Is It OK for Christians to Gamble?

Considering the question in the light of the Gospel—and poker.

When I was a kid, my parents wouldn't let me play with "face cards." I
didn't know why one set of grandparents had them and the other didn't,
except the ones who did must have been lesser Christians. I knew that
the "face cards" must have some sort of devilish allure, along with
things like alcohol and pool. And Smurfs.

I never knew why
I wasn't allowed to play with playing cards. According to rumors, there
was some sort of evil, demonic symbolism in some of the symbols in the
cards. My family was never very clear on this topic. I think the
biggest problem was that cards were often used in gambling and
gambling, well, was used to lock people away in a quick trunk to hell.

In
sixth grade, we got a computer with free cell on Microsoft Windows.
Suddenly, the prohibition on playing cards that never really made sense
was repealed. And then, I learned how to play poker ... at a missions
conference. A bunch of the high school students would sit in the hotel
lobby at the conference and play five-card draw for pennies. My parents
were semi-horrified, but I enjoyed it so much—it was a great way to
hang out with friends and we all had such a good time I don't think any
of our parents cared as much as they claimed to.

And from then
on, I liked poker. I played occasionally in college, and then after
college. I went to Vegas after I graduated (though avoided the
high-stakes poker table like the plague because of my just-graduated
budget). After I got home, my mom—who I respect and love deeply as a
Christian example—looked at me in a disappointed way and said "Gambling
is wrong. Why would you do that?"And who wants to disappoint their mom?

That's
what she said pretty much anytime I talked about playing in my
bi-weekly poker group or going to a casino: "Gambling is wrong."

Stewardship

Her
reasoning behind the prohibition is usually couched in terms of
stewardship. As in, God has given us resources (including money) so we
shouldn't squander those resources by throwing money away. Most people
who oppose gambling usually point to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25,
where Jesus suggests we ought to use our resources responsibly for his
glory—and people who squander their God-given resources get slammed
pretty roundly.

And people who use the stewardship reasoning are
often spot on. If you've ever been to a casino, chances are you've seen
the destructive power that gambling can have. In Vegas, hotels will
often give players cards with magnetic strips hooked up to an account;
you can add to or subtract money from your account. One night at 3 AM,
I noticed several retirees using their cards at the slot machines—their
cards were connected to them via a lanyard, so it looked like they were
connected to the slots like some kind of twisted life support system.
With each press of the button, they would quickly lose another $20 ...
and a little more life in their glazed-over eyes. It's one of the
darkest parts of Las Vegas (which is a pretty dark city), and it's
difficult to watch an octogenarian burn through his or her social
security check.

So yes. The stewardship arguments hold some weight, particularly when gambling can and is abused. People really do have serious problems with gambling—so much so there are recovery organizations
similar to Alcoholics Anonymous to help them. This abuse of gambling
is, without a doubt, not something to take lightly, and we shouldn't
ever disregard people who have a genuine problem with gambling.

A balancing act

But
what if you're not gambling compulsively? Is gambling, in and of
itself, so bad? Well, it depends on who you ask. And, especially, how
you play.

The most popular game out there right now is poker.
Thanks to the ubiquitous "World Series of Poker" broadcasts on ESPN,
poker—especially Texas Hold 'Em—is more popular than it's ever been.
The thing about poker (and games like blackjack and baccarat) is that
enough skill is involved that the "gambling" or chance aspect of the
game is taken down several levels. Sure, you can always get beaten on
the last showing of cards (the river), but the odds of you losing
completsly are pretty low—if you're good enough. That's why most of the players seen on the World Series of Poker are professionals—they make their living playing a game many of us see as a game of complete chance.

In
a 2006 interview with RELEVANT, professional player Daniel Negreanu
said "To call me a gambler would be to say that a man who sells stocks for a living is a gambler. What I consider my profession to be is a skill." And he's right. In the right hands, poker is much less a
game of chance than a game of skill. Even amateurs can use enough skill
to make the game less about luck and more about a proper technique of
betting and learning the habits of other players. I have friends who
know exactly when to raise and when to fold with certain players
because they've watched long enough to be careful when necessary and
raise by a large amount when careful.

But what about other
games? Things like slot machines, craps, roulette and games of
completely random chance? Those are a little more tricky. And like so
much of the Christian life, the guideline seems to be one of moderation
rather than a hard and fast rule. Because the Bible doesn't say
anything like "You can gamble, but only when you're really good at the
game and the odds are better than 25-1;" it gives guidelines for
stewardship and suggests the best ways to use our resources, but
specifics are left up to us.

I would suggest that gambling of
many kinds (and especially in the skilled games category) falls into
the area of entertainment for most of us. We don't play to make money
or because we feel a compulsive drive to do so; we play because it's
fun. Poker night with my friends is a great time not because of the
game (though that's part of it) but because of the conversations—and
ripping on people who make huge mistakes. And paying for that
entertainment isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing.

After all,
how many things do we pay for that are strictly entertainment? We go to
movies—sometimes they move us and make us think as true works of art,
other times we go because they're entertaining. Why do we pay to go to
sporting events? Because they're entertaining and let us enjoy time
with our friends. Any number of activities we all engage in without any
sense of guilt (and rightfully so) are done not out of any commitment
to "stewardship" but because they're fun. And God is okay with
us having fun—there were several times in the Gospels when Jesus was
actually chastised by the religious leaders for having too much fun!
And think of his very first miracle; his provision of the "best" wine
at the party hardly suggests a God who wants us to only use our
resources to follow the path of eternal boredom and misery.

Instead,
one of the most important things anyone can do is to build community
and relationships. In my life that's come through mutual
experiences—yes, even experiences at casinos. As anyone can tell you
who attends a weekly poker game, the evening is much less about money
than about the fellowship. This kind of activity, in moderation, isn't
harmful; it may be (dare I say) glorifying to God. The question about
poker and gambling should be less whether it's right or wrong, but
where it leads you. Does it lead you to greed, overextension of
resources and poor stewardship? Then stop. Does it lead you to
entertainment, community and a feeling of skilled play? Then continue.
Like so many parts of the Christian life, God's grace allows us
flexibilty and freedom—the key is wisdom.

Ryan Hamm is the associate editor at RELEVANT.

 

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