My Story of Finding Faith - Chapter One of Finding Faith

The following is the first chapter of John's Book Finding Faith.  

To order Finding Faith click here!

 

My Story of Finding Faith

"Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." Matthew 3:2(NLT)

My name is John Simmons.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ. 

The first sentence has been true my whole life.  The second sentence is much more important, but took almost thirty years to be true.  I am only able to write this because Jesus saved me. 

I was raised in St. Louis, Missouri.  As a child, I occasionally went to a Baptist church that my grandmother took me to.  When I was twelve I prayed for salvation at that church.  I thought Jesus was my savior.  One week later I was at home getting ready to go to bed, and I prayed to God that I would get off school the following day.  I know it wasn’t exactly a great prayer, but I was twelve. 

The next morning I woke up to my mom coming into my room.  I remember waking up and then looking at the clock.  It was a little after nine in the morning.  School started at 8 a.m. I was so excited!  I must’ve gotten off of school.  My prayer was answered, and God must have done it!  My mom sat me up in bed.  My excitement began to fade as I saw the look on my mom’s face.  You could tell she had been crying.  She spoke gently, talked softly, and explained to me that my dad had a heart attack and passed away during the night.  My life was shaken.

As the days, weeks, months, and years went by after my father’s passing, I decided to blame God for what I thought He did.  I had heard in church that God answered prayers in unexpected ways, and I definitely got an unexpected reason to be off of school.  I also heard that God gives more than I could ever ask for.  I prayed for one day off school and received many more.  That moment was the starting point that led to my life away from Christ.  Why would such a loving God answer prayers in such a terrible way?  If that was how God worked, I wasn’t going to pray to Him anymore.  So I didn’t.

I went on with my life, but I found myself on a longer leash after dad died.  I spent a lot of time with friends who were older than me.  Those friends influenced many decisions I made in life.  I started drinking at fifteen years old and began smoking around the same time.  I wouldn’t say my friends and I were trouble makers; I would classify us more as typical teenagers. We were testing our limits, and trying to experience life by trial and error, but didn’t get into any serious trouble.

I started working at a young age on a workers permit and found how much I liked having money.  So I worked a lot more than most, if not all of the kids my age.  During my senior year in high school, I was even in a program that allowed me to leave school every day to go to work.  I worked as a cashier, cook, dishwasher, and eventually worked my way up to store manager at some of my jobs.  I liked the freedom and opportunity that money provided me.

After high school I attended college for a couple years.  I then dropped out to pursue a career in radio.  I finished a radio trade school program in the area and found a job at the largest communications company in the state.  I started “on the boards,” which means I worked on a big control panels with lots of buttons and knobs to control the sound.   I tried to make tapes and get promoted to DJ full time, but it never happened.  I worked there for three years and never got to talk on the air more than a handful of times.

I began working as a store manager at a fast food restaurant and at the radio station concurrently.  It was during this time that I was introduced to online poker because some of my older friends, and even members of my family, had started playing.  The country was going through a “poker boom” as it was referred to. This was happening because ESPN had just started to air a contest on TV called the World Series of Poker.  A man named Chris Moneymaker (his real name) won an entry into this contest and turned $40 into $2.5 million by winning this tournament.  After that everyone, including myself, wanted to be the next “moneymaker.”

I began using the money from work to start playing online poker, just like many others that were around me.  I had always really enjoyed poker and the different forms of it we would play around the kitchen table growing up.  I thought online poker would bring back those memories and help pass times of boredom.  I also thought I could win a couple of dollars and enjoy the feeling money gave me. 

I started playing online poker around the time I was eighteen and played very modestly at first.  I spent about $20 a month playing $5 tournaments with friends.  That continued for a while.  Then, I got a big jump in pay at my restaurant job.  I was making close to $16/hour in 2002 plus another $10/hour at the radio station.  My paychecks began to balloon.  I didn’t have a lot of expenses, and my left over money was beginning to increase significantly.  Since I had no vision or place to put my money, I put it into my entertainment, which at the time was online poker.

