It didn’t seem very serious at the beginning. A number of my friends in high school started guessing which National Football League teams were going to win each week, and throwing a dollar into the pot for the best guesser. Then it was NCAA basketball, and guys were talking about giving and taking points, whatever that meant. Then it was the National Hockey League playoffs, and even some of the girls were paying money and talking about their picks. And yet, it didn’t seem all that serious.

By senior year, there was a regular weekly poker game, and the stakes were getting bigger. But seven days is a long time to wait when you have an addiction, so guys started playing cards in the cafeteria at lunch time, hiding them under the table. Still, it didn’t seem that serious.

It seemed a lot more serious several years later, when I heard that one of my classmates had a serious gambling problem. If you wanted to find him, you had to go down to the racetrack, where he was playing the horses. He couldn’t hold down a steady job, and everybody was sad about it. It was only then that I realized that gambling is a destructive addiction.

A recent report to the Philadelphia City Council recognizes some of the dangers of that addiction

Street commissioned a report on the social costs of casino gambling. Among other things, the report warns of the dangers of an influx of compulsive gamblers and an unhealthy alliance between government and the gaming industry. The connections between gambling and social ills like prostitution, divorce, and child abuse are already widely-known.

It turns out that riverboat gambling may not even be good economics. Casinos usually fail to meet financial expectations. The apparent advantages of new jobs and increased revenues are offset by the subtraction of dollars from other forms of entertainment, like sports and movies. Furthermore, the cost to the public of the average pathological gambler is in the neighborhood of $15,000. At least, that’s how much the public paid back in 1981, due to theft, embezzlement, and the judicial costs necessitated by gambling.

Gambling has become even bigger business since then. What was a $10 billion-a-year concern in 1982 has since become a $40 billion-a-year industry

The church has long recognized the dangers of gambling. Already in the 3rd century, Tertullian observed that ‘[i]f you say you are a Christian when you are a dice-player, you say you are what you are not, for you are a partner with the world’

Gambling is a sin for a number of reasons

Second, gambling is bad stewardship. Everything that we are and have belongs to God

Third, gambling is stealing. Every form of gambling is an attempt to profit from someone else’s loss. There are always winners, but there are also losers, and there are usually a lot more losers than winners. That’s why it’s a gamble.

The fact that the victims of gambling are usually anonymous does not legitimize the vice. It is often observed that lotteries are a way of stealing from the poor to give to the rich. That certainly seemed to be the case when I was in Haiti, where the most lotto stands are in the poorest communities. That makes you wonder, by the way, about the marketing slogan used by the Pennsylvania State Lottery: ‘Benefits Older Pennsylvanians.’ Maybe, but at whose expense?

Fourth, gambling comes from coveting. In his ‘Sermons on the Cards’, the 17th century Anglican bishop Jeremy Taylor put it this way: ‘If a man be willing or indifferent to lose his own money and not at all desirous to get another’s, to what purpose is it that he plays for it? If he be not indifferent, then he is covetous… ’

A man once came to Jesus with a financial problem. It wasn’t a gambling problem, but the man did want Jesus to tell his brother to give him half of his inheritance. This is the warning Jesus gave him, and it’s the warning he gives to everyone who wants a bigger slice of the pie: Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions

[for a report on the report, see the Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/27/96, A1]. The idea of bringing riverboat gambling to the Delaware River refuses to die, so City Council President John [Margot Hornblower, ‘No Dice,’ TIME, 4/1/96, pp. 29-33]. As gambling continues to expand in places like Atlantic City, and as the economic woes of Philadelphia continue, unscrupulous politicians are bound to turn to dice and cards for salvation. Since we are now in an election year, we can expect politicians to make a good return on the campaign contributions they have received from the gambling industry by introducing new casino legislation.[De Spectaculis, xvi]. The Westminster Divines didn’t go into the subject at length, but they did warn about the dangers of ‘wasteful gaming’ [Westminster Larger Catechism, Q & A 142]. [these principles are drawn from William Temple, Essays in Christian Politics and Kindred Subjects (London, 1927)]. First, it denies God’s providence. God promises to provide everything we need (Philippians 4:19), but he doesn’t instruct us to gamble to get it. The providence of God does not need to be helped along by lottery tickets or sweepstakes entries. Instead, the Bible teaches us that God provides daily bread in abundance, as we work for it (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).(Romans 8:14; Psalm 24:1), and it has been given to us to meet our needs and to bring glory to God. But gambling puts what belongs to God at risk; it jeopardizes what God has entrusted to our care. In the parable of the talents, the wicked servant is chastised for failing to put his talent on deposit (Matthew 25:27), not for failing to take it to the bingo parlor. [in David F. Field, ‘Gambling,’ New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, ed. by David J. Atkinson, et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), p. 402]. In other words, if you’re not in it for the money, then why gamble? If you are in it for the money, then you’re coveting.(Luke 12:15).

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: