Monday, August 5, 2013

Luck Undrawn

From the May 2010 E-Block, this piece is by guest author Richard Gunther.

**What is luck? 

The dictionary says luck is “anything which happens by chance”, as in “what bad luck to break a leg”. So luck is an unexpected event, in which case almost anything could be defined as luck, except those things we planned and caused to happen. We could not say our switching on of an electric jug was luck, but if a drop of water came from the boiling jug and struck our nose we might call that luck.

A second meaning of luck is, “an advantage or success due to chance.” We use this second meaning in phrases such as “We wish you the best of luck,” or “What a stroke of luck.” SO if something happens which we see as an event to our advantage, we consider it to be good luck. It may simply be the result of certain clearly defined and predictable causes, but if we do not see those causes, we interpret what happens in a positive way.

An illustration of this might be a tidal wave. We are out surfing and we have not had many good waves, until suddenly, our ‘luck’ changes and a large wave rolls in. What we don’t know is that thousands of miles away an earthquake triggered this wave many hours before we arrived at the beach.

But when something happens to us, and we interpret it as good luck, surely someone else might interpret the same event as bad luck? The tidal wave may be good luck for us, but a disaster for someone else.

Another word sometimes used to describe luck is ‘chance’. The words “luck” and “chance” are so close they can be interchangeable in some cases, We can have a chance event, which can be interpreted by us either as a lucky event (positive) or an unlucky event (negative). The idea of “chance” suggests that events occur without our knowledge or control. The same idea is inherent in both words.

This idea, that life is peppered with unforeseen, and uncontrolled events, has led many people to imagine that there are forces, or even intelligent beings, who interfere in our lives, causing things to happen to us. Fates, or gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and so on – have become, for many people, parts of the unseen world behind luck. This is their way of explaining the unexpected events, the ‘interventions’ which can turn a good day into a bad, or a bad day into a good. Omens like the appearance of a black cat, or crows, or shoes on the table, can affect a person’s view of life, even though the cat, the crows and the shoes have no ability whatsoever of doing anything but being what they are.

I wrote this edited letter to the newspaper about luck:

“Dear sir, a few days ago a headline in this newspaper referred to a “lucky couple”, which made me wonder just what “luck” is. As I understand it one person’s “luck” may be another person’s “bad luck”, so the concept of anything being lucky is as objective as a wisp of steam.

Take lucky charms for example. Logically, if a charm is cut into four pieces, each piece is not one quarter as lucky. Nor do we gain luck by adding charms, or multiplying them. All superstitions are based on the misconception that some external, usually inanimate object has some sort of power over us. A lucky charm is like that. It may be a picture or a rabbit’s foot, but it is given the ‘aura’ of having the power to decide what happens to that person, or home, or life.
If a person falls and breaks an arm while attempting to cross a road, they may consider the fall as unlucky, until they see a huge truck sweep by, which would have killed them had they not fallen. Suddenly the bad luck of the broken arm becomes good luck.

Or two farmers, one wanting rain and the other sunshine. If rain comes, or if sun comes, the same weather becomes both good and bad luck simultaneously. Both farmers see the same weather differently, and neither is correct because it is just rain, or just sun. The weather is neutral. The interpretations are irrelevant.

There is, when you get to the core of the matter, really no such thing as luck. It is the result of a predisposition, or attitude that we hold, through which we interpret events around us. Even a first prize win in Lotto can go from what might be called good luck to very bad luck, if the money drives the winner to anxiety, debt, obesity, fear or greed.

I’m sure the headline I referred to had no intention of making a philosophical statement, but it is usually a good idea to consider what we mean by the words we use. When it comes to the word “luck” we are in fact talking nonsense.”
A counter argument to this line of thought might be “But if you see life as a series of events which work to your advantage, what harm is there in calling those events “good luck”?

There is no harm, at face value, because by “luck” we actually mean “a series of events which has worked to our advantage,” so we are using the word as a short way of saying how well things have turned out for us. “By good luck a fresh breeze from the south blew us toward land..." But if we think life itself, that is, the flow of events around us actually conspire in some way to provide an advantage to us, we have stepped into fantasyland. Life is a series of events, all of which are consequences of prior events, but they are consequences, not gods.

Superstition is based on a belief that outside of the natural world, where science can observe only the ‘laws of nature’ operating, there is an unseen world, inhabited by inanimate objects which actually possess intelligence. If we take this view of an unseen, intelligent world doing things to us to cause us either happiness or sorrow, we come to several absurd conclusions.

Take the inanimate object. The brick we drop conspired to land on our foot. The toothache came along deliberately to spoil our day in town; the sand fly bit our nose during the night on purpose, to spoil our good looks.

Well of course, when you think about it, none of these examples can be proved scientifically because they are not testable, and none could be argued logically, because we know bricks cannot direct their flight or hold grudges, or aim themselves at feet, and teeth know nothing about shopping, so they wouldn’t turn on the pain just to spoil someone’s day in town, and sand flies have no understanding of whether people are handsome or ugly, so they wouldn’t bite a face for any reason other than basic instinct.

