Can any form of gambling be okay?

Gambling has been increasingly normalized, many states now having lotteries. Now, states are debating the legalization of sports gambling.

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On Wednesday, lawmakers in the Tennessee State House approved a sport’s gambling bill which is headed to the Senate for further review and may very soon end up on Governor Lee’s desk. This is an issue which is being taken up by numerous states, not just Tennessee, and though it is an issue which has been increasingly normalized with the legalization of lotteries, Christians must not bend in their opposition to such practices. We must continually gird ourselves with the Belt of Truth no matter where our postmodern culture is going.

The issue of sports gambling began when the US Supreme Court ruled last year that States could allow the practice. Although the proposed Tennessee bill is unique among other state bills that have been proposed throughout the country, being mobile-only since there are no casinos in the state, the fact is, gambling in whatever form is a terrible sin that preys on the poor, increases crime rates, causes economic ruin, and should be strongly opposed by all Christians. This also includes the popular State lottery as I will demonstrate shortly.

It seems as though most Christians today are indifferent toward gambling. Some Christians even take part in the activity, seeing it as merely another form of entertainment akin to going to going to a baseball game in which one must pay for tickets, parking, and food, receiving only an experience rather than something tangible. Of course, it should be noted that the Bible does not explicitly say gambling is a sin. If you are looking for a “Thus saith the Lord,” you will not find it. Yet, there are many things that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture which we all would agree are sinful. There is nothing explicit in the Bible against arson, but we know arson is wrong because it violates other biblical principles such as the commandment in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” Even thinking about burning down your neighbor’s property violates Zechariah 8:17, “Also let none of you devise evil in your heart against another, and do not love perjury; for all these things are what I hate, declares the LORD.”

Yet, it is often argued that gambling is okay because it is based on mutual consent before the game begins. After all,  if your neighbor wants to clear his land and asks you to help him set fire to a portion of it, that would not be sinful. Gambling, however, is not mere entertainment based on mutual consent. There is a sinister principle that underlies gambling and that is that every gain by a winner comes at the loser’s expense. There is no other way to win in gambling than to take that which belongs to another. In contrast, an athletic contest involves no material loss for the loser, nothing that belongs to someone being taken from them. Gambling is the moral equivalent of both covetousness and theft.

Furthermore, if it is only entertainment then the question must be asked, why not simply play cards without placing any bets? Of course, the reply is always that it is not as fun without anything at stake. Think about that. The “fun” is not derived from the game itself, but from the possibility of winning that which belongs to your neighbor; gambling inherently preys on our sinful natures. What makes gambling fun is rooted in covetousness. The apostle Paul might as well have been writing about gambling when he stated (1 Timothy 6:9-10, NASB):

But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

In the next verse, the apostle says to Timothy, “But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). Gambling is mutual consent, but it is the mutual consent to see who will be victorious in stealing from the other; the consent is based on a covetous spirit aiming at theft. The loser is guilty of coveting what his neighbor has while the winner is guilty of stealing from his neighbor. Gambling is sinful in principle, and therefore, it is wrong in any circumstance or for any amount.

It must be noted, however that gambling is fundamentally different from investing in the stock market. If a stock gains value then all the investors earn money; the gain of one investor is not financed by the losses of others. There is risk involved in investing, but taking risk is not the equivalent of gambling because with gambling, the risk is artificial, created by a game of chance solely for the opportunity of taking that which belongs to someone else. When a stock gains value, the economic pie grows, while in gambling, the size of the pie is fixed, the prize being a pool of money that is contributed by the players. Although a casino may skim a percentage of that off the top or take their cut up front, causing the pie to shrink in size, it can never grow in size. The size is fixed by the aggregate total of the players contributions, and therefore, gambling can never add anything to any economy.

This is important because Tennessee lawmakers anticipate that if this bill is passed, the State would be able to make as much as $150 million each year from sports gambling. Yet, as much of a gain as that would be for the State, the profit would come at the cost of hurting countless Tennesseans, mostly the poor who would be kept in poverty by the enterprise. Proverbs 22:16 says (NASB):

“He who oppresses the poor to make more for himself, or who gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”

Most of us instinctively understand the first part of that verse, that it is wrong to oppress the poor in order to get rich. Yet, the verse also says that you should not just give your money to rich people. Studies consistently show that the poor tend to spend a much larger proportion of their income on gambling than those in middle or upper income brackets, up to three times the amount wagered. It is even true in some states in terms of the total dollars spent, not merely the proportion of their income. People in the lowest income brackets spend more money on lottery tickets than people in middle and upper income brackets. Gambling is particularly detrimental to the poor because of its illegitimate promise that one can quickly get rich.

Meanwhile, those who are licensed to sponsor lotteries, casinos, and other forms of gambling never lose, gaining enormous wealth by taking money off the top or by skewing the odds in their favor or both. Money that is won in state lotteries is money taken from the poor and money that is lost in a wager like that is money given to the rich. Solomon’s words in Proverbs 22:16 perfectly describe the evils of gambling and he says there is no faster way for poverty to increase in a nation.

Also, gambling is an expensive business. Back in 1992, Americans legally wagered $330 billion which has subsequently exploded in the intervening decades so that today, the annual figure of money legally wagered in the nation is over a trillion dollars. That is such an enormous number that it averages out to an amount of $4,500 per year for every man, woman, and child in the nation. Imagine what that money could do if it were put into the economy rather than filling the pockets of those that run lotteries and gambling dens? $150 million dollars of tax revenue may seem like a lot for the State, but if gambling was totally done away with nationwide, a State like Tennessee with a population of 6.6 million citizens, factoring in the trillion dollars wagered in the whole nation every year, would retain an average of $29.7 billion in-state. Gambling does not contribute anything to an economy, but serves only those running the vile institution.

Finally, gambling is also seriously addictive. Research suggests that 1 in every 10 people who gamble does so compulsively; there is an estimated 10 million gambling addicts nationwide and the average amount of money owed by the compulsive gambler in debts is $80,000. That’s an entire mortgage. Gambling is a bigger problem in this nation than alcohol and in areas where it is widespread such as Vegas or Atlantic City, the suicide rate is three times higher than the national average.

I realize that morality cannot be legislated; illegal gambling will always take place. Yet, that is precisely the reason that immoral activities should be illegal. I cannot force anyone to love me which is why laws are necessary preventing murder. It should not be the government’s business to legalize obviously immoral activities. The effects of gambling are all bad, not one benefit except to the lottery-sponsors and casino owners. I want to encourage each of you reading this, if your State is considering the legalization of gambling in any form, to write as many State Senators as you can or write your governor, urging that this wicked business not be legalized in any form. For my home-state of Tennessee, here is the list of Senate Members at:

Specific Senators in my area of the state are listed below:

Dolores Gresham, Fayette, Chester, Decatur, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, McNairy, and Henderson Counties (615) 741-2368;

Paul Rose, Shelby and Tipton Counties (615) 741-1967;

Sara Kyle, Memphis (615) 741-4167;

Brian Kelsey, Germantown (615) 741-3036;

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