July 19, 1992

BEATING THE ODDS

“People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6:9)

Hello there, friend, and welcome!  Welcome to Gambler’s Heaven, where Money is king and Lady Luck is queen.  Here in Gambler’s Heaven, you’ve always got a chance to win.  When you’re at work, be sure to put a few bucks into the office pool–the team you bet on just might be the team of destiny.  At the grocery store, grab a fistful of lottery tickets–the winning ticket this week is worth over $50 million, you know.  Stop at a fast food joint for a hamburger–your scratch-and-win card could mean a new car (or at least a small order of French fries).  Pop open a beer–you may hear a little microchip inside the can saying, “You win!”  Check out the mail–you may already be a winner in the sweepstakes!  Flip on your TV–maybe you’ll be able to catch the last part of “Wheel of Fortune” and then watch the lottery drawing for the day’s winning numbers.  Feeling religious?  The church bingo might be a real blessing to you.  Got any plans for next weekend?  A visit to the racetrack might be just the ticket.  Need a vacation?  Just ask your travel agent about the riverboats and the hotel casinos.

Yes indeed, if you like gambling, you’re mighty lucky to be here in Gambler’s Heaven (or North America, as some people still call it).  Almost anywhere you go in the United States and Canada, you have opportunities to try your luck.  And if it’s still not heavenly enough for you, just wait.  It’s getting better and better every year.

You see, once upon a time, government was hostile to gambling, but here in Gambler’s Heaven, that’s no longer a problem.  Government and gambling aren’t enemies anymore;  they’re partners.  Government helps gambling by establishing lotteries and advertising them aggressively; and gambling has repaid the government’s friendship with millions and millions of lottery dollars.

Now the partnership is moving beyond lotteries.  When the province of Ontario faced a budget crunch recently, government officials turned to their dear friend, the gambler, for help.  Already blessed by an avalanche of cash from the lottery, the Ontario government proposed to deal with its latest budget problems by having government-run casinos, off-track betting, and sports lotteries.  Why create a new tax, when you can increase revenue simply by giving citizens a new chance to try their luck?

In the U.S. the story is much the same.  Many states already depend on lottery dollars, and now they are now looking at other ways of cooperating with the rapidly growing gambling industry.  A recent Chicago Tribune (5-11-92) article offered several examples.  Last year Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi approved riverboat gambling. At least nine other states are still considering the idea.  Four states have now approved video gambling, and at least twelve others are studying legalization of new forms of poker, bingo, and keno.  Once upon a time, government tried to prevent gambling, but now it permits it and even promotes it.

Like the states and provinces, city governments are scrambling to get a piece of the action.  Mayors and city councils figure that a growth industry like gambling will drench a withering downtown economy with buckets of cash and also generate more tax dollars for municipal coffers.  New Orleans is considering a city-owned casino.  In Chicago, the mayor supports the plan of a business conglomerate to build a $2 billion casino-entertainment complex.  In Milwaukee, a group of investors wants to build a $500 million casino.  According to John Giovenco, president of the gaming division of Hilton Hotels Corporation, “In the next 8 or 10 years, there will be gaming in every major city in the United States in one form or another.  It’s a business and an idea whose time has come.” Yes indeed, gambling is a booming business.

Isn’t it strange, then, that those who design the advertising campaigns don’t seem to be playing their trump card?  Advertisers often use celebrities to promote their products, and yet gambling’s number one celebrity never appears in any ads.  This man is one of the great players in the history of baseball;  he set the record for most hits in a career, and he’s been a hero to millions of people.  On top of all this, the man has done a lot of gambling himself, so he could speak from personal experience.  If the gambling industry wants a celebrity spokesman, no one could be better.  And yet I’ve never seen an ad for the lottery or the racetrack or sports betting that features Pete Rose.

Why is that?  You don’t suppose it has something to do with the fact that instead of bringing Pete Rose from rags to riches, gambling brought him from riches to rags; that instead of putting him in baseball’s Hall of Fame where he belonged, it put him in prison.

As the power of gambling tightens its grip on the structures of our society and on the individuals within it, we need to take a hard look at its true impact.  In Gambler’s Heaven, the promises are enticing, but the reality isn’t exactly paradise.  You may enjoy the thrill of trying to beat the odds, but all too often, the odds beat you.  The lure of gambling is powerful but deceptive.  It tantalizes you with dreams of prosperity but more often it leaves you in the dregs of poverty, a poverty which is not only economic but also spiritual.

It’s kind of like the greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit at a dog race. Those dogs can run like crazy, but no matter how fast they run, they’re not going to catch the rabbit.  It always manages to stay ahead of them.  And what if the greyhounds would actually catch it some time?  What then?  A fake rabbit still wouldn’t satisfy their hunger.

