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Gambling on God

“It was a small tiny poker room; they might've had three or four tables. And it was like dingy and guys are smoking. It looks just like the old-time movies.”  John Simmons still remembers the first time he walked into a casino.  It was on a trip to Vegas for his 21st birthday. He recalls, “The guys at the table got their sunglasses on and they're bluffing each other and It’s just filling me up with all this joy and I’m like, ‘I love this’. That was really the inception of when I decided to really pursue trying to make poker something more than just a uh fun thing, I did with friends sometimes.”

Back home in St. Louis, John soon became a regular at local casinos. He says, “There’s no better feeling than putting in a wad of money in your pocket knowing that you didn’t do anything really to earn it. And there's a lot of joy and a lot of adrenaline that pokes up in your heart and it draws you back because the feeling of chasing that moment is intense.”

Gambling also filled a deeper need. John says, “Gambling gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me a sense of identity in the fact that I would be a person who could be seen by others as like, ‘Oh, that guy's a multimillionaire and all he does is play poker. He must be so good at it’.” Driven to become a respected poker player, John got a job at a casino as a card dealer.  He made good money and was learning more about the game. He recalls, “If I wasn't working, I was playing. If I wasn't playing, I was sleeping. If I wasn't sleeping, I was working. I wanted to be around this thing that I loved.”

But lady luck was rarely on his side. After three years at the poker table, John was over two hundred thousand dollars in debt and had to declare bankruptcy. He says, “In my mind, it wasn't that I was failing, it's - I just needed to keep going and I just needed to figure out how to fix it. If I could only win the next thing, none of these losses matter.” He still had some debt after the bankruptcy, so john started working extra hours desperately trying to pay it off. But again, he dumped his money into gambling. John recalls, “I would spend my entire paycheck over the course of a weekend trying to chase my debts. But a lot of times I would leave with $0 in my pocket.  My mind would start to beat myself up. ‘Why'd you do that? You owe this money. You should have just paid this guy. Now you're in it so much worse.’ It was just such a terrible way to live. I couldn’t stop though.”

Hoping for a big score and chasing the illusion it was the answer to his problems, John kept betting. He recalls, “I just always thought, ‘If all I did was win, if I just win one tournament, if I win this million dollars, no one will be mad at me anymore. I'll be the person that people envy my life’.” For a second time, John was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Now, almost 30, he decided to take an honest look at his life. He says, “I finally had a realization that everything that I tried to do wasn't working and maybe I'm the problem. And so, I decided that I was going to go to rehab for the first time on my own will.”

John started attending group therapy for those with a gambling addiction.  But even after staying clean for 90 days, he still felt the burning desire to gamble.  He asked his sponsor about it, who gave an answer that left John stunned. He recalls, “He said that, ‘You're never going to be fixed. You're just going to have to learn to live a day at a time or 15 minutes at a time.’ And I remember thinking, ‘That's not the life I want. You’re supposed to fix me. You’re not gonna fix me?’ If I can't get fixed, what's the point of doing any of it?” With all hope gone, John went on an eight-day bender; pawning all his possessions and gambling away every last cent. John recalls, “I’m contemplating all these suicidal thoughts, and I’m just thinking back to my life that I’ve lived and nothing I’ve ever done has been worth anything. And that was very heartbreaking to me, that realization in that moment.”

As a last resort, John turned to God.

He remembers, “I didn’t even know who Jesus was then, You know? And I said, ‘God, if you’re real, I need you to show me a future and a hope for my life because I just don't have one anymore.’ I heard this voice in my head and it said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is upon you.’ That meant nothing to me. I didn’t understand those words in any way, shape, or form.” He found a Bible and started reading about Jesus in the book of Matthew. “In Matthew 3 and 2 it says, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is upon you.’ And I just froze there. I was like, ‘God is real. He's talking to me.’ I was just like, "God, I've messed up. I've done bad things and I don't want to do these things anymore and I need your help, and I need you to forgive me.”

In those moments, John committed his life to Jesus Christ. He remembers, “I remember the feeling of just the weight.  I mean, it was so heavy on my shoulders and probably been there my whole life of-of just having that be released from me. It was the first time that I felt significant, really significant. I felt like I was important. I hadn’t felt important in a long time and reading the words of Jesus, that He died for me, it made me feel so important. I was like, “if this guy’s willing to do this for me, I’m willing to live for Him.”

In the coming months, John read his Bible and listened to sermons as often as he could. As he drew closer to God, his desire to gamble faded, until. He recalls, “God erased it. And eventually, it wasn't something that I did. It was God just saying, ‘Okay, I'm going to take this off you. You know, you're - you don't want it anymore. I see that you don't want it and now it’s gone’.”

John was able to pay off his gambling debts within a couple years. Today he has a growing family and he helps other people through his weekly radio program and podcasts. And John is quick to share that he knows he’s a winner because he’s loved by God. John says, “I remember getting called a loser to my face on several occasions and having someone like Jesus in my life today, it’s like truly being accepted by someone with all your warts and all your struggles and all your pain and all your bad mistakes, and saying, ‘you know what? I still died for you. I still love you. I still care for you. You are important and significant to me. Because I’d never felt important.’ God can change everything.”

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