Daniel Abou-Zeid has an extraordinary testimony. He told Eternity’s Guan Un how his father gambled away thirty homes before he was twelve, how he (literally) got lost and in turn he found Christ, and how the grace of God found his family reborn.
I was born in Geelong, with Mum and Dad in this really dysfunctional situation: Dad was a compulsive gambler and coming out of a heritage of compulsive gamblers, so his Dad was a compulsive gambler, and his Dad’s Dad. In Lebanon, my Grandfather actually gambled away an entire street of houses. I’ve been there and seen what they used to own.
The word that categorises my parents is extreme. And so they were extreme with their compulsion and compulsive gambling.
We grew up with not much money at all. Mum and Dad had no idea how to parent and do all those things. For at least 12 years of my life they were non-Christians not church attendees, and instead surrounded by compulsive gamblers and drug addicts, and really abusive, scary, Arabic guys.
I can remember growing up, many times I’d come out at night time and Dad would be sitting in a room filled with clouds of smoke and they would be drinking and smoking, and gambling on anything.
And then he finally made it! He won a payout for an injury claim at work, so he didn’t need to gamble anymore. He had enough money. Life was set. But the compulsion took over and he gambled it all away: $23,000 in about two days.
As a result of his gambling, we lived in about thirty homes before I was 12, all throughout Geelong and other regions.
Mum and Dad split up about 10 times, so sometimes we’d live in homes that we’d move into with friends. Three homes that we moved into were brand new homes that we’d built. We’d finally get out of the rent trap, and that would last for 12 months. And then Dad would gamble it all away—three brand new homes; three restaurants that we’d owned. Dad gambled it away.
There’s a lot of lies that happen when you’re a compulsive gambler. Dad would say it’s Mum’s fault. Mum would accept the blame, and so she always carried this burden of guilt that Dad’s gambling ways were her fault. Oftentimes I was torn between Mum and Dad: half the time I’d be with Mum and the other half I’d be with Dad a bit.
And so they’d have big arguments. I mean, they sounded like they were going to kill each other just when they were talking about something nice. So when they were actually angry, it was even worse.
I can remember being a little boy upstairs in a house in Perth that we were renting and just crying my eyes out because my Mum and Dad would fight every single night, and that’s what I would go to bed listening to. I had a really clear sense of what was going on. Unfortunately for me, I grew up far too early.
One time I could hear pots getting thrown, and screaming at about 11 o’clock at night. I’d been in bed for about an hour and I couldn’t sleep, and I was crying up there. And I remember running downstairs and screaming at the both of them. That was a big thing to do. At that point—I know it wasn’t the case—I felt like I was taking my life into my hands.
I ran down and sort of said, “You guys need to cut it out right now!” Actually, moments like that, the impossible did happen: they did listen.
Mum ran away from Dad three or four nights later. Mum woke me up about three o’clock in the morning, and said, “Quick, sneak downstairs”. I had my little suitcase and we hopped on a plane and left Dad, and went to Geelong to live with her parents. Dad found out we weren’t there and chased us down again. He sold up everything including the business and drove back to Geelong. He drove ridiculously fast, hit a kangaroo, wiped out his car, and then taped it all up, and still found us.
The thing with Dad being a compulsive gambler is: he’s not an idiot. Gamblers are smart people with a dysfunction. So Dad had a lot of charisma—he would have made a brilliant salesman. He was excellent at talking his way out of things, which I suppose was why Mum kept coming back to him. So they got back together again, probably for the 10th time. At this point I would have been close to nine years old.
It’s important to me at this point to mention how well-meaning Mum and Dad were. They loved me incredibly, but due to Dad’s compulsive illness and the situation they found themselves in, it wasn’t possible to provide a stable family unit.
