Monday, April 27, 2015

A Safe Bet? Gambling, Lotteries, Raffles, and Games of Chance

My article from this week's newspapers answers a reader question about Christian participation in gambling and other games of chance:

Q:  Are gambling and other games of chance a sin, and what does the Bible have to say about them?

Many people raise concerns about gambling for both moral and practical reasons.  Perhaps this has something to do with the historic connection between gambling, organized crime, and bootlegging during the Prohibition era, and the tendency of some types of Christians to group smoking, dancing, gambling (or even just card-playing) , and alcohol consumption together as sort of a family of evils. 

Other concerns arise more from social justice, because the poor often suffer the greatest losses from gambling while the rich are most likely to benefit from the industry, or because abuse of gambling or unrealistic expectations have had the consequence of financial tragedy for many families. 

In contrast, the perceived connection between Bingo and religious institutions is a familiar cultural element, and raffles or other contests where a donation carries the potential to win money or merchandise is a common way of fundraising for some charitable organizations like religious schools.   

Relying on chance to make decisions does not seem to be spoken against in the Bible.  In fact, we even see an example of this when the Disciples choose a replacement for Judas after the Resurrection by drawing lots among the qualified candidates, and I have encountered a handful of Christian congregations who choose their lay officers or call their new pastor in a similar fashion, by drawing the names from among the qualifying candidates rather than by using a vote as a means of selection. 

An activity that bears a resemblance to betting or wagering is daily fantasy sports, where players deposit money in an account and use it to enter contests based on player performance in various sports.  While there is the potential to win or lose money based on the results, most states consider this a game of skill, like entering a bowling tournament with a cash prize, rather than a game of chance.  Because of the skill and attention involved, as opposed to random chance, this can be a wholesome form of recreation, provided participation is done responsibly. While this means it is technically not gambling, it is subject to some of the same dangers as gambling if a person develops an unhealthy habitual attachment to it or seeks to solve all of their financial problems by means of it.  

No clear, concise statement can be found in Scripture, either for or against the pure-chance sort of gambling, like lotteries and casino games, that we encounter today.  However, several of the Ten Commandments to address issues which might be relevant to a Christian’s decision about whether to engage in particular types of gambling. 

The First Commandment would be the most significant of these.  It forbids having other gods, which is not limited to carved or sculpted idols or deities of other religions, but includes anything from which the person honors or seeks blessing from more highly than God.  It is easy to conceive how gambling or the gains one hopes to achieve from it might become a higher priority to a person than their love, respect, and trust for God.  In this case, gambling, and any other part of human life, can become a false god for a person and therefore sinful. 

If gambling keeps a person from attending services or if one gambles in a way that is illegal, these would be obvious sins against the Third Commandment regarding the Sabbath and the Fourth Commandment which requires obedience to those in authority. 

The commandments which apply the most specifically to gambling are the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth, which forbid stealing, other forms of dishonest gain, and coveting.  Because the odds in any game of chance are always stacked in favor of the house, those who operate for-profit gambling establishments are very likely taking advantage of their neighbors by their business. 

Likewise those who believe they will get rich quick by gambling are attempting to gain for themselves at the expense of their neighbors who have lost, and those who seek to gain from gambling what they cannot achieve by other conventional means could easily be coveting—seeking to gain something that is not rightfully theirs because they are not content with what they have been given. 

Even if one did not consider gambling a sin, the Bible frequently admonishes believers to use their earthly resources wisely, and this argument from wisdom may be the most compelling reason for Christians either to limit their participation in games of chance to purely recreational levels, or refrain entirely.  For example, a person might use a sum of money for gambling, which they could multiply by a win, but will more likely lose entirely. 

If they were to invest this same sum, they would have a much higher probability of short-term gain and a near-certain likelihood of gain in the long-term.  Similarly, if they were to donate it to a charitable cause, they might give up the potential for multiplication, but would ensure that some person or some cause would be helped by it. 

So, while the Bible does not contain a particular allowance or prohibition toward games of chance, they are certainly sinful if they become idolatrous or a means for dishonest gain, and in the majority of cases, participation in for-profit gambling would be ill-advised on the grounds of being unwise if it goes beyond a minimal cost for purely recreational purposes. 

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