In the same way, gamblers chasing an elusive prize will seldom catch up with it.  And even if they do, the money won’t satisfy their deepest needs.  True fulfillment is found only in God.  Apart from him, we’re bound to come up empty.

Some time ago, a person (who shall remain anonymous) sent me a long list of prayer requests.  I noticed that many of these had to do with financial matters:  he wanted me to pray that his unpaid bills would be covered;  that he would get a better job;  that his landlord would ease up on demands for rent; and finally, that God would help him win the lottery!

I wrote back and suggested that he might be able to pay more of his bills if he stopped dumping money into the lottery.  I also suggested that he start praying for God’s help in following Jesus, rather than asking for God’s help in being a more successful gambler.  In 1 Timothy 6:5, the Bible warns against those “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5).  Prayer won’t improve your chances of winning big.

The Bible gives us important insights into our relationship to money in 1 Timothy 6.  Here’s what the Scripture says:

But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.  (1 Timothy 6:6-10)

You’ll notice that there’s nothing in this passage about gambling per se.  But there are some powerful insights which certainly apply to gambling and help us to see gambling for what it is.  Verse 9 of 1 Timothy 6 is especially revealing:  “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”

“People who want to get rich”–that’s who the Bible is talking about.  The desire to get rich quick, to get something without working for it, is certainly one of the main attractions in gambling.  You hope to make yourself richer simply by making someone else poorer.  Gambling is an intoxicating brew that mixes greed with a stiff shot of competition.  The prospect of getting richer is enticing enough, and it’s even more exciting when you feel the competitive challenge of beating the odds and winning money at someone else’s expense.

The desire to get rich, according to the Bible, gives rise to “many foolish and harmful desires.”  This is true of greed in general, but it’s especially true of gambling–it’s foolish and harmful.  It’s ironic that gambling often begins with a love for money, and yet the end result is almost always a loss of money.  Gambling is a bad bet. You’ve got a better chance of being struck by lightning than of winning big in the lottery.  The games are rigged and the odds are calculated so that most people who gamble will lose money.  Losers outnumber winners.  How else could the lottery be a big money-maker for the government?  How else could the casinos and racetracks be so lucrative?  The sad irony of gambling is that you start out wanting to make some easy money, but you end up losing hard-earned money.  You’d like to win something for nothing, but instead, you get nothing for something.

Gambling is foolish and harmful, and the tighter its grip, the more harmful it becomes.  A distressed woman calls our office.  She says that her family is having financial problems.  Then she says her husband makes a salary of $70,000 a year. Some problem!  Most of us wouldn’t mind a financial problem like that!  But for some reason, this man can’t settle for the dull predictability of a $70,000 annual income.  He wants to be really rich;  he wants to win big;  and so he spends several hundred dollars every week on the lottery.  So far, he hasn’t won anything, but he has managed to get hopelessly behind on paying his bills.  He’s not the only one who’s being hurt by his compulsive gambling, of course;  it also affects his wife and children.  As the Bible says, “A greedy man brings trouble to his family (Proverbs 15:27).”

Stories like this are not at all uncommon.  Nevertheless, the government continues to promote gambling as a way make the money necessary to meet the needs of society.  That’s a little like a fire department trying to put out a blaze by spraying it with gasoline.  Government-sponsored gambling is really nothing more than a tax on foolishness and vulnerability, a way of harming people in the name of helping them.

James Wall, writing in The Christian Century (5-6-92), puts it this way:

Gambling exploits a human weakness.  Gambling parallels its constant companion, prostitution, in suggesting that one can buy happiness.  When gambling is not only condoned but officially supported by city and state officials through lotteries and licensed parlors, then government has become a pimp for sin.

That’s tough talk–but it also happens to be true.

A great deal of lottery money is taken from people who have a low income, who live in poverity, and who vainly hope that they can buy a ticket out of their situation.  When I see many of the people standing in line for lottery tickets at local stores, it looks like they’d be much better off spending the money on a new pair of jeans or some groceries.  But thanks to gambling, their desperate situation becomes even more desperate.

Of course, not everyone who gambles has a low income.  Some, as we’ve seen, make $70,000 a year.  Others, like Pete Rose, have made millions.  But even many who have an ample income can’t really afford to gamble.  What begins as an amusing game that nibbles away a few dollars eventually becomes an obsession that devours their lives.

Even if the government uses the money from gambling for some good causes, it will never make up for the damage it’s already done.