For the first time, I started playing what are called “ring” games.  They were different than the tournaments that I had been playing.  In poker tournaments, like the one Chris Moneymaker won, I would pay an entry fee, and everyone that paid it would get the same amount of chips.  I would then play until I won everyone else’s chips or I lost my own.  A “ring” game was a game I could play where I would put up my own money, and my chips would be equivalent to what I bought in for.   I would then play against other players using their own money as chips as well.  I could play as long or as often as I wanted.  There were many different games with different stakes to play.  The most important difference between tournaments and ring games was that there were no limits to how much of my money I could play with. 

When I started online poker, I was playing $5 tournaments, and I would quit when they were finished.  I was now buying into games for $50, and would buy more chips if I lost because I wanted to keep playing.  While a tournament has a clear winner a ring, or cash, game does not.  It might have several winners, or none.  A ring game never stops, so I didn’t either.

For my twenty first birthday I went to Las Vegas, and this is when I played poker in a casino for the first time.  The games seemed similar to playing online, except it was against real life people.  I was hooked.  It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.  I can’t explain it, other than to say, I really felt like this was something I wanted to do often.  I wanted to win money and have lots of it without really working for it. 

When I got home, a friend told me that they had poker rooms at casinos in St. Louis.  I went to check them out and saw the poker rooms were just like the ones I had been playing in Las Vegas.  The only exception was that they were now down the street from my house.  I started going to the casinos on my days off to play poker for hours and hours.  One day at the casino, I talked to one of the older guys I knew from high school.  He worked there as a poker dealer.  He told me that they were hiring poker dealers and that they made $20+/hour. That sounded so exciting.  As soon as I heard that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a living.   I applied for the job and was hired.  I worked part-time at the casino and became immersed in that culture.

It was so different than anything I was used to.  The environment was exhilarating, and I wanted more.  Slowly, I began to spend more and more time playing cards.   In 2004, I was offered full-time employment at the casino.  I decided to leave both the restaurant and the radio station, jobs I was still working.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was giving up on my dream to be on the radio, just to chase the fast and easy money of a casino lifestyle.

It didn’t take long after that for my recreation to turn into something else entirely.  I started spending every waking moment around poker.  If I wasn’t at work, I was at another casino playing, or I was at home playing online poker.  The only time I wasn’t playing was when I was sleeping.

I found out really early on that it takes a lot of money to fund this lifestyle.  At first I was making so much that it didn’t matter.  It took a little while, but eventually I went through the money I had saved from working all those years.  I then began to use credit cards to fund my habit.  I would start blowing entire paychecks the day I got them just to support my gambling.  I lost a lot of money.  I didn’t lose all of that because I was bad or because I couldn’t win.  I lost because I never stopped.  I didn’t know how to stop.  Even if I were winning, I would stay until the money was all gone.  A lot of times the only way I would ever leave is when the casino would close for the night.  My addiction was not the money, but rather the high I felt while I was playing.  The money was just the resource I needed in order to play it.

Early on, I went through a lot of money because I had no one to control my spending.  I had great credit and was able to acquire credit cards with high limits.  I would then max out that limit and go get another one.  I built up massive amounts of credit card debt.  When the credit cards stopped coming, I moved on to pay day loans, which are loans where I put my paycheck up as collateral.  I would get a small loan for several hundred dollars at an outrageous interest rate sometimes as high as 675%.  Once, I even sold the title to my car for $750, a fraction of what it was worth.  I had dozens of these loans out across the city.  I was using loans to pay off other loans. 

Eventually my lending reached its limit, and I didn’t know what to do.  I had to tell my family for the first time about what I had been doing.  It came as quite a shock, and it was a tough time in all our lives.  On their instructions, I filed for bankruptcy at 22 years old. I signed a list to ban myself from gambling anymore at the Missouri casinos.  They also had me enter into counseling, take medication to control my addiction, and started watching my bank accounts.  I did, however, keep my job at the casino because it was so well paying, and I didn’t have a better opportunity available.

