Don't Bet On It: Gambling And The Christian Faith

"Gambling is inevitable.” So began the introduction to the final report of the Commission on the Review of National Policy Toward Gambling. “No matter what is said or done by advocates or opponents of gambling in all its various forms, it is an activity which is practiced, or endorsed, by a substantial majority of Americans.”

No doubt that statement is true. Most Americans like to gamble now and again, and most of those who don’t have no qualms about those who do. The Commission issued its final report in 1976 after three years of research. The report contains two interesting—and seemingly contradictory—statements. First, it found that “most Americans gamble because they like to, and they see nothing wrong with it. This being so, they see no real distinction between going to the track to place a bet and backing their favorite horse with the local bookmaker.”

Second, the commission noted that although gambling is practiced by two-thirds of the American people and approved by perhaps 80 per cent of the population, it nevertheless “contributes more than any other single enterprise to police corruption in their cities and towns and to the well-being of the nation’s criminals.”

There in just two quotations is the whole debate concerning gambling. Like every good debate, there are two sides to the question. One side asks, “How can any activity which receives the approval of 80 percent of the people be considered wrong?” The other side replies, “How can we give our approval to any activity which so obviously opens the door to personal and civic corruption?”

There are a few questions about gambling which must be answered. What does the Bible say about gambling? Why should legalized gambling concern the Christian? Is gambling always wrong?

To be sure, Christians have not always agreed on the answers to those questions. In fact, there are three schools of thought on the question of gambling and the Christian faith. The first is the position which sees gambling on a small scale as a harmless social activity. This is the position of the Catholic Church. The second is the position which sees no great harm in gambling but opposes legalization on a major scale. Many mainline denominations take this position along with many individual Catholics. The third is the position which views gambling as a moral evil and therefore opposes it any form, public or private. Most evangelicals take the third view.

Having said that, it must be admitted that gambling is fairly popular among church members across the board. Tom Watson, Jr., in his recent book Don’t Bet On It (Regal Books, 1987) reports that, when asked, 8 out of 10 Roman Catholics classify themselves as gamblers. Gambling among Jews is pegged at 77 per cent, followed by Presbyterians and Episcopalians at 74 per cent, Methodists at 63 per cent, and Baptists at 43 per cent. Among those calling themselves nondenominational, 33 per cent say they gamble now and then. Watson notes that this last group includes the traditionally conservative Bible churches. As he says, “that figure sounds low when compared to the denominations, but it means that one out of every three conservative Christians may have no scruples about gambling.” (p.64)

Therefore, because Christians have not always agreed on gambling, it is worthwhile for us to examine the issue of gambling from a Christian perspective.

I. A Definition Of Gambling

The issue is more important than it might seem. It is sometimes said that buying life insurance or investing in the stock market is a form of gambling. If that is true, then most of us are guilty of gambling or (and this is what is intended by the argument) gambling is not wrong. Such a viewpoint can only be sustained by an imprecise, fuzzy definition.

The dictionary defines gambling as “to bet money on the outcome of a game, contest, or other event,” “to play a game of chance for money or other stakes.” Another more complicated definition says that gambling is “wagering money—or something of value—on an uncertain event whose outcome is dependent either wholly on chance or partly on chance and partly on skill.” Those definitions have in common two key elements: The first is the element of chance or luck. The second is the wagering of money.

However, those definitions leave out a key element which other definitions include: Gambling is “participation in any game of chance in which a prize is offered to the winners at the losers’ loss.” That is very important and must not be overlooked. True gambling means that for me to win you must lose or for you to win I must lose. It is this principle which is behind all forms of gambling—from the friendly Friday night poker game to the glittery casinos of Las Vegas. If the winner’s prize doesn’t come at the expense of the loser, then it’s not really gambling. Here, then, is a comprehensive definition: “Gambling is the betting of money—or something of value—on the outcome of an artificially created chance or uncertain event, whereby the prize money is not determined by value, service or goodwill but rather by chance, in such a way that the gain of the winners is at the expense of the losers.”

Therefore, there are three key elements in the definition of gambling: First, the betting of money or something else of value. Second, the winner is determined by a chance or uncertain event. Third, the gain of the winners is at the expense of the losers.

Such a definition is broad enough to include traditional casino gambling, the Friday night poker game, bingo, keno, raffles, lotteries, pari-mutuel betting, and other more exotic forms of wagering. It is narrow enough to exclude things like life insurance and investing in the stock market.

(Incidentally, the primary difference between gambling and life insurance or investing in the stock market is that the first involves artificially-created risks while the latter two involve risks inherent in life. That is, everyone is going to die. That is a determined factor; the only undetermined factor is when a given person will die. Life insurance does not create the risk of death, but merely spreads the risk out among many people. Likewise, the stock market will go up or down depending on various conditions in the economy. That is a determined factor; the only undetermined factor is when and by how much. Investing in the stock market does not create the risk of economic change, but merely spreads it among many people. Planning in light of the future certainty of death is not gambling nor is investing in view of future economic change.)

In light of the definition, it should be clear that horse racing is not gambling. Likewise, playing bingo is not gambling. But betting money on the outcome of a horse race or on the outcome of a bingo game is gambling. It is gambling because the winner of a horse race is an uncertain event and the winner of a bingo game is determined by chance. It is gambling because money is wagered. It is gambling because the winner’s prize is paid out of the loser’s money. The key point is that the money to pay the winner has to come from somewhere and the only somewhere it can come from is from the pockets of those who wagered and lost. Las Vegas is not, as is often claimed, a winner’s town. It is a loser’s town, kept in business by losers, kept running for losers. If everyone won, or if even most people won, or if anything other than a tiny minority won, Las Vegas would go out of business tomorrow. It is built on loser’s money. The casinos pay off the occasional winners and pocket the rest of the money.

To make the matter perfectly clear, the traditional evangelical opposition to gambling centers on the issue of money. It has nothing to do with horse racing, bingo, card playing, dice rolling, keno, roulette, poker, black-jack, football, baseball, basketball, or other games considered in and of themselves. In fact, the Christian view of life suggests that games and competition are healthy for the body and good for the soul. It is when those various events are used as avenues for gambling that the Christian becomes concerned.

II. Gambling And The Christian Faith

It is worth noting that the heading does not say “Gambling and the Bible.” The difference is significant for the Bible has relatively little to say about gambling. There are various references to the casting of lots in the Old Testament which may be similar to rolling dice. (Joshua 14:2, I Chronicles 25:7, Proverbs 16:33) However, the purpose of casting lots was to determine the Lord’s will in a given matter, not to make a financial gain. The only New Testament reference to anything that approaches modern gambling is the account of the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments at the foot of the cross. (Matthew 27:35)

Since the Bible does not deal with the issue directly, we are forced to look at the larger context of the Bible. When we do that, three major issues come to the surface.

1. The Issue Of Chance Versus The Providence Of God

Chance is a total absence of design or predictability. It is the lack of a purposeful plan. According to the dictionary, it is “the quality which causes unexpected, random, or unpredictable events.” Closely associated with chance is the concept of luck. Luck is what happens when unpredictable events turn out in your favor. Luck, then, is chance on your side. Bad luck is chance going against you. A third important term is fate: The impersonal forces at work behind the events of life.

All gambling is based on a belief in chance, luck, or fate. It is the belief there is some force out there called fate which randomly causes winners and losers. When you hit the daily double, luck was on your side. When the person next to you gets the ace you needed, luck was with him and against you.

All true gamblers are people of deep faith. Otherwise there would be no reason to gamble. The crucial point is that their faith is not in a personal God who orders the universe according to his will, but rather in some impersonal, random force which causes one man to get lucky while another goes bust.

It is a kind of Calvinism turned inside out. The true gambler believes. Down deep in his heart he really, truly believes. Not in anyone or anything (except maybe himself), but he believes. That’s why he goes back to the window for another $2 exacta. That’s why he antes up another ten dollars. That’s why he puts another quarter in the slot machine. That’s why he says “hit me” to the dealer. The true gambler is a true believer. Lady luck may yet smile on him.

How foreign all of this is to biblical faith in God. In the first place, there is no such thing as “chance” from a biblical point of view. Consider the words of Ephesians 1:11, “In him we were chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” Or consider Hebrews 1:3 which speaks of Christ who “upholds all things by the word of his power.” In Isaiah 44:24-25, the Lord speaks of His own sovereign control: “I am the Lord, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by himself. Who foils the signs of the false prophets and makes fools of diviners, who overthrows the learning of the wise.” In this context, the false prophets, diviners, and wise men are those who claim to understand the future. The Lord overthrows them because the future is in his hands, not in the hands of chance or luck or fate.

