Have you ever bought a used car? There's a certain trepidation that goes along with such a purchase. It's easy to be suspicious of a seller's integrity and wonder if there's anything he's not telling you - some crucial bit of information that might reduce the value you place on his vehicle. Or have you ever walked through a public market in a country where every price is negotiable? The uninitiated naturally question whether someone is trying to take advantage of them. The Lord envisioned exactly these kinds of transactions when he gave the Old Testament law to Israel.
You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Leviticus 19:36
As God's redeemed people, it was essential that the Israelites be "above board" in their financial transactions. Equity was to characterize their interactions such that each party could be confident they had received a fair deal. The New Testament sums up these kinds of Old Testament laws as simply loving one's neighbor:
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:10
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Galatians 5:14
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 1 John 3:11
For both Israel and the church, loving one's neighbor is expressed by concern for the welfare of that neighbor. It is not possible to love one's neighbor while at the same time defrauding him. When we enter into any transaction with our neighbor, our goal should be mutual benefit and assurance of equity rather than the pursuit of selfish gain at our neighbor's expense - and here is where we can begin to question the ethics of any form of gambling.
When someone goes to the store to buy a new dishwasher, an exchange takes place. The buyer comes away with a dishwasher and the seller comes away with the buyer's money. Both parties give, and both parties receive. The seller can walk away confident that he has blessed the buyer with a new dishwasher, and the buyer can walk away confident that he has blessed the seller with his cash. It's a win for everyone involved. However, gambling never works this way. One person's gain is always guaranteed by another person's loss. There is no mutual benefit, no sense of equity.
In essence, gambling is a form of greed. The gambler says to his neighbor, "I want your money, but I don't want to give you anything in return." Mutual benefit is not part of the gambler's ethic because he can only experience gain when his neighbor experiences loss.
But if my neighbor is willing to suffer the loss, is that really my concern? Absolutely. What is your neighbor hoping to do but win what someone else loses? You should not want to encourage his greed any more than you should be content with your own. You should be concerned that he is not loving his neighbor. As believers we never leave one another to our own devices, but we encourage one another to pursue love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). To gamble with your neighbor because you have both decided to forego loving one another does not legitimize your greed.
But gambling is just another form of entertainment for me - like going to a movie or concert. It may entertain you, but gambling is never like attending a movie or concert. When we attend a movie or concert, we are compensating the performers for their time and hard work. We are covering the expenses associated with the production. The exchange is well-defined and understood. We do not leave the theater or concert hall anticipating that we might receive some portion of the evening's proceeds. If you were to remove the monetary aspects of gambling and simply engage in the underlying activity, would you find it just as entertaining? If so, simply forego the wagering and enjoy the activity. But if the entertainment value evaporates because you no longer enjoy the prospect of receiving your neighbor's money, you're loving yourself, not your neighbor.
But it's okay for me because I'm not addicted to gambling. No, it's not okay. Innumerable people regularly participate in some form of gambling without it ruining their lives. They hold down jobs; they pay their bills; they contribute to society. They don't appear to suffer any detrimental effects from buying the occasional lottery ticket or participating in an office basketball pool. However, the primary question is not about the effects of gambling on the gambler, but about the gambler's dependence on his neighbor's loss to fund his winnings.
But an occasional wager among friends doesn't really harm anyone. "No harm, no foul" is a common approach to ethical concerns. However, it makes the crucial mistake of reducing ethical considerations to a temporal, human perspective. It is dangerous to rely only on ourselves when determining right from wrong. "Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart." (Prov. 21:2) You may want to read that verse slowly. More important than considering our own opinions is giving thought to our own desires and motivations. The gambler's motivation is always to receive the blessing of someone else's loss; he never enters a game hoping someone else will walk away with his money.
Whatever objections might be raised, the crucial question for any Christian is, "How can gambling ever be an expression of love for my neighbor?" At the end of any discussion, this is the question we must always ask. The gambler's objective is always to win without losing, to take without giving.
For many people, taking a stance against gambling might actually provide unexpected opportunities to share how their faith impacts the way they live. Consider a possible response when asked to participate in a fantasy league or playoff pool: "You know, it's tempting, but I'm going to pass on that. I've come to see that Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, and for me to win would mean taking something from you without giving you anything in return." Or a friendly challenge of "loser buys lunch" could be met with, "Hey, you're a great friend. I'd be glad to just buy you lunch regardless of the outcome." As believers, we never want to rejoice when our winning necessitates that our neighbor suffers loss. It runs counter to the very nature of love.
Let love be genuine...Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Romans 12:9, 15-16
We live in a culture where gambling has become so commonplace that people rarely give it much thought. Even believers can become content in accepting it as a harmless leisure activity, especially when those who lose are sometimes the most eager to participate. But we need to be careful that Scripture, not culture, is always shaping our ethics (Rom. 12:2). We love God and we love our neighbor. We eschew greed in any form. It is not monetary winnings that we treasure, but the fulfillment of God's calling on our lives.
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Matthew 22:36-39