Forerunner, June 30, 2006

Some years ago, country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter had a hit song, called "I Feel Lucky." It is about a woman who wakes up one morning, reads her horoscope, calls in "sick" to work, buys a lottery ticket, and wins 11 million dollars. It has a catchy tune that, I must confess, I sing along to when I hear it on the radio. Then, a few years ago, there was the movie character "Dirty Harry" Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, who uttered the catchphrase, "Do you feel lucky?"

Well, do you feel "lucky?" We use the word "luck" all the time in our daily conversations: "good luck," "you lucky dog," "he lucked out," "I was just lucky" and so on. Does luck really exist?

A small article appeared in Parade Magazine on June 6, 2004, titled "Do You Believe in Luck?" in which four teens were asked this question. Jorge Gonzalez, 15, responded, "There's no such thing as luck. The Bible says the last leaf on a tree will not fall if it's not the will of God." He is probably referring to Matthew 10:29, in which it is a sparrow that falls, not a leaf, yet, even so, his thinking is still pretty deep for a 15-year-old!

Conversely, note how Katherine Kelsch, 14, answered:

A year ago, I begged people to buy cookies for a school fund-raiser. I really wanted the prizes you could win. But the reward system was based on the luck of the draw: the more cookies you sold, the more chances you got to draw for the prizes. Some students won cool stuff, like a lava lamp phone and a minibike. On my turn, I got a handful of Tootsie Rolls. Whoo hoo! That didn't seem fair. Even though I worked really hard, I lost to stupid bad luck.

The fact that those who sold more cookies had more chances to draw and thus more chances to win better prizes seems not to have made much impact on poor Katherine.

Innate or Self-Made?

Are some people in life lucky and others unlucky, or do we make our own luck? English psychologist Richard Wiseman, who conducted a study on the subject of luck, was interviewed by Fastcompany, an online magazine, about his findings.

For centuries, people have recognized the power of luck and have done whatever they could to try seizing it. Take knocking on wood, thought to date back to pagan rituals aimed at eliciting help from powerful tree gods. We still do it today, though few, if any, of us worship tree gods. So why do we pass this and other superstitions down from generation to generation? The answer lies in the power of luck.

Over a ten-year period, Wiseman kept track of 400 men and women volunteers. These people, of all ages, who "considered themselves especially lucky or unlucky," kept diaries, submitted to interviews, completed questionnaires, took tests, and participated in experiments. The results? Lucky people get that way "via some basic principles."

His results dovetailed with the "Positive Mental Attitude" espoused by a long line of self-help gurus from Norman Vincent Peale to Anthony Robbins. These proponents of proactive self-sufficiency advocate steps like taking advantage of opportunities that come one's way. As Wiseman points out, "Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they're too busy looking for something else." In other words, work hard, save money, utilize personal talents, and do not expect lottery winnings to fund life on Easy Street.

Wiseman also discovered a wide gap in the way they handled misfortune between those who perceived themselves as lucky and those who thought of themselves as unlucky. The "lucky" people looked at the bad things that came their way, and after a time concluded, "It could have been worse." The unlucky ones let problems and trials immobilize or even devastate them.

The bottom line in this man's study seems to be that a person makes his own luck. A lucky person does not blame others for the state he is in, and he works to improve his lot in life. He does not lay back and wait for his luck to change but takes steps to change it himself through work. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "Diligence is the mother of good luck." In the same vein, comedian Bob Hope said, "I've always been in the right place at the right time. Of course, I steered myself there."

Luck for the Converted?

This is all fine for those in the world who are not converted, but how about for those whom God has called? Is luck involved in our lives? John Ritenbaugh once said in a sermon, "[God] doesn't leave the smaller details of our lives to chance or luck." Martin Collins has also commented, "Within the sovereignty of God, there is no such thing as pure chance for God's people."

Yet Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 9:11:

I returned and saw under the sun that—
The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor riches to men of understanding,
Nor favor to men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all.

Does this verse contradict these statements? What does Solomon mean? How could the fastest runner not win the race? How could the strongest man not be victorious in battle? Is all human activity subject to fate?

Time in this verse means "opportunity," and chance suggests "occurrence" or "incident." We all have the opportunity to make something of our lives, but eventually, death occurs to us all. Moffatt translates this phrase as "death and misfortune happen to all." Ecclesiastes 2:14 reinforces this, "The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I myself perceived also that the same event happens to them all." Albert Barnes notes, "[Event] does not mean chance, independent of the ordering of Divine Providence: the Gentile notion of 'mere chance,' or 'blind fate' is never once contemplated by the writer of this book." Good or bad, we will all have the same fate, death, because we have all sinned.

