Gambling has progressed from a pastime to a plague! Why? What is the biblical perspective on this activity?
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Some people can gamble, lose a little money and walk away. Lesson learned. Others, however, lose more than just cash. They lose control and, possibly, everything else in their lives.
The thrill of winning big has its downside—the very real possibility of losing big. Gambling can become a vicious cycle, a quest to make up for losses. Some people find themselves gambling more and losing more. A segment of those who gamble fall into two related categories: Problem gamblers and compulsive (also known as “pathological”) gamblers. According to WebMD, more than 8 percent of new gamblers may end up having some type of gambling addiction.
Problem gambling has been described as “an involvement in risky gambling behaviors that adversely affects the individual’s well-being: this may include issues of relationships, family, financial matters, social standing and vocational pursuits” (Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling, or AZCCG).
Compulsive gambling is more severe. It is defined as “…a progressive disorder characterized by a continuous or periodic loss of control over gambling; a preoccupation with gambling and with obtaining money with which to gamble; irrational thinking; and a continuation of the behavior despite adverse consequences” (Psychiatric Annals, Dr. Richard Rosenthal).
Risk factors associated with problem or compulsive gambling include a family history of gambling, availability of gambling (especially during the formative years of life), and inadequate psychological coping strategies. Statistically, men are more likely to fall into this category.
A study in the journal Nature Neuroscience indicated “that compulsive gamblers and drug addicts have similar patterns of brain activity,” WebMD reported.
Dr. Eric Nestler was blunter in his assessment in the Daily Mail. A psychiatrist who studies the science of addiction told the media outlet that “there is very little biological difference between what goes on in the head of a compulsive gambler and in that of a crack addict.”
In fact, similarities between the brains of compulsive gamblers and drug addicts have been documented, such as a high tolerance to dopamine (a chemical neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward or satisfaction), within both groups. However, researchers admit that these chemical irregularities may be a result of pathological gambling rather than the cause (“Gambling Fever Starts in Brain,” The Washington Post).
Scientists who have studied compulsive gambling have documented four phases through which a pathological gambler typically progresses. Phase one is called the “winning phase” or the “introductory phase.” This is a period, or sometimes just a single occurrence, of monetary gain from gambling. Phase two is the “losing phase,” in which losses begin to accumulate and the gambler often pursues larger bets or greater odds, and rationalizes that it is just a streak of bad luck. Phase three is the “desperation phase.” This is when gambling consumes most of an individual’s time and energy, sometimes to the point of neglecting physical health, habitual lying, and the loss of possessions and family. Finally, the fourth phase is called the “hopeless phase”—characterized by clinical depression, bankruptcy, nervous breakdown, suicide attempts, and, sometimes, prison.
Compulsive gamblers are divided into two categories: “action gamblers” and “escape gamblers.” The personality of the gambler, and thus the motivation to gamble, determine one’s type.
The typical action gambler is described as a domineering, manipulative male who is confident, energetic and has an IQ over 120. This is the most pervasive type of compulsive gambler, in both legal and illegal gambling. The action gambler’s motivation is tied to the goal of beating other individuals at his chosen game and “beating the house.” He seeks to gain wealth and status at the expense of other players and the betting establishment (for example, a casino). These individuals often believe that they can devise a personal “system” to achieve these victories.
Conversely, escape gamblers are typically female (according to some estimates, more than 90 percent of female pathological gamblers fall into this category). Most are considered to be caring, nurturing and introverted, with no apparent tendencies toward egotism or narcissism. Their profiles are essentially opposite that of action gamblers. Here, the motivation is relief—escape—from emotional pain, which is a result of present or past trauma.
Organizations that provide help for compulsive gamblers have noted that the problem is growing fastest among two demographic segments: seniors and teenagers. The common denominator between these two groups is that each has relatively large amounts of free time. The motivation to gamble between these groups, however, is age-specific.
Seniors are usually described as escape gamblers. They typically gamble in order to escape pain or discomfort in their lives—for example, the loss of a spouse or feeling useless after retirement. According to the AZCCG, the casino machines in particular create an anesthetizing quality that temporarily releases them from emotional and even physical pain.
Teenagers most often fall into the category of action gambler. They generally gamble for excitement, that is, as an antidote to boredom. As games of chance increase in popularity among youth, peer pressure to follow the crowd is mounting—gambling is now seen as fashionable and trendy. An additional appeal to certain teenagers can be summarized as a “reversal of the pecking order”: The best poker players are often studious introverts, the opposite of the “popular athlete” high school stereotype (MSNBC).
The International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours, based in Montreal, Canada, found that gambling is more popular among teens than other high-risk pursuits such as alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, and cigarette smoking.
Women have also experienced a dramatic increase in problem/pathological gambling. Prior to the early 1980s, gambling among women was widely considered socially unacceptable, with the exception of local bingo games. Gambling was to a great degree a “men’s club.” Before this time, virtually all Gamblers Anonymous attendees were male. Currently, however, an estimated one-third of compulsive gamblers are women. The large majority of these female gamblers are, like seniors, classified as escape gamblers.
