Monday, 2 March 2015

Gambling - what's wrong with it anyway?

Is gambling just a harmless pursuit? Are all forms of gambling equally harmless, or potentially harmful? Many would say that problems from gambling arise from its misuse rather than it being inherently harmful. Assuming for the moment that the National Lottery is a form of gambling, is it not the case that winning it can give families a release from financial struggle, from the dilemma of trying to make ends meet? Have not millions of pounds raised by the Lottery gone to help good causes, and does this not show the worth of gambling?

Moreover, it’s fun, so it’s claimed. You can have a good time gambling, especially if it’s part of your socialising pattern. It’s certainly popular, if the advertising slots in televised football matches and other sporting events is anything to go my. It’s by no means rare to find three or four separate promotions of some form of gambling or other packed into a single three-minute slot!

So, is it not rather boorish to try and fault it? What should be our attitude to gambling from a Christian perspective? In response to persuasive arguments in favour of gambling it’s important that Christians do not resort to merely stating biblical arguments. Of course, we must do that, but it’s not the first thing to do, because for one thing many people reject the Bible anyway. It’s better first of all to state some of the hard facts about gambling.

1.            Some relevant statistics for gambling in the UK.

(1) Published in June 2014 by the Gambling Commission (the Government agency “watchdog”), figures show that the British gambling industry generated a gross gambling yield (GGY) of £6.3 billion between April 2012 and March 2013, a rise of over £0.4 billion (7%) compared to the period April 2011 to March 2012. The industry saw growth in betting, bingo, casino, remote (betting, bingo and casino) and lotteries sectors.  Only the arcades sector experienced a decrease.
Incidentally, one of reasons for the Gambling Commission’s existence, is that it, “regulates gambling in the public interest alongside its co-regulators local licensing authorities. It does so by keeping crime out of gambling, by ensuring that gambling is conducted fairly and openly, and by protecting children and vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited by gambling?” That the Commission exists shows that there are obvious dangers associated with gambling, otherwise there would be no need for it. The same can be said of the many clinics, counselling courses, rehabs and groups dedicated to help those with an addiction to gambling.

(2) Figures provided by the NHS and other organisations such as, only add to concerns over gambling. These show that there are at least 300,000 “problem gamblers” (ie those with a gambling addiction) in the UK and there may be as many as 450,000. The vast majority of gambling addicts do not seek help for their addiction - only around 5 percent in fact. Only 1 percent receive treatment for their gambling problem, although it is treatable.
Moreover, gambling addiction and alcohol abuse are often linked. Many people addicted to gambling are also addicted to alcohol. Statistics show that rates of depression and attempted suicide among gambling addicts are around double the national average! Gambling addicts are also more likely to be jailed as a result of criminal activity (almost always theft and fraud to feed the habit), always hoping for that big win that will pay off the debts, while the debts accumulate!

2.            Some prominent features of gambling

(1) Gambling is very accessible. Increasingly gambling promotions are directed to the use of mobile phones or tablets for online gambling. Long gone are the days when you needed to head for the nearest casino or bookies, which might have been many miles away, if you wanted to play roulette or blackjack or place a bet on the horses. Now, however, you can gamble in private from the comfort of your chair or bed, making gambling for young people unsupervised by parents a real possibility.
(2) Gambling promotions make it very appealing. Many of the promotions offer a “free” bet or an amount to begin playing with, usually hyped up by showing excited players, winners indeed, in the advert! It’s glossy, entertaining, and “cool.” There is no angst on show, just enjoyment; no pain, just gain. The warnings are there, but only in small, unenhanced letters momentarily on screen, like the APR rates on short-term loans.

Many end up with a gambling addiction simply through going for that appealing “bait” to begin with! In recent years that “bait” has become even more attractive due to financial troubles associated with economic recession, unemployment, and social deprivation. Of course, not all gamblers, or gambling addicts, come from socially deprived circumstances.

(3) Gambling easily becomes addictive. That does not lead to most gamblers becoming addicted, but one who does is one too many. Gamblers often describe their excitement in looking for a big win as an “adrenaline rush”; some committed gamblers will tell you that there is no feeling like it! With the means to access it 24 hours a day it’s easy to see how people can get hooked! For some, the prospect of a win is so exhilarating that they will not give up until they win. It’s in the nature of gambling that getting into debt in the process is easily overcome by the prospect of that one big win which will wipe away all debts, so it matters little how much money is lost along the way.

(4) Gambling is never confined to the individual gambler. It is estimated that every addicted gambler adversely affects the lives of ten to twenty relatives, friends, work colleagues or neighbours. In particular, committed gambling disrupts family life. Money needed for food, clothes, rent or mortgage payments, is diverted to fund gambling habits. Extended credit is often readily available. The Bible condemns neglecting one’s family - “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Robbing the home of income and precious time with families is as bad as letting a burglar enter the house to steal all that’s valuable!

3.            What does the Bible have to say about gambling?

Our approach is not to search for a verse in the Bible which categorically states “gambling is wrong”, although, of course, on many ethical matters (adultery for example) the Bible does make such categorical statements. Instead we look for the “big principles” that are designed for the proper development and protection of human life and relationships, even though not all who read this will accept the authority or relevance of the Bible. But for Christians it is the basis of our conclusions about individual and social morality. Here are three, closely connected to gambling.

