By Israel Matthews —
John Simmons first entered a dingy poker room where guys were smoking on his 21st birthday in Vegas.
“There’s no better feeling than putting in a wad of money in your pocket knowing you didn’t really do anything to earn it,” says Simmons on a CBN video. “There’s a lot of adrenaline that builds up in your heart. The feeling of chasing that moment is intense.”
It was the start of a decade-long gambling addiction that saw John, from St. Louis, Missouri, fall into more than $200,000 of debt, depression and hopelessness.
His demise began with a celebration for his birthday, when it was finally legal for him to go into a casino. He went to Las Vegas.
“The guys at the tables got their sunglasses on and they’re bluffing each other,” John says. “It’s just filling me up with all this joy and I’m like I love this.”
John decided to pursue poker as a career. He got a job as a casino card dealer, and he made good money.
“Gambling gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me a sense of identity,” John says. “I would be a person that could be seen by others as a multimillionaire. If I wasn’t working, I was playing. If I wasn’t playing, I was sleeping.”
But when gambling on his free time, he tended to lose.
After three years at the poker table, John was more than $200,000 in debt and had to declare bankruptcy. As part of the court settlement, he still had to pay off some debt. So John worked overtime to scramble for money.
“In my mind, it wasn’t that I was failing. I just needed to keep going and figure out how to fix it,” he says. “If only I could win the next thing, none of these losses matter. I would spend my entire paycheck over the course of a weekend trying to chase my debts. A lot of times, I had zero dollars in my pocket.
“It was such a terrible way to live,” he adds. “I couldn’t stop though. I kept thinking, ‘If all I do is win this one tournament, if I win a million dollars, no one will be mad at me anymore.’”
At age 30, he was again hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
He decided to survey the debris of his life.
“Finally, I got a realization that everything I tried to do wasn’t working,” he says. “Maybe I was the problem.”
Voluntarily, he participated in a gambling rehab support group.
But after 90s of not gambling, he still felt the urge to gamble. So he approached his sponsor.
“You’re never going to be fixed,” his sponsor told him. “You’re going to have to learn to live a day at a time — or 15 minutes at a time.”
John was staggered, even though that counsel is standard rehab advice (in Alcoholics Anonymous, they tell participants that they are always going to be alcoholics — recovered, but alcoholic).
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s not the life I want,’” he recalls. “‘You’re supposed to fix me. You’re not going to fix me?’ If I can’t get fixed, what’s the point of doing it?”
All hope was gone. After 90 days of not gambling, John relapsed in an 8-day binge, pawning all his possessions and losing his last penny. He was close to the end of everything.
“I’m contemplating suicidal thoughts,” he remembers.
As a last resort, John turned to God.
“I didn’t know who Jesus was,” he recalls. “I said, ‘God, if You’re real, I need you to show a future and hope for my life because I just don’t have one anymore.’”
“The kingdom of Heaven is upon you,” the Father said.
“That meant nothing to me. I didn’t understand those words in any way, shape or form,” he says.
But he thumbed through a Bible and read the Book of Matthew.
He hit Matthew 3:2: “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you.”
John was stunned. The same words he heard without understanding were written in the Bible.
“I was like, ‘God is real, He’s talking to me,’” he says.
John cried out to God: “God, I’ve messed up. I’ve done bad things, and I don’t want to do those things anymore. I need Your help. I need You to forgive me.”
He committed his life to Jesus Christ and was born-again.
“I remember the feeling of just the weight — I mean, the weight was so heavy on my shoulders that I could probably never in my whole life — of that being released from me,” John says. “It was the first time that I felt significant, really significant.
“I felt like I was important,” he adds. “I hadn’t felt important in a long time.”
He read in the Bible how Jesus died for him, and he realized he was important to Christ.
“If this guy is willing to do this for me, I want to live for Him,” he remembers.
The closer he drew to God, the more the desire to gamble faded — until it disappeared completely from him.
In a couple of years, John paid off his gambling debts. He married and had two kids.
He launched a weekly radio program and podcast to reach out to fellow gamblers.
“Truly being accepted by someone with all your warts, all your struggles, all your pain, all your bad mistakes, and (hearing Jesus say) ‘You know what? I still died for you. I still love you. I still care for you. You are important and significant.’ God can change everything.”
Israel Matthews studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica.