“My luck is bound to change.” “His luck is sure to run out.” “Things just have to get better.” “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.” All those phrases express in some form the “Gambler’s Fallacy,” sometimes also known as “The Monte Carlo Fallacy.” The technical name is “the fallacy of the maturity of chances.” The idea is that a long string of events on one side of things, like a coin coming up heads in a toss ten times in a row, somehow makes it more likely that an event on the other side will occur.
The problem is that even after ten heads in a row, the chance of tails (or heads) in the next toss remains 50-50. That’s true even after 100 heads in a row, or a thousand. We have the sense that things ought to “even out,” and there is even good evidence that coin tosses do even out in the long run. However, the coin, and the physical universe, retain no memory of what’s gone before. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the chance of tails (or heads) remains the same for the next toss no matter how many heads have come up before.
Many gamblers, including those at a famous roulette incident in 1913 in Monte Carlo, have learned the hard way the fallacy of expecting things to even out for them. The laws of nature just aren’t written that way. However, there is a higher law than the laws of nature, written by the Creator of the laws of nature. So our text for this Sunday, Isaiah 61:1-11, testifies to God’s promise that He will even things out for His people, that the misfortune and punishment they have endured will be recompensed with divine blessing and favor.
The first couple verses of the text, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” are famously quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.
For Isaiah the point is that God is going to restore what was taken away from Israel in the exile to Babylon. They will be able to rebuild their homes, plant vineyards and pasture flocks in peace and prosperity and joy after long years of suffering and slavery in a foreign country. As God says in verse 8, “I will faithfully give them their recompense.” That is, He will “re-compensate” them for all they have lost.
As Christians, our job is to accept the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of recompense in Jesus Christ and to look forward to the final and complete recompense that is promised when Jesus returns, while disbelieving all forms of the Gambler’s Fallacy regarding short-term events in our world.
For those who have mourned the heartlessness and immorality of the current administration and reigning party in America, last night’s victory in Alabama for Doug Jones probably feels like a bit of recompense, an evening out of the score on the side of decency and justice. As the first part of Isaiah 60 verse 8 says, “I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”
Yet we must avoid the temptation to Gambler’s Fallacy thinking even when “luck” turns toward our own conceptions of social good. There is no political law of nature guaranteeing recompense for wrongs that are done, no “invisible hand” of the market or any other force in this world that will always even things out for those who are poor and oppressed. Our only hope is in a Lord who loves His people so much that He and He alone will not allow them to suffer forever. As we read in Isaiah 40 verse 10, “his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” True recompense comes to us with the arrival of the true God, not with anyone else.
So this Advent let us turn from all our short-term and very possibly false expectations of better fortune through some sort of natural evening out of events. And let us turn more and more toward our true and perfect hope that we have a Lord who will in fact come to even out this world and provide joyful and everlasting recompense to those who hope in Him.