Next, when I was 12, we moved to a new house in Geelong and I moved to a new school. I’d made this little friend, and I said, “I’ll meet you at your place tonight.” So I rode down the street trying to find him, and I remember him saying he lived in number One, but I wasn’t sure of the street. And I went up and down on my bike on what felt like every street and knocked on the door of number One, and said “Is Adam here?” And I couldn’t find Adam at number One on any of these streets, but I found this young kid playing footy, and I said to him, “I can’t find my friend Adam, do you know where he lives?” And he said, “No I don’t, but you can play with me.” And we just hit it off, and became really good friends.
It turned out that his mum was a Christian.
I had never played any sports—Dad had never spent any time with me like that. But this kid was sport mad, and so he would be playing football and basketball. His mum would take me out to Laser-tag, and we did all kinds of fun stuff. It really was like the childhood I’d never had. And it really spoke to me in a massive way. It just changed everything, and it really opened my spirit up to hear what God was doing.
I loved playing sports like crazy. But something drew me into a whole heap of indoor conversations with this lady. Intellectually, I wanted to go outside. I would be inside thinking, “Why am I sitting here? I don’t want to be here, I want to be outside playing basketball.” But I just couldn’t stop listening to what she said about God. It really blew me away. To the point that her son would go, “You guys aren’t talking about God again are you?”
And I didn’t really have any regard for God, I was really following in the footsteps of my Father. My heart was full of anger and rage and bitterness. The nicest way to put it is that I didn’t have much love in my heart. I just had a growing hate and anger at life and people—abuse will do that to you.
So I would find myself sitting there, listening to this lady talk about God. She made this one statement and it absolutely stayed with me. She said, “If you’re going to make a decision to follow God, you’ve got to mean it with all your heart. You can’t just say, ‘Okay God, I follow you. Now come on, let’s see what you’re going to do.’ If you’re going to follow God, you’ve really got to say, ‘God, I really really mean this.’” And that just haunted me for weeks.
I would leave those conversations (this will show you how bad my heart was) and then go outside and swear my head off all the way down to the end of my street, just because I couldn’t swear in front of her. She was this nice Christian lady, but I had to get it out somewhere.
But God had been stirring my heart. Afterwards, for about four nights in a row, I said a salvation prayer at night before going to bed. I would say, “God please come into my life… forgive me my sin.” But when I finished, I knew I didn’t mean it with all my heart. And so I’d follow up that with, “God, if you’re really real, you’ve got to make me mean this with all my heart, because I know I’m not meaning it with all my heart now. So you’ve got to change it. You’ve got to help me mean this with all my heart.”
For four days I prayed the same thing. But I was still the same: still angry and swearing, the same person I was before. There was no life change.
That weekend, my friend’s new Mum took her son and me to a bikers’ picnic, where all these motorbike riders went and camped. It’s a big drink-up and they just do ridiculous things. It was a really bizarre environment for a Christian to take a young kid to. I don’t know about the wisdom of that now. But they would ride their bikes over jumps, and play a game that involved seeing who could get the biggest injury when they fell off their bike: stupid drunken games.
I came back from that weekend and the guy who lived over the road from me who was a priest, had passed away. Now, for all of my Father’s dysfunction, and even though I don’t agree with this now as a Christian, my Father said, “You’ve got to pray for that man over the road. You’ve got to pray for his soul.”
So, I thought, “Okay.” So when I was in bed, I prayed for this man’s soul. I had no idea what I was doing saying, “God I’ve got to pray for this guy.” And before I knew it—and I hadn’t intended to do this at all—I’d actually finished praying the whole salvation prayer. And I literally just fell straight asleep.
I woke up in the morning, and all I remember coming out of me was, “I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian.” It all just bubbled over. I would have looked crazy. I ran out of my room, yelling, “I’m a Christian.” Like I said, my family’s extreme. Even my salvation experience is a bit extreme.
My Mum and Dad just looked at me, because I changed interests every five minutes. I called the lady who had been sharing her faith with me, and I said, “I’ve become a Christian, I’ve really done it.” I was so excited.
