Gambling? So what's wrong with that? If it is done in moderation, isn't it just a bit of harmless fun?

(This article looks at the subject particularly as it relates to Canada a few years ago, but the principles are certainly more widely applicable. Some material was taken from notes by Bud Talbert, of Edmonton, Alberta. His notes have been expanded, with his permission.)

Arguing in its favour, some will say: Gambling channels huge amounts of money into education and social programs each year. This form of “recreation” provides thrills and excitement for an estimated 80% of the adult population of Canada, and a growing percentage of the under-aged population too. The industry created over 200,000 jobs in 2002 and the number is growing.

Some complain about the damage it causes, but only 4 to 5% of those involved can justly be called “problem gamblers.” That is not even 2 million people nation wide. (The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse puts the figure at about half that.) Most people don’t lose that much when they gamble. Besides, it’s fun to win money–and maybe have the chance to win millions of dollars. Think of how such a windfall could be used for good!

That might be the reasoning of those promoting betting as harmless fun. But it was not always looked upon that way. In 1892 the Criminal Code of Canada, following that of Great Britain, placed a ban on all forms of gambling except horse racing. In 1969 the code was amended to permit groups “to use lotteries to fund worthwhile activities.” In 1985 the code was further changed to allow for VLT’s and slot machines, also giving the provinces control over gambling in their jurisdiction.

Since then gambling has grown into an annual $13 billion industry. (Alberta’s share was just under $2 billion last year.) That is about a third as much as the annual revenue of the agriculture industry for the whole country. Internet gambling, the “new kid on the block,” accounted for $5 billion in 2003 revenues. Of great concern, a significant and growing number of Internet gamblers are youth.

One dictionary describes gambling as "playing a game of chance for high stakes." Henlee Barnette says: “Three basic factors appear in the process of gambling: the payoff, the element of pure chance, and the agreement to pay by the bettors” (Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics, p. 257). A Salvation Army writer defines it as “an act of risking property that gives material advantage based on chance and at the expense of others” (Faith Today, March/April 2007, p. 29). That is helpful.

Lotteries, bingos, betting pools, and casino games are examples of the many forms of gambling. As suggested by the above definitions, these tend to have several things in common.

For one thing, each requires a surrender of funds or property by the gambler, with the statistical probability of almost certain loss. That is a high risk indeed–some would say a rather foolish risk. We hear about the big pay-days of the few. But in reality almost everyone loses. In fact, one person’s gain necessitates that the others lose! The winner could not win without it being a detriment to others to some extent.

Second, as noted, the gambler abandons himself to blind chance or accident. If he is to win, that will be the basis of it. Any money he receives will not be legitimate wages for hard work. He is attempting to get something for nothing at the expense of others. S

ome years ago a political party in Saskatchewan created a lottery to raise money for their upcoming election campaign. But did no one notice how foreign that is to the pioneer spirit of the province? Communities were built through many years of hard work by the citizens, and by neighbour helping neighbour, not by taking selfish advantage of others.

Now, some further food for thought.

1) Gambling sells an illusion, not reality.
Notice how every commercial for gambling shows the individual winning–with no exceptions. There is upbeat music, excitement, dancing and happy smiles all around. You never see a person hanging his head despondently, wondering aloud how he is going to buy groceries this week.

Yet we know that for every winner there are multitudes of losers. This amounts to false advertising. But it is typical of Satan’s methods. He disguises himself as “an angel of light” (II Cor. 11:14), seemingly concerned for the welfare of those he tempts. Look at what he did in Eden with “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Before the gullible, he dangles the “passing pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25), denying, or glossing over the pain and bitter loss ahead.

2) Gambling negates Christian love.
Romans 12:10 exhorts us to “be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another.” “Through love [we are to] serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). And the essence of true Christ-like love is sacrificial giving. But that is not the principle behind gambling. In order to sustain the gambling industry the number of losers must always far exceed the number of winners. By design, every winner becomes one at the expense of many others. (Some even suggest therefore that gambling is a form of stealing.)

It is simply impossible to “prefer others” and at the same time seek to profit at their expense. And it is difficult to escape the conclusion that every winner has taken advantage of some who are poor and weak, and some perhaps who gamble obsessively and addictively. And studies document that, at least for some, seeing others defeated and humiliated, is part of the enjoyment of winning. That is hardly being “kindly affectionate” toward them!

But is it not true that many lotteries devote a portion of the money that comes in to charitable causes? Are we not helping others by purchasing a lottery ticket? (Yes, that is the “carrot” used to coax the donkeys buy tickets.) But a close examination will show that often a far smaller percentage of money goes to those charities than many would expect.

More importantly, are we to say that we will only give for what we can get out of it? That is exactly the mind set Satan accused godly Job of having–that he only served God because he was so blessed materially (Job 1:9). But it was not true--and it should not be true of us. If the charity is a good one, we can kindly give to it what we are able. But let us leave the carrots for the donkeys!

