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Pawns on a Chessboard

You could have cut the tension with a knife. It was August 1972. Reykjavik, Iceland. Game 13 in a best out of 24 match.

1. e4. Nf6.

Pawn to King 4. Knight to King Bishop 3.

The response? The very risky Alekhine defense. Little did anyone know; it would all be over in just 42 moves. A win managed by a complicated pawns-versus-rook endgame. 24 years of Soviet domination. Spassky. Considered a titan by some. Undefeatable by others. The American challenger. Fischer. Touted as the greatest match of all time, it was the ideal of the solitary man as Fischer was an island unto himself against a cadre of players and government officials present to assist Spassky. Simply stunned by the outcome, Spassky himself refused to leave the board for a long time after the game was over. He remained glued to his seat, unable to believe the result.

Chess is not a game for the faint of heart. It’s a game with origins dating back to the 6th century. For me, it’s a game I remember quite fondly from my youth. My father introduced me to the intricacies of the game when I was still in elementary school. At times, I still can hear the melodic marching sounds of him humming the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, as he would advance his pawns towards my king, signaling my ultimate demise. For TE Lawrence, chess was an expression of ego… a display of his perceived intelligence. A game in the truest sense. For Napoleon, it was no game at all. But rather a test of self through which to hone his mastery of strategy. Frederick the Great approached it as a purely creative endeavor. He reveled in the infinite possibilities. For others, chess is pattern recognition. For some, misdirection. Making your opponent see one goal as you work towards another.

There’s a middle game. And then there’s an end game.

In life there are men who say that all things are a game… and all things are a test. Benjamin Franklin believed the game of chess correlated with life: there are points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with. And we too are reminded that tests and trials are everywhere. Like Abraham. And Job. These trials produce steadfastness resulting in the crown of life (James 1.2-4, 12). And yet, unlike Fischer, those of the household of faith don’t face those trial alone. We can’t. For our adversary is indeed strong.

There is a painting that once hung in the Louvre museum in Paris, painted by Friedrich Moritz August Retzsch. Today, the painting is popularly known as “Checkmate.” In the painting, Satan is represented as playing chess with a young man, the stake being the young man's soul. The game had reached the stage where it was the young man's move. He is seen surveying the board with a forlorn look. One of utter despair. For in his analysis, he determined that there was no move he could make which would not mean defeat for him.

Life is like a game of chess with the devil as our opponent. He has a strategy for destroying each of us and another plan he works as a decoy. We must be watchful for his moves in our lives and counter them wisely, or we will find ourselves cornered one day with no way of escape. And thus, checkmate. He is a chess master playing a match; very strategic in every move he makes. He may even step back from attacking us for a while so that he can cause us to have a false sense of security, yet all the while setting the trap that will eventually destroy us.

Thoreau once said, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Perhaps there is a ring of truth to it. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. Man at times feels a void in his life. And attempts are made to fill that void with a variety of things: possessions, money, accolades, etc. Isn't that exactly what the Preacher concluded? "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 1.2) A desperate cry. A pondering of life. That feeling of worthlessness. That our time is spent simply existing, with nothing to look forward to. Some might even say an empty life. One area of weakness gives way to another. We are but pawns on a chessboard. Day after day, year after year, we are swept away by the devices of the Tempter. Swept away to engage in self-destructive behavior. Subterfuge and bluff are his weapons of choice. Schemes used by the devil on various occasions. Spiritual victory in the dark recesses of our life feel elusive. It's Paul's cry found in his letter to the Romans:

22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Romans 7.22-24

It’s an inner turmoil and struggle felt by all. Guilt and shame can occupy our every waking moment as we feel we are losing the fight. We are miserable. We feel wretched. And with war, violence, a deadly pandemic, unemployment, struggling marriages, depression, isolation, and more … we can easily become disillusioned. We begin to feel lost. We look for direction but often end up on the wrong path. It looks like checkmate. The devil has won.

But we need not fear—the game is not over. God assures His people that there is always a way of escaping situations that seem hopeless at the time. For you see in chess, the pawn who makes it across the threshold is crowned royalty. Becoming the most powerful piece on the board. And thus life imitates art. The carpenter was in actuality royalty. For He was and is revealed to be the Son of the Most High. The One with the power to crush the serpent’s head. The One to whom every knee shall bow. And acknowledge He is Lord of all.

And armed with that knowledge, we move forward. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. Pressing on. Towards the goal. Victory in Jesus is a certainty. The outcome of the match has already been decided.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8.1-2

We are pawns on the chessboard of life. Soldiers in the Lord’s army. Surrounding the King. Sacrificing self for the King. Facing our adversary with the King by our side.

Our souls are at stake.

In a pawn-versus-rook endgame.

With Him and in Him, we can be victorious.