Richard Carstone in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is a quintessential gambler. A promising young man who holds the heart of a lovely young lady, who is supported by a wealthy benefactor, and who is surrounded by well wishers, he is only in need of a bit of steady application. But in this he fails because he is enamored by the allure of an inheritance–one which he is neither promised nor likely to receive. Yet, in the very fact that it has failed so many before him, he thinks it must soon benefit someone, and that that someone may as well be himself.
He does not roll dice or play cards, but like others, Richard becomes entangled in a belief that providence has him singled out for this happiness. But providence is not simply what happens to a man–it is how he receives what he has been given.
As John Paul II put it, man is a creature uniquely made to participate in his own providence. We do not merely passively receive the good in store for us, but discover and develop that good through prudence, virtue, and gratitude. The gambler looks not to wisdom, to perseverance, or to faithful practice, but rather to the chance outcome of the day. And in this he is ultimately disappointed.
What is it to be a gambler?
The gambler is a familiar character in 19th century literature. Perhaps this has something to do with the way in which industry and politics during the period were rising up like terrible social machines, overwhelmed the individual, threatening to swallow up all that was human. To gamble is to seek to rediscover the individual, the personal, thus to revolt against a world of indifference.
To gamble is not simply to sit in a casino, it is to set one’s hopes upon a chance, to believe that a gift is owed, that the universe or God is obligated to make this dream a reality. (How many people today think of their careers or lives like this!)
It is not simply to want an easy solution to money problems (who doesn’t long for such a solution at times?). It is instead to become so fixated in a belief of the coming payoff, that its failure takes on an aspect of cosmic betrayal.
The delusion is strengthened by an unwillingness to believe that this injustice can endure. Paradoxically, it is also the belief that the universe or God has been fundamentally unjust. It is unjust that I am poor, that I do not have such a job, such a wife...
Therefore, what rides on the gamble is not just money, it is one’s very identity, and God’s too! If injustice is to continue toward me, than I must be of no worth. If God is just, he will not let this stand. The gambler is addicted to his game because it represents the only solution to the terrible pronouncement which hangs over himself and God.
But how many others are in similar predicaments? How many other men only eke out a living, or have lost jobs, loved ones, and much that seemed necessary to existence, that seemed to constitute all the goodness of life?
The Gamble Reimagined
The gambler wishes to be set apart, to have God touch him upon the shoulder and say, “you are my man”. The gambler is rather set apart in disappointment and despair.
But when God does indeed set men apart, it is paradoxically by making them men, often, first by bringing them low. This is because it is only in possessing the proper humility which belongs to man as man that we can discover how truly good God’s provision has been.
Therefore the touch that comes from God must come from below. The windfall is not in some tawdry payoff, but in the steadfast love and provision of a God who sends his rain upon the just and unjust (Mtt. 5:45). The gambler must discover one who risked it all, who lost it all, to gain the world. A love which has never wavered.
On this love one can safely cast his lot, his whole store. In Christ we have a hopeful hazard. The gamble of the faithful is not one of despair. It is the hazard of one who clings to what cannot be lost, for we cling fast to one who clings to us, and nothing falls from his hands.