Back in 2007 I had to do some thinking on gambling. I had a problem. Not in that sense. But a bunch of the girls at church had organised a night at the Dogs. And I needed to know whether that was right. The issue has resurfaced. Some of teh lads were invited to a poker night by a non-christian mate. This is the article I wrote back then. And at the end I’ve included a few more thoughts.
Gambling is defined as, ‘an agreement between two parties whereby the transfer of something of value is made dependent upon an uncertain event, in such a way that one party will gain and the other lose’. There is no direct commandment in the Bible forbidding participation in gambling. But neither is it encouraged. So what do we do? Let me suggest that gambling is wrong for the following five reasons.
1. Gambling indiscriminately redistributes wealth
The Bible permits three legitimate ways in which wealth can exchange hands.
by giving and benefiting from the loving, sacrificial generosity of others
by working for it and being paid a wage in return
by exchange in payment for gifts and services
Anything else is theft. Therefore, even though it’s permissible by law, by God’s standards gambling is an inappropriate way of gaining wealth.
Gambling is a way of accumulating wealth through appeal to chance that relies on the willing participation of others. It inevitably leads to the redistribution of wealth. Many who participate will be losers and a few will be winners. The method of redistribution in gambling is indiscriminate. There’s no way that gambling can redistribute wealth to the needy or the deserving. And there’s nothing Christian about that.
In this regard, gambling is different from other economic activities. There’s always risk in investing in the stock market but it’s different to gambling. Investment rewards knowledge to a significant degree. That’s why insider trading works. Of course if we haven’t the foggiest idea what we’re doing on the stock market it becomes a gamble. But that’s why some of us employ others to invest our money on our behalf.
2. Gambling appeals to our covetousness
Jesus responded to the crowd in Luke 12, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’
The basic impulse behind gambling is greed. Greed gets a bad press in the Bible and rightly so. This basic sin is the father of many other evils. The reason why people gamble is because they hope to become wealthy. We do it because we want something for nothing. It’s nonsense of course. But our greed for more is what fires the decision to do it. It’s idolatry because wealth then becomes the object of our desire rather than the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom. We’d do well to heed the warning of Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10, ‘the love of money is the root of all sorts of evils’.
We may not feel that we’re being greedy when we place a £2 bet on ‘Lucky Lady’ at the Wimbledon Dog Track. We may not be. We may not care too much whether we win or not. Personally, I think that’s unlikely. After all, the added excitement that placing a bet at the dogs only comes about because of the thrill of winning or the anxiety of losing. The truth is we do care. We’d like something for nothing even if we’re not about to book a two week stay in Las Vegas.
In our determination to root out this covetousness we ought also to be wary of the free offers that companies often dangle before us. If we need the thing that’s being offered then we should go and buy one. We may think that we’re saving more money for the gospel by getting a business to pay for our essentials. But by participating in the competition we’re perpetuating the belief within a company that this sort of thing works. It does but only because we’re covetous. Christians need to be different.
3. Gambling denies responsible stewardship
The Bible is less interested in ownership than stewardship [Genesis 1:28, 9:1&2]. The possessions and wealth that God has given us are not our own [Psalm 24:1]. We’re caretakers of what God has given us and we will be held responsible for the quality of our stewardship [Matthew 25:14-30]. Throwing money away and relying on a system of chance to come up trumps isn’t good stewardship. The money spent on lottery tickets will be hard to justify when God calls us to account.
Someone said that it’s better to throw a fiver down the toilet than place a bet because at least that way we won’t be tempted to do it again in the hope of winning the next time! Gambling is a reckless use of God’s resources.
4. Gambling encourages a delusional view of reality
Gambling makes great boasts about the possibilities of winning. Most people don’t win. But so persuasive is the advertising and such is the stupidity of our hearts that we always think that we might. It could be me! We end up convinced that the way to be wealthy in this world is to be lucky. And so gambling separates two things that the wisdom literature tends to connect, wealth and work. There’s never a one for one correspondence. There are lots of people who work hard who don’t end astronomically wealthy. But gambling severs the dignity of work from the hope of financial gain. It offers the hope of riches without labour. That’s a delusional take on the way most things work in the world. But because winning sounds plausible gambling is inherently addictive. We may think we’d never become addicted to gambling. But doesn’t everyone think that? Every gambling addict started with something small at one stage.
