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Taking a gamble

August 2019 | by Stephen Rees

SOURCE Dylan Nolte / Unsplash
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How many times has it happened over the past few weeks? I’m accosted by a smiling lady as I leave the supermarket. ‘Hi, we’re raising funds for the local hospital. Would you like to buy a lottery ticket?’ One of the neighbours’ children is standing on the doorstep looking hopeful. ‘We’ve got a raffle going at school for the new gym. Do you want to win a prize?’ The phone rings and an unknown voice asks how I am before going on to tell me that she can offer me a subscription to a nearby health club at a unique bargain price ‘AND – your name will be put into our prize draw!’

And then there’s the more serious stuff. The nice lady behind the till at the corner shop helpfully reminds me that it’s my last chance to buy tickets for this week’s national lottery draw. Unexpected adverts pop up on my computer screen ‘Click HERE for the chance to win £20,000’. ‘Casino Games – Get 100 FREE spins!’ Leaflets fall through my letter box, ‘Sports Betting. £25 Free Bet’ with instructions to download an app onto my mobile phone so that I can place my bet anywhere, anytime. I pass the betting shop on the high street and the posters in the window proclaim that there’s ‘UP TO 30% BONUS available on WEEKEND FOOTBALL COUPON’.

Gambling: the facts and the figures

We’re a gambling society. Children are introduced to gambling by school raffles and lotteries. Charities, schools and hospitals depend on money raised by gambling. Three and a half million people — mostly middle aged or elderly women — play bingo regularly. 15% of young people (16 to 24 year olds) are gambling regularly online. The figure rises to 25% for those between the ages of 25 and 34. More than half the population enters the National Lottery each month; 20% of UK citizens enter it at least once a week.

Total amount of money spent on gambling in the UK between April 2017 and March 2018? 14.4 billion pounds. Five and a half billion of that was spent online. How many people are ‘problem gamblers’? No one really knows. But official estimates are that around 430,000 people are ‘gambling to a degree that compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits’. More than 2 million are classed as either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction.

What are the consequences for problem gamblers? They can include mental illness, unemployment, bankruptcy, homelessness, family break-up, and descent into a criminal lifestyle. I can think of friends who have first remortgaged and then lost their homes to finance their online gambling addiction. I have talked with homeless people who enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle until they were gripped by the gambling habit. Again, official statistics suggest that problem gambling may be costing the UK more than a billion pounds a year in medical care, provision for the homeless, prison places and so on.

SOURCE Jay Clark / Unsplash
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Gambling: a sin?

I was brought up to believe that gambling was a sin. Fullstop. Along with drinking and smoking, it was something that Christians do not do. And when I asked why, the usual answer was simple. ‘It’s a waste of money’.

Well that’s obviously true. Lots of people do waste money gambling. They spend money and have nothing to show for it afterwards. But is that a good enough reason to call it a sin? Does the Bible ever say that gambling in sinful? Would it really matter if I agreed to buy one of those raffle tickets? Or if I entered a ‘spot the ball’ competition? (Yes, they still exist).

I’m always reluctant to say that something is ‘sinful’ if the Bible never actually forbids it. And thus far, I’ve never found a verse that says explicitly that God has forbidden all gambling. But I still don’t do it. And I don’t let my children do it. And if any member of the church I pastor asked me what I thought, I would discourage him or her from doing it.

My money or God’s?

Why? Well, I actually think the reason I was given as a child is a good reason. It’s a waste of money. The person who gambles, by definition, risks losing his money. The risk is higher in some forms of gambling than others, but there’s no such thing as a safe bet. I’m always liable to lose.

But that’s my choice isn’t it? If I choose to throw away my money buying a lottery ticket or backing a horse, I’m free to do that aren’t I? Even if the horse doesn’t win, I get some excitement out of my little flutter. Why shouldn’t I use my money in that way?

Answer: it’s not my money. The moment I start thinking of what I have as ‘my money’ I’ve gone wrong. The money we have has been entrusted into our hands by our Master to use in the ways that he has commanded.

