Monday, November 12, 2007

The odds are against you

Massachusetts may soon approve casinos, to add to other forms of gambling already operating in the Commonwealth. Why do Christians believe gambling is a sin? What’s so wrong with games of chance? Isn’t gambling a harmless recreation? What’s so bad about spending a few dollars on some scratch tickets, betting on horses or spending the day at a casino?

First off, gamblers pick their own pockets. I firmly believe that if every high school student was required to take a course in statistics and probability, they’d realize just how the odds are against them. It’s an irresponsible risk. The lottery is a tax on people who failed math. For example, you’ve got a greater chance of having quadruplets or being struck by lighting, or being in a plane crash than winning the average state lottery. A family was driving by the Wonderland greyhound track and the young daughter asked what went on there. The father explained, “It’s a place where people go to race dogs.” The young girl said, “I bet the dogs always win.” It’s been noted that, “Horse sense is what keeps horses from betting on what people will do” (Oscar Wilde). The way to come away from a casino with a small fortune is to go there with a large one.

The gangster casinos of Los Vegas used to be dimly lit and sleazy; the new, corporate casinos have a theme-park atmosphere that masquerades as good clean fun, while overlooking the human misery of gamblers with grim faces who squander their hard-earned money. Casinos are a scavenger industry relying on the milking of existing wealth than on the manufacturing of anything productive.

But the statistical likelihood of losing is not why Christians deem gambling a vice. The core of gambling is the thrill of getting something you didn’t earn. People talk of “making a killing” which usually means they got more than they deserved. Gambling is taking from someone else. If we’re playing poker, I’m hoping to take your hard-earned money. Gambling feeds off the sin of greed and the love of money which is the root of all evil. Greed wants to have what someone else has earned. Gambling discourages honest labor, it violates thrift, and the principle of fair play with reward for effort. Money won in gambling comes from other players, including many who can’t afford to gamble. In any bet there is a fool and a thief. Proverbs 14:23 tells us, “In all labor there is profit, but idle talk leads only to poverty.” Profit should come through productive effort, not by chance.

Gambling squanders our God-given resources. I’ve heard people object, “I’ve got a right to throw away my money gambling.” The Bible is clear that our wealth is not our own. All that we have comes from God, and we’re responsible for how we use our wealth. This is God’s money we’re squandering, and other people’s money we’re coveting. If you enjoy games, there are plenty that don’t involve gambling.

Gamblers rely on luck, which is a non-Christian, pagan concept, making gambling a substitute religion and a kind of idolatry. “Luck” has no place in any Christian’s vocabulary. We are never “lucky”; we’re “blessed.” There’s a big difference. Luck is an impersonal force, whereas we trust in a very personal God who has a plan for our lives. There is no chance in Providence. In God we trust, not in luck.

Many people get addicted to gambling. When we think of addictions, we tend to think of substance abuse, but activities can also become addictive. People get addicted to gambling the same way they get hooked on drugs. Gamblers get a kind of “high”. Eventually they become enslaved. Signs of gambling addiction include: borrowing money or selling personal items to finance one’s habit, gambling to escape stress, gambling till one’s last dollar is gone, and gambling hurting one’s family, one’s job, one’s reputation. Also the suicide rate among gamblers is 150% higher than the general population.

I attended a church that condemned card-playing, and I confess I often played cards with my friends…but we never gambled. We played to win, but not to win money. We just enjoyed what was for us a harmless game. I know some Christians who can’t play solitaire without feeling guilty. When I was in high school I had the part of Professor Harold Hill in the musical The Music Man, who gets the townsfolk of River City all worked up over the pool hall: “You got trouble--with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!” Like cards, pool can be associated with gambling, but it can also be enjoyed apart from betting. Obviously some people will bet on anything.

When I was a child, my dad, an Army Warrant Officer, got orders for Germany. We sailed across the Atlantic on a military transport ship--not exactly a luxury liner, but there were certain amenities. One night we played bingo, and I came within one square of winning fifty dollars. Just when I thought for sure I’d win, with only one square left, someone yelled “Bingo!” I was crushed. Years later it dawned on me that the only worse thing that could’ve happened would have been to win. I got burned at an early age and never gambled again.

A while back I expressed my convictions about gambling at a Bible study I conduct at the Senior Center. I mentioned how I received some scratch tickets as a gift and because I’m opposed to gambling, I threw them away. Someone in the classed asked, “Pastor Bob, where did you throw them?”

I think the secular world regards Christians as Puritanical, in the worst sense of the word. They see us as people who wouldn’t think of committing recreation; they think we’re against all pleasure. They’ve got it all wrong. There are many leisure activities that help us recharge our batteries. All work and no play is a recipe for burn-out. I’m not against all forms of entertainment, but we need to choose wisely how we use our free time. We need to find recreation that builds us up not tears us down. I’m grateful I took up kayaking; I get so much out of paddling down a river. How do you utilize your free time? Let’s see our material resources as gifts from God and let’s trust Him to use our assets wisely, for our good and for His glory and praise.

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