And so the Christian approach to gambling ought to factor in the protection of others. We ought to protect those who may fall victim to an addiction to gambling. We ought to approach potentially addictive activities like drinking and gambling with caution rather than being recklessly dismissive. Wouldn’t it be awful if someone’s life and that of their family was wrecked as a result of getting taste for the win from an innocent trip to the Dogs?
5. Gambling promotes the exploitation of others
The poor are perhaps especially vulnerable to the temptation presented by gambling. The poor show a disproportionate interest in gambling activity. Studies show that 80% of lottery tickets are bought by 20% of people and of these a great proportion are low income, minority men with little education. In Britain in 2003 the gambling industry had a turnover of more than £42 billion with losses to gamblers of more than £8 billion. This will only get worse under the Governments’ new Gambling Act.
The fact that people willingly gamble doesn’t make it right. People willingly do all sort of stupid things that are detrimental to their well being and that of others. We should educate and legislate to prevent that happening. As someone has said, ‘Gambling is a kind of theft by mutual agreement, but it is still theft, just as duelling, which is murder by mutual agreement is still murder’. Some people justify their actions by claiming that they are playing merely for entertainment and that they can afford a few bets. It’s true that a night out at Wimbledon Dogs is still cheaper than going to a premiership rugby match. But by betting [not attending] we’re supporting a system that’s inherently unrighteous and exploitative. We can’t think of it as a legitimate leisure activity whilst it damages people.
Should Christians gamble? No. The lottery, betting on the dogs and even the school raffle are ‘out of bounds’.
As an aside, on the school raffle, our new policy is to purchase the tickets ourselves but hand the tickets back and ask for them not to be included in the draw. That way the school gets the money, we don’t proliferate gambling and we don’t ask any of our friends to get involved! I’m really keen that local money should be poured into our schools so that our children benefit. I’m sure others are as well. But why not raise money by appealing to our higher motives rather than to our covetousness? Why do schools have to appeal to our covetousness to get us to finance the education of the next generation? Rampant self interest that the Bible calls sin, that’s why. But perhaps that’s an issue for another time!
If you wanted to chase up some of these issues further, the following resources proved invaluable in preparation.
- ‘Gambling’, Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, IVP
- ‘Should the Stewards Object?’ A Biblical Approach to Gambling, Michael Hill, The Briefing, Issue 305, Feb 2004
- ‘This Present Age: Our Struggle not to Covet’ Phillip Jensen, The Briefing, Issue 280, January 2002
- ‘A Losing Bet – Why Christians Should Avoid Lottery Fever’ Al Mohler
- ‘America’s Gambling Obsession: A Losing Bet’, Al Mohler
- Christian Institute, ‘Gambling Briefing Paper’, Christian Institute, ‘Gambling with our Future’
For an alternative position
Ra MaLaughlin, ‘Gambling’, Third Millennium Ministries
These are my notes from my reading in Frame, the Doctrine of the Christian Life
Gambling should be understood under the category of financial irresponsibility.
There are six good reasons not to gamble.
- it can be linked to the worship of fate or chance.
- it can be psychologically addictive
- it can involve covetousness
- it cvan be a weaste of time and money and therefore a cause of poverty
- it can be thought of as a substitute for useful work
- it can fall under the control of organized crime
But it may not be necessarily wrong to gamble. There are cases in which not one of teh six categories is fulfilled. Taking part in the office World Cup sweepstake for example. If we enter using money earmarked for recreation, without addiction or false worship, it can be a harmless bit of fun. It can engender good interpersonal relationships with colleagues. It doesn’t necessarily involve covetousness because we probably don’t expect to win and if we do the money becomes our anyway! I think a poker night comes under this. I’ve loosened up on this. Previously, in fact in 2007 I would have said we shouldn’t. But I’m not going to bind anyone’s conscience where the Bible doesn’t. I don’t think I’ve gone liberal. It’s true that I think that there are bigger fish to fry. I’d always oppose state sponsored gambling. And I’m not going to encourage my kids. But if I’d spend £20 going to the theatre for a night out I can surely spend the same amount for an evening of cards, as long as I won’t be gutted to lose it.