I was walking through the city centre yesterday on my way to the office when I saw an old man walk out of a bookmakers (betting office) in front of me. He was bent over, a bit unkempt looking and carrying a couple of shopping bags. He looked no different from any other Belfast pensioner who spent their day drifting round the pubs and bookies of the city.
I knew that particular bookies well from my gambling days. I had spent many a lunchtime in there studying the odds and watching the races. It is an entertainments business now with comfy seats, coffee machines and wide screen televisions. No longer are betting offices portrayed as dens of iniquity where the dregs of society gather to waste their ill gotten gains. Visiting a bookmakers now is on a par with going to the gym or the supermarket.
The new sparkling veneer, however, doesn’t hide the darker underbelly of the place. Men (for it is largely men) still fall prey to the bright lights and lure of the bookies, tempting them in to fritter away money that they can ill afford to lose. Whilst the buzz of a winner is hard to surpass, more commonly the experience is that of a losing bet and the gut wrenching awareness that your stake is gone forever; followed soon after by the overwhelming urge to ‘chase your losses’ and place another bet.
I have never met a poor bookmaker and the longer you spend in such an establishment the more likely it is that you will leave with less money than you entered with. You will lose and lose big. So I felt sorry for the old man as he shuffled down the street in front of me. From his modest attire he did not strike me as someone who could afford to lose what little money he probably had. He struck me as just another victim of the ravenous beast named addiction; down on his heels, down on his luck and probably down to his last few pennies.
Then something quite unexpected happened. The old man walked through the doors of the next building down the street; a church no less. I will never know why he crossed its threshold or how frequent a visitor he was. Was he praying for a sick friend or relative? Was he lonely and in need of a friendly face and and a comforting voice; or was he pleading for the Almighty God to whisper to him the winner of the 3:45 at Ascot?
What I did know was that this man had a faith. I did not know if it raged within him like a forest fire or was a flickering ember barely alight. But it was there. He believed. He believed that there was hope and that he had a future no matter how battered and bruised life had left him. I walked on with an added spring to my step, safe in the knowledge that God was at work in the life of this man. And confident that he was equally at work in mine.
Many men enter a bookmakers with everything (in financial terms at least) and leave with nothing; broken and adrift. They have gambled and they have lost. The same cannot be said of those who choose to follow Jesus. Instead they enter his House with nothing and leave with everything and more – eternal life. Why back a rank outsider when you can choose a racing certainty? Why gamble your soul away when the safest bet of your life is to give everything you have to Him?
Do you struggle with temptation?
What are you willing to gamble to secure happiness?