Slot Machine Christianity

This article was written by Mike Emlet and published by CCEF


I’m not sure I fully understand the appeal of slot machines. Drop a couple of quarters into the slot, pull the lever, and see what happens. Repeat. Do it again and again. If I were to gamble (which I’m not recommending), I would gravitate toward the games that at least have some skill involved, like blackjack or poker, rather than a game that relies completely on chance. And yet, there is a certain appeal, I guess, toward spending money with the hope that there might indeed be a big payoff or at least some return for our “investment.”

Too often we approach the Christian life, relationships, and ministry with similar expectations. We assume that if we put in enough time, effort, and faithful service—enough quarters in the slot—in the end it will turn out well for us. The payoff will come—and even in this life. But surely, we don’t think that way, do we? We who are heirs of the Reformation and its recovery of the doctrines of grace? Don’t be so sure. Consider, in your most honest moments, whether you’ve ever thought this way or had these expectations:

  • If I raise my children in the “fear and admonition of the Lord” they will follow Christ and carry on a Christian legacy for another generation.
  • If I live a chaste single life, pursuing God with all my heart, he will provide a spouse for me.
  • If I follow Christ, surely I’ll be spared the worst tragedies (we expect suffering but not too much suffering).
  • If I preach the gospel faithfully, people will come to Christ and the church will grow.

This is not likely to be our “confessional” theology but it may well be our latent, operating theology. Such a mindset reveals a subtle “health and wealth” pseudo-gospel whispering lies in our ear. Without realizing it, we can become captive to the lie.

Not convinced yet? How do we know this mindset is operative in our lives even if only in the subterranean places of our hearts? It shows up in at least two ways. First, by our response when the payoff doesn’t come. We are surprised by suffering. We are thrown when things don’t go as we anticipated and the hidden treasure of our heart is suddenly revealed (Matt 6:21).

  • We descend into depression and self-pity when, despite our best efforts, we get Cs rather than As, ensuring we will not go to medical school.
  • We say to our wayward child, “After all that we’ve done for you, this is how you repay us?!”
  • We stop going to church because the so-called “abundant life” hasn’t materialized.
  • We say, along with Saint Theresa of Avila, after she was thrown from her horse into the mud on her way to a convent, “If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord, it’s no wonder you have so few!”

Second, this mentality is revealed when we realize that we failed to put enough quarters into the slot. We weren’t consistent in the discipline of our children. We have unresolved conflicts and unreconciled relationships. We squandered time online, trading the flesh and blood people in our household for blue light images. Fear kept us from accepting the promotion. What results?

  • We think, “If only I had spent more time reading the Bible with my children they would be walking with the Lord.”
  • We replay earlier decisions and visualize how much better life would be if we had chosen differently.
  • Even if there’s not a big-ticket failure, we ransack our lives in anxiety and despair, searching for the “cause” for our hardships.
  • We redouble our efforts in the hope of changing the course of things—or we give up because it feels too late, too much water under the bridge.

Both responses—“Hey God, you owe me; I’ve been faithful” or “Of course I’m being punished for my failures” reveal a graceless, merit-based, hammer-of-the-law, quid pro quo arrangement with the God of the universe. Both mindsets move us away from our gracious, generous heavenly Father.

So how do we turn from slot machine Christianity? How do we move away from this transactional, non-relational, A + B = C mentality in our Christian lives?

It’s a lifelong process but we start by recognizing that all of life is a gift from the Lord, even the “quarters” we use. It’s not our money to begin with. We’re not trying to earn God’s favor by drumming up faithful obedience. All is of grace, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–10,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Our faithful obedience doesn’t earn us merits and our unfaithfulness doesn’t earn us demerits. We are held by God. And with this, we realize that he is not stingy. Though we might still struggle to understand the mysteries of his dark providences in the midst of suffering, he has given us Jesus, the greatest gift of all, so surely he will not withhold what we truly need (Rom 8:32).

We pray to come to grips with the fact that the Christian life is a path marked by hardship and loss, no less than it was for Jesus. We are united with him in both his sufferings and his glory (Rom 8:16–18; Phil 3:10–11; 1 Pet 4:12–13). We should expect both on our journey with him as well (Rom 8:18–24; 2 Cor 4:16–17). It is in the moments of pain and confusion when we feel most disconnected from his love, that we are actually most dearly embraced by the Man of Sorrows.

And remember, we have already won the jackpot even if we haven’t yet received it in its fullness. Peter puts it this way:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials. (1 Pet 1:3–6)

The guarantor of this inheritance is the Holy Spirit, through whom God’s love is poured out and who gives us hope in the midst of our sufferings (Eph 1:3–11; Rom 5:1–5).

This Christ-centered hope grounds us and keeps us from drifting into the lie that our own efforts will result in a reward for success—or punishment for failure. Jesus has already borne our punishment and he gives us his very life. That’s not a gamble, but a sure thing. So, believer in Christ, jettison the slot machine mentality and embrace your winnings through him—eternal riches that you partake of even now as you face the hardships and griefs of life in him and with him.

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