The safety nets and precautions installed to keep me from gambling worked only for a little while.  The lure of the casino world, and having to be around it every day at work, eventually sent me falling back into my addiction.  This time I had to be more secretive because of all the attention my life was under from family and friends.   I started taking creative steps to gamble.  Since I was self-banned for life from going inside the casinos in Missouri, except to work, I took dozens of trips to visit out of state casinos.  On my weekends off, I would travel to casinos up to 4 states away just to be able to play.   It was around this time I began betting on sports as well.  I found bookies were like credit cards because they would let me play without putting up the money first.  It was an easy fix to the problem of not having money to gamble with! 

This story repeats itself over and over again during the course of next seven years.  I would gamble until I couldn’t afford to anymore, and then I would ask others for help.  I’d reach out to family, friends, acquaintances, or co-workers.  It didn’t matter to me who was bailing me out.  I would then work as much as I could to recoup my losses and pay off my debts.  During those days, I would hide myself wherever I was living when I was broke.  I would sometimes go days and days without eating just because I spent all my money on gambling.  This process was something I became very used to.  I would gamble, lose, and then ask for help.   After I had recovered my losses, I would begin to repeat this process again.

My addiction ruined over a decade of my life.  I conservatively estimate that I lost more than $500,000 during that time.  I lost many friends and relationships.  I drove a wedge between myself and some of the members of my family.   I made my mom cry time and time again.  I was so miserable most of the time.  I can’t remember any memories I made that were worth keeping.   I also can’t find a picture of me from that time period because I avoided everyone.  I was so ashamed of myself.  I put on close to 100 pounds between the time when I started playing online poker and the height of my addiction.

Almost every night I would hope I wouldn’t wake up.  I did not want to live anymore. I had so many problems.  I would never be able to solve them all.  Everything I tried to do to win or to change my life around never worked.  However, I never once during any of it thought that I should look to Jesus to solve my problems.  I began to think I was meant to live this terrible life.  I also thought I was a good person and didn’t deserve this torture.  I thought I was trying everything I could to be different, but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t change.  I was broken.

In the spring of 2012, I finally realized the depth of my problem, and I was ready to do the hard work to fix myself.  I don’t know what caused my desire for change exactly, but I was just done being broken.  So in June, 2012, I entered a problem gambler rehabilitation program for the first time of my own free will.  I had been through this program before and other programs like it.  However, the times I had gone before were only at the request or insistence of my family or friends.  Each of those times, I always wanted to be better, but I thought I was never going to be.   Deep down, I also knew during each of those previous trips that I really didn’t want to stop playing.  I just wanted to stop losing.

I always thought if I were winning enough money that no one would consider my life a problem.  It was never about the money though.  My problem was my inability to stop.  When I went back into counseling this time it was different, I was the one who wanted to go.  I was really ready to get clean.  I wanted my life to be different.  I had suffered enough, and wanted to be free of my addiction. 

Thirty days into the program, I received a recognition for being clean.  It felt really good to be recognized for something I did right.  It had been so long since anyone told me I had done something good with my life.  I wanted to be recognized again and prove to everyone watching me that I was better.  I went sixty days clean, and I was feeling great.  I received another recognition and was able to point at that milestone as a marker for success in my life.  Not only that, but for the first time in almost a decade, I had money in the bank that wasn’t earmarked for a gambling debt. 

I was so excited after ninety days clean to go and be congratulated, rewarded with honor, and praise for what a good job I had done.  When I went into my ninety day session I received my congratulations.  They were so proud of me.   After that, they told me my next milestone achievement wouldn’t come again until I reached 6 months clean.  So far we had celebrated my recovery every thirty days, and I had looked forward to that moment every month.  How would I make it to six months clean without praise and honor to look forward to?  It seemed so far away.

That is when I had the realization that something was wrong with me that I truly didn’t understand before.  I had just spent ninety days clean because I wanted to make my life better.  However, at no point during those ninety days did my desire to gamble go away.  I was fighting off constant cravings and pushing through tough days only to get to that achievement ceremony.  I knew there was an underlying issue.  I still didn’t want to stop.  Rehab, I thought, was supposed to make me want to stop gambling. I thought it was supposed to fix me.  Rehab helped me keep my focus on other things, but it didn’t make me want to stop.  My desire never left me.  Yes, I didn’t want my actions to hurt anyone including myself anymore, but that wasn’t enough. 

