There’s a genre of video games known as “rail shooters”. I don’t see a lot of them anymore, but sometimes (when there’s not a pandemic) you can find them in arcades. In these particular games, the players – since these are often two-player games – don’t really get to decide how to move through the game. The movement of the player from one place to the next (usually from one position of cover to another) is scripted, and as soon as one area is completed, the characters in the game are automatically shifted to the next one.
The name, “rail shooter” brings to mind theme park rides where a family is seated in a little car or boat, and is transported along a pre-defined set of tracks to see a particular show. (I remember a lot of these at Disney World, although that was more than 30 years ago.)
As much as people – especially in the Western world – might like to think that we control our own destiny, there’s a lot about our lives that’s really “on rails” when we think about the linearity of time. We can make choices about where to go and what to do, but many of our options are constrained by our circumstances and capabilities. I understand why some adults tell children that they “can be anything they want to be”, but the reality is that it helps if those children seek out paths where God has given them skills, passion, and opportunities.
Still, even for those with great talent and wealth, none of us can change the past. And, for all of our predictions and projections, we really don’t know for sure what the future holds.
The other problem is that, once we run out of metaphorical tokens or quarters, our time on earth will be up, and we’ll face the ultimate “game over” screen: either putting our initials onto the eternal leaderboard (i.e., finding that our names are written in the book of life – see below), or just losing (see Revelation 20:15).
The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.
Revelation 3:5 NIV
So, while we might feel like life (real life, that is) works like an open-world game, where we get to choose what we will do, the flow of time means that the only opportunities that we have to decide how to handle are those in the present. What we did or didn’t do in the past is done, and what we are wishing for may never come.
Said another way, we can’t just bookmark all of the pages in one of those “choose your own adventure” books, and try out all of the possible endings. We get one shot at life, and there’s no option to live life except “hardcore”: there are no “save points” to go back to if we make a bad choice.
In light of this, let me offer two thoughts for how we can best make use of this knowledge. Going through life on rails isn’t bad (after all, I’ve played the old Time Splitters and Terminator 2 games, and they were still fun), but once we realized that our options and our outcomes are limited, there are two things that we can do in order to get the most enjoyment (or just joy) out of our one run.
For one thing, we can take each opportunity to glorify God and love others. If you miss a power-up in a rail shooter, or fail to rescue a hostage, you don’t get to go back. Every day in our lives, let’s get our act together (see Ephesians 6:10-18), and be ready to take on the day’s challenges.
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:15-20 NIV
And, we can consult the only One who knows how our one “run” through life will turn out. Since each person’s life is different, we can’t just look up a playthrough on the Internet (or buy a game guide from Prima – remember those?). Not only does God know how our choices will turn out, but He knows how to beat the game. (After all, Jesus has already speed-run the game, and is waiting to put our name on the leaderboard along with His own.)
So, get to know Jesus Christ, listen to God for His direction, and make use of every stop along this “rail” of time that we call life. There is a lot of evil to be overcome in this world, and a lot of souls to rescue, so let’s reload our weapons (of faith) and keep our eyes open. Don’t get too focused on individual scores, though: keep your eyes on the screen, do your best, and know that it’s going to be a great run!
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.