The Benefit of Rules – Playing a Confusing Game Called Mao


By Scott Riggan 

At a party a few years ago, I got roped into playing a bizarre card game called “Mao”. There are a lot of rules to this game, but the first rule is that, if you’ve never played before, no one can tell you the rules. You observe the game being played, and when it’s your turn, you try to guess how you should play your cards. If you guess right, that’s great. If not, you get penalized. 

Eventually you figure out, for example, that anytime a spade is played you have to say aloud “Queen of Spades” or “Five of Spades”, or that when an ace is played the next player is skipped. And anytime you mess up, the dealer penalizes you by giving you a card and telling you something like “you failed to clap three times after playing a red card…” This is how you learn what the rules are. I’m not making this up, I promise. 

It’s a game with crazy rules that you have to figure out and then remember – and with each hand there are new unspoken rules that you have to also somehow guess. Sound fun to you? 

Imagine what it would be like if life were “played” like a game of Mao. You’d know there’s a set of rules, but you’d have to try to figure them out as you go. Sometimes your guesses would be correct, sometimes not. Either way you’d have to face the consequences – because, after all, ignorance of the law is no excuse. 

A game like Mao reinforces, in my mind, how we benefit from clear rules. When we have boundaries, we don’t have to wonder or guess – we know how the game is played. If I know, for example, that it’s against the law to walk out of the convenience store without paying for the Snickers in my pocket, I don’t have a dilemma – I know stealing is wrong. 

In Romans chapter 7, the Apostle Paul declares that, through Christ, “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” 

Does this mean the law has no value to us? Paul continues: “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’.” (Romans 7:7) 

So there’s no denying that “law” has value. It defines what pleases and displeases God. But in Christ, I am under grace, not law; my standing with God doesn’t hinge on my ability to stay within the lines. 

So I think what it comes down to is this: 

  • Under the law, we were required to meticulously obey the rules, and offer sacrifices to “pay” for inevitable failures.
  • Under “the new way of the Spirit” our desire is to please God and, as a result, we want our lives to delight Him.

I won’t steal that Snickers. Not because the law restricts me, but because stealing and coveting displease God. I choose to obey out of love and gratitude, not out of fear of the consequence of lawbreaking. 

What a relief that following God isn’t like playing Mao – it’s not a guessing game, and what pleases Him is clearly revealed. 


Scott Riggan lives with his family on a small ranch in Emmett. He recorded a new album in 2021 titled “Beautiful and Terrible.” Go to for more information. 



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