My favorite major league baseball team since childhood has been the Cincinnati Reds. One reason is because Cincinnati is located along the same river I grew up near in Western Kentucky – the Ohio. Another reason is that they were a great team. In the 1970’s, the Big Red Machine won six division titles, four National League pennants and back-to back World Championships (1975-76).
One of the key players in that run was Pete Rose, who once said, “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” And play he did. While racking up 4,256 hits, the most ever for a major leaguer, he was named the National League rookie of the year in 1963, National League most valuable player in 1973, World Series most valuable player in 1975 and to the All-Century Team in 1999.
Under normal circumstances, Pete would have been a lock for induction into the baseball Hall of Fame. Yet, the coveted prize still eludes him at the time of this writing. Why? Because, in 1989 he was declared permanently ineligible from baseball for betting on the very game that had made him a superstar.
How tragic is it that his gambling habits have prohibited him from an honor that he certainly produced the stats to obtain. One of the greatest to ever participate in MLB missed baseball’s highest honor by getting caught up in what is quickly becoming this country’s newest national obsession.
“What’s the big deal?” you might say. “Isn’t gambling legal?” In many cases, yes. Yet being legal doesn’t make it moral, spiritually healthy or wise. And even though the Bible never specifically says, “Thou shall not gamble,” it does include several principles that should steer us away from this seductive vice.
With the gambling industry’s current push to legalize sports betting and horse racing in Georgia, it’s important that everyone understands the potential consequences.
Gambling is a zero-sum game
According to Scripture, one reason we shouldn’t gamble is because it’s dishonest. It’s legalized thievery, robbery by mutual consent. Gambling is a zero-sum game, meaning, for every winner there is a loser. When you hit it big at the black jack table or slot machine, you’re not taking a dime of the casino’s money. You’ve taken advantage of the misfortune of the poor souls who happened to have been “down on their luck.”
Many will disagree, claiming, “I didn’t receive anything that the other guy wasn’t willing to part with.” That’s why I’m calling it robbery by mutual consent. It’s not like he walked up to you in the casino and handed you a hundred-dollar bill. He did not want you to receive what you won. He wanted to win just as badly as you did. In fact, he was hoping you would lose so he could win.
And if you’ll accept this claim, ancient words from Solomon ring alarmingly true. “Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow” (Proverbs 13:11). “Winning the lottery isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be,” admitted Evelyn Adams. She won the New Jersey lottery twice for a total of $5.4 million. Yet today she lives in a trailer and the money has evaporated. “Everybody wanted my money,” she said. “Everybody had their hand out.”
Skeptics will think I’m addressing the exception rather than the rule. You don’t believe anything like that could ever happen to you. And, after all, it’s just a little fun thing with you, right? You’re asking, “What’s wrong with taking a roll of quarters with me to the convention for the slot machines or throwing a few bucks in the office college basketball bracket pool?”
Because gambling is highly addictive. For many people, betting spills beyond the boundaries of entertainment and recreation. God commands that, "You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2). Paul says that if we know Christ, “We should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). And yet many who start out casually wagering end up possessed and penniless.
I heard about a man and woman who had been married for 16 years and had two children. To celebrate the woman’s 40th birthday, they went to a casino. Although they spent only $40, she got hooked. She kept sneaking back for more until she finally plunged the family into bankruptcy. When the bank eventually foreclosed on their home, she killed herself, devastating the family.
Gamblers Anonymous reports that 4 to 6 percent of gamblers eventually progress into the compulsive realm. That statistic might seem insignificant until you take into account the millions that participate. The organization calls gambling addiction “a silent killer that strikes innocent people when they least expect it. It only creates a world of misery with a self-destructive behavior.”
Art Schlichter, a former Ohio State University quarterback who was a first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Colts in 1982, knows the reality of gambling addiction.
“You can’t taste it, smell it or touch it, but it’s there,” he was quoted as saying.
A contemporary of John Elway, Dan Marino and Steve Young, he appeared to have the world by the tail, except for one very bad habit – compulsive gambling. As a result, his NFL career never got off the ground. He was suspended during the 1983 season and cut in 1985. He spent more than 10 years behind bars because his gambling addiction led to financial fraud and theft.
Schlichter’s habits began when, as an 18-year-old, he began placing small bets at a harness track near his home. He’s not the only teen to have been swept up into gambling addiction.
Researchers refer to gambling as “the growing addiction” and predict that it will cause teens more problems during the next decade than illegal drugs.
There’s the cautionary tale of the 18-year-old convenience store employee who scratched off hundreds of lottery tickets belonging to the store. He “thought it was a sure thing.” It wasn’t.
And the 16-year-old boy from an affluent family in an upscale suburban neighborhood who lost big in the lottery, even though he wasn’t old enough to legally buy tickets. He simply asked older friends to purchase tickets for him.
A father of a 19-year-old from a rural town in East Texas was distressed because his son was gambling on cards and dice and had spent his weekly paycheck on the lottery.
You say this could never happen to you, but why take the chance? Make no mistake. Even though no substance enters your body from the outside, gambling is addictive. The fact that more than 800 chapters of Gambler’s Anonymous exist in the U.S. clearly indicates that the problem has spun out of control.
