Wednesday 9 February 2011

Is gambling a sin?

A question I got from my good buddy in Christ this weekend on Facebook:

“What does the bible say with regards to gambling?
Is there a specific verse which advises us not to gamble?”

Good question!

Aha! I noticed you are not asking “Is gambling a sin?” but in effect, “Does the bible say gambling is good/bad?”

No. There is no explicit verse in the bible prohibiting Christians from gambling or denouncing gambling as sinful. Or at least none that come to mind.

Instead, the bible talks a lot of about money and our love for money.

A heart issue

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

Here, Paul warns Timothy of the dangers of (1) wanting to get rich/be wealthy, (2) loving money and (3) the eagerness (for money; the ESV has “this craving“). What all three have in common is the desire for wealth. This is a very helpful diagnosis of the problems and dangers of gambling. It’s not the money nor the problems of money. It’s a problem with the heart.

That is: gambling is more than just a social problem. A few years ago, the Singapore government approved the building of a casino, after years of opposition. In fact, the previous administrations simply never entertained the idea of having one. Even when they finally changed the policy, what I found really interesting, was how the government acknowledged the social evils that would be associated with the introduction of the casino. Social service organizations were consulted and received additional funds long before the doors opened. Rules were spelled out prohibiting locals from frequenting the premises – years before the foundations were even laid. Conclusion: Even non-Christians know that gambling is a problem not just for the individual (addiction, recklessness, debt) but for society as a whole (family breakdown, prostitution, crime eg. money laundering).

What is unique about 1 Tim 6 is how the bible does recognize the social problem (ruin and destruction) but also the deeper cause. Verse 9 describes it as a “temptation”, “a trap” and as “foolish desires”.

Gambling isn’t just about wasting money. The older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) condemns his brother for “squandering” his father’s wealth (15:29). Yet, even the older brother in all his outward obedience and shrewd accountability (he never ‘celebrated with his friends’ – 15:29) suffers from the same problem as his younger brother. He too, loved money. He didn’t gamble or waste his fortune. Yet, both had the same problem of loving their father’s money more than they loved their father.

Also, gambling isn’t wrong simply because it involves risk and odds. The servant with the one talent did the “safest” thing with his investment/talent (Matthew 25:25). He buried it. The text says he was afraid of his master – presumably fearful as well of the consequences of losing the money entrusted to him. Yet the master condemns him. Actually Christians are called to great risks – even with their lives – for the sake of advancing the gospel and God’s kingdom.

The issue is love. Loving God or loving the things from God. Serving God or money. Gambling enslaves us because we are easily enslaved by what we love, especially money. Gambling pierces us because money – though a good servant – is a poor master.

But one other reason why I think the bible is clearer in identifying our love of money as idolatry and not the merely gambling as sin, is this: as Christians we need to exercise wisdom and care when it comes to money for our sakes as well as others – non-believers, those struggling with addiction to gambling, and fellow Christians who have issues of “weak” consciences to do with gambling (1 Cor 8).

For example: can you play poker? Why not? It’s just cards. But for some it isn’t just cards, is it? What about the lottery?

Or how about a lucky draw or the office raffle? Every day I get emails promising me the chance to win a cash prize, holiday, free dinner – all at a click of a button. You don’t need to be at a slot machine to have your heart enticed by money or wealth. Deciding whether or not to participate in these things is a challenge we face daily involving the application of wisdom and love. And yet the real solution the bible points us to isn’t actually something we have to do...

The solution: the gospel

How to do we overcome this?

On the surface, many would naturally point to the very next verse:

Flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.
1 Tim 6:11

In other words, Get away from the evils of the love of money, Timothy! Keep pursuing God! There is a lot of wisdom in this. And yet....

And yet, the clue to the problem of our love of money is not the verse after, but the verses before. You see, in verse 3, Timothy is warned of false teaching that opposes the gospel. But verse 4 ends with the motivation for this false teaching – they imagine that “godliness is a means of gain”. So, the love of money in verses 9 and 10 is linked with the motivation of the false teaching in this way: they are actually using God for their own gain. It is again, a heart issue. It is loving the things of God, rather than God.

Timothy is therefore warned not simply of the problem of a sin, but a teaching that is motivated by this sin. So while Timothy is to flee temptation, he is face opposition head-on, with the gospel.

This is why Timothy is urged to teach and insist on the gospel (6:2) – refuting all false teaching; to keep it pure until Jesus returns (6:14) and to guard it as a good deposit (6:20). The gospel is the main theme in this chapter, and the entire letter.

So, if ever the bible were used in such a way as to somehow promote or endorse gambling – then 1 Tim 6 clearly warns us as Christians, it is motivated by a desire to use God for self-gain. It is false teaching and a false gospel. It does warn us as Christians to flee this temptation. But it also charges us to preach the gospel. Not simply condemn the sin but to preach the cross which free us from the punishment of and slavery to sin.

Good (and really tough) question! Thanks bro.

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