A writer once stated in a magazine article, "Life is a lottery, not a chess game." We can only assume that he meant that we ultimately have no control over our lives and the events surrounding us. While this might be true to an extent, in the strictest sense of God's sovereignty, he is well off the mark. We always have the ability to rebel against God, to say "No," and walk away from our calling. God is always in charge, but we do have free moral agency.

A Chance of Rain

The dictionary defines chance as "the abstract nature or quality shared by unexpected, random, or unpredictable events; luck; the likelihood of occurrence of an event." Chance suggests total absence of design or predictability. It essentially leaves God out of the picture. While it does rain on the "just and the unjust," as Christ says in Matthew 5:45, and trials affect us all, it is not luck or chance that governs our lives.

On a recent Fourth of July, my family and I went to Stone Mountain Park, outside Atlanta, Georgia, for the laser and fireworks show. We usually go every year, and it rains on us just about every year. Sure enough, after three trips back to the parking lot, lugging blankets, coolers, chairs, and so on to the lawn in front of the mountain and putting them in place, we had a sudden shower. We huddled under the tarp of the man next to us and waited it out. A lot of folks packed up and went home. True, our blankets were soggy, my newspaper and novel were soaked, our hair looked weird, but we had a great time. We all got rained on. That was chance, an unexpected and random event.

Luck is defined as "the fortuitous happening of fortune or adverse events." Being caught in a rain shower could be called bad luck, although a possibility of showers was in the forecast. But was it an adverse event? That depends on one's outlook. Was God involved? Sure, He was. There was lightning along with this rain, and we were sitting in an open field. He answered our prayers and kept the lightning away from us. Did He make it rain on us? Probably not. It was a random event.

However, God was in control at all times. He protected and guided us. Had the lightning been on top of us, had I sat in the middle of Stone Mountain's large lawn holding a metal rod, and had I been struck and killed, would that have been bad luck or stupidity? The answer is obvious. Random events happen to us all, but luck does not control our lives.

We do not need a rabbit's foot in our pockets. It will not bring us luck. It did not bring the rabbit much luck, did it? We should not be crossing our fingers "for luck," which is pagan in origin anyway. Many times, in talking to someone in the world, I find myself saying, "Good luck!" to him or her. I have determined to eradicate that phrase because, as we have seen, it is really not appropriate. Instead, we should say, "Do your best!" "I hope things go well!" or maybe, "Vaya con dios!"

Three Tips

In the course of his interview, Richard Wiseman offered advice on how to get lucky in life. He would have done better to give tips on how to live, not a lucky life, but a prosperous life. Here are three:

In Proverbs 6:6-8, we have the famous admonition, "Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which, having no captain [leader], overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest." Proverbs 22:3-5 adds

A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on, and are punished. By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life. Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; he who guards his soul will be far from them.

First, then, we plan, which defined in its verb form means to "think out, prepare in advance; arrange, contemplate, design, organize, outline." Somewhat self-explanatory, this does not mean one should fund his retirement years with lottery tickets, or one should skip getting an education because his parents will leave him their estate. The ant has no one telling it what to do, yet it works to provide its needs by planning, laying up supplies for the future.

Second, along with our plan, we must have prudence. "A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself [he avoids the evil], but the simple pass on and are punished." Prudent means "wise, sensible in action and thought, careful, cautious, circumspect, discerning, vigilant, wary." To "foresee evil" means all of these things—that one is careful, cautious, discerning, vigilant, and wary. A prudent person is always watching. One of Wiseman's points is to be open to chance opportunities. This does not mean leaving a good job in the factory to be a clown in the circus, but rather that a person prudently considers matters as they arise and makes good decisions concerning them. For a very few, working for the circus might be a prudent career move, yet for most of us, it is not.

Third, we must never forget providence, which is "care or preparation in advance; foresight, prudent management." So far, this definition encapsulates the first two points of advice. However, it is also "care and control exercised by a deity," and in our case, the deity is God. All our planning and all our prudence will be for naught if God is not behind it. As The Amplified Bible renders Proverbs 22:4, "The reward of humility and the reverent and the worshipful fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life."

We do our part, and God will do His part. Albert Einstein reportedly said, "God does not play dice with the universe." We might add: God does not play dice with His people either. We are all given a space in time in which to live our lives. How will we approach it? We can plan, be prudent, revere God, and be rewarded with prosperous lives—not necessarily with money, but with happiness, health, family, and a true, godly reason for living. On the other hand, we can avoid black cats, leaning ladders, broken mirrors, and spilled salt. We can cross our fingers, knock on wood, carry an acorn, hang a horseshoe over our doors, and look to luck.

Do you feel lucky? Or do you feel blessed?