A Gambling Addict's Path to Redemption

Opening his late father’s Bible helped him to find God and reclaim his life

Posted in , Mar 31, 2022

John Simmons holds his father’s Bible; photo by Whitney Curtis

This is what the end stage of a gambling addiction looks like.

I was alone in a tiny apart­ment in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. On TV, the football team I had bet on was about to lose. Not even the point spread was going to save me. That bet was the last of my money. I was broke.

The apartment was bare except for a couch, a bed, the TV and a bookshelf with some books about gambling and a black leather Bible I’d never opened. I’d sold or pawned everything else.

The air reeked of cigarettes. I was 29 years old. I’d been gambling since high school. Believe it or not, I worked at a casino, dealing poker.

I’d been through countless rehabs. Declared bankruptcy. Alienated fam­ily and friends. Even put my dog in the pound once so I could go to an out-of-state casino. (I ran out of gas on that trip, bounced a check to fill the tank, then borrowed money to get the dog out of the pound.)

I had nothing. I felt like nothing.

I went into the bedroom and sat on the bed. A believing person would pray at a time like this, but I had not prayed for nearly two decades. Not since my dad had died of a heart attack when I was 12 years old. I’d thought of myself as a good kid up till then. I even went to church, though mostly for the youth group. I blamed God for Dad’s death and turned my back on religion.

Now all I wanted was to close my eyes and never wake up. I thought about taking all the pills in the apart­ment. Crashing my car into a wall at high speed.

“God, if you’re real, show me a fu­ture I can hope for,” I said to the ceil­ing. I did not expect an answer.

Dad had served in the Air Force dur­ing the Vietnam War. Like a lot of vets, he never talked about that experience and had difficulty showing emotion.

Work kept him away from home a lot. On weekends, he’d disappear for hours into the basement, the man cave where he worked on projects.

When I was 12, Dad decided to run for local government. All of a sudden, he was home every day. My brother and sister and I helped with his campaign, go­ing door to door and putting up signs around town.

It was more time than I’d ever spent with Dad, and I loved it. I even wrote him a letter telling him how much I loved him and how proud of him I was. When he read that letter, a look came over his face I’d never seen be­fore. He gave me a big hug. What an amazing feeling!

One morning a few weeks later, I woke up late for school. I raced out of my room. The house was full of rela­tives. Everyone looked devastated.

“We lost your dad last night,” Mom said in a broken voice.

There had been a big rainstorm, and Dad had been in the basement trying to stop some flooding. He’d had a heart attack and died. He was a smoker but otherwise in good health. Now he was gone.

Kids are literal-minded. The night before, I had asked God to give me a day off school because I was late with a big homework assignment. Was this God’s terrifying way of answering my prayer? Of punishing me for being selfish? How could I believe in a God like that or ever trust him?

Mom did her best, but she strug­gled. I felt lost. Mom gave me Dad’s watch, the contents of his wallet and a black leather-bound Bible.

“This Bible was your father’s,” she said. “He got it when he was stationed at a base overseas. It meant a lot to him. He’d want you to have it.

My dad read the Bible? Neither of my parents went to church. I’d started going only because my grandmother took me. Maybe faith was like a lot of things in Dad’s life—private.

I didn’t care. I’d already made up my mind about God. I stuck the Bible in my room and forgot about it.

Mom remarried when I was in high school and moved to a new town. I stayed behind to finish school under the care of my brother, who was nine years older.

My brother and his friends liked playing online poker. They invited me to join. The games were just for fun, low stakes.

Not for me. I was hooked after the very first game. Win or lose, I had to keep playing.

Card sharks on TV make poker look like a glamorous game of skill. Really, it’s like other forms of gambling. Even the best players lose big sometimes, and a lot depends on blind luck.

I got sucked in by the card shark part. After a couple wins, I saw myself striking it rich and impressing every­one with my cool.

Addicts love shortcuts. The world felt unpredictable and scary after Dad died. Playing poker simplified every­thing and gave me a false sense of fo­cus. Staring at a hand of cards, I felt calm and in control. I was one big win away from solving all my problems.

I never got that big win, even after landing a job at a casino. The gambling industry makes money by taking ad­vantage of willing fools like me.

By the time I was 22, I had burned through $100,000, much of it bor­rowed. I declared bankruptcy and started a cycle: Gamble, lose every­thing, own up to it, go to rehab, re­lapse, repeat.

I never quit my casino job. Why would I? The pay was great, and I could plow every paycheck back into poker or sports betting.

My brother gave up on me. My mom despaired. My life became a nonstop scramble to borrow money from someone to pay back someone else who’d lent me money for rent so I could avoid getting evicted. I lied. Manipulated. Schemed. Lied some more.

Finally the whole thing came crash­ing down, and I was sitting there in my apartment bedroom, broke, filled with self-loathing, wondering wheth­er I should kill myself.

I spoke my hopeless prayer to the ceiling and hung my head. Which was it going to be? Pills? Or a car crash?

“The kingdom of heaven is upon you,” said a voice.

I looked around. Who said that? The voice spoke again. I realized it was coming from inside me.

I jumped up. Was I going insane? I ran into the living room. At once my eyes were drawn to the bookshelf. Lying next to the books about gam­bling was that black leather Bible.

My father’s Bible. I had hung onto it all these years but had no idea why. It’s not as if I ever read it. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. It just kind of stuck to me.

I grabbed the Bible, sat down and opened it. The pages parted at the be­ginning of the Gospel of Matthew. I noticed writing in the margins. Dad’s handwriting. Cross-references. Un­derlined passages. I flipped around. Notes were everywhere.

Dad really had used this Bible. Had faith been more important to him than he’d let on? Trust this book, the notes seemed to be telling me.

I read through the confusing gene­alogy at the beginning of Matthew, followed by the account of Jesus’ birth and his baptism in the River Jordan.

Then I came to the first words Je­sus speaks at the start of his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is upon you.”

I froze. Those were the words I had just heard.

I raced through the Gospel of Mat­thew, slowing down only for the ago­nizing scene of the Crucifixion and the joy of the Resurrection. A warm feeling spread through my body, like a wave. I knew without a doubt that God was real and present in the words of this book I was holding.

I got down on my knees. “Please for­give me, Jesus,” I said. “Save me. I give my whole self to you.”

It’s a cliché to say a weight lifts when you pray, but that’s exactly what hap­pened. The despair, helplessness and shame that had been crushing me for 17 years vanished. I felt an unfamiliar feeling: hope.

A gambling addiction that has tak­en such deep root in a person’s life doesn’t vanish overnight. It was six months before I placed my last bet. Another two months before I quit my casino job.

Right before I left that job, I heard from God again. Very distinctly I heard him tell me that he wanted me to stop working at the casino to do something else—start an online ministry that helps people share their own stories of redemption.

That’s what I did. I could write a whole separate story of how God helped me do that. Togeth­er with a friend from the church I’d begun attending, I launched Testimo­ny House, which continues to this day.

When I told my casino coworkers that I had been saved and was plan­ning to give up gambling, start a min­istry, get married and have kids, they all laughed.

“John, you’re a broke loser and a de­generate gambler,” they said. “You’ll never change. No woman would ever marry you.”

Three weeks later, while working on my ministry, I met Megan through a friend at church. She and I married the following year, and today we have four children.

I still have Dad’s Bible, and I look in it whenever I need to feel close to him. I don’t know why Dad didn’t share his faith with me when he was alive, but that’s okay. I give thanks for that Bible, which waited patiently on my bookshelf until God knew I was ready to read it. When my very life de­pended on it.

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