She didn’t believe me either. No one believed me for ages. Now I’m a Minister, I think they get the idea.
It really did change my whole life. I almost instantly stopped swearing. But the most important thing was my heart changed. I know we say that like a really contrite thing. You know, “You let Jesus in your heart, and your heart will change, and he’ll make you new.” The truth was, I had desires to hurt people as I got older and overnight, God changed my heart, my life and my desires.
How that happens is a theological mystery. But spiritually—once I was blind, but now I see—that’s the work of God. I was 12 at the time. And I had to go find a church, so I went to this lady’s church.
The real redemptive part of this story is my family. I became a Christian and that revolutionised my whole life. But Mum and Dad for a further three or four years after that just thought I was being brainwashed. So I’d say to them, “Maybe I am being brainwashed, because you’ve put so much filth in there over the years, I actually need a good brainwashing.”
I never thought my parents had any hope of becoming Christians because they were so against the church and so against God, and they would argue with me all the time, just irrational arguments. I’d show him the man on the cliff, and I’d say “How are you going to get across the cliff, Dad?” And he’d say, “I’ll jump.”
But the truth was, even though I was a Christian, I actually don’t think I loved my parents, even though I thought I did. I was still carrying a lot of hurt and pain and those kind of things. And I suppose I know now, that’s part of getting Egypt out of your heart.
But I really would pray for them every week. When the church had the altar call and ask people if they’d like prayer, I’d go down every time and say, “Pray for my parents.” I was just badgering the pastors, they were really gracious. But one day, God challenged me that I wasn’t loving my parents and I realised I had a lot of hatred in there.
So I started doing acts of kindness: doing the dishes, even though I hated it, cleaning my room. I changed what I was like at home, I tried to serve them a bit better.
Honestly, it was about a month later that they both gave their life to Christ. They totally changed.
My Dad passed away in February this year, and I know that he had a faith, and that he and I had reconciled, and were really good mates, and he’s been a great Dad to my brother and me. In Dad’s later years, he was very affectionate and generous: he emptied out his super so that I could buy my first computer. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
And that whole dysfunction of the gambling side of things has been broken over our family. We can’t take any credit for that at all. I can’t take credit for my parents becoming Christian and changing their life. My brother is a Christian as well. God really changed my entire family, all because of something that I can take no control over. I feel like a God story. I can’t take credit for it. Now I’m ministry, that’s kinda still the case.
The lady’s church that I went to, I eventually ended up on staff there, then moved to Adelaide to be on staff at a church there, and now I’m in Queensland as an Associate Minister.
Going into ministry was something I really desperately wanted to do. I absolutely felt called to the ministry. As a young guy, that probably wasn’t the easiest thing. I had a few different jobs over the years, but ministry was all I ever wanted to do. Now, for me, the difference is that I wasn’t raised in the church, this isn’t just a nice career. I know there are other people out there like me, and even if their life isn’t covered in abuse, we’re all equally lost.
I was fortunate enough to not have the arrogance of a nice life. My need for God was just so blatantly obvious, that it happened a bit easier. I identify with people’s brokenness. There’s a lot of brokenness out there, even for seasoned Christians.
And I know it’s about Christ and the redemption he’s bringing about in our lives. He’s restoring the earth. He’s restoring us, his church.
Even though that was essentially 21 years ago now, it does still live with you; you live life with a bit of a limp. But it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s not a wound, it’s more of a scar.
We really feel like 2 Corinithians 5:17-21 is a life verse for us as a family. Verse 18 says, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”. Everything we do as ministers of reconciliation starts with what we have in God. There’s a lot of ministry happening, and sometimes you don’t see a lot of Christ’s love in it at all. But that’s something we try and remember. We want to minister to people in Christ’s love: it’s not just us giving that love to others, but us receiving it as well.
Daniel Abou-Zeid is the associate pastor at Catalyst Church in Ipswich, Queensland.