10%–and I’m so glad.  Because if I had, I would never be saved.

Because even if it was just 1%, I’d never get the perfect 10 in asking for salvation.  I’d never have the perfect heart to do so.  That would be like being able to bake a cake without any ingredients.  I have to have a perfect heart before my effort can even count, and I can’t have a perfect heart without the 100% mercy of Jesus Christ.

“I will be merciful to the person I want to be merciful to, and I will be kind to the person I want to be kind to.” Therefore, God’s choice does not de­pend on a person’s will or effort, but on God himself, who shows mercy. (Romans 9:15b-16)


[1] Yes, it’s true that others have made this discovery before me, such as Eve, Noah, Samson, David, and Daniel.

Photo by Quinn Anya (Quinn Dombrowski), profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/quinnanya/

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Published in: on March 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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