In that light, we ought to ponder the meaning of Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Which translated means, “Men can roll the dice, but God is in charge of how the numbers come up.”

Quite simply, the gambler believes in a false god he calls fate, luck or chance. That god is false because it does not exist. What seems to be chance is actually the sovereign plan of God being worked out on earth. Thus, gambling is based on a pagan premise and is itself a pagan activity.

It may be objected that most gamblers do not think of things in this light. What that really means is that most gamblers do not think. If they thought about what they were doing, they wouldn’t do it. I repeat. A true gambler is a true believer. At the moment he lays down his bet, he is a believer, not a thinker. His faith is misplaced and the object of his faith does not even exist, but the faith is real nonetheless.

(In saying that the gambler does not think, I do not mean to imply that skill is not involved in games like poker and blackjack or that skill is not involved in knowing how to play the ponies. Quite obviously, a great deal of skill is involved. There are many people who play poker poorly and few who consistently play it well. My point is that few gamblers think through the philosophical foundations of what they are doing. If they did, most of them would not do it.)

2. The Issue Of Greed Versus Contentment

The reason most gamblers do not stop to think about what they are doing is that they are motivated by greed—here defined as the desire to get something for nothing. That, of course, is what gambling is all about. If you win, you get back the money you put down plus a lot more. You bet a little in hopes of winning a lot. If it’s pari-mutuel betting, you are paid off according to the odds on the horse you chose. It if is poker, you win the pot which includes the money you put in plus the money everyone else put in. If it’s a lottery, you win a designated sum, an amount which is paid for by all those who didn’t win. If it is a football game, you win whatever amount you wagered with the bookie.

According to the Bible, there are three legitimate ways to get money. First, you can work for it. (II Thessalonians 3:10) Second, you can make money through wise investments. (Luke 19:1-27) Third, you can receive a gift or an inheritance. (II Corinthians 12:14) There is no fourth category.

Gambling is not work, for the gambler hopes to make money without working at all. Gambling is not an investment, for the gambler creates an artificial risk hoping to make easy money. Gambling is not a gift, for the money is won from the losers, not given as a gift.

Why, then, do people gamble? They gamble because they think with just a little bit of luck, they will win. And it doesn’t matter whether the prize is ten dollars or ten thousand dollars, the motivating force is still the same. Gambling offers a shortcut, a way to get ahead quickly, a way to make some easy money.

But isn’t it true that most people lose when they gamble? Indeed, most people do lose. Remember, if most people won, the race tracks would close down tomorrow. It is not winning which keeps people coming back, it is rather the hope of winning. The hope is fueled by two things: Blind faith in lady luck and simple greed. True gamblers know they probably won’t win at the craps table. But they might win and even though it’s a long shot, they keep on coming back.

Contrast that with the biblical principle of contentment. Consider Philippians 4:11-13, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

That last verse is often lifted out of the immediate context and used as a kind of spiritual pep pill. But taken in connection with the preceding verses, the meaning is that the Christian can find contentment in every situation through the power of the indwelling Christ.

Please understand. Contentment does not mean passive acceptance of a bad situation. It does not mean that I shouldn’t try to better myself. Contentment is not the opposite of ambition. But contentment does mean that if I find myself in a difficult position, I will thank God for the opportunity to trust him, I will use every legitimate means to improve the situation, but I will not fall into the trap of trying to take shortcuts in order to find an easy way out.

Let’s face it. It’s awfully tempting to put down five dollars in the office football pool. For one thing, the social pressure to go along is often enormous. For another thing, if fifty people play, that’s $250 you might win. And five dollars isn’t much against $250. What should you do? That’s a decision each person must make for himself. Just remember this: greed is the driving force behind the football pool. You might as well call it what it really is.

The same is true in every other kind of gambling. We’re just kidding ourselves is we think anything else.

Perhaps we should hear again the words of the Apostle Paul in I Timothy 6:6-10.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

3. The Issue Of Unconcern Versus Brotherly Love

Here we come close to the heart of the Christian faith. A long time ago a lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling a story about a man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead by the side of the road. Along came a priest, and then a Levite, who both passed by on the other side. Then a Samaritan happened upon the man, took pity on him, bandaged up his wounds, and took him to an inn. Which man, Jesus asked, was a neighbor of the one who fell into the hands of robbers? The lawyer said, “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

We call it the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The message is crystal-clear. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is anyone in need whose path I cross whose need I am able to meet. There are two parts to that answer. I have to first be aware that my brother has a need and then I have to be able to meet that need. If those two things are true, then the man is my neighbor.

