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The New York Times has been, one suspects, doing very well these days through its Games/Puzzle division.  Of course for almost as long as the Times has existed it has been known for its crossword puzzles.  I have no idea how many people have played the daily crossword over the years but no doubt it is a lot.  Still, crossword puzzles are tough and lots of folks I know, including me, have never quite gotten into crosswords and deciphering the various double entendres and other quirks contained in the clues.  Crosswords seem to have very nearly their own grammar.

But then along came a man named Josh Wardle who invented an online game that played off his own name called Wordle and it quickly became a global sensation.   The concept was simple: you get six chances to guess the day’s five-letter word.   Mr. Wardle also had the exceedingly good idea of encouraging players to post their scores to social media, and before you knew it the game exploded as Facebook friends asked one another “What is that game you post about every day?” 

It was so popular that the NY Times bought the rights to it for a sum somewhere in seven digits.  The newspaper has kept the game free (whereas you need a special Puzzle subscription to access most of their games) and it sounds like they have had a lot of collateral wins as people have decided to subscribe to play other games like Spelling Bee and the recently launched Connections.  Spelling Bee gives you a hive of seven letters and the middle letter of the hive has to be in every word you can find four letters long or longer.  Each day there is at least one pangram that uses all seven letters.  You advance along until you reach higher levels of daily distinction like Solid.  Nice.  Great.  Amazing.  Genius.  And then there is Queen Bee if you find every word the game’s editor determined was possible and allowed for that day.

The new Connections game gives you sixteen seemingly random words from among which you need to find four sets of connections of four words each until all sixteen words are in one of the groups.   But you can make wrong connection groups only four times before you are finished.  And most every day they supply words that can easily fit in more than one Connection group, increasing the odds you will start to mess up.   For instance, yesterday one connection group was clearly related to the Old West.  But wait, the sixteen words included Lasso, Cowboy, Sheriff, Frontier, Outlaw, Drifter. Which four are in the Old West group?  Turns out the right grouping was Cowboy, Sheriff, Outlaw, Drifter.  Frontier was in another group of airlines and Lasso was in the category of last names for TV characters.  Clever stuff.

Why do we like puzzles?  Well of course they are simply fun and—most of the time—relaxing.  And let’s not deny that we all enjoy the little buzz we get from hitting it right.  Word games and also the Connections game (and yes, yes, crossword puzzles most certainly too even though I don’t usually play them!) have got to be good at keeping your brain nimble and engaged.

But let me give this a theological twist (this being the RJ after all).  If you thought about it long enough, you might see that a lot of this treads into the territory of so-called “games of chance” and in the past, there was great Christian wariness where such games were concerned.  This was partly behind the one-time ban in the Christian Reformed Church against playing card games.  Gin Rummy, Poker, Blackjack, etc. were frowned upon.  (Though somehow eventually a game named Rook was baptized as being oddly okay).  Were we temping fate by playing random games of chance?  Were we putting a highly sovereign God through too many providential paces in keeping up with determining the outcome of every single hand that was played?  Or was playing such games tacitly acknowledging something Reformed folks in the Calvinist tradition were loathe to acknowledge; viz., there seems to be a decent amount of randomness built into the world.

Indeed, does some of our larger theology mean we must believe that in God’s hyper sovereign providence my success or lack of success in Spelling Bee, Wordle, or Connections every day was pre-ordained before the foundation of the world?  Or might it be the case—as quantum physics has been suggesting for the last century or so—that a degree or randomness is part of the fabric of the cosmos?  Is so-called “chaos theory” correct that with everything affecting everything else (think “Butterfly Effect”) many outcomes are neither predictable nor certainly foreordained?  Can Christians believe God has allowed what maybe we could call “controlled randomness” such that our every card game and word game, every shuffle of the card deck, is not something God is wasting his efforts on by tinkering with the works?

