It was my first trip to a Casino. My friends and I had just turned 18, and in the ignorance and foolishness of youth, we were all eager to try those things that you had to be 18 to do…like legally gambling at a real casino. We drove out to the reservation with ten dollars in each of our pockets and the naïve hope that we could win big in each of our hearts. We decided that ten dollars was all we were spending and no matter what, once we were out, we were done.
Needless to say, we learned a valuable lesson that night: 10 dollars doesn’t last long in a casino. Within a few minutes of scattering to the different traps the casino had to offer, we were back together minus both our money and our delusional hope for quick cash. We did have fun though. Likening it to spending 10 dollars at a movie theater, we decided it wasn’t a waste of money…so we went back a few weeks later.
My second time at the casino was a very different experience. We all returned with the same plan, same ten dollars, and the same vain hope. But this time I didn’t come away excited to go back.
Perhaps because of the novelty the first time, I hadn’t really observed my surroundings. But as I walked around the quarter slots, and the dollar blackjack tables, I couldn’t help but notice the tired and desperate eyes surrounding me.
I noticed the old women in cheap clothing putting quarter after quarter into slot machines with no reward. I saw broken, zombie-like men in ragged suits at the black jack table doubling down on money they couldn’t afford to lose; their only sign of life being that greedy gleam in the corner of their eyes driving them to bet again.
When I left that night (losing my ten bucks again), I felt the mixture of pity and anger common to witnessing injustice and exploitation. My views of casinos certainly changed. Sure, no one is holding a gun to these people’s head forcing them to come in and part with their money. Yet there is no doubt that casinos promote the myth that all worries can be gone with one roll of the die, one pull of the arm on the slot machine, or one flip of the right card.
In the end, the only people truly getting rich at casinos are the casinos. It’s true what they say, “The house always wins”…and it made me very sad and angry to witness it.
After reading a recent article in the New York Times, I had the same feeling. The article, entitled “Believers Investing in the Gospel of Getting Rich”, was about the Southwest Believer’s Convention in Fort Worth, TX. Started by Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, the Southwest Believer’s Convention preaches the gospel of prosperity. If you sow the seed of your hard earned money in this well-dressed servant’s ministry, and have enough faith, God will give you an abundant harvest – more than you can ask or think. If you invest enough in this preacher’s vision, someday you can enjoy the cruises to Alaska, vacations to Hawaii, and a mansion like this servant of God. Who knows? God may even throw in a giant vault of money that you can go swimming in every morning – just like Scrooge McDuck. The prosperity gospel is a theology that turns God’s blessing into the winning number on the roulette wheel and Jesus into a pit boss.
The article mentioned numerous individuals, some in debt upwards of $100,000 who travelled 1000 of miles to take their chances at this Christian Casino. While they were there they dropped tons of their money into the spiritual slot machine of prosperity preaching. Among the needs that these thousands of desperate followers were investing in was a Lear Jet for the preacher’s ministry and big, new HD flat screen televisions for their offices – because if we’ve learned anything from the Apostle Paul it’s that we need Lear Jets and flat screen TV’s to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
After reading the article, I was tempted to drive down I-30 and shake every single person there asking them, “What are you thinking?!?!?!”
I didn’t. But I really wanted to.
It’s tempting to go off in anger about this, but I have to refrain. We live in a free country. People are free to delude others and even free to be deluded. And even though this kind of spiritual injustice and exploitation is easy to spot I’m hesitant to coldly come down harshly on the people who get sucked into it. That’s because of the subtle way I frequently fall into the same trap.
It should come as no surprise that the economy is in a recession right now. Although my wife, Lauren, and I haven’t lost money in the same way others have, we have nonetheless seen the results of the bleak economy on our own finances. I can’t tell you how many times my prayers have gone something like, “God if only Lauren or I could have a better job, or if only my hourly wage could be a bit higher, then we could really serve you more effectively. Am I not tithing enough? Didn’t you promise your blessings on those who follow you?”
Much to my shame, I have said those things to God. And in the process, I realize that I’m doing the same thing people at this convention were doing as they walked up to the altar and laid down what little money they had. I wasn’t looking for God’s blessing, I was longing for God’s jackpot.
In John 4, Jesus meets a woman from Samaria at a well. After asking for a drink he tells her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) I imagine the Samaritan woman’s desperate eyes light up. Thoughts of never making the tiring trek to the well or lugging the heavy water pots on her shoulder race through her mind. She starts to salivate for the liquid payola she sees in the man sitting next to her. I can’t help but see myself in that same situation leaning into Jesus pleading, “Give me this water so I won’t be thirsty anymore!”
In the end, Jesus doesn’t give her any water; he gives her himself.
In this we find the deception of the prosperity preaching that distills God’s blessing down to a crap shoot. We find the folly in asking God for a better job, or a repaired economy, or good looks, or food that always fills, or water that always satisfies. God, indeed, wants to bless us; to give us an abundant life and living water so we never thirst again. He just doesn’t give it to us the way we expect it. He gives us himself.
While processing all of this I can’t help but feel that the loss of net worth, the imploded stock markets, the unemployment, and the quiet desperation creeping into our souls is, in fact, God’s blessing on America. It’s his way of coming down and gracefully shaking us into seeing how blessed we’ve been all along. He’s saying, “I’m not actually talking about real water, or bread, or riches. I’m talking about myself. And I’m willing to diminish your access to those things to help you find me, know me and enjoy the truly abundantly life I have to offer.”
The problem with casinos is the same thing that’s wrong with the health and wealth gospel. They both assume that our lives will be better if we just have more money and creature comforts. But in the end, “the house” – hose people controlling and peddling all these promises – are the only ones who really win.
With Christ it’s different. The Bible says we have been built into Him, that our blessings spring from being part of the structure of the kingdom of God – with Christ as the cornerstone. (1 Peter 2:4-7; Ephesians 2:19-22) Instead of the house of God exploiting those that visit, God wants to build us into his house, giving us the richest blessing of all…himself. We believers are the house! And as I ponder the truth of all the riches I have in Christ, I can’t help but grin and think, the house really does always win.