But people constantly fall into the trap of interpreting events in terms of personal attack or personal blessing. They personalize the inanimate, material world. They become emotionally responsive to objects that have no will or desire, or interest in them.

“We were going camping but the rain came along and spoiled our day!” What does the rain know about camping, and why would it care anyway? Why would rain want to ‘spoil’ anything?

”I was the last in line, but I got the job because the boss liked my shirt!” Did the shirt deliberately jump on to your body because it knew the boss would see it?

“If we hadn’t moved to such and such a town, she never would have met X and you would never have been born!” So what do have here? A town conspiring with another property to organize a birth?

Of course the three examples above might not ever have such connotations, but there are people who would interpret rain, and shirts and towns with some personal interest in them. It may be only on the subconscious level, but its there.

And why do people get mad with a machine that won’t start? It is just a machine. It has no feelings. The reason it doesn’t start is because the spark plug is dirty, or the petrol is not flowing, or the ignition is low on power. Why do people in old cars say “come on old girl!” and talk to their car as if it is a woman? It makes sense when little children talk to their dolls, but adults should know better.

People say “This is my lucky day!” and we agree with them, because they are happy, and something good has happened to them, and we share in their blessing, but can a day really be lucky? The interpretation of the type of day it is, is based entirely on feelings. What if next door the old man’s cat just died. How would he feel if the happy person rang him and told him it was a “lucky day?” I think it would be unlikely that the old man would agree with the “lucky day” person. The same day can be lucky and unlucky, depending on which side of the fence you live.

What does the Bible have to say about “luck”?

Leviticus 16 says:

“And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD'S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.”

Two goats, two lots. One goat dies, the other is set free. The point the Bible makes here has nothing to do with luck. The passage is about a selection process, to decide which goat did what. We also don’t know if God directed the falling of the lots, in which case no “luck” occurred. It would have all been deliberate and controlled? We might also say that the goat that went to the wilderness was the lucky one because it didn’t die, but perhaps it starved to death out there in the wilderness, or was eaten by a lion?

Ecclesiastes 9 says:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all. For man also knows not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them.”

This passage speaks about the randomness of life. None of us have any guarantee that what we plan will actually happen. Sometimes slow runners win races, and weak fighters win battles, poor, uneducated people sometimes come into great wealth and luxury, and people die suddenly, in accidents or for other reasons. We just never know ‘when our number is up.” Chance and time happen to everyone.

But this passage does not support any notion of luck being a force behind the scenes, like an intelligent, knowing force. The passage is a reality check. It is about real life, with its ups and downs, its fickleness, its odd reversals. And at the end Solomon notes that death takes us all anyway, and quite often it takes us when we least expect it. (Cancer, a stroke, Alzheimer’s, sporting accident, etc, etc) The whole thrust of his argument, in the wider context, is that we should try to make the most of each day we live, because life is fickle, and we cannot guarantee that our plans will come to fruition. God knows the future, but we don’t. We may live to a hundred, or we may die tomorrow.

The essence of whether something is “lucky” or “unlucky” is our attitude. Interpretation is an error because as soon as we begin to interpret events in terms of for us or against us, we are ascribing intelligence to inanimate objects. A meteorite is not intelligent enough to strike a man down while he sits in his house, and a stray bullet has no knowledge of where it is flying. The wind may blow a $50 bill into our path, but the wind doesn’t know what money is, and a gold-miner may strike it rich, but he has only dug in a place where there happens to be something he wants to find. (Humans put a value on the mineral they call gold, by the way. Apart from their valuation of it, gold is no more or less valuable than quartz or coal.)

So attitude is the deciding factor, and if we want to avoid a form of idolatry, that is ascribing personal attributes to inanimate things, we ought to avoid anthropomorphizing God’s creation.

Try to step back a little from life. Try to see the world as a created thing, flying through a universe that was created for it. Try to see the whole earth as a machine, with all the parts working together to supply the essentials for life. The water cycle, the oceans and their currents, the composition of the seas and land and atmosphere, the web of life, the physics behind all chemical bonds, the atomic structures, all suited to form important minerals, elements and chemicals. All the parts, animate and inanimate, from the cold, vast universe to unbelievably small atom, they are all designed to work together, all balanced against each other to support life. But the machine of the universe is just that – a machine. It operates as God designed it to. It is impersonal, unfeeling, unseeing, unhearing, unresponsive. It is unaware of us. To think that stars, or birds, or entrails could ‘know’ anything about us, is idolatry.

Originally humans were integrated into this whole system, this universe machine, like kings in a domain where everything (under the Machine-maker God) was their servant. All life and all non-life operated efficiently to provide the maximum ingredients to make humans healthy, until the day the humans sinned, and then everything began to disintegrate, including the humans. The machine began to wind down, to fall apart, to decay.