(1) The destructiveness of greed. Gambling has close connections with greed and being discontented with one’s lot. That’s not at all to say that those in poverty should be satisfied with their lot and should just lie down and accept it quietly; of course not. But gambling is not the way to seek a way out of poverty, for this often makes many who try this route even poorer and often in further debt by exceeding overdraft limits and by resorting to high interest short-term loans.

Gambling belongs to a materialistic world-view. 1 Timothy 6:9-10, states, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money (literally “mammon”) is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” Paul was not advising Timothy that being rich was unacceptable for a Christian. God never condemns riches as such. What is denounced is the “love” of it. The word “mammon” as used in this verse is wider in meaning than “money.” It refers to all that makes up worldliness, so the love of mammon is essentially being in love with material things, having a “this-world” view of where our security and ultimate happiness lies. It’s all about the drive for material satisfaction, often involving jealousy, covetousness, and cheating - which is why the love of mammon is called “a root of all evil.”
More crucially “the love of mammon” leaves God out of plans for security and contentment. 

The Book of Proverbs, one of the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament, presents covetousness and greed as essentially foolish. This is matched in Luke 12:16-21, where the rich farmer planning for the future gave no consideration to God or to eternity. His “this-world” philosophy and approach to life saw him boasting in his financial prosperity, planning to build even bigger barns to hold his future increase. He was the kind for whom life was about making as much money as possible and then having many years in which to enjoy his investments. “Wise man”, many would say of him. God had another opinion - “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you.”

In one of his most famous parables (Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23) Jesus referred to the influences which “choke” the word of God in our hearts - “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” Again, Jesus did not condemn riches or material things in themselves; just making them our priority and thus being deceived!

This is the spirit inherent in gambling, living for the next thrilling win, and if it does not happen, well it might next time, so the mind absorbs more of the spirit of discontentment with what one has, and descends further into the trap of thinking that “a man’s life consists in the abundance of the things he possesses.” Jesus, of course, said that it does not! To live for earthly riches is to commit one’s life to inevitable insecurity, disappointment and the greatest loss of all - the loss of one’s soul. As Jesus put it, “What shall it profit a man though he gain the whole world and lose his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Not questions that the gambling industry would choose as a suitable maxim, yet they are, sadly, the epitaph of many a gambler! Taking risks in the face of eternity is the ultimate gamble! Gambling rides on the back of “chance”, and chance never guarantees contentment and security.

The stewardship of material possessions is crucial in the organisation of life itself. Our possessions and money are not self-produced; they are gifts from God. We are trustees who will be judged for the quality of our stewardship. This is a matter for governments as much as for individuals. Lottery tickets and online bets are the antithesis of trust in God. To adapt another saying of Christ’s, “You cannot serve God and gambling”!

(2) The exploitation of the poor.  One of the most sinister features of the gambling industry is its attitude to the poor. Rather than offering genuine hope and a way out of poverty, gambling preys on those who are most desperate. The Old Testament prophets proclaimed God’s judgment against those who exploited the poor, and yet these are the very people who are enticed to risk everything, which is all too often what they lose! Outlets for the purchase of Lottery tickets are an obvious feature in economically depressed areas.

It has become obvious over many years now that successive governments have all too readily promoted and encouraged forms of gambling, the National Lottery and super-casinos being the most obvious examples. Gambling taxes provide ready funds, so it’s easy to see why the promotion and increase of gambling is an attractive option to governments! This is one of the most insidious aspects of the gambling industry. Alongside the promotion of gambling, governments frequently say that tackling poverty is one of their primary objectives. Leaving aside the important issue of whether austerity measures create poverty, it is sheer hypocrisy to promise the poor relief while simultaneously sponsoring gambling! It’s like telling someone who has had their leg amputated, “we will of course give you a prosthesis, only we need to amputate the other leg first!”

(3) The undermining of the ethic of work. For many gamblers the hope of a massive win is closely connected with the dream of never having to work again. Instead, homes abroad, a nice yacht, and regular income from huge investments; that’s the life to dream of. As Del Boy (the main character in the TV sit-com Only Fools and Horses) often said, “this time next year we’ll be millionaires!” The title of the sit-com, however, omits the last word in the line of the song from which the title is taken - “work”! “Only fools and horses work”! It’s precisely the dream of never having to work again which drives Del Boy on with all his dodgy deals!

The Bible will not allow us to treat work unfavourably. It’s a God-honouring ethic and activity. At our creation, even in the Garden of Eden, God gave us the privilege of labour. Part of the legacy of our human rebellion against God is the distortion of our understanding of work - sin has converted it into drudgery. But God created it as a thing of beauty, intended for his glory and our good, as well as for the benefit of our environment.

Gambling, along with many other influences, distorts this. Work becomes something to escape from, a habitual drudgery, from which gambling gives relief and some hope of escape.

4.            And what of our Christian response?

Gambling is not a harmless hobby or recreation. For too many individuals and families it is a perpetual and increasing misery from which there seems to be no escape. But, how much do we in the Church highlight its dangers? Does it feature in our sermons? Are our people, young and old, familiar with what the Bible teaches about it? Are we actively supporting counselling and care for those with a gambling addiction? Part of what led to me writing this blog was the realisation that I had given the topic of gambling scant inclusion in my own preaching and pastoring ministry.

It is to us as Christians that the words of Proverbs 24 verses 11-12 are addressed. With regard to the gambling addict, as to the drug addict or alcoholic, or indeed anyone in need, these words leave us no refuge in the excuse that we didn’t know.

‘Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, "Behold, we did not know this”, does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?’