By definition, the gambler when he gambles has no neighbors. He gambles by himself and for himself. His actions are utterly selfish. He knows that for him to win everyone else must lose but he goes ahead and gambles anyway. He is forbidden to care about the losers, for if he did, he would never gamble in the first place. He justifies his unconcern by the fact that he himself has lost money many times—and no doubt will again in the future—so if he gets lucky this time, well, it’s only right and fair. The love of money makes it easy to pass by on the other side.

It is the very opposite of what the Christian faith is all about. “If anyone says, ’I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (I John 4:20)

Billy Graham On Gambling

What does it all come to? The Christian case against gambling may be stated this way. We believe there is a God who lovingly watches over the affairs of men. He takes a personal interest in even the tiniest details. Because we believe in God, we reject the notion of luck or fate or chance. God has promised to meet the needs of his children. That means that even when things get rough—which they often do—we can trust him to lead us through the valley. Therefore, we reject the greedy shortcuts offered on every hand. Finally, our God has called us to be neighbors to those around us. That means we can never say, “It doesn’t matter where the money comes from.” For the Christian it always matters.

Sometimes we are guilty of thinking that issues like this don’t really matter. Or we think that there is some kind of moral difference between betting a little and betting a lot. On that point, we need to hear the words of Billy Graham.

The appeal of gambling is somewhat understandable. There is something alluring about getting something for nothing. I realize that, and that is where the sin lies. Gambling of any kind amounts to theft by permission. The coin is flipped, the dice are rolled, or the horses run, and somebody rakes in that which belongs to another. The Bible says, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” (Genesis 3:19, KJV) It doesn’t say, “By the flip of a coin shalt thou eat thy lunch.” I realize that in most petty gambling no harm is intended, but the principle is the same as in big gambling. The difference is only the amount of money involved. (The Billy Graham Counselors Manual, p.110)

My conclusion is simple: There are good, solid reasons for our opposition to all forms of gambling—legal and illegal. And although many Christians gamble, we may fairly say that gambling itself rests on principles which are the very opposite of the Christian faith.

III. The Different Kinds Of Gambling

We may for the sake of convenience identify five popular forms of gambling. Each one is based on greed in one form or another. In each form, the greed masquerades as something else.

1. There is pure gambling. By this I refer to games of chance which involve no skill whatsoever. These are games which are played solely for the purpose of betting money. Examples are bingo, keno, lotto, lotteries and raffles. Included in this category would also be slot machines and most dice games.

This is the worst kind of gambling because it is based on pure chance. Therefore, you might call it pure paganism. It is greed masquerading as harmless entertainment.

2. There is gambling on sports events. This has a bit more redeeming value since an actual contest of skill is involved. Yet the game and the gambling are two separate things. It is greed masquerading as team spirit.

3. There is gambling on card games. This, of course, is a big part of the Las Vegas scene but it is also found in many homes when the boys get together on Friday night. It is greed masquerading as friendship.

4. There is gambling on charitable lotteries. A great many good organizations use raffles or lotteries as a way to make money. Typically you buy a ticket for a small price and the winner is chosen at random from a container holding all the tickets sold. The cost of the prize is deducted from the pot and the charity gets the rest.

This presents most of us with a dilemma. If we buy a ticket, we are gambling, no doubt about it. If we don’t we may appear to be saying that we don’t support a worthy organization. But greed is still the motivating factor. The charity knows it can raise more money by appealing to greed than to altruism. They only have a raffle in order to encourage people to give who wouldn’t do so otherwise. It is greed masquerading as charity.

(That comment may seem…well, it may seem uncharitable and I do not mean it to be so. My greater point is this: If you really believe in a cause, you shouldn’t have to be bribed in order to give to it. If you want to give to the American Cancer Society, go right ahead. But don’t wait for a lottery in hopes of winning a new Monte Carlo. I do believe in charitable giving, but I also believe there are better ways to raise money which do not involve gambling.)

