On the surface, gambling appears to be a fun activity that appeals to people for a variety of reasons. For some, gambling provides a source of entertainment. For others, it provides hope for a better life. Regardless of what aspect of gambling is appealing, at its core it is the manifestation of many sins against God all rolled into one brilliantly marketed package that entices people from all walks of life to partake in its pleasures and ultimately suffer its consequences.
Before we get too deep into the topic, we need to pause and look at a definition. Gambling can be defined as the act of risking something of value, usually money, on the outcome of an event involving chance and uncertainty that is beyond our control in the hope of winning something of greater value.
A Sin-Filled Act
One of the reasons gambling is such a big issue for Christians is that it is the concentration of many different sins in one single act. I delayed this topic until now in order to focus on the individual sins before diving into the topic that brings so many of them together. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the many sins of gambling.
1. Gambling is Built on Greed
1 Timothy 6:9-10 – “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
Greed and the desire to get rich hook many people into the world of gambling. Some do it out of desperation and others do it out of hope. Either way, there is a sinful desire to get wealth in an ungodly way. Just look at the way gambling is advertised to see how they are feeding people’s greed to entice them to play. One good example is the lottery. I often see signs along the road that simply show the size of the jackpot. Have you noticed how those jackpots continue to get bigger and bigger over time? The prize amounts that used to make headlines no longer generate excitement, so lotteries have started reducing odds to create jackpots large enough to grab the headlines and entice us to play. Not surprisingly, this strategy works.
2. Gambling Denies God’s Sovereignty
Proverbs 22:2 (NASB) – “The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all.”
Isaiah 46:9b-10 – “for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”
One of the core attributes of God is His sovereignty. He is the ruler of all and nothing happens apart from His will. When we gamble, we’re attempting to circumvent God’s sovereignty and are ultimately sending the message that His plans are not good enough for our lives. We’re not satisfied with the circumstances in which He’s placed us and we seek to change it apart from Him. By gambling, we are saying we would rather serve the false God known as luck than trust in the sovereignty of our perfect Creator.
3. Gambling is an Act of Poor Stewardship
Proverbs 13:11 – “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.”
Proverbs 28:22 – “A stingy man hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him.”
God is the owner of everything and we’re simply in charge of managing it for Him during our lives. As managers of God’s money, risking its loss at a game that has odds stacked against us is not wise. When you walk into a casino, you know that if you play long enough, you will lose. You probably wouldn’t be too pleased if your investment manager took your retirement money and headed to a casino. Our stewardship responsibility is to work, save and wisely invest our resources for God’s glory, not foolishly risk them away.
4. Gambling Feeds Materialism and Discontentment
In Luke 12:15, Jesus said to a crowd “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Hebrew 13:5 – “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”
Gambling causes us to dream of the “what-ifs” of winning large amounts of money. It causes us to not be content in our own situation, but to covet and desire the lives of others. As Luke 12:15 points out, our lives are so much more than the sum of our possessions. There’s a reason why lottery winners seldom live happy lives. When we seek our happiness in things, they will always let us down. Our identity should be found in Christ and not in the material things of this world.
5. Gambling Takes Advantage of the Poor
Proverbs 14:31 – “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”
Gambling entices the poor to play in an attempt to improve their financial situation. Studies have shown that a high percentage of low-income individuals actually believe buying lottery tickets is their best chance for financial stability. A Duke University study from the late 1980s showed that the poorest third of households purchased over half of all lottery tickets. The poor have developed such a fatalistic mindset that they are willing to overlook the fact that on average, a person loses 47 cents for every dollar they spend on the lottery. We all know that the house will always win in the end. It’s the way the games are designed. Sadly, those that can’t afford to lose money are the ones feeding the gambling machine in the hopes that they somehow come out ahead.
6. Gambling Violates the Command to Love Our Neighbor
Mark 12:29-31 – [When asked what commandment was the most important of all, Jesus responded by saying], “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Gamblers who win money do so at the cost of others who lost. We are violating the second commandment when we profit on the loss of others. At the same time, by even playing the game, we allow the gambling organizer to profit and then use that money to ensnare more people.
7. Gambling Threatens Our Families
1 Timothy 5:8 – “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Proverbs 15:27 – “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live.”
Gambling directly threatens our ability to provide for our families financially. Not only that, it also brings along a host of other consequences for our families. Those addicted to gambling are more likely to commit suicide, suffer from anxiety and depression, and be involved in crime. In short, gambling tears families apart.