We are under obligation to use every penny in the way that will bring him most glory. He’s told me to use the money he’s entrusted to me to care for my family (1 Timothy 5:8). He’s told me to use the money to help the poor and the needy (Luke 12:33). He’s told me to use it for the building of his kingdom (Luke 16:9). And yes, he’s authorised me to use it on things that will bring me real and wholesome pleasure — things that will enrich my mind or give me a forestaste of heavenly joys (1 Timothy 6:17). I may spend money on a ticket for a concert, an icecream on a hot day. But where has the Lord authorised me to hand my money (his money) over to a bookie or push it into a slot machine — and get nothing back in return?

It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking about big sums or little sums. I’m no more entitled to waste 50p than to waste £5,000. It belongs to the Lord not to me. On the Day of Judgment, I’m going to have to give account for the way I used all the money he put in my hands.

Mutually agreed selfishness

But there’s another issue too. Gambling, is by its very nature a selfish pursuit. If I make a bet, my hope — whether I actually put it into words or not — is that I will finish up better off as a result, while other people will finish up worse off. You can see that most obviously where you have a small number of people gambling directly with each other. Imagine, say, that you’re one of four people playing cards together. If you win that means that you’ll come away from the table better off while the other three will come away worse off. You can only gain if they lose.

But the same is true of every other form of gambling. You enter the lottery. You hope that you will be richer as a result of entering. But you know that many other people will be worse off as a result of entering. You’ll benefit by their loss.

Now that is different from every other sort of financial transaction. If I buy an item from a shop, the hope is that every person involved will benefit. I’ll benefit because I have the item I want. The shopkeeper will benefit because he’ll get his profit. The supplier, the manufacturer, the factory worker who put the item together: they’ll all benefit from my purchase. None of them will be poorer as the result of my buying.

That applies even to investments. Some people have said that investing in the stock market or in a pension fund is just as much a gamble as betting on the horses. And yes, there is an element of risk in any investment. But there is a crucial difference. When I choose to invest in a company, my hope of getting a good return on my investment does not depend on anyone else losing out. If the company does well, I’ll benefit. But so will everyone else who’s investing in that company. So will the workers. So will the managers. So will the taxman — and ultimately the whole society. No one need be poorer as a result of my investment.

Think about two Bible commands. The first: ‘You shall not covet… anything that belongs to your neighbour’ (Exodus 20: 17). If I join the line of punters queuing up to put their bets on a race, what do I want to happen? I’m hoping that by the end of the day, some of the money in their pockets will have been transferred to me, via the bookmaker. What is that if not coveting my neighbour’s cash?

And the second: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 22:39). If I take that command seriously, how can I get involved in a transaction that I hope is going to leave my neighbour poorer and myself richer?

The fact that my neighbour agrees to the transaction makes no difference. Yes, we both go into it willingly. I tell him that he’s allowed to deal with me selfishly providing that I can deal with him selfishly. But that doesn’t change God’s plain commandments. In fact it makes things worse. Not only am I breaking these commandments; I’m encouraging him to do so. How can that be right?

Philosopher Jack

It took a children’s book to make me understand how selfish gambling is. R M Ballantyne was one of the most popular of Victorian children’s authors. His books are full of the gospel and of wise counsels on Christian living. The Coral Island was the most famous, but here’s an extract from Philosopher Jack:

‘Now, Jack,’ said Wilkins, ‘I’m not going to set up for a little preacher, or attempt to argue with a big philosopher, but I’ll tell you what my father has impressed on me about this matter. One day, when we were passing some ragged boys playing pitch-and-toss on the street, he said to me, “Watty, my boy, no man should gamble, because it is dishonourable. To want money that does not belong to you is greedy. To try to get it from your neighbour without working for it is mean. To risk your money in the hope of increasing it by trade, or other fair means, and so benefit yourself and others, is right; but to risk it for nothing, with the certainty of impoverishing someone else if you win, or injuring yourself if you lose, is foolish and unfeeling. The fact that someone else is willing to bet with you, only proves that you have met with one as foolish and unfeeling as yourself, and the agreement of two unfeeling fools does not result in wisdom. You will hear it said, my boy, that a man has a right to do what he will with his own. That is not true. As far as the world at large is concerned, it is, indeed, partially true, but a man may only do what God allows with what he has lent him. He is strictly accountable to God for the spending of every penny. He is accountable, also, to his wife and his children, in a certain degree, ay, and to his tradesmen, if he owes them anything. Yes, Watty, gambling for money is dishonourable, believe me!” Now, Jack, I did, and I do believe him, from the bottom of my heart.’