Today, the industry is courting women who gamble by opening establishments that are more comfortable and inviting. Rather than sitting in a smoke-filled corner bar, women in Illinois now have the option of relaxing in a cozy cafe that feature sandwiches, free coffee, and video gambling machines.
According to the Chicago Tribune, “…critics say the cafes prey on women and could exacerbate the plight of problem gamblers by making gambling even more accessible.
“‘Because of the stigma...many women don’t go into bars,’ said Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems, an anti-gambling group.”
“‘But these are labeled as country kitchens or upscale Starbucks, and that’s why they’re getting approved,’ Bedell said. ‘They’re coming into neighborhoods, by shopping malls and schools, and it’s making gambling too accessible in communities’” (Chicago Tribune).
Is all gambling wrong—or just certain types? Should Christians participate? What does the Bible teach?
First, recognize that God’s Word does not contain the specific command, “Thou shalt not gamble.” On the other hand, neither does it command, “Thou shalt not smoke cigarettes”—yet, it can be proven through the spiritual application of His Word that God forbids smoking. (To learn more, read our article The Truth About Smoking.) In the same way, we can know God’s will regarding Christians and gambling. We simply need to study the laws, examples and spiritual principles found throughout the Bible.
As stated in Part 1, gambling involves (1) relying on chance, while (2) risking the loss of something of value in order to (3) gain an advantage—and achieve instant gratification. The higher the stakes, the more reckless the risk involved.
Let’s examine a biblical account of gambling: As a faithful servant of God, the mighty Samson was brave and had a gift of supernatural strength—yet he also had a weakness for foreign women of poor character. With his father’s reluctant permission, Samson married a Philistine woman, one who had a tarnished reputation (Judges 14:1-3).
A grand seven-day wedding feast was held in honor of the bride and groom. Among the guests were 30 male “companions” provided for the bridegroom by the Philistines (vs. 10-11). According to the custom of the time, these Philistine attendees were there to protect the wedding party from invading marauders.
Another popular custom of the day was to tell riddles at feasts and special occasions. Samson posed such a riddle to his 30 wedding companions: “I will now put forth a riddle unto you: if you can certainly declare it me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty sheets and thirty change of garments: But if you cannot declare it me, then shall you give me thirty sheets and thirty change of garments…” (vs. 12-13). The Philistine companions accepted Samson’s wager.
Notice: Samson (1) played a game of chance—believing that the odds of the Philistines not solving the riddle were in his favor—and (2) risked the loss of something of value—“thirty sheets and thirty change of garments”—in order to (3) gain an advantage. In other words, Samson gambled big. And he lost big.
The Philistine companions cheated by coercing Samson’s new bride into betraying her husband. In doing so, the wife revealed her true character: given enough pressure, she would betray her husband in a heartbeat—even deceiving him and wearing him down with her tears. Samson learned this the hard way. He honored his bet and paid off the cheaters—but he did it through slaughtering thirty other Philistines, taking their fine clothing and giving them to the thirty wedding companions (vs. 15-19).
These were the sordid and deadly results of Samson gambling.
It has been said that there are only two ways of life: The way of give— helping, assisting, serving, showing outgoing concern for others—summed up by the word love. And the way of get—taking, competing, loving one’s self ahead of others.
Which way of life does gambling represent?
Las Vegas is often called “Sin City.” A close examination of its history reveals the fingerprints of organized crime, murder, theft, prostitution, adultery, fornication, drunkenness, illegal drug use, and, of course, gambling. Empowering these are the attitudes of deceit, greed, lust for “instant wealth” and making the “big score,” competition, selfishness, laziness—the way of get.
Simply stated, gamblers seek to “get rich quick.” But the apostle Paul warned, “…they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is [a] root of all [kinds of] evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (I Tim. 6:9-10).
As described by Gamblers Anonymous, “A desire to have all the good things in life without any great effort on their part seems to be the common character pattern of problem gamblers…time is spent creating images of the great and wonderful things they are going to do as soon as they make the big win…servants, penthouses, nice clothes, charming friends, yachts, and world tours are a few of the wonderful things that are just around the corner…”
Investing one’s heart, being and purpose in the single-minded pursuit of money will “drown” one’s spiritual life. And it truly will lead to “many sorrows”—including death!
This is why, in I Timothy 6, Paul warns the reader to “…flee these things; and follow after righteousness…” (vs. 11)—to keep God’s commandments (Psa. 119:10, 110, 172; 111:10). This fulfills His Law through love (Rom. 13:8-10), first toward God, then toward neighbor.
Proverbs 6 admonishes, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provides her meat in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest” (vs. 6-8). The ant works and saves. She is productive. She does not waste effort, time or resources on get-rich-quick schemes.
