Jack Whittaker’s huge Powerball jackpot cost him just about everything.
The drawing was on Christmas Day 2002. The Powerball lottery had reached frenzied proportions for what would be the biggest, undivided payout in history. Occasional gamblers like Jack Whittaker only played when the jackpot was a couple hundred million or more. At his regular morning stop for coffee and biscuits in Hurricane, West Virginia, he bought what would be the winning ticket.
Whitaker was 55 and already a wealthy, successful businessman. Happily married, he and his wife were described as the “life force of the entire family” (“Rich Man Poor Man” by April Witt in Washington Post Magazine, January 30, 2005, p. 25). When news of Jack’s big win hit the local press, he vowed to donate millions to his family’s favorite churches and pledged to start a charitable foundation to help needy West Virginians. He even bought a house for the clerk who sold him the ticket. Overnight, Whitaker became more popular than anyone else in the state.
His good fortune began to collapse within weeks—even if the money didn’t run out. Jack began to stay out late and visit area strip clubs. He stupidly flashed his money and groped women at a nearby casino. It wasn’t long before these escapades made their way into police reports and the local news.
Even worse, Jack’s granddaughter Brandi died from a drug overdose just two years after the jackpot win. She had been Jack’s pride and joy, and he doted on her with thousands of dollars in cash on a near-daily basis. Her spending habits quickly spiraled out of control—clothing, a new car, junk food, drugs and shady companions.
The Powerball jackpot did something odd to Whittaker. Instead of the responsible man who had built a business and a family, he reverted to the poor hillbilly who grew up drinking, carousing and fighting. His sudden wealth produced destruction and death. Jack put tens of millions in the bank, but his granddaughter died in squalor. More than one person connected to Jack said, “That lottery ruined our lives.”
There’s a dark side to such a record windfall. It’s not that money destroyed Jack Whittaker’s life. It’s that Jack Whittaker was unable to handle his good fortune. Call it naivete. Or foolishness. Or a heart of poverty despite external riches. Simply put, Jack Whittaker was unprepared for his winnings.
There’s a similar dark side to grace. As the lottery revealed Jack Whitaker’s inability to manage great wealth, so too has grace unearthed deep dysfunction in Churches of Christ.
Let me be clear on what I am and am not saying. Grace is a good thing. Period. Stop. How can it not be good? More than good, grace is a wonderful gift. Our generous God wants nothing more than to provide us with overabundant mercy and love. It’s the jackpot of jackpots. We just have to scratch and play. Grace is amazing!
Managing one’s good fortune, however, is no easy task. With great wealth comes enormous responsibility. To live well after winning the lottery requires you to live like never before, work like never before, and take personal responsibility for your actions like never before. If you strike gold yet live with a mindset of poverty, you will quickly fall down to a level that matches your state of mind.
That brings me to the predicament of Churches of Christ. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Churches of Christ widely viewed themselves as the one true church. Not only did they view the Christian world through their own narrow lens, they also saw themselves through the most rose-colored of glasses. They believed themselves to be the fastest growing church in America, the church with the right plan for the times. They took the can-do mentality of the American frontier to the zenith of productive proselytizing. While other denominations were experimenting with new techniques to reach new demographics, Churches of Christ were proclaiming their pattern as the one and only way.
Then in the 1980s and 1990s, many of these churches discovered grace. It did not happen suddenly, and not every church joined this discovery. Change came gradually, but Christians and churches slowly awoke from their impoverishing legalism. Freedom came bit by bit.
It was like releasing trapped miners from an underground cavern. The sunlight and fresh air were startling at first. But the reality of grace began to sink in. It eventually felt like winning the lottery.
To deal responsibly with the riches of grace, however, requires you to live like never before, work like never before, and take personal responsibility for your actions like never before. But in Churches of Christ, our decades of legalism left us unprepared for the jackpot of grace. We changed from productive Christians, driven unhealthily by guilt and fear, into unproductive Christians, resting on our laurels and going into early retirement.
We have often been reckless with grace. If we were the only ones whose lives were ruined, that would be bad enough. But our children and grandchildren have ultimately paid the price. Despite having “heavenly riches in the bank,” we wasted our wealth irresponsibly, leading our heirs to believe grace was cheap and church work unnecessary.
With grace comes the obligation to work. Paul made this clear in the Ephesian epistle. In the first three chapters, Paul detailed God’s incredible grace, the jackpot all Christians did nothing to deserve. But then Paul moved from grace to work with this sentence, “I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own” (Eph 4:1, CEV).
As a Christian, you have won the lottery. Your ship has come in. You’re rich beyond your wildest dreams. So live your life worthy of a jackpot-winner.
I know a guy who preaches for a church. His church has shrunk down to less than a 100—well below their high-water mark of several hundred. They’re a grace-centered bunch of Christians, very welcoming and non-judgmental. They love each other. There’s a big problem, though. He would like them to take on a few projects to reach out and grow. They, however, are content just the way they are. Decent Sunday morning services are all they aim for. The years of legalism left them wounded. Now, they want to bask in the glow of God’s grace. And nothing more. With that mindset, they will close the doors in a few years.
We need to learn how to combine grace with work. Yes, enjoy the goodness of grace. God is generous! We have won the greatest jackpot ever! But we have work to do. We must be moral people. We have a battle to fight and people to reach.
If Churches of Christ are to have a future, we must accept grace with the responsible approach of mature Christians who have work to do. We must turn from the dark side of grace and embrace the work of God’s glorious future here and now in the present.