3) Gambling promotes greed and covetousness.
Remove the hope of material gain and gambling falls to the floor like an empty bed sheet. The anticipation of winning money or property does not simply make the game more interesting. It is inherent in gambling. But that is not the motivation that pleases the Lord. Covetousness--lusting for what belongs to others--was forbidden in the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 20:17). So was stealing from others (vs. 15). It is sobering to observe that God’s Word describes covetousness as a form of idolatry (Col. 3:5).

4) Gambling is contrary to godly stewardship.
The Lord Jesus exhorts us not to lay up treasures on earth, but to seek to lay up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-20). We do this as we invest the resources He gives us in supporting the proclamation of the gospel and the building of His church. Paul thanked the Philippian Christians for sending funds to aid his ministry, saying, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account” (Phil. 4:17).

But how does this square with gambling away what God has given us in hopes of selfish gain–with the overwhelming likelihood that it will be lost and gone? The Bible says “God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things may have an abundance for every good work” (II Cor. 9:8). Instead, the gambler’s money disappears down a black hole How does that “honour the Lord with [our] possessions,” as we are told to do (Prov. 3:9)?

5) Gambling is essentially a heathen activity.
The Bible says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (Jas. 1:17). What we have comes to us from the gracious hand of God. It is a gift of His sovereign Providence. “He [the Lord] makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends [His] rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 6:45).

But gambling depends on trusting a mindless fate for gain, not Almighty God. Its real gods are luck and chance, with riches coming from the hand of some lottery organizer. Have you ever heard a gambler praising the grace and mercy of the Lord for his winnings? (And how could God approve of something so foreign to the principles of His Word?) The winner will more likely say, “This is my lucky day. Lady Luck was kind to me today.” His anthem is, “Praise Lottery from whom all blessings flow.”

6) Gambling has the potential to enslave.
The Apostle Paul said that while all things were lawful for him he did not want to be “brought under the power of any” (I Cor. 6:12). Just as drinking alcohol presents the threat of addiction, so does gambling. (And sadly, governments have become slavishly addicted to gaming as well. They have designed things so that many programs seem to depend upon it to remain viable.)

There is something seductive about the prospect of making money fast, and with little effort. But so often it brings with it painful consequences (Prov. 28:20, 22). Barnette says of the problem gambler, “He habitually takes chances; gambling absorbs all of his interests; he is optimistic and never learns from losing; he never stops while winning; he risks too much; he enjoys a strange tension between pleasure and pain.”

Statistics prohibit us from accepting gambling as benign enjoyment. Millions of Canadians are affected by its problems every year. An obsession with gambling leads to growing debt, loss of employment and loss of income. It brings the estrangement of family members, and it often leads to the sins of deception, cheating and theft to support the habit.

7) Gambling attracts criminal associations.
There is a reason why organized crime and gambling get along so well. The two make perfect bedfellows–each striving to gain at the expense of others. Easy money is to be made by gambling, so the criminal element loves it. A great deal associated with the gambling industry is corrupt.

Phil Johnson says gambling “breeds crime and corruption; it undermines character; it does not promote godliness; it violates private industry; it undermines the good of society; it exploits the poor; and it promotes false values” (“Gambling: The Moral Antithesis of Charity,” Pulpit Live, April 12, 2007).

8) Gambling does great harm to society.
One of the dangers of a welfare system is that it tends to dampen the incentive to work. If the government will support me, why should I bother? And gambling can have a similar effect. It seems so easy to get something for nothing–to sit back and wait for the luck of the draw to meet my needs.

But legitimate labour is the method God intends us to use to earn a living. That is how healthy communities are established and maintained. For the Christian it is also the way we gain the resources to support Christian ministry. It is the labourer who is “worthy of his wages” (Lk. 10:7), not the gambler. In fact, the Bible says, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (II Thess. 3:10)!

The person may say, “Oh, I only spend a couple of bucks on a ticket every once in awhile. How does that do any harm?” And perhaps it does little...perhaps. But think of the industry which so much of that money goes to support. An industry that preys on the weak and the poor in the community. To gamble is to become complicit in that tragic wrong.

The Bible says, “None of us lives to himself or dies to himself” (Rom. 14:7). We have a responsibility to consider how our actions will affect others around us. We should compassionately “remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10), not participate in taking from them the little they have. In truth, “He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, and He will pay back what he has given” (Prov. 19:17).

The Bottom Line
If we are to “abstain from every form of evil” (I Thess. 5:22), then the real question is not “Why shouldn’t I gamble?” but “Why should I?” An honest look at this practice shows it again and again to be contrary to godly living and to our need to depend on God. It is from His hand that our needs are supplied. We are to trust in Him, no rely on a roll of the dice.

As I work on this article, some friends are preparing to return to the mission field. The Lord called Dave and Judy to share the gospel of grace with a remote tribe in the jungles of New Guinea. They labour so far from civilization that supplies must be air-dropped to them every few months. But they have surrendered the material comforts of Canada, and contact with friends and family, because they believe in what they are doing.

The rewards for sacrificial service for Christ are nothing like the passing thrill of winning a lottery. They are eternal (cf. I Thess. 2:19). And in contrast to the dubious winnings of the gambler, “The blessing of the Lord makes one rich, and He adds no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22).