Truth be told, I was addicted before any money left my wallet. I was never much of a risk taker but there was something that had always drawn me to a betting shop. Maybe it was the early memories of standing outside William Hill in Durham city centre, waiting for my granddad who’d just popped in, that drew me to it; a strange sort of nostalgia. I was hooked though, that’s for sure. In my deepest moments I could bet on pretty much anything. It didn’t matter whether I understood it; all I understood was that there was a chance of winning money and I wanted in. Football, rugby, horses, tennis, blackjack, roulette, fruit machines, and – on one occasion – curling. Sober or less than sober, whether I had change in my pocket or I’d nearly maxed my overdraft, I knew where I was going.
I was also in complete denial.
It was my mum who first noticed – as mothers often do. She would give me a little “Be careful” every now and then, and when I finally fessed up to losing over £800 on the 2014 World Cup and, in my pain, realised and said out loud for the first time that I was addicted, she simply said: “I know”. But that feeling of pain just did not override the experience, the adrenaline, and my inherent need and desire for money. I have, on occasion, blamed it on the lack of money I had growing up. A little story I made up to make myself feel better about my addiction was that, when I started earning and when my student loan came in, I just “didn’t know what to do with it”. But my nonchalance with money started much earlier than the first bet I ever placed on my 18th birthday. There was just something more that I was craving.
At this point it’s important to point out that I was raised Christian. This isn’t a “hit rock bottom but discovered Jesus” story; this is a “I knew full well who Jesus was and what the gospel meant for my life but just kept part of my life separate from Him” story. Not intentionally, it was just easier that way. What the church doesn’t know can’t hurt them, eh? And if the church doesn’t know – by default – Jesus doesn’t know, right? But it got too much to hide. In my second year I lived in my house rent free and with some very gracious housemates who bailed me out when I needed it. If it wasn’t for them, it could have been a lot worse. There were days when I didn’t eat just so that I could put a tenner in the machine and watch it all fade into nothing again.
In the later stages of uni I had a “gambling budget” that I would try to stick to. Of course, on the first day of that week it would all go, and I would borrow from next week’s budget to try and win it back. At my finest, I won £382 on a 14-fold-accumulator (14 separate football results with accumulated odds); at my worst I lost £350 in one night on blackjack. That other £32 went on food and cigarettes (an addiction I’d picked up before the one I’m talking about now). None of it went towards things I wanted – I never got to go away in the long summers of uni. I was stuck in a routine of working in pubs for long days and nights, and then gambling away my wages, all whilst maintaining at least an hour and a half of my Sunday to go and worship and pray that when I went back an hour or so later I would win back my money.
You know what, I think I’d still be there if it hadn’t been for a seemingly random occurrence. I’d love to say I worked to beat this addiction; just like I can tell you that I’ve fought through and beaten my addiction to nicotine. I’d even love to tell you that I had an image of 12 angels descending from heaven and lifting my addiction from the depths of my soul. But I didn’t.
In 2017 I moved to Manchester to do an Internship for Vinelife Church. A year of living off the goodwill of people and the grace of God’s timing. But, in all honesty, I got about six weeks into the internship and kind of just realised that I hadn’t gambled since I got there – three times as long as I’d ever gone without gambling since I started. I even think the conversation in my head at that point went something along the lines of:
Me: Sam, you’ve not placed a bet in six weeks!
Me: Oh, that’s cool, probably better not go and put one on from now on.
Me: Don’t worry, I won’t.
And you know what? I haven’t. I just stopped caring about it. As we speak, I am nearly two years free of it. There’s been the odd pang of temptation, but those feelings quickly pass.
This was not my doing. I tried. I’d tried on multiple occasions.
Any gambler will tell you that they don’t gamble to win. That might seem strange, but if you’ve done it, you’ll know. The feeling you get is the reason you start, the reason you carry on, and the reason that you struggle to stop. Without the feeling it would be pointless; you’d see your choking bank account and you would stop – logic would win. The reason it’s so dangerous is because it isn’t just a thing that you do, it’s something that takes over and becomes part of who you are. And what the enemy was using as the problem was also where I found my solution, my resolution, and my healing. As soon as I committed a year to God my identity switched its focus, and the person I am – the person I am in Christ – left no room for any other identities. When it happened, I was so focussed on my new, and true, identity that I didn’t even notice that the old one had gone.
REPENT literally means to turn away. So, when you repent of your sin it means there is a physical change in the direction you stand. That’s all I did. I changed the direction I was facing. Repentance looks different for everyone but there is one truth within it: the way that we beat sin is when we realise that we change our behaviour because of who we are, not so that we can avoid the consequences (both future and present) of that sin. Jesus faced temptation, but he didn’t succumb to it because he knew it was not part of his identity. As we become more like Him, and when we make a physical choice to turn towards Him, our real identity becomes so real that everything else just falls away. Our “yes” to God and who He call us to be is louder than any “no” we have to say elsewhere. This does not just apply to gambling; it applies to any addiction, and any temptation.
Whatever it is you might be struggling with, don’t give it up because you’re ashamed, poor, scared, stuck, lost, confused, broken, and lonely. Give it up because you aren’t those things anymore. Your true identity just does not have room for it.
Sam Parker is a recent graduate from Newcastle, and a gifted worship leader. After spending a year interning with Vinelife Manchester, he now works with vulnerable teenagers in the Greater Manchester area.