I don’t visit casinos so this report was news to me. I still thought the old mechanical win-or-lose-it-all models were in use. But computers and video displays have made things more interesting than that. Now you can win “just a little” based on different and multiple “lines” across the faces of the reels. And that has created a revolutionary change in the appeal of these games. Slots used to make only marginal contributions to casino revenue. Now it’s more like 85% of their income.
The casinos like to provide half-hidden little alcoves and corners where you won’t be interrupted or distracted while playing a slot machine. That helps keep you sitting in your comfortable seat. But the computer-programmed innovation that allows those “little wins” is what struck me. You bet a quarter and may win only a nickel but that will be packaged as “a win is a win!” Who needs to pay out a big prize when a tiny one will do? If they can make you lose more slowly, maybe you’ll stay longer (and lose more).
The way my mind works, my next question was, if this is the way God has made our brains to respond (to small, incremental rewards), does it explain anything about the spiritual learning curve we often experience? There are “big prizes” that are placed in front of us (Heaven, an eternal life of joy) but all we seem to see right now are much smaller prizes in our daily walk. Here, an answer to a prayer. There, a moment of joy from a praise song, or a delight in seeing a loved one succeed. Real moments, but short. Passing. They stir a desire to deepen my relationship with the Lord, helping to make me want to stick around for more.
I can see the same thing in Satan’s approach to temptations. Why bother to pay off on promises of longtime happiness if a moment’s thrill will serve? Who wants the obligations of commitment if a fleeting hook-up will do? Why work for an entire week when a few moments of shop-lifting, or emptying a store register, will pay the same? Why be shamed by the truth if a lie will set you free to go your way now?
It’s the system by which God tests us. If I’ll settle for the short-cut of a moment’s satisfaction, maybe I’ll not notice that I’ve lost my invitation to the really big reward that’s been promised. Maybe that will reveal where I think real treasure is to be found, the treasure that is shaping my heart.
I might reach the point where I don’t even think about the choice I’m making anymore. Habit takes over. The self-comforting choice “worked” last time. Why bother with difficult alternatives?
Pascal once suggested we are all given a choice of the wager we place. We can decide there is no spiritual reality and no tomorrow. In that case, bet the house on the pleasure of the moment. Or, we can bet that God is real and His promises true (though some remain unseen for the moment). Place the bet. If God is not real, you have lost nothing when tomorrow comes. If God is real, you win not only his blessings today but also in eternity. This pattern is what is being described in the concepts of Hope, Faith and Love. Hope consists of what is unseen. Faith, acting on the promises that have raised Hope in our heart, is what converts that unseen, intangible expectation into visible evidence that others can see in us. And what they see is the life of a servant, which is a life of love to others: the life of patience, of mercy, of generosity and self-sacrifice. It is the Christ-like life. And Christ in us is our hope of glory. What bet have I made? Where have I placed my faith?
The same day I was reading the slot machine article, the daily lectionary brought Matthew 18 to my attention. This is where Jesus gave instructions on how to carry out a correction for wrong-doing. First, go one-on-one. If the person chooses not to repent, take two or three witnesses and speak it again. This is still a matter of spoken words. If this call is still ignored, Jesus said to take the matter before the Church (even more witnesses). After that, you stop talking. You sever fellowship. And it is that fellowship, that family relationship, that is the big prize lost. But the choice, each time, is left up to the person. It’s called Free Will. It startled me that God was willing to carry out the process so gently, with mere conversation.
It’s so gentle and small I might not realize how serious it is. It’s not the sort of process that might be valued at first, the seed seems so small. The prize I have in hand may seem more real and not like a loss at all. It may seem easier, and good enough, for now. It’s not hard to place my faith in what I can see. It may have become a habit that takes too much effort to change.
For awhile, it can seem so painless to be on that wide road with my fellow losers.