When I told my counselor what I was thinking about, I was told that rehab doesn’t fix you, it just helps you control the problem by focusing on living one day at a time.  After hearing that, all I could think about was what a struggle it had been to get through each day.  I felt like it was harder trying not to gamble than it would’ve been to gamble and deal with the consequences.  It took all of my effort and focus to stay clean.  I wasn’t able to focus on work or people.  All I thought about was trying to distract myself with food, cigarettes, or TV.  That is not a life that is any better than a life of constant gambling.  I wanted so badly to be different than I had been. 

My thoughts began to race as I sat in that ninety day meeting.   “Why can’t this desire go away?  Will I just have to live like this my whole life?  I won’t be able to live that way?  Six months is so far away.  Why am I like this?”

When I walked out of my ninety day celebration, I got in my car, and immediately placed the biggest bet I had made in years.  I followed that bet by going on an eight day bender.  I spiraled out of control going through every cent I had saved.  I sold anything of worth I still had and burned up all the credit with the bookies I could get.

The bender came to an end September 8, 2012.  That night ended with another lost bet.  I had exhausted all of my resources.  I was at the end of my rope, out of money, and out of hope.  This experience was not new to me; I had many nights exactly like this in the past.  The only thing that was different this time was how hopeful I had been just days before about getting myself a better life.  I was distraught.  I didn’t know why I was like this.  I didn’t want to be this person anymore.  I was done.

So I went into my room and was unsure what to do. I had thoughts of suicide.  I had thoughts of running away.  I had thoughts of wishing I could take back the last eight days.  I had thoughts about how nothing I did ever worked.  I didn’t know why life why so hard for me.

In that moment, I decided to pray to God. 

I hadn’t talked to God in a long time.  I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to even talk to God or even if I still really believed in Him or not.  I said these words “God, if you are real, I need you to give me a hope for the future.  I can’t live like this anymore.” 

That was it.  No long winded prayer of bargaining.  No real thought that it would work.  I didn’t know if God heard me, or if He even cared about me anymore.

He did.

As soon as I finished saying those words out loud, I began to hear a sentence repeat over and over in my mind.  This was not my own thought.  I thought I was going crazy at first. There is no way it could’ve been something I was thinking.  It didn’t make any sense to me.  This is what God said to me that night over and over and over again, like a CD turned up on loud that was stuck on repeat in my mind:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is upon you.”

I thought I was going crazy!  I wondered what that phrase meant.  I didn’t realize it was God.  I walked out of my bedroom to get away from those thoughts.  When I walked into my living room my eyes were drawn to the bookshelf, which had the Bible that belonged to my dad on it.  I felt compelled to open it.  I didn’t know why.  I hadn’t opened a Bible in close to sixteen years.  I opened to the first page of the New Testament and started reading the book of Matthew.  When I read the third chapter of Matthew, all of a sudden my world went from dark to light.

I read this in my Dad’s Bible: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3:2 (NET)

I freaked out and started to cry.  I didn’t know that was in there.  I hadn’t opened a Bible or seriously thought about God in sixteen years.  Yet somehow, I was reading a verse that was on repeat in my own head.  This was a verse told to the people to lead them to salvation.  God had just told me that I repented and was now a part of His kingdom.  God knocked me down with His presence in that moment! 

I started to read more and saw the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” said many more times throughout the chapter.  As I read the words in the Bible, words that were hard to understand suddenly made sense to me.  I couldn’t read the Bible fast enough.  I was thirsty for these words.  I had an understanding about life that I had never felt before.  I knew everything just changed.

Not a single moment in my life will be more important than that.  It became the moment I knew God was real.  It became the moment I knew my life was different.  It was the night I was going to give up completely.  It was the night I thought I would die; instead, I was reborn.

I soaked up the Bible like a sponge, but I had lots of questions.  I reached out to the only person I knew with an understanding of the Bible and asked him a million questions about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  I could not get enough.  I read a lot; when I stopped reading, I started listening to pastors and Christian talk radio.  I needed more information.  For months, every second of my waking day was spent soaking my life in God’s light.