8. Gambling Devalues Work
Proverbs 28:19 (NIV) – “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty.”
God gave us work as a blessing and a way to provide for our families. Take a minute and search scripture for the term “sluggard” and see all the warnings against the person that would try to avoid work. Gambling appeals to the sluggard by giving him false hope of gaining wealth apart from work. Even when a person hits the jackpot, it’s like the old saying, a fool and his money are soon parted. Without the wisdom that came from earning the money, it will soon be squandered or used to the detriment of the individual.
Lotteries are a game where numbers are selected randomly in order to determine a winner. They definitely fit the definition of gambling. Our country has a long history with lotteries, even going back to the use of one by the British to fund the Jamestown Colony in 1612. They were later used for various purposes from funding the American Revolution to helping rebuild the South after the Civil War. There was eventually a 70 year prohibition that lasted from 1894 to 1964. Today, lotteries exist in 44 of the 50 states and over $70 Billion in lottery tickets are sold each year. To understand why states run lotteries, consider that in 2010, states kept an average of 33% of every dollar spent (source: US Census Data). The lottery is an incredible money-generating machine funded with voluntary dollars.
States can polish the lottery message how they want and put up billboards to pat themselves on the back for all the supposed good they do with the revenue, but to call the lottery anything but a tax on the poor and exploitation of those who don’t understand math is a lie. The state could never pass a tax that levies the majority of its proceeds from the poor and uneducated, but they can run a lottery that accomplishes that very thing. The person playing the lottery shares the responsibility, but that doesn’t alleviate the guilt of the government for taking advantage of them.
The lottery has done such a good job marketing to the poor that those being abused are quick to defend the very system that takes their money. The NY Times estimated that as many as 50 million people are spending an average of $1,000 per year on lottery tickets. If those individuals would instead invest that $1,000 each year from age 20 to age 65 at a 6% return, it would be worth over $210,000 by the time they retire. However, by throwing money away in hopes of winning the lottery, they are perpetuating the cycle of poverty. The real hypocrisy of the situation is that the government talks about taking from the rich and giving to the needy while running the lottery to fund the government on the backs of the poor, guaranteeing they remain that way.
Where there’s easy money to be made, everyone wants a piece of the action. Even charities are starting to offer lottery-like opportunities where individuals can buy tickets with a portion of the sales going to their charity. The idea of the “house” portion going to charity makes some people feel better about playing the game. The bottom line is that these games are no better than the state-run lotteries. People aren’t buying tickets out of a desire to support the charity or they would just donate the money directly so none of it went back out to the prize winner. In reality, these charities are also taking advantage of the poor by appealing to their greed and enticing them with an opportunity to win a large sum of money. The fact that any charity would lead people to sin and then profit off the poor is enough reason to find another charity to support.
Investing vs. Gambling
I’m often asked how investing and gambling are different. There are fundamental differences between the two although individuals can take legitimate investments and use them as a way to gamble in a game of chance.
Here is a short list of differences between the two activities:
1. Expectations – In gambling, you know that if you play long enough, the house is going to win and you’re going to lose. Your hope is that you defy the odds and come out on top. There is risk in investing, but you go into it with a reasonable expectation of getting your money back along with a positive return for the risk you took.
2. Ownership – When you invest, you are actually purchasing an object of value, whether that be a loan or ownership in a property. Depending on the form of ownership, you will likely have an opportunity to get out without a total loss if things start to go poorly. In gambling, you don’t own anything and it’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition.
3. Relationship to Work – While gambling is the enemy of work, investing is built on the economics of business, which values and rewards work.
4. Exploitation – Gambling exploits people and any winnings come directly from the losses of others. Profits from investing are typically generated from business activity. Take stocks for example. When you purchase a stock, you are buying ownership of a business. That business makes money by delivering a valuable service or product to its customers. It’s a profitable scenario for both the business owners and the consumer.
Gambling is not a good form of entertainment. Even if you could somehow avoid all the sins, you are ultimately feeding a system that preys on the vulnerable. Regardless of the reason that you choose to gamble, there is always a better option. Instead of betting on a sporting event, grab a friend and go to a game together. Instead of buying lottery tickets, save the money and use it to start an investment account. Instead of playing the charitable lottery game, give that money directly to a charity that honors God or use it to help someone in need. When you count your chips at the end, you’ll have true riches that gambling could never deliver.
Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996. He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.