Now the humans are less intelligent, and their understanding of creation as a vast, whole machine has dimmed. As generations have passed ignorance has grown. Soon after they were created, the fallen humans began to worship the stars, or the moon, or something else made by God. Animism sprang up, which teaches that even rocks and stones have a spirits in them. Superstition was alive and kicking long before Noah and his ark. The concept of external forces controlling people’s lives became very prevalent, even to the extent that human sacrifice was made to various inanimate objects – as if some carved piece of wood could do anything!

As it was then, so it is today, only it is more likely that animals will be killed, or substances will be symbolically killed, in the place of human sacrifice.

But there is another line of thought that needs to be followed, and that is the role of Biblical Christianity. What does Christianity have to say about “luck”?

The best way to spot an authentic bank note is to look at the forged bank note and compare them with the true Bank note. In this world there are many fake or forged spiritual teachings. They always consist of a mixture of truth and error. The truth part attracts the gullible, and the error part increases the darkness in their soul. But if we start with the authentic, we can easily spot the forgery. If we know the truth, the lies are easy to see.

This is why we should always go to the Bible when we want to understand truth. It is an error-free book. Whenever it refers to anything, it is always correct. On whatever subject it speaks, it is always accurate. Names, places, distances, events, kings, queens, dates, times, whatever the detail, it has never been found to be wrong. It is like the Bank of England, where every bank note comes with a personal signature.

We would like to finish this essay with a rather large chunk of the Bible, which is taken from Romans chapter eight. The reason we chose such a large chunk is because the context is important. Too many people quote Romans 8:28 and stop there. The context shows that the reason “all things” work together for good, is because these “things” are part of God’s way of shaping and building a Christian into a better likeness of Jesus.

The “things” that happen to Christians could be interpreted as ‘bad luck’ by some, or ‘good luck’ by others, but they are neither. It is the God behind them that makes them “for good”, and oddly enough, they are “for good” even if we don’t see them that way.

Just as a parent may seem to spoil a child’s fun, for example by pulling them inside on a bright sunny day to prevent sunburn, God intervenes in our lives in ways which sometimes seem odd, or unpleasant, but His plan is bigger and better than ours. There is no such thing as “luck” but there is “the love and care of God.”

Romans 8:28. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”

This means, once we decide to follow Jesus, and obey Him, the events in our lives suddenly become tuned always to be a blessing to us. No matter what happens, as long as we are walking obediently behind Jesus, every event that comes our way must be seen as a good event. Sickness, injury, poverty, dismissal, even failure, everything that happens is part of God’s GOOD plan, even though we may not see it that way.

Many examples could be drawn from the Bible to support this. Joseph was sold as a slave to Egypt, but he saw this as God’s for-planning to bless his brothers, the death of Jesus on the cross seemed like a tragedy, but it was all part of eternal blessing for the world... the Bible is full of examples along these lines.

“Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?”

By this we understand that all events in our lives are good events, because God is for us. We may go through dark valleys, and sorrow and hardship, but if we are obedient to Jesus and trusting Him, we can be assured that God is for us – He is our advocate, or friend, or helper, or Father. No good human father would deliberately cause difficulty to his child unless he saw that the end of that difficulty was a blessing. God is the same. His predestination, or great plan, for us, is to bless us, and include us in His family. For some Christians, the road to that place is very tough, but when they get there they will understand, looking back, that it was the best road.

“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifies. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.”

This part deals with the critics, who leap in as soon as Christians make a mistake. The media loves parading failed Christians. Skeptics love finding imperfections. The enemies of Jesus love to pounce on Christians and tear into them, pointing at faults and mistakes.

Christians ought to humbly acknowledge these failures, but after that they have nothing else to do. “If God says I’m OK, that‘s good enough for me!”

The unattractive Christian knows God loves her/him regardless. The disabled Christian knows God is pleased with whatever efforts he/she makes to live the life. Peter got out of the boat to walk to Jesus but he sank into the water until Jesus lifted him up.

When we fail, all we need to do is remember Jesus on the cross. All our failures are covered. God is pleased with us. If God accepts us, why should be we concerned about what a few perishing, sinful unbelievers say? Might as well listen to the wind in the trees for all the importance they have. As Psalm 1 says, the wicked are like the chaff which the wind drives away. (See also Psalm 37)

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

All these things could be considered “bad luck” but the context shows that they are the expected consequences of being a true Christian. “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” – that’s a promise, (2Tim.3:12) Jesus also warned Christians about the probable outcome of following Him – Matt. 5and 6.

“Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

There is no such thing as luck – only God and His thoughtful, intelligent, purposeful will. People who think that “luck” is important to them, and who always wish for “good luck” have missed the boat. They have short-changed themselves, and accepted subjective interpretation, rather than a personal relationship with the God who made them. They have ascribed to the ‘machine’ attributes which it doesn’t have, while all along the great God, the maker of that machine, waits in the wings and calls to them.

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