Eventually, the dust settled on my bender.  I recovered financially.  Things were different now though, and I knew it.  The process of gamble, lose, ask for help, recover, and repeat was broken.  I began a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that night.  We began to walk together, and He began to teach me, train me, and give me knowledge about His Kingdom. 

Pretty early on in my studying, I found out why I felt helpless to stop gambling, and why I couldn’t feel better about my life.  I had that feeling because I had a giant hole inside me before I found Christ.  We are all born with a giant hole, not literally but figuratively, that can only be filled by Jesus.  Every single person on Earth has a desire to fill that hole with something, but it is designed to be filled by the love of Jesus.  Every single one of us needs to fill that hole. No one is exempt.  We can’t help it.  If we decide not to fill it with Jesus we can only fill it with two others things.   We can only fill that hole with pleasure, pain, or both. 

We will do whatever it takes to make ourselves feel better, or worse, to distract us from the displeasure we have from a life without Jesus.  That is why all nonbelievers find themselves facing battles they can’t seem to win, addictions they can’t beat, and an overall sense of not having joy. Some people might try and fill their hole by buying or collecting a lot of stuff.  Others will try and fill their hole with the lives of their children, and some might find a bottle, a pill, or a person to distract them from the emptiness they feel from a life without Jesus.

When Jesus filled that hole for me, I clearly focused my attention on God, and in return, I found out that He focused His attention on me, too.  He began to clean up my life, although it didn’t happen overnight.  In fact, I gambled several times after I was born again.  I never stopped trying to get closer to God, and he never stopped teaching me and giving me grace for everything I asked for. 

I have now been clean for the longest period of my adult life and the compulsion to gamble that seemed to never leave me is now gone!  That relief is something that can never be accurately described by words.  I didn’t do anything to make that go away.  I didn’t will it away, or even believe that I could ever lose it.  Jesus took that from my life.  His grace covers that for me.  I no longer am fighting a losing battle with that enemy.  Jesus is my shield.

I started writing this book one year after I was born again, and my personal relationship with Jesus Christ in that time has led to deliverance from my addictions and a complete change in my life.  The number of changes God has made in my life since I started my walk is uncountable.  They are too immeasurable to be thought of as “willpower.”  I tell people who don’t believe it was Jesus that caused my change to remember that I didn’t have enough willpower to stop smoking or gambling before, so they shouldn’t think that I suddenly have it now. 

My relationship with Jesus was the only thing I changed in my life, and if Jesus is the only change that happened in my life moments before hundreds of other changes took place, He is the reason for all the changes.  My freedom from addiction is not a coincidence, and that is the truth.  Jesus saved me!  He saved me from more than Hell, too.  He saved me from my old life and from all the struggles that tried to destroy me.   

Over the course of my walk, God called me to quit my job to follow Him and start a ministry.  He told me I would speak in front of many people, and I would encourage and increase their faith.  He told me to start a ministry called Testimony House.  Testimony House focuses on sharing testimonies with non-believers so that they can see the love of Christ on the lives of believers, and seek that out for their own life.   

Testimony House is also a Christian learning center dedicated to helping believers increase their production in the Kingdom by learning and walking in their gifts and talent to find God’s vision, or purpose, for their lives.  God made us all to do something very specific.  We need to believe in that, and ask Him to reveal it to us in the same way we believe in and ask for salvation. 

This is my role in the body of Christ.  I am meant to share all that God tells me, with whomever God asks.  That includes my work through Testimony House, at church, at home and through my writings.  I am not overly qualified.  I am no better Christian than any other.  I just am trying to live a life in service of Him.  Jesus changed my life in ways I didn’t even think were possible.  I feel more blessed on my worst day now than I did on my best day during my struggles.  It is my desire to live my life sharing the love that Jesus has for me with others.  It is my hope that people hear the message of Christ through me, and turn to Him, so they may experience this epic change for themselves.

I am sharing my story so that many can see the impact of God in my life, and prayerfully choose Christ.  Remember: I was a poker dealer for almost ten years, had not opened a Bible in over a decade, and struggled with severe addiction and an intense depression.  If it is possible for my life without hope and a future to turn around, I believe your life can change for the better as well. 

God is real.  Jesus Saves.  All you have to do is find faith.

Testimony House