Let’s be clear: I am a Reformed Christian in the Calvinist lane and do share with John Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession a robust doctrine of providence.  I don’t think God can be blindsided nor is there any situation in which God could not intervene even if God so desired.  What’s more, even if quantum physics is right about a degree of randomness in the cosmos, God really does have the whole world in his hands and can and does shape all events and outcomes in ways that will make God’s ultimate plans for the creation come to fruition.

All true.  But I worry sometimes what we do to God’s larger purposes and to the majesty of God when we say every Wordle success, every Connections win, every close-to-the-door parking space we find is “a God thing.”  We don’t need to make our every card game or word game out to be some grand achievement of divine providence in order to keep God in Christ in charge as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Or so it seems to me just now.  Hopefully you won’t think that in framing things this way that I am–what’s the phrase?–“taking a chance.”

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • mstair says:

    The prayer we Believers are supposed to use daily in request for our “bread” also says, “Your Will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”
    After we do ask that, shouldn’t we expect that our day – as it plays out – IS all God The Father’s Will?
    And those who never use that prayer… is that where random chaos theory comes into play…?
    … things that make you go…”hmmmm”…

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I would be careful on this. This might be a confessional violation. Answer 27 of the Catechism says “all things come to us not by chance.” In the original manuscript of Ursinus’s Commentary (which unfortunately is lost to us) he specifically includes under “all things” these items: “crossword puzzles and online word games.” That language was removed by the friends of the Elector for the publication of the book, but the original language is inerrant.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I was just about to write about the potential difference between primary and secondary actions and the fun possibilities of God’s providence in all the possible worlds, such that the providence of God is no less binding, of course, then God’s providence must provide for difference and change, since the many possible world’s theory exists because of the infinite number of changes that are possible. Thank God, you reminded me of Ursinus’s commentary. I might have stepped out of the realm of confessional status

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        I keep switching between potential universes myself. In the one I’m in right now Princip’s bullet missed the Archduke and we never went to war and we’re now preparing for the Eighth Internationale next week in Rome. I’m flying TWA.

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        May I recommend Stanislaw Lem’s great novel, The Chain of Chance

  • John K says:

    LOL Daniel!

  • T says:

    God rolls w the punches of human agency, I think how it was put in one of my classes.

  • Terry Woodnorth says:

    Spelling Bee, Wordle, Connections and The Mini Crossword are part of my daily regimen of online word games from the New York Times.

  • Kay Hoitenga says:

    Interesting to think back to the days when we CRC people were not supposed to play cards. My father, being a pastor loved playing Rook. But we only played it when on family vacations and far from Congregational eyes. Per chance some one would be offended if he or she knew.

  • Laura de Jong says:

    According to Ryan Struyk’s research, subsequent synods reversed the 1928 prohibition of dancing and movie attendance, but to date the CRC has not yet changed its official position on card playing. That’s a whole lot of people in line for church discipline…

  • Dan Walcott says:

    I have met many a CRC person who insists every thing is foreordained by God, but not the final score of a Calvin Hope basketball game, that is usually tied to good or bad coaching. I always love the line in the Belgic that says something like “there is nothing that was not planned by God…..but that does not include sin, however.” I think “nothing” must include everything or it is not nothing.

  • Joel Slenk says:

    The “God thing” about Wordle for me is that it provides a natural conversation starter each time I call my 90-year-old parents. Once we have each recalled our right or wrong assumptions on the days word, the conversation is well lubricated and we naturally move into deeper meaningful conversations.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Growing up Baptist (still in recovery, 40+ years fundy-free), I was given the impression that cards and dice used for gambling were evil, that chance was less the issue than the lost or ill-gotten money, and of course the evil associations (add dancing, movies, booze). I don’t see the issue with wordle or connections, other than employed cleverness and intelligence, any more than athletic success relying on physical training and good coaching strategy, any more than finding a good parking space relying on time-of-day and eagle-eye observation. All that aside, why does a Probability & Stats course give college students fits? An evil invention of mankind, or an undiscernible key to understanding God’s Providence?

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Oh Scott, everyone knows that there is a special squadron of angels assigned to helping righteous people find parking spaces! Granted, they are low-ranking angels, but still…

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