I do not have time or space to discuss the question of church-sponsored gambling. It is, however, worthy of note that many Catholic leaders have come out against the practice in recent years and some bishops have banned it altogether. Those who believe in such things as church-sponsored bingo games justify them as harmless diversions which help meet the church budget. The answer to that is that God’s work is to be supported by the sacrificial giving of God’s people and not by raffles, bingo, or lotteries. Furthermore there is no such thing as harmless gambling any more than there is such a thing as harmless greed.

5. There is gambling on horse races. More and more states are using pari-mutuel betting as a way to raise money without raising taxes. It is greed masquerading as good government.

The only point I would add to the above analysis is that not everyone who gambles is a greedy person. No doubt the prospect for financial gain often takes a back seat to other, nobler motivations. A person who bets ten dollars on a football game may truly feel that his relatively small wager is a sign of his school spirit. That fact is true and such a trivial amount of money is not likely to corrupt him or hurt anyone else. The same may be said for those who play bingo for money and the guys who play poker on Friday nights. More often, such small-time gambling is motivated by a simple desire to get together and have fun. The money involved simply makes things more exciting.

My point is that greed is always involved in gambling, even in the nickel and dime variety. Good motives can’t remove the element of greed because greed is inherent in the system. When you decide to buy a raffle ticket, or when you bet twenty dollars on a round of golf, your motives may be noble and true and you may not feel greedy at all. But don’t kid yourself. Greed is always there. It’s built into the system every time you gamble. Take away the temptation to make some easy money and no one would ever gamble again.

IV. The Christian And Gambling

We come at last to the bottom-line question: How should the Christian feel about gambling? I have three suggestions to make.

1. Let us be careful to live in a manner consistent with our Christian faith. That simply means living with the Bible as our guide. Gambling is based on a set of pagan presuppositions, all of which are contrary to the Christian faith. If we truly believe that God has promised to supply all our needs, then we don’t need to gamble in order to help him out.

Am I thereby suggesting that if you put a quarter in a slot machine when you go through Las Vegas on vacation, you have sinned against God? Let me put it this way. The sin may be a small one, but little sins often add up to big transgressions. Concerning that hypothetical quarter, at least this much is true: You have wasted your money and your time. You have also given in to the “get rich quick” temptation. You may also be leading someone else astray by your thoughtless example (and they may spend far more than your prodigal quarter). At the very least, you are acting in a manner inconsistent with the Christian faith you profess to believe. The same is true for spending a dollar to buy a lottery ticket. In both cases, the money is not the issue. Great principles are at stake whether you spend a lot or a little.

2. Let us take our Christian convictions with us into the voting booth. This is always a good principle, but especially on an issue like gambling. Here in Illinois we have horse racing, dog racing and the state lottery. Soon we will have riverboat gambling. Plus we have betting lines in the newspapers and TV shows offering to show us how to beat the spread. There are office pools, bingo games, who knows how many clandestine floating card games. Gambling is big in Illinois. Is it any wonder that organized crime is also big in Illinois? William Webster, then serving as the director of the FBI, said in 1985, “We know of no situation in which legalized gambling was in place where we did not eventually have organized crime.”

Proverbs 16:8 says, “Better is a little with righteousness than a great income with injustice.” This means that some things which a government might do in order to raise additional revenue would be better left undone because of the harm those things might do in society. It is a fundamental principle that the role of government is to uphold the welfare of its citizens. Legalized gambling puts the state in the business of sanctioning, sponsoring, and promoting gambling enterprises. Is that what we want for the state of Illinois?

I suggest that we take our Christian convictions with us into the voting booth. And we ought to vote our convictions whether or not we think we will win.

3. Let us ask God to teach us contentment with what we already have. This is the central issue in the gambling debate. Do we believe that God will take care of all our needs all the time? If the answer is yes, then we don’t need to help him out by gambling. If the answer is no, then we’ve got problems a lot bigger than whether or not to buy a lottery ticket.

But God has promised to take care of his children. And he has done it over and over again. What we truly need, he has promised to supply—through miraculous means if necessary. The least child of God is in better shape than the biggest high roller in Las Vegas. His luck will run out; the promises of God last forever.

In some ways, the question about gambling is like the question about social drinking. It is an area of freedom about which the Bible does not lay down an absolute rule. Yet we are not left without biblical guidelines. There is more than enough clear teaching in the Bible to help us make a wise choice. With that in mind, let us renew our trust in God and leave the gambling to someone else.

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