Gardeners or gamblers?

And then there’s a third issue. God has told us very plainly in his Word how he expects us to live. ‘The Lord put the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it… (Genesis 2:16)’. The Lord himself had worked for six days creating and shaping the world; now he commanded that the human beings he had made should work. The work God gave to man was almost infinitely varied: ‘God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Genesis 1:28).

Human beings were given the task of ruling, subduing, developing the potential of the whole earth. God has authorised us to dig in the ground, to plant seeds and grow crops. We have his go-ahead when we mine the mineral deposits of the earth, and shape them into wagonwheels and fine jewellery and silicon chips. We are to build bridges and ocean liners and violins and telephones. We can herd sheep and gather their wool and turn it into pullovers. We can cook the food we’ve grown; we can cultivate tea and coffee and serve it to one another.

It is good to work. When a man works he is acting as God’s image-bearer, he is following God’s example. Work is not just a painful necessity; it is a privilege, an honour. A man or a woman who chooses not to work has lost something of his or her humanity.

More than that, God commands work as the proper way for human beings to gain what they need to live. In this fallen world, work will often be frustrating and painful but it is still God’s ordained way for us to live.

‘… By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return…’ (Genesis 3: 19).

‘Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need’. (Ephesians 4:28).

‘…we urge you, brothers… to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one’ (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12).

‘…we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labour we worked night and day that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: ‘If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat…’ ’ (2 Thessalonians 3:7 -10).

Why do people gamble? Surely, the no.1 reason is that they hope to get something without working for it. Instead of settling to steady work, people hope to get rich quick. They dream of instant, pain-free profit.

Christians should be content to live the way God created us to live: as workers. Where others are dreaming of wining the lottery, we can be content to do the work he’s given us to do and to receive the reward he ordains for us. ‘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…’ (1 Timothy 6:8-10).

Playing with fire

Wise words from the apostle Paul. He tells us that greed is likely to lead to misery. And you’ve only to look at the statistics I quoted above to see that he was right. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people in our society are addicts to gambling, and are suffering horrific consequences. Gambling is addictive – as much so as alcohol or heroin. People who lose when they gamble don’t give up. They become more and more determined to carry on, sure that the win they’re looking for is just round the corner. And people who win carry on too, looking to regain the surge of excitement that the first win brought.

Two million gamblers in the UK are finding that their habit is causing them problems. I’ve listed already some of the problems they face. Many are desperate. (I’m told that around 15,000 attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings each week). Some are suicidal. How many of them when they made their first bet imagined that they would come to that point?

The Corinthian believers loved to quote these words, ‘All things are lawful for me’. Paul’s response? ‘But not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me but I will not be dominated by anything’ (1 Corinthians 6:12). Can a Christian choose to expose himself to practices that he knows are liable to lead to addiction? Can we pray ‘lead us not into temptation’ and then choose to expose ourselves to it?

So let’s ask again…

So is gambling a sin? Well, you can answer the question for yourself. If you can be sure that the money you spend gambling is being spent in the way that will bring God most glory; if you can be sure that you’re just as pleased when others win as when you do yourself; if you can be sure that there’s no greed or discontent motivating you; if you’re sure that you’re immune from the danger of addiction — then OK, go ahead.

Maybe there are times when you could say those things. It costs £1 to enter the ‘Guess the Teddy Bear’s Name’ competition at the hospice open day. The prize is a hideous ornament that you neither want nor need. You think that it would be pleasing to God for you to donate to the hospice. This is just another way of doing it. You’re not really interested in winning. In fact, if someone else wins the ornament you’ll be relieved! You’re never going to be addicted to Teddy Bear Names competitions. It’s all a bit of fun. If you can do it with a clear conscience, no one’s got a right to tell you you’re sinning.

But for myself, I’d rather not join in. I find it easier to say, ‘no I never gamble at all’ than to have to decide every time whether I can go in for this gamble or not. I’d rather just give the money to the hospice with no strings attached than play the game.

The important thing is that all of us should live each day with the awareness that we must give account of ourselves to our beloved Master. ‘Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls… None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord… we will all stand before the judgment seat of God… each of us will give an account of himself to God’ (Romans 14:4-12).

Let’s all keep that thought in our minds. It’s our safeguard against so many dangers.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk