Wednesday 7 January 2009

How not to teach children to gamble: Some biblical advice

I was struck recently while shopping at a local shopping centre that from a very early age people are encouraged to consider gambling as a natural part of life. The ‘lucky dip’ machine designed specifically for children is surely a good example of how from at least the toddler stage we begin to encourage, or at best accept, that luck, taking a chance and seeking to win at the expense of others is part of life. It started me thinking about the many other ways we encourage children inadvertently to see gambling as part of life and how in the process we undermine many significant areas of biblical teaching that most Christians parents would hope to have shape their children’s lives. In particular it led me to consider how we might be teaching and modelling an incorrect understanding of God and our relationship to him. Before dismissing me as a bit ‘over the top’ stay with me till the end of the post.

The social problems that gambling creates

The damage that gambling does is an indisputable fact. As an addiction it is a serious social problem not just in Australia but all over the world. Here are a few facts based on the 2006 edition of the Australian Gambling Statistics (the 2008 statistics are available here).

Gambling in Australia stood at $142 billion per annum in turnover in 2006. Overall, 72% was spent on gambling machines (slot machines or what we Australians call poker machines or ‘pokies’). In NSW, Victoria and Queensland gambling on pokies was about 90% of the total wagering.

The majority of losses are on poker machines. In NSW alone, this comprises 71% of all losses, and in Victoria and Queensland about 55%.

Problem gamblers

The Sydney Problem Gambling Centre created by The Salvation Army is dedicated to supporting people and families trapped by gambling addiction. Their publications give some sense of the extent of the problem in Sydney alone. They define problem gambling as “a compulsive act done in the belief that it will cure financial problems, improve quality of life or relationships or help to manage work issues, rather than a fun activity that is indulged in occasionally.” For problem gamblers, gambling becomes the centre of their lives, to the exclusion of everything else. A major report prepared for The Salvation Army suggested that a key trigger for problem gambling was often a big win at a young age, which the individual would then seek to replicate.

It was estimated in 2004 that Australia had 293,000 problem gamblers, a figure that no doubt has grown since. Approximately 20% of all clients to the Sydney Problem Gambling Centre admit to suicidal thoughts. Some other relevant details:

Gambling expenditure is growing faster than household disposable income.
Gaming machines in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia are more common in poorer communities.
Heightened levels of parental gambling are associated with higher incidence of child problem gambling.
The Productivity Commission has estimated that approximately 1.5 million people in Australia are suffering as a result of problem gambling; frequently in the form of poverty.
20% of problem gamblers also have problems with alcohol.
20% report borrowing money without paying it back.

What does the Bible say about gambling?

The short answer is not much directly. In fact, the only direct reference to gambling occurs in the Gospel accounts of the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ possessions (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34 and John 19:24). Some falsely argue that the Jewish practice of casting lots (Numbers 26:52-56; 1 Sam. 14:41-42; Acts 1:26) is a form of gambling , but this practice was only ever concerned with discerning God’s will, it was not gambling. It did not involve the transfer of something of value from one to another, nor did it reflect a win-lose situation with one person gaining advantage over another. Those who used these practices were not appealing to chance, but rather the will of God. Both Isaiah and Paul connected the focus on good luck or gambling with false religions.

But while the Bible lacks a direct commandment against gambling, it expresses strong views about the foundational causes of gambling. The practice of gambling contradicts God’s standards for our lives and the relationship he expects to have with us. How does biblical teaching support the point that I’m making? There are at least seven things worth noting.

1. First, the Bible emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Matthew 10:29-30 reminds us that we are to live our lives in fear of God, with the knowledge that the one who can destroy body and soul also knows when a single sparrow perishes and has also numbered the very hairs on our heads (not hard in relation to me!). Engaging in gambling, by way of contrast, is to appeal to chance and luck. There can be no luck with a sovereign God. To engage in gambling is a denial of the sovereignty of God in one’s life – God’s purpose for us “cannot be thwarted” (Job 42:2), “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36) and “he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.. ...and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:2-3).

2. Second, gambling fosters covetousness and greed “which is idolatry” according to the Apostle Paul (Colossians 3:5). Gambling clearly contradicts the 1st, 2nd and 10th Commandments, instead enthroning personal desires in place of God. Jesus warned: “You cannot serve God and Money” Jesus teaches (Matthew 6:24).

3. Third, gambling is contrary to the biblical commendation to work. The bible indicates three legitimate ways in which wealth may change hands – as we give, by working for it, or by sharing or exchange it with others. Gambling offers the lure of an easy reward. Instead, Paul taught “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). By way of contrast, gambling promises something for little effort.

4. Fourth, related closely to the above, gambling is a foolish use of the resources that God has given to us. We are to be good stewards of what God has given us.

5. Fifth, statistics on gambling indicate the devastating impact that it has on families and leads to neglect of wives, husbands and children. Gambling leads commonly to the neglect of families. Paul had some strong words to share with Timothy about the evil that family neglect represents.

But 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); parents are to support their children (2 Cor. 12:14).

6. Sixth, gambling depends on someone else losing so that we might gain. This is counter to the biblical principle “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mathew 7:12). We are to do good to others, not receive gain at their expense. We are to “do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10).

7. Seventh, gambling is reflective of a lack of contentment with what God has given us. Gambling is the very opposite of contentment. The Bible teaches that God will supply all our needs (Philippians 4:19). We are not to be anxious about our lives, just as God clothes the lilies of the field, so we are to seek him first and he will take care of us.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

But what does this mean for the way we teach out children?

How does the lucky dip machine relate to all that I’ve said above? I’d like to suggest that it relates closely to it. We live in a society where luck and chance are an integral part of the way people think about the world and their place in it. God is dethroned and instead people seek to run their own lives, to “create their own luck”, to “take their chances”, to "test fate" and so on. In so many subtle ways we undermine biblical teaching about the nature of God, our relationship to God, our relationship to others and God’s purposes for our lives. I want to suggest that we can give unbiblical direction to our children regularly without knowing or thinking about it. We do this in two main ways:

In the language we use (and don't use) – language that speaks of luck, chance and gain at the expense of others. “That was a lucky break”, “Let’s make a wish”, “I’ve had a lucky break”, “Let’s toss for it” and so on. Language that speaks of a world driven by chance, not one ruled by God. This is in contrast to language that can speak of God's sovereignty, his providence, his concern for us, our trust in him and his ability to supply all our needs.

In the activities we permit – the lucky dip at the supermarket seems harmless, but it stimulates covetousness and greed. So too, the ‘innocent’ selling of school raffle tickets introduces the concept of gain from chance. Any game of chance that ends in a prize also inadvertently signals that seeking gain in this way is good. Don’t buy children games that might encourage gain at the expense of others (e.g. a toy roulette wheel).

Am I saying that every board game, guessing competition or game of chance is evil and not to be touched. No, not really. In fact I've written elsewhere about the value of games for learning (click here). The game of pass the parcel at the birthday party that ends in all getting a small gift, the game of snakes and ladders, the running race in the playground are not wrong. But many simple games or activities could through very simple and subtle means be re-shaped to promote gain on the basis of chance, with risk to the players and gain at the expense of others.

But while common children's games are generally harmless, the activities that are harder to deal with are those that do have a deliberate element of chance and gambling in them but may be for a good cause or purpose. The school raffle, buying tickets from the local fire brigade, guessing games for charity, the local Bingo charity game, the football club meat raffle and so on. Does gambling become good because it is for a good cause? No. John Piper wrote a nice short piece recently about the pastor who accepted a tithe of a parishioners lottery win and explains why he wouldn’t accept the $17 million on offer even if he was going to use it for good (here).

What is the alternative?

I think in general terms it is to build strong foundations for life based on what the Bible teaches us. But in general terms:

We need to ensure that our children don’t engage in activities that appeal to gain by chance at the expense of others.
We should encourage our children to understand that work is good and is the means by which we gain resources to cater for our daily needs and to be generous towards others.
We should model good stewardship of our resources and teach our children to do the same.
We need to think carefully about little decisions we make each day such as whether to allow our five-year-olds to use the luck dip machine. What might such an activity be teaching our children?
We need to avoid giving our children the idea that life has an element of luck and chance to it and that we can gain by appealing to good fortune.
We need to ensure that our language does not deny the sovereignty of God. Instead, we need to teach our children with our words and actions that our lives are in God’s hands, that he will supply all our needs and that we are to look to him in all things.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).


Laura said...

Thankyou for this post Trevor. My father is a cronic gambler. My mother and he separated before I was born because he used to gamble every cent they had. 30 yrs later he still aquires massive debt yet on the outside leads a 'normal' life - he is a manager for holiday apartments. Because of his addiction many relationships have been severed. Only recently I was shopping with his wife, and she offered to buy me a lottery ticket. I responded that I have never bought one before and would not do so because I don't see how spending money to 'hopefully' gain from someone elses loss would make sense. Not only is it very unlikely to win but unfair too. She did not respond and just carried on with conversation about something else. I wonder sometimes if we, "think carefully about little decisions we make each day" with our kids, how this will appear to my father and step-mother over time. Whether making a breif stand about buying a lotto ticket will make any difference. Only God knows this answer.

Anonymous said...

Hi Trevor,

I have to admit that this post challenged me a great deal. I've been quite happy to buy raffle tickets, take part in Melbourne Cup sweeps, and run Footy tipping comps that offered a prize. I've repented, and the challenge is now for me for live in accordance with God's word on this issue.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments Rob and Roger. Glad to hear that the post has been challenging. I appreciate your honesty Roger. I'm always encouraged when I hear of people reflecting on their lives and actions in the light of Scripture. Every blessing. Trevor