From sports betting to card games, gambling is more popular and more widely accepted than ever. This became very clear to me recently while watching TV. During a single (2 minute) commercial break, I observed advertisements for three distinct gambling apps.
How should Christians respond to the growing acceptance of gambling in our culture? Should we embrace it, or avoid it?
Christians are cautioned to avoid gambling. Gambling encourages attitudes and behaviors that are not consistent with Biblical teachings about money, stewardship, and compassion.
The Culture Shift
In the twentieth century, there were few places in America where sports betting and casino games were legal. So most people inclined to gamble restricted themselves to legal options such as state-run lotteries, or sought illegal underground gambling clubs.
But since the start of the twenty-first century, more and more states have legalized gambling, prompting casinos to pop up around the country. And the digital age has made access to gaming and betting easier than ever before.
Why has gambling become so popular in Western society? Gambling owes its popularity to two forces, both of which should immediately give Christians pause; thrill-seeking and the desire for easy money.
Addicted to the Thrill
As we discussed in our entry about smoking, Christians should strive to avoid behaviors that can foster addiction. But it is important that we understand that ingesting chemicals (such as nicotine or alcohol), while an obvious cause of addiction, is not the only cause. Behaviors and stimuli that prompt chemical reactions in the brain also produce an addictive response that compels habitual repetition of those behaviors.
Paul warns the Corinthian church to not be mastered by anything when addressing sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:12). And Jesus, cautioning his audience about pursuing worldly treasures, declares that we cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).
So, even though we can articulate the neuroscience of this phenomenon better than in past eras, this idea of being addicted to (or mastered by) our behaviors and actions is nothing new. Short-term elations, whether they originate from sex, financial gain, or adventure, produce chemical reactions in our brains that can become addictive if not properly managed.
The anticipation of a payout, the thrill of risk-taking, and even small wins can all trigger a release of dopamine, which produces a pleasure response in the brain. In fact, many casino games are carefully crafted and calibrated to maximize this response in order to encourage the next play. But the repeated release of dopamine alters the brain’s reaction to, and need for the neurotransmitter, which leads to addiction.
And just as God has provided us a proper framework (marriage) for expressing our sexuality, He has provided us a proper framework for managing our money. And gambling works against God’s purposes for money in several ways.
Greed and Envy
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people 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. – 1 Timothy 6:9-10
The reason that people gamble in the first place is because of a desire to gain wealth, and to gain it quickly. Covetousness and greed are the sins that drive this desire. So it comes as no surprise that Paul warns Timothy that such a craving for wealth will lead to further temptation and, ultimately, to ruin and destruction.
Something for Nothing
Gambling lacks the fundamental equitable exchange found in other wealth-building activities such as working (exchanging services for money), vending (exchanging goods for money), and investing (contributing resources to another’s business and sharing in the successes of the venture).
To be certain, not all work pays the same, not all goods sell well, and not all investments will result in success. But still, even though there is a varied range of outcomes to each of these activities (and some activities are obviously foolish and risky), they are all still premised on an exchange of mutual benefit.
Gambling promises no such exchange. In fact, gambling, by definition, cannot be mutually beneficial to all parties. One gambler can only win what another loses. The winner does not exchange anything of value but simply takes from the loser. A million-dollar lottery jackpot is only possible because other people collectively lost a million dollars.
As Christians, this should give us pause. Gambling with our neighbors (and winning) is no different from stealing from our neighbors. The outcome is the same.
But… Gamblers Know They Could Lose
We might be inclined to justify gambling on the basis that everyone who participates does so voluntarily. They know the risks, so they accept that they might lose. But the trouble with this reasoning is that it is exploitative. Yes, it is foolish to risk one’s money so carelessly (a point which we will address in a moment). But it is a sin to take advantage of another’s poor financial choices for personal gain.
Gambling, Oppression, and Poverty
The Lord enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses. – Isaiah 3:14
If you’ve ever been inside a casino, or even driven past one, then you know that they are monuments to excess. Richly appointed, well-constructed, and filled with lights, fine food, and expensive technology. So how did the casino get so rich? By winning. And it is common knowledge that casino games are designed to favor the house.
Sure, sometimes the patrons win, but even this is by design. If the gamblers lost every time, then the world would quickly catch on to the futility of gambling. But because winning- and winning BIG– is possible, the hope of winning draws people in and keeps them in.
And casino games are further designed to encourage the addiction that makes gamblers continue even when they shouldn’t. The typical winner at the slot machine doesn’t cash out and go home. Instead, he uses his winnings to pursue more winnings, pressing his luck further.
And in the most extreme cases, gamblers go home not only with empty pockets, but empty bank accounts that leave them unable to pay for groceries or housing. Gambling has a way of forcing people into poverty and keeping them there.
Building wealth at the expense of the poor is an offense to God (Proverbs 22:16). Instead, He calls us as His children to care for the poor among us, to ensure that they have food (Leviticus 19:9-10), to include them at our table (James 2:1-4), and treat them the way that we would treat Jesus (Matthew 25:37-40).
Are there Harmless Forms of Gambling?
Wealthy casinos and broke patrons may come across as an extreme portrayal of gambling. But what about milder forms of gaming? Is a card game among friends with a few rolls of quarters okay? What about a raffle ticket for a charity fundraiser?
These scenarios may not lead to the devastating outcomes of our previous examples, but is not even a small win still somebody else’s loss? What happens to the friend that loses the card game? Perhaps the loss sows seeds of bitterness, perhaps it provides a gateway for more destructive forms of gambling.
As for the fundraiser, it is good and right to support charitable causes with our money. But we ought to bypass the gambling. Is it not better to simply give freely to a charity without any expectation of reward, than to give in hopes of winning something? If the charity has to spend money on prizes to entice donors, is that good stewardship of the donations they’ve received?
Being Good Stewards
In the parable of the talents, Jesus reminds us that although we have not all been entrusted with the same amount of wealth, we are all called to be good stewards. When we squander our resources through gambling, we are trusting in chance instead of in the Lord’s provision. And when we seek selfish gains from others through gambling, we forget that all that we have truly belongs to God, and not to us.
Dishonest money dwindles away,
but whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow. – Proverbs 13:11
And so, we must be mindful, as Christians, to use all of our resources in ways that honor God, advance His kingdom, and build others up instead of tearing them down. Gambling, even in its most seemingly benign forms, produces wealth that does not last, poverty that destroys, and attitudes that turn our hearts away from God.