Another major pitfall with gambling is the fact that it promotes the concept of getting something for nothing. The Bible clearly promotes the idea that a person who has financial needs and is able to work should do so. Solomon said, “He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment” (Proverbs 12:11). Of course, this doesn’t prohibit a person from taking a risk and launching into uncharted waters in search of new discoveries. However, plunging into fantasies without counting the cost demonstrates poor judgment.
Could 8-tracks make a comeback?
Picture in your mind a nostalgic, 50-something-year-old who has maintained a love affair with 8-track tapes since his teenage years. He listens to them in his car, at his office and in his home. He’s so frustrated with all the digital era that he decides to make it his life ambition to bring back the 8-track. In fact, he quits a lucrative job he enjoys and depletes his retirement funds in order to finance a new 8-track factory and launch a world-wide marketing campaign. The venture turns out to be a colossal failure. The man ends up filing for bankruptcy, divorcing his wife of 30 years and becoming estranged from his children.
This may sound absurd, yet it’s the same kind of mindset that guides problem gamblers. All too often, they are fantasy chasers, bored and discontent with life, looking for a financial thrill. A man stops on the way home from work for a six-pack and a lottery ticket, dreaming of the possibility of never having to work another day in his life.
The apostle Paul clearly addressed this matter of labor. When he discovered that some of his parishioners were busy doing nothing, sitting idly by, he wrote, “If a man shall not work, he shall not eat.” He further challenged them to “settle down and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, 12). He told that congregation on a previous occasion: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands . . . so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependant on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11,12).
He wasn’t spouting off hollow demands but rather preaching what he practiced. Luke tells us Paul supplemented his income by making tents (Acts 18:3). He built a rapport with those to whom he ministered by working alongside them and setting a worthy example.
Clearly stated, gambling is a poor witness. Paul said on another occasion, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32).
If I choose to buy a lottery ticket while purchasing gas and someone spots me, they might say, “That pastor is playing the lottery, so it must be alright,” or “I’m not interested in a church whose pastor gambles.”
If this sounds a little preachy and restrictive, please understand, we are called to be set apart as believers. We do not exist as an island unto ourselves. We are our brother’s keeper. We must live out the commands of Scripture rather than playing with fire and toying with issues that are discouraged and forbidden.
The most logical reason not to wager is because the odds are stacked so heavily against you. The only consistent winners in the game are the casinos, race tracks, and bookmakers. You stand a much better chance of getting murdered on the way to a convenience store to buy a lottery ticket than winning the prize. Note the following odds:
*Seeing a no-hitter: 1 in 1,347
*Having a royal flush in a poker game: 1 in 649,739
*Having quadruplets: 1 in 705,000.
*Winning in the Powerball: one in 292,201,238.
When I first started researching this subject, a man just a few miles down the road from where I live won half of the largest lottery jackpot in history – $390 million – overcoming odds that were one in 176,000,000 at the time.
A total nightmare
But if history is any indication, beating the overwhelming odds winning and reaching the pot at the end of the rainbow may not be all it’s cracked up to be. William Post won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery but now lives on Social Security and wishes it had never happened.
He called winning the lottery “a total nightmare,” landing him in court and getting him on a hit list. He eventually declared bankruptcy and now lives on $450 dollars a month plus food stamps.
Finally, flee the temptation to gamble because, by participating, you are putting your trust in chance rather than demonstrating faith in God. When a person wagers, they place their fate in the hands of a sports team, hand of cards, roll of the dice, or sequence of numbers rather than in God who loves him or her so much that He sent His only Son to die on a cross for their sins.
Imagine getting a call from your bank informing you that since interest rates had not been too good lately, they were going to withdraw a substantial amount from your account and head to the casino for the weekend in an attempt to go after some big money. And, by the way, they would be stopping at a convenience store on the way and buying a handful of lottery tickets to hedge their “investment.” I think I’m safe saying that you would never give your banker the go-ahead to make such a monetary move. And yet, people give themselves permission to make such irresponsible transactions on a regular basis.
The prophet Isaiah describes one of the numerous times that Judah made an ill-advised move, choosing to neglect God and flounder in sin. “But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny…” (Isaiah 65:11, emphasis added). In the Hebrew text, Fortune and Destiny are Gad and Mem, the Syrian god of fate and the Egyptian god of spring and fertility respectively. God’s chosen people chose to commune with these false deities instead of depending on Him for direction and provision. As a result, the Lord said, “I will destine you for the sword, and you will all bend down for the slaughter” (Isaiah 65:12).
As mentioned earlier, too many who choose to worship at the altar of gambling end up as victims of sword and slaughter.
If you’re dabbling in gambling, you’re playing with fire. Your chances of coming out ahead are slim. And even if you do, you’ve gained it dishonestly. And above all else, why place your life and resources in the hands of chance when a forever winning alternative is available – faith in Jesus Christ? There’s risk involved, but you can’t lose. He supplies abundant, eternal life with all the “riches” you’ll ever need included.
Todd Gaddis served 30 years as full-time senior pastor and is currently interim pastor at First Baptist Church in Statham.
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