December 16, 2017

Seducing Society: The High Cost of Gambling

Jeff Straub

As a new resident, I was struck by two types of commercials ubiquitous on Minneapolis airwaves. An example of the first features a Native American paddling a canoe down a placid stream. The ad highlights the virtues of one of the newest forms of economic development—Indian-run gaming. Millions in revenue create thousands of jobs. Indian tribes are doing their part to stimulate the state’s economy. In other commercials, ordinary Minnesotans rehearse favorite casino stories. A newly married couple first met at the casino. A farmer’s wife milks the cows wearing expensive earrings won at the casino. A grandmother boasts of two Harley Davidson motorcycles won on consecutives casino visits. The message is subtle—gambling is a harmless activity that is fun and rewarding for ordinary Minnesotans. In apparent agreement, the governor wants to increase gaming to help balance the budget. There is talk about adding a casino at the Mall of America and even putting a casino at the airport.

Minnesota is hardly alone when it comes to gaming. Detroit introduced casinos to revitalize its downtown and stop more than $1.5 million that daily flowed to the casino at neighboring Windsor, Ontario. According to a recent study of Indian gaming, more than $18.5 billion in revenue was generated in 2003 and more than 500,000 people were employed nationwide at Indian-run gaming in thirty-five states. Since the passing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, more than half of all Native Americans benefit from a variety of forms of gaming. Schools, hospitals, clinics, roads, and infrastructure are being built with its proceeds from California to Michigan. Slot machines have replaced the buffalo as the source of native prosperity, according to a recent television ad. But Indian tribal gaming, the greatest growth area in U.S. gaming, is just one of numerous gambling venues. Well-known cities like Las Vegas and Atlantic City come to mind, as do the plethora of state-run lotteries. Most pernicious is the explosion of online gambling, which can be done with anonymity in the privacy of one’s home. Gambling as a means of civic prosperity and personal pleasure has become a mainstay in American life.

However, there is a dark side to all of this good news. Although difficult to measure, patterns emerge that link gambling with social problems. Some segments of society may prosper, but others suffer dire consequences. According the National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report (1999), gambling was a significant factor (nearly 1 in 5) in homelessness from Chicago to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Domestic violence increased 300% in one Mississippi area after the introduction of casinos. Such increases were also seen in Rhode Island and Maryland. Children suffer from gambling directly through parental neglect when children are left unattended, sometimes locked in the car in the casino parking lot. They also suffer indirectly as families encounter hardship from the poverty created by compulsive gambling. One recent television report chronicled a blue collar worker who lost more than $100,000, resulting in his wife divorcing him and his employer prosecuting him for embezzlement. His children, caught in the middle, lost both family and security.

What does all this have to do with Christians? According to one report, 95% of Minnesotans do some wagering every year. Whether it is the state lottery, off-track betting, the casino, or Internet poker, gambling has permeated Minnesota life and is representative of trends across the U.S. According to a November 2003 Barna survey, 61% of adults consider gambling morally acceptable. The survey also found that 27% of evangelicals feel the same way, as do an alarming 45% of those who consider themselves “born-again.”[1] Even if one does not personally wager, the culture in which we live is steeped in gambling. Even children are at risk.

How should Christians respond to this cultural phenomenon? Is gambling a harmless pastime only a few abuse, or is it an un-Biblical practice that believers ought to reject? Christians have historically rejected gambling for a number of reasons. Among them is the association of gambling and the crucifixion. As Christ hung on the cross, the soldiers “cast lots” for His garments (Mark 15:24). “It may be noted that the habit of gambling is of all others the most hardening, for men could practise it even at the cross-foot while besprinkled with the blood of the Crucified. No Christian will endure the rattle of the dice when he thinks of this” (C. H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Psalm 22:18). This association, however, is not the only reason that a believer should abstain from gambling. Several others come to mind.

First, gambling is poor stewardship. At the casino the odds always favor the house, by as much as 35% in some cases. Of every $100 spent, the house expects to keep $35. The $18.5 billion that Indian gaming netted in 2003 represents an equal loss by thousands of gamblers. Believers are reminded that all possessions, including money, come from the Lord and are to be invested for His work. Treasures are to be laid up in Heaven, not on earth (Matt. 6:20), and funds are to be given to the poor rather than gathered and squandered (Matt. 19:21).

Gambling also leads one to violate the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” (Exod. 20:17). Covetousness— lust—is the inordinate desire to possess what God has not given. All believers struggle with covetousness from time to time. The gaming industry capitalizes on this philosophy of lust, with the prospect of a big payoff always dangled before unwitting players. Colossians 3:5 reminds us that covetousness is idolatry, condemned by God, and to be put away from believers because it will be the object of divine wrath.

Gambling is also highly addictive. Paul warns against being controlled by the wrong things when he provides the rubrics of what is lawful. “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). With the rate of gambling rapidly rising in the United States, the number of compulsive gamblers has risen dramatically. According to studies done on adolescent gambling, 80% of high schoolers gambled in a twelve-month period with 4–8% being problem gamblers and another 10–14% at risk for developing serious gambling problems.[2] Given the numbers, it is fair to believe that Christian young people are among those ensnared.

Gambling is also associated with other un-Biblical behavior from alcohol consumption to sexual promiscuity and organized crime. The Scriptures give clear guidelines to believers regarding the associations that ought to govern a believer’s life. A man is godly if he does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful (Psalm 1). The modern gaming industry creates an environment where the believer is immersed in the culture of the ungodly, not to bear witness to the redemptive work of Christ, but to join the wicked in the lustful pursuit of wealth.

Gambling is opposed to the Biblical portrait of a sovereign God. The Bible tells us that God works everything according to His will (Eph. 1:11), yet gambling depends upon mere chance, good fortune or “lady luck.” The Bible knows nothing of luck. Believers are commanded to depend on a sovereign God who controls the affairs of our life and not on fate or luck. Proverbs 3:5, 6 reminds us to “trust in the LORD,” not in fortune.

Finally, gambling ought to be rejected by believers as contrary to a life of faith. Paul reminded the Romans that “the just . . . live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Faith is required by all who would please God (Heb. 11:6). Yet gambling tests God, expects something for nothing, and seeks wealth through chance in a sinful environment. This hardly constitutes the life about which Paul was speaking. Some might mistakenly argue that God can provide through gaming, but this is contrary to the expectation that man will labor for what he gets. “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28).[3]

Everything the believer does ought to bring honor and glory to the Lord (1 Cor. 10:31–33). When one looks at the broad issue of gambling, despite any apparent benefit, the culture which is engendered by the gambling industry can hardly be said to glorify God. How then can any believer who wishes to glorify God participate?


Jeff Straub is a professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. “Morality Continues to Decay,” Barna Update, 3 November 2003. Available at http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page= BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=152. Accessed 8 March 2005. []
  2. “Youth Problem Gambling,” http://www.education.mcgill.ca/ gambling/en/problemgambling.htm. Accessed 7 March 2005. []
  3. Information on gambling is abundant. Three sources were of particular value in the preparation of this article. Roger Dunstan, “Gambling in California.” Available at http://www.library. ca.gov/CRB/97/03/crb97003.html#toc. Accessed 8 March 2005. Also “An Analysis of the Economic Impact of Indian Gaming in 2004,” published by the National Indian Gaming Association. Available online at http://www.indiangaming. org/NIGA_econ_impact_2004.pdf. Accessed 8 March 2005. Also the final report (1999) of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. Available online at http://govinfo.library.unt. edu/ngisc/reports/finrpt.html. Accessed 8 March 2005. []


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