The Problem with Gambling
by Matthew W. Bassford
In April of last year, the state legislature of Tennessee legalized online betting on sports. In November of this year, four online sportsbooks were approved to operate in Tennessee for the first time. Not surprisingly, since that time, we’ve been bombarded with ads trying to entice us to gamble on sports.
Even at a practical level, gambling is not something I would advise others to do. As the saying goes, the house always wins. If they didn’t win, they wouldn’t go on operating, would they? The way to get rich from betting on sports is not to bet on sports. It is to operate one of those sportsbooks! I wouldn’t bet on sports even if I were an atheist.
Of course, I’m not an atheist, and there is a moral component to this too. Gambling is unwise, but we also must ask if it is immoral too. All of us have heard that gambling is a sin, but what do the Scriptures say? This morning, then, let’s consider the problem with gambling.
Reasoning from the Scriptures
Our examination of this issue must begin with reasoning from the Scriptures. We see an example of Paul doing this in Acts 17:2-3. There, of course, was nothing in the Old Testament that out-and-out said, “Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.” However, there are hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, and Paul, using those prophecies as a starting point, reasoned from them to that conclusion.
Reasoning from the Scriptures is something that we are expected to do. After all, Jesus condemns the Sadducees in Matthew 22 because they did not reason from the story of the burning bush to the conclusion that there is life after death. However, all of us know people who have reasoned from the Scriptures to conclusions that were false. Probably, we’ve even done that ourselves.
Thus, even though reasoning from the Scriptures is required, we also must regard our conclusions with skepticism. We can fail to take into account everything that the Bible says. Indeed, we even can deceive ourselves into reaching the wrong answer. We must do it, but we also must do it carefully, and beware of regarding our conclusions with the same certainty as what the Bible directly states.
Gambling, of course, is an area where we must reason from the Scriptures. Gambling certainly existed in the first century. After all, we see the Roman guard gambling for the clothing of Jesus. However, nowhere does the Bible condemn gambling as a sin per se.
Once some Christians realize this, they start jumping up and down and saying, “See? I can gamble! There’s nothing wrong with it!” However, whether they know it or not, they have reasoned from the Scriptures to reach that conclusion, and the absence of a direct condemnation is not all the evidence there is. Before we conclude that gambling is innocent, we need to consider the whole counsel of God.
Guarding Against Greed
In this regard, we must consider the importance of guarding against greed. Look at the words of Jesus in Luke 12:13-15. This context is not about gambling at all. It’s about a couple of brothers fighting over their inheritance. However, Jesus warns us not only against that form of greed but against every form of greed.
That raises an important question, though. How do we know when we’re being greedy? After all, all of us want and need money. I care very much that my salary is deposited into my bank account every week. That’s not sinful; after all, the Scriptures tell us that the worker is worthy of his wage. What’s the difference, though, between that and greed?
I think the answer is that greed arises when we start caring so much about money that we stop caring about others. I care about being supported, yes, but I work throughout the week to give you value for your money. Indeed, I try to give you more than you’re expecting. Back when Larry still owned his business, I know that he cared about those accounts receivable. However, because he’s a good man, I know that he also cared about providing good service for his customers, so that everybody benefited, not just him.
The same thing is true when I buy and sell on the stock market. Sometimes you’ll hear people say that stock trading is gambling because of the risk, but that’s not true. The problem with gambling is greed, not risk, and buying and selling stocks isn’t necessarily greedy. When I buy a stock, there’s a fair exchange. They get the money they wanted more than the stock, and I get the stock I wanted more than the money. Everybody benefits. That’s the way the free market works!
Gambling, though, is different. Unlike a free-market exchange, gambling is a zero-sum game. When we buy and sell goods and services, there are two winners, but with gambling, there is always a winner and a loser. If I had made a bet with Derrick on the outcome of the Alabama game last Saturday, he would have been the winner, and I would have been the loser. He would have gotten all the money, and I would have ended up with nothing.
Do you see the problem? When we actively want to hurt somebody financially for our benefit, or if we even don’t care that we are hurting them financially because we have benefited, we care more about money than we do about them. That’s greed, and that’s a sin.
Speak Truth in Our Hearts
What matters then, is not the gambling per se. It’s greed, and that means that we must speak the truth in our hearts about whether we are being greedy or not. Look at Psalms 15:1-2. As the psalmist makes clear here, this is a big deal! If we aren’t honest with ourselves about our motivations, self-deceit will separate us from God.
Is everybody who gambles necessarily acting out of greed? I’m not willing to say that. For example, I can remember that during one debate tournament in high school, I found myself playing poker for pennies between rounds. I didn’t care whether I won or lost, which probably is why I lost. If I had won, and somebody had asked me for the fifty cents or whatever, I would have given it to them. I admit that I was being dumb, but I don’t believe I was being greedy.
However, I believe that the great majority of the time, when people gamble, greed is involved. The key question to ask, I think, is, “Would you be gambling if there were no prospect of winning anything?”
Sometimes, the answer is yes. At that debate tournament, I would have been happy to play cards with no stakes. The money wasn’t my idea.
Usually, though, the answer is no. Think about online sports betting. You don’t have to bet on sports to be a passionate sports fan. The important thing about sports betting is not the game. It’s the money, and wanting to win that money at others’ expense is greedy. The same holds true for playing the lottery, going to a casino, and a host of similar activities.
This is not an analysis that I can force on anybody else. You can go off and bet on the Vols game while insisting all day long that it’s not about the money. We must remember, though, that self-deception is sweet for now, but an eternity in hell is bitter. Let’s be people who speak the truth in our hearts, both about greed and about everything else.