When I saw my first hand of poker on television, outside of a Western movie, I couldn’t understand what was so interesting about watching other people play cards. But after watching a few hands of Texas Hold’em, I began to be seduced by the drama of each flip of the card. I was intrigued by the strategy of the players and their ability to maintain poker faces and mislead their opponents by betting on worthless hands. I began to see how easily one can be pulled into a gambling world.
While entertaining, these shows are seductively dangerous. They show only matches where people win money. Even the losers walk away from the table with lots of money. They never show the young college student who has managed to tap into his college fund and honestly believes that the next $1000 tournament he enters will make him into an instant celebrity and a rich person. They never show the father who squanders the family’s savings because he’s become addicted to high stakes card games.
Like many things in this world that look innocent, this one is encumbered with dangers. In an Associated Press article on teenage gambling, Ed Looney, head of the New Jersey Gambling Council on Compulsive Gambling, stated that fifteen percent of all teenagers who play poker will develop some gambling problems and five percent will become addicted. When betting is involved, it’s not an innocent game.i
With this as a disclaimer, I want to use one of poker’s most exciting bets to illustrate the kind of life that the Lord wants us to live. You can learn something from everything, even from a game of poker.
As a player looks at his cards during a hand of poker to make some determination on how many of his chips to bet, he may decide to bet them all, at which time all the chips are pushed to the middle of the table and the player says, “I’m all-in.”
If the player who is “all-in” wins the hand, he plays on. If he loses, the game is over, as he has no more chips with which to play.
Christians worship a God who wants us to play our hand in life with this kind of abandonment. God wants us to live with an “all-in” attitude. The great temptation is to play our hand much closer to the vest. Often, we want to place only a few of our chips on the line for God and hold a large number back to place in other areas of life.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your mind and with ALL your strength” (Mark 12:30; emphasis added).
Once a man came up to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus quoted several of the Ten Commandments to him. The man told Jesus he’d kept them since he was young. Jesus then told him to go sell all of his possessions and give to the poor and then he would have treasure in heaven. After that, he could be His disciple.
Jesus wanted the man to be “all-in.” He wanted the man to put all of his chips in the center of God’s will. Jesus knew a poker face when he saw one. Although the man said he’d been keeping all the commandments, Jesus called his hand. When the young man heard Jesus’ call, he folded. He walked away “because he had great wealth” (Matt. 19:22). He wanted to keep all his chips.
Contrast this story with one Mark tells in his gospel. Jesus and His disciples went to the temple where they watched the crowd bring their money and place it in the temple treasury. When the copper coins hit the collection boxes, they made lots of noise. It wasn’t much of a secret which worshipers gave large sums of money and which ones didn’t. However, no one could know who really gave sacrificially, except for Jesus.
When a widow came and dropped two small copper coins in the treasury, worth only a fraction of a penny, Jesus pointed her out to His disciples: “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything“ all she had to live on (Mark 12:43-44).
This woman was “all-in.” She had cast her lot totally with God, depending totally and completely upon God to take care of her and supply her needs.
Jesus knelt down in the garden of Gethsemane. Falling with His face to the ground, He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
Jesus was faced with the brutality of the cross. It was not the hand He wanted to play. God had dealt Him a king to be sure. But this king came with a crown of thorns. It was a great temptation for Jesus to fold.
Nearby, His disciples slept. Among them was a disciple named Peter, a well-meaning disciple who loved Jesus. Jesus had predicted the hand he would play that very night. It would be a hand most poker players would die for, three of a kind. That’s exactly what Peter told Jesus He’d do, die for Him. Yet the three of a kind came in three separate denials; three times he’d deny he knew Jesus.
While Jesus rebuffed Satan’s temptation to call twelve legions of angels to rescue Him from the hands of the Roman soldiers, Peter was drawing three of a kind on the flop. While Jesus made a commitment in the Garden of Gethsemane to be “all-in” for the sake of all humanity, Peter was hearing the rooster crow by the time the River card was laid down. The waters that flowed from this card were the bitter tears of a man with a broken heart who knew he’d forsaken his best friend.
Life is filled with choices. We all take risks of one kind or another. But every person who chooses not to go “all-in” for Jesus takes a huge gamble, although many are blind to it. Many who have acquired fame, prestige, money, assets, a great name, and the pleasures of this world, without going “all-in” for Jesus, see no benefit in laying all they have on the line for the Lord. They seem to have done quite well for themselves without His help. So they feel quite smug in holding onto their pile of chips, not realizing the risk they are taking.
Like the young man who wanted eternal life but not at the expense of giving up his earthly wealth, many people look for a religion that will allow them to play their hands on their own terms. So the bets are off when it comes to going “all-in.”
To people who have such a philosophy of life, Jesus has some sobering words:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26).
Peter wandered in a wilderness for several days. The burden upon him was heavy. Thankfully, he didn’t end his life in despair like Judas.
Judas played his hand just as he wanted. He traded a king for thirty pieces of silver. The only problem was that once Judas had his money and the Romans had the king (Jesus), Judas was overcome with guilt and the realization that he’d made the wrong call. The guilt and despair became so great that he took his own life.
Redemption came for Peter after the resurrection of Jesus. Peter met Jesus by the Sea of Galilee. On three occasions Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. Translation: “Peter, are you going to go “all-in” for me with the rest of your life? If so, then take care of my sheep; that is, put your life in the middle of the needs of the people just as I have.” Peter made that commitment.
When we do that, don’t we stand to lose a lot? Yes. Jesus lost His life. James, Jesus’ disciple, lost his. Outside biblical accounts indicate that most, if not all, of the other disciples lost their lives. It’s reported that Peter was crucified upside down, believing that he was unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.
In many ways, we are supposed to lose our lives, too. We don’t become martyrs, though a few might, but we are supposed to give up control of our lives to God, doing as God asks, going where God sends, and giving as God directs.
The great irony is this: the degree to which we decide to go “all-in” for Jesus is the degree of freedom we will discover. Those who decide to go “all-in” for the Lord learn that such a decision is really no gamble at all. It’s a sure thing. Every person who’s ever gone “all-in” has discovered this freedom, found the purpose of living, and received the gifts of abundant and eternal life.
This is not to say that life becomes easy. Jesus’ life and the life of the disciples counter that suggestion. It is to say that life becomes meaningful. It is to say that life becomes purposeful and fruitful.
The great gamble is for those who really make no gamble at all, but play their hand close to the vest, holding back, afraid to go “all-in” for Jesus for a variety of reasons. We create our own wildernesses this way.
Are there any areas of your life that you keep holding back for yourself? Are you willing to push all your life into the middle of God’s kingdom and say, “Lord, I’m all in?
Larry McShane, Poker Boom is Picking Up a Much Younger Crowd, Katu.com, June 23, 2008, http://www.katu.com/entertainment/3626586.html.