The book of Proverbs has much to say about earning a living through hard, honest work:
Laziness and taking the “quick and easy” path to material wealth was a problem in the first-century Church. Circumstances among the brethren caused Paul to command that “if any would not work, neither should he eat…Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (II Thes. 3:10, 12).
Hard work and productivity yield patience, longsuffering, endurance and many other godly traits.
Nowhere does God’s inspired Word endorse risking something of worth in order to get instant wealth! Nowhere do the Holy Scriptures support squandering money away in the pursuit of satisfying the appetites of the flesh!
The reason is simple: Gambling is foolishness. And the Bible teaches that even “The thought of foolishness is sin…” (Prov. 24:9).
Just a superficial investigation shows that the odds are definitely stacked against the gambler. For example, the odds of winning the multistate Powerball jackpot are nearly one in 175 million—astronomical! Also, gambling establishments such as casinos are assured to be “in the black” due to what is called the “house edge.” This is defined as the ratio of the gambler’s average loss to his or her initial bet. This percentage of loss on games such as blackjack and poker can vary from 0.02 percent to almost 19 percent. Slot machines are programmed to make a profit of up to 15 cents per dollar inserted, and the house edge for Keno ranges from 25 to 29 percent! Whether “the house” is taking the gambler’s money in most cases is not a question—it is a mathematical certainty! It is foolish to ignore this reality in pursuit of a selfish fantasy.
Yet human reasoning will ask, “What about low-risk gambling such as bingo, raffles and office pools? Surely, there’s nothing wrong with a ‘friendly’ wager now and then—right?”
ALL gambling is wasteful, unproductive and foolish—and contrary to what the Bible teaches. Even low-risk gambling is sin; it breaks God’s Law. Notice that God’s Word states that even “…a little leaven [representing sin] leavens the whole lump” (I Cor. 5:6).
Those who are led by God’s Spirit will seek to obey the spirit of the Law, not merely the letter. They will diligently follow God’s will and reject all human reasoning, for they know—and believe—that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked…” (Jer. 17:9), and “…the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (10:23), and “There is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25), as well as “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes…” (21:2).
Ultimately, the basic motivation of the gambler is covetousness—a desire for that which belongs to others. Speaking of the modern nations of the West, God states, “For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness…” (Jer. 6:13). The possessions and status that the gambler longs for become his “god”! Anything that one gives deference to above his Creator becomes his god (Ex. 20:3).
Some have wondered if purchasing stocks is wrong. Generally, no. When done in moderation, with companies that have reliable financial track records, this can be a method of wise investment. But the motivation must not be for a quick return. Today many employers provide the option of buying company stocks, sometimes at a discount. If you have the opportunity to take part in this, you would be investing in your employer’s future—as well as your own. Therefore, this would not be considered gambling. But, of course, you should be prudent and conservative.
In addition, investing in a company whose products you regularly use and trust is not gambling, but it must always be done in moderation.
Also understand, while not gambling, buying stocks can, after a certain point, become just another get-rich-quick scheme. It must always be done with wisdom and restraint.
Any type of trading based on fast-paced rumor and innuendo that relies solely on time and chance (like day trading and commodity markets) is akin to gambling. These involve foolishly—and recklessly—risking money to accumulate quick wealth.
It is human nature to go to extremes. Christians, however, must be balanced in all things. Recognize that bingo, rolling dice, card playing, etc., are not inherently wrong. Problems stem from foolishly risking something of value or worth (no matter how small) in order to make a quick profit.
For example, in most cases, bingo matches (especially those sponsored by the churches of this world) require players to pay a nominal fee in order to play. This is gambling, regardless of the size of the fee. However, playing bingo is not gambling IF one is allowed to play for free, where nothing of worth or value is at risk.
Taking part in a raffle may appear harmless, but it produces the desire to gain for yourself what others have contributed. Therefore, like all other types of gambling, this is self-centeredness and “covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
On the other hand, a draw that comes as a bonus of purchasing tickets for a dance, for example, is not gambling, as long as it does not involve winning at someone else’s expense. The same applies to a promotional draw in which the winner is picked and purchasing a ticket is not required. Remember, gambling is the way of getting, competing, taking and focusing on self at the expense of others.
It is not practical to list every possible scenario involving games of chance. However, a good rule of thumb is if one is required to “pay to play” (such as in lotteries) or risk losing something of value, then this is gambling.
Gambling is not of God—and is clearly unchristian in purpose. It reflects the way of get—the way of competition, strife, lust, greed, instant gratification, selfishness and laziness—the mindset of carnal human nature. All betting, from penny-ante wagers to high-stakes risk-taking, is reckless and foolish, and therefore sin.
The principles found in Scripture make plain that God created man to be productive, to work, earn, save and build, and give to others—never to squander our resources or covet those of our neighbor.
Christianity and gambling are utterly incompatible. And by God’s standards, all gambling is wrong.