By Glenn Dunehew
Published May 1, 1989
Dorm Bible Study Series
Lately many states are turning to pari-mutuel gambling and the lottery system to raise revenue as an alternative to raising taxes. Is it ethical for the government to support gambling? Have lotteries produced the desired results in the states that have them? Is it wrong to gamble? Let’s look for a moment at what the Bible has to say on this issue.
Is Gambling Wrong?
The word “gamble” means, “to play for money; to squander by gaming.” The basis for gambling is greed and the desire to gain something without working for it. This is the motivation behind all gambling activities – from horse racing to betting on fights or athletic events to state lotteries.
The Bible has much to say about greed. Consider these verses:
“Incline my heart to Thy testimonies, and not to dishonest gain” (Psalm 119:36).
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does life consist of his possessions’” (Luke 12:15).
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (riches)” (Matthew 6:24).
“The desire of the sluggard puts him to death, for his hands refuse to work; all day long he is craving, while the righteous gives and does not hold back” (Proverbs 21:25,26).
God has ordained that men should acquire wealth through diligent labor and creativity. An honest reward for honest labor is a pillar of stability in all cultures. Financial prosperity, therefore, becomes a reward from God for obedience, godliness, and patience. The person who has labored faithfully will then have the character to handle wealth properly.
But man has always tried to short-circuit this plan by attempting to sidestep the laws of God and make money his own way. This is why so many people are looking for their “lucky day” when they hit the big jackpot or win the lottery. It is this attitude of greed which feeds all forms of gambling.
Gambling is also addictive. Dr. Robert Custer, a psychiatrist, says: “Gambling, like alcohol is a narcotic.“1 This is evident by the more than 10 million compulsive gamblers in our nation.2
Is all this gambling going on simply because of the desire for a few dollars or thrills? Those who have traced the statistics surrounding the more than $17 billion spent every year in gambling conclude that organized crime is always at work behind the scenes of this industry.3
What about the state lottery?
A lottery, by definition, is gambling. It is playing for money or squandering by gaming. People take a chance with their own money by trying to pick the right numbers or the right card. They must “ante up” before playing, and not every person wins. Not even half the people who play win in a lottery. Why, then, do people find lotteries so thrilling?
You might hear a few responses like this: “Well, I play because I get a chance to win money and I am helping my education system when I play.” Or, “A lottery is better than raising taxes.” But the Bible makes some strong statements about the way money is acquired and spent:
“You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a dog, into the house of the Lord Thy God for any votive offering; for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 23:18).
This scripture tells us that there are some forms of money which are actually tainted because of the sinful purpose for which the money was used. In the above scripture, we see that money gained by prostitution is considered an abomination to God. In the New Testament, we are warned about people who are motivated by a desire for “filthy lucre” or “sordid gain” (see Titus 1:11). In other words, there is “good money” and “bad money” in God’s eyes. God will bring His curse on an individual, a family, a business, a church, or an institution which operates on sordid income – such as money derived from gambling, extortion, illegal business operations, prostitution, pornography, or the sale of illegal drugs.
What then will happen to the economy of a state or a nation if it begins to gain its support from sordid gain? We are told that civil authority is an agent of God in Romans 13:1-5. Does God want civil government receiving funds from gambling establishments, or promoting the practice of gambling in any form? No – and He will not bless a national economy which allows this kind of money to be acquired. He will allow poverty and all other kinds of economic judgments to come until the problem is corrected.
States have sold out to the idea that the end justifies the means. A University of Michigan study indicates that the poor spend a greater portion of their income on gambling than other classes.4 The stated idea behind lotteries is usually “to help the poorer counties with increased revenues and improve their communities.” However, governments are actually tempting people to squander what little money they do have. Plus, the addiction to gambling can cause further deterioration of the family unit in the community.
I was in a convenience store the other day and a gentlemen bought two $1 lottery tickets. He won $20 with one of the tickets. His next response to the clerk was, “Now I guess I will have to play again until I spend the $20 I won.” His net gain will be 0, but the effect will be the desire to continue to play.
Some people spend $20 to $100 a week in the hopes of winning maybe $20, and then they start all over again. Their overall chance of winning the grand prize in the most famous Illinois “Super Lotto” is one in seven million. (The chance of being hit by lightning is one in 1.9 million.5 So your chances of being hit by lightning are better than winning the “Super Lotto.”)
Many of the states that have started the lottery system have not realized the desired result. New Jersey and Nevada had to raise taxes despite their increased “revenue.“6 What about the increased revenue for these states? In Kentucky, 50 percent of the revenue is earmarked for prizes, and about 20 percent for administration fees. That leaves around 30 percent for the education system. So in reality most of the money is being dispersed from those that buy tickets to the “lucky” few who win. Remember that the majority of people buying these tickets are the poor. Sounds noble in theory – but in reality it does not work.
Why Is Gambling So Offensive to God?
The Bible tells us that God is a good God who desires to bless those who serve Him; He rewards those who walk in obedience to His precepts. Part of this blessing is financial. In Deuteronomy 8:18 we are told that it is God “Who gives the power to make wealth.”
But those who turn to gambling to acquire wealth are rejecting God’s provision and His hand of blessing. And, although it is usually done in ignorance, gamblers are actually serving another god: the god of fortune and luck. In many ancient cultures people worshipped the god of Fortune – they placed their lives in the hands of an impersonal force who arbitrarily controlled their destiny. People do the same today under the guise of “luck.” If they experience a good year financially, success in their business, or romantic fulfillment, then they offer thanks to fate, luck, or some other superstitious force to which they attribute the events of their lives.
But God does not want us to serve the gods of fortune and chance. He does not want us to be controlled by superstition and pagan ideas of fate. His command is clear:
“You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).
Those who serve the Lord are not taking a chance with their fate or wagering their future on uncertain odds. Those who choose to serve fortune, however, are betting with their very lives and their eternal salvation. For those who are tempted to do this, the words of Jesus Himself are clear: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
1 Biblical Principles (Massachusetts: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1984), p. 81.
2 Ibid., p. 82.
3 Ibid., p. 80.
4 Ibid., p. 82.
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