It’s time to face the fact that gambling has taken on a mysterious and pervasive power in our society.  It has taken over the lives of many individuals, turning them into compulsive gamblers.  Maybe that’s happened to someone you know, or even to you.  And not only has gambling taken control of many individuals, but it has infiltrated our major institutions as well.  It is a vital part of the marketing strategy for many different companies, from scratch-and-win to sweepstakes to talking beer cans.  It is closely connected with nearly every sporting event, where no report is complete without mentioning the odds or the point spread.  Cities, states, and provinces are growing more and more dependent on gambling revenue.  Even many charities and churches rely on bingo parlors and raffles as an important part of their fund-raising strategy.

For some people, this may seem like Gambler’s Heaven, but any individual or society that falls under the power of gambling is in big trouble.  As the Bible says, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”  Notice the progression:  first, you’re tempted; then you’re trapped; and then you find yourself plunging headlong toward destruction, unable to help yourself or halt the plunge.  The final result is not just financial ruin, but spiritual ruin.  At first King Money and Lady Luck seem very attractive and friendly, but before you know it, they’ve got you trapped and are dominating and ruining your life.

Sometimes the love of money, the desire to be rich, takes on a power all its own.  King Money and Lady Luck are more than just figures of speech.  The Bible talks about mysterious spiritual powers which can control individuals and dominate social structures (Ephesians 6:12; Romans 8:38).  These powers gain an iron grip on many people.  They warp the values and priorities of entire societies.  They compete with God himself for our loyalty and trust.

That’s why greed is such a serious matter.  It isn’t just a small mistake or a minor weakness.  Greed, according to the Bible, is surrender to a spiritual power.  It is idolatry (Ephesians 5:5;  Colossians 3:5).  It’s trusting and worshiping money instead of God.  It’s the religion of materialism.  Jesus himself said, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24).  “Mammon” is Money with a capital ‘M’–Money no longer as a useful commodity, but as a dominant power.  Gambling is just one of several ways that we can fall under the insidious power of Mammon, King Money, and when we do, it makes us disloyal to God and ruins our relationship to him.

When Money is king, it also spoils our relationship with other people.  God created us to love people and use money, but instead we love money and use people.

Money can sometimes be a useful servant, but when it becomes the master, watch out!  It takes on a deadly power that it was never meant to have.  “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”  “For,” as the Bible says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  So what gambling does to your bank account is only part of the problem.  The worst part is this:  you may become so obsessed with Money that it blocks you from seeking treasure in heaven.  Gambler’s Heaven can easily become a pit stop on the way to hell.  And what does it profit if you gain the grand prize but lose your soul?

The Bible shows us a better way.  If gambling or the love of money has become a dominant power in your life, it’s going to take a power greater than yourself to set you free.  You need to turn your life over to the care of Jesus Christ.  If you want to enjoy real contentment, if you really want to beat the odds once and for all, you need to get out of the realm where Money is King and Lady Luck is queen, and you need to be part of the domain where Jesus is Lord, where he’s the one in charge of your life.

After warning against being trapped by the love of money, 1 Timothy 6 says:

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called… (1 Timothy 6:11-12)

We need to adopt Jesus’ priorities and be controlled by his power.  We need to realize that the grand prize of the universe is nothing less than eternal life in the presence of God.  God calls us to take hold of that prize.  This prize isn’t a gamble;  it’s a gift.  It’s a gift that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.  His victory, accomplished through his death on the cross, has overcome the deadly powers that lure us into disaster.  The Bible says, “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).  So you don’t have to be dominated by gambling or the love of money or any other power that is corrupting and ruining you.  Jesus has overcome the powers.  He has beaten the odds once and for all.  And when his Holy Spirit enters your heart, he makes you a part of Jesus’ victory.  When you belong to God, you can’t lose.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain,” says the Bible.  When Jesus controls your life, godliness replaces greed, and contentment replaces covetousness.  In Philippians 4:19, the Bible says, “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”  The Lord meets all our needs, material as well as spiritual.  Don’t forget, though:  God meets our needs, not our greed.  Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, but he didn’t teach us to pray for the weekly jackpot!

Let me just summarize what I’ve been saying.  We need to be alert to the fact that in our society, gambling isn’t just a harmless pastime.  It has become a menacing spiritual power, a force that awakens foolish and harmful desires, that grips individuals and infiltrates institutions, that tempts, and traps, and plunges people into ruin.  It competes with God himself for control of our lives.

But when your faith is in Jesus, you are no longer dominated by King Money or Lady Luck.  When your heart is full of Christ, it doesn’t have room for any competitors.  When you are yielded to Christ and under his control, you will have treasure in heaven, and you will also experience contentment here on earth.  So wager everything on Jesus.  That’s the best way–in fact, it’s the only way–of beating the odds.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, thank you for your victory over all the spiritual powers and forces.  Forgive us when we still allow ourselves and our institutions to fall under their control.  Give us the faith to participate in your victory, to yield to your control, to give you first place in our lives.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.