Can Christians “Get Lucky”?

Kok Leng Yeo

The maneki-neko (“beckoning cat”) is thought to bring good luck in Japan. Photo by Kok Leng Yeo

Have you been suffering recently from friggatriskaidekaphobia?  Or perhaps I should refer to it as paraskevidekatriaphobia, the other name by which it is commonly known?  Of course, in this case, the word “commonly” means “those who spend too much time reading Wikipedia”, which I’m sorry to say includes myself.

For those who lead a more balanced life when it comes to Internet usage, I can tell you that both terms refer to the fear of Friday the 13th, that most unlucky of days.  Have you ever wondered why this day is considered to be unlucky?  I did, which was why I looked it up on Wikipedia, and here is what I discovered.

The fear of Friday the 13th is relatively new in human history, and even now it is limited to specific cultures.  Prior to the 20th century, there are few records of anyone attaching negative connotations to this date.  However, the number thirteen has been considered unlucky for much longer.  This is because the number twelve has been historically viewed as a number of “completeness” in the area of Numerology.  You can see this in scripture, where there are twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, and many uses of twelve in the apocalyptic literature.  There are also twelve months of the year (and thus twelve signs of the Zodiac), twelve hours on the clock, and several other examples with which I will not bore you.

W J Pilsak

Photo by Wikipedia user W.J. Pilsak

Because twelve is seen as a complete set, thirteen can be viewed as a bit off balance.  Even in mathematics, we find that thirteen is one of those numbers that is not divisible by anything but itself and the number one.  Personally, I don’t think this gives us any reason to be afraid of thirteen, but in cultures where numbers are highly significant I can understand how it would gain an unfavorable reputation.

Friday has also been seen as unlucky for a long time, perhaps because Christ was crucified on that day of the week.  Geoffrey Chaucer supposedly alluded to this issue in the Canterbury Tales, where the Nun’s Tale includes the line “on a Friday fell all this mischance”. (Some have suggested that this does not imply all Fridays are unlucky, but the idea certainly popped up later in history, if not first with Chaucer.) Thus, the aversion to Friday the 13th probably resulted from the combination of two supposedly ill fated things.  The publication of Thomas Lawson’s novel Friday, the Thirteenth in 1907 may have contributed to the more rapid spread of this superstition.  In our current time, this day is clearly considered to be unlucky.

All of this leads me to a question which some would consider to be important and others might dismiss as rather trivial: Is it wrong for Christians to believe in luck?

First, I should clarify that there are different meanings of the word “luck”, which has a Germanic origin.  In Old English and Middle English, the preferable term was either “chance” or more positively “speed”. (This solves the mystery of why people say “Godspeed!”, i.e. “God give you speed!”) If you are referring to luck in order to explain that an occurrence was particularly fortuitous, I don’t think anyone could reasonably take offense.

Carmina Burana

Illustration of Fortuna in the medieval text “Carmina Burana”, which composer Carl Orff subsequently turned into one of the most epic pieces of music of all time.

However, where some Christians get bent out of shape is the idea that events are governed by some mystical sense of destiny or not-so-random chance rather than the will of Almighty God.  This understanding of the term would be more in line with the Moirai (“Fates”) of Greek mythology or the Roman goddess “Fortuna”: your life is not governed by an unchanging, just deity, but by a capricious bunch of broads in the sky.

Most of us don’t have such a theologically developed concept of luck.  We see it more as some kind of invisible force, kind of like “the Force” in the Star Wars films, but less useful for choking people.  Nevertheless, I can understand why some would see any kind of destiny apart from that ordained by the one true God as rather silly at best. (Of course, others feel the same way about many of the claims in the Bible, but for the purposes of this article I’m assuming that my readers accept at least some of what scripture has to say.)

The aversion to this form of luck has led some to condemn gambling.  I prefer to discourage it using the simple rationale that it’s an excellent way to lose a boatload of cash.  The other place I have seen this aversion show up is in relation to the song “God Bless the U.S.A.”, which was released by the country artist Lee Greenwood back in 1984.  It’s a song that has everything evangelical Christians tend to like: ardent patriotism, a firm belief in America’s divine mandate, plenty of schmaltz, and a Southern twang.  (I suppose it would spoil things if I mentioned that Greenwood recorded a separate version praising Canada, that heathen nation to the north.)

In the song’s first verse, Greenwood imagines a hypothetical situation in which he loses everything except “my children and my wife”, a real “Job” of a scenario if ever there was one.  He then declares that under such circumstances, “I’d thank my lucky stars to be livin’ here today.”  That’s the thing about going through an enormous tragedy: it makes you drop all of your “g”s.

On multiple occasions, I have heard Christians substitute this line for a God-friendly alternative, as in, “I’d thank my God in heaven…”  I can’t help but wonder, if we have to edit a reference to luck out of a song that has the word “God” in the title, what would we have to do to Christianize Daft Punk’s recent hit “Get Lucky”?  I mean, the word “lucky” is right in the title! (Actually, this song provides an example of yet another meaning for the same term, one that carries a more sexual connotation.  Don’t worry though: I’m married, so I can still keep it on my iPhone.)

In the search for some passage of scripture that might shed a bit of light on this situation, I came across Isaiah 65:11-12.  Here, the Lord is speaking to the nation of Israel.

But you who forsake the Lord,
Who forget My holy mountain,
Who set a table for Fortune,
And who fill cups with mixed wine for Destiny,
I will destine you for the sword,
And all of you will bow down to the slaughter.
Because I called, but you did not answer;
I spoke, but you did not hear.
And you did evil in My sight
And chose that in which I did not delight.

These verses display the biblical tendency to discourage any efforts to improve one’s lot by trusting in something other than God.  Any blessing, scripture tells us, comes from God Himself.  Holding to superstitions or trusting in blind “luck” will do you no good, because there is no such power to shape human events apart from that which is willed by God.

Paul Cezanne card players 1892-5

“The Card Players” by Paul Cezanne, c. 1892-1895.

This weekend, there will be football games taking place across America, and anxious fans will be resorting to all kinds of odd traditions (i.e. superstitions) in the hope of helping their team to victory: re-wearing a lucky jersey, sitting in a lucky chair, etc.  Perhaps those who are watching high school games tonight will be ruing the fact that such events must occur on Friday the 13th.

Apart from whether or not this suggests a lack of faith in God, I can assure my readers that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that “good” or “bad” luck actually exists, that Fridays or 13th days are any worse than every other day of the year, or that not washing that pair of lucky underwear will provide any assistance to one’s favorite team.  However, there is a genuine possibility that your dirty underwear will create its own unfortunate consequences, so don’t be a prisoner of superstition.  After all, there probably is a correlation between personal hygiene and the amount of times a person “gets lucky”.

All biblical references are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.

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