Hi. My name is Paul, and I’m a compulsive gambler. It’s been forty days since my last bet. Forty days ago I didn’t realize I was a compulsive gambler. However, when I was confronted by my employer for embezzling, it finally hit me that I am and always will be a compulsive gambler. I’m currently attending and for as long as I’m allowed will continue to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings. I’ve lost a great career. I’m in the process of losing everything that I’ve worked for with the exception of my wife and two children. My father hasn’t spoken to me since this all occurred, and my older sister will do anything to help my wife and children, but she wants nothing to do with me. I can’t blame her.
“If someone had told me twenty-seven years ago when I made my first wager that when I was thirty-nine years old I’d lose everything and be in a place where there are no freedoms, I’d have told them they were crazy because I’m an intelligent person and I can control my gambling. The fact is that gambling took over my life and ruined it, and it ruined the lives of my family. It’s an insidious addiction. You do things that no rational person would do. You don’t think of the consequences, and I’m here to tell anyone who will listen that there are serious consequences for all of my horrible actions.”
Paul is hardly alone. Gambling is a serious problem for more than ten million Americans. For three million, the compulsion is so powerful that health professionals label it pathological gambling, a condition as serious as substance abuse, depression, and antisocial behaviors. Problem gamblers are more likely to abuse alcohol, to be absent from work, and to commit fraud or embezzlement. There’s also a strong link between compulsive gambling and suicide.
Unfortunately, defenders of legal gambling claim that it represents just another risk in the sense that “all of life is a gamble.” They argue that, just as the rest of life is filled with uncertainties—walking across the street, investing in the stock market, climbing on an airplane—so playing the slot machines or betting on a sports team is another way of recognizing the randomness of things and hoping for the best.
Gambling is not a game
Although most major sports have gambling connections, gambling is not a game. It’s serious business, with millions of supporters and powerful lobbyists. The statistics are shocking. Some form of legalized gambling is available in all the states in the United States except Utah and Hawaii. In 2014 the United States gaming industry set a new record for gaming revenues, generating $68.7 billion in revenue. Gamblers in the United States lost a staggering $119 billion in 2013. The National Council on Problem Gambling and other sources note the following statistics: Fifteen percent of Americans gamble at least once per week. Two to three percent of Americans meet the criteria for problem gambling. That’s approximately 6 million adults and about half a million teens. “American sports fans are poised to wager $36.5 billion on Major League Baseball (MLB) this year. . . . Of the $36.5 billion that will be wagered, $35.4 billion—or 97 percent—will be placed illegally through illicit offshore websites and sports bookies.”1
Internet gambling’s potential is fueled by the ease of participation and the same anonymity that has made online pornography so popular. When an activity with strong addictive powers is made available on a system that allows almost universal access, an explosive growth is certain.
If one considers only the consequences suffered by problem gamblers and their families, those reasons alone should make gambling a major social concern and raise questions about public responsibility. Should we oppose all forms of gambling? Or should we tolerate gambling with reasonable restrictions?
Gambling is not innocent
I personally oppose gambling for many reasons. It’s clearly not an innocent activity. Many people get hurt, and the lure of easy fortune affects the poor disproportionately. As with alcohol and tobacco, the evidence of its harm outweighs the enormous profits it generates.
Moreover, gambling operates on the basis of deceit. It downplays the minuscule chance of winning. Casinos don’t have clocks or windows, thus hiding the passage of time, and many suspect that machines may be programmed for “near misses” to entice the user.
But the problem with gambling goes deeper. Consider these factors:
1. Gambling promises easy gain. There’s very little effort in gambling. It’s motivated by the chance of becoming rich by luck. In contrast, the Bible teaches us to invest our time and energy in labor that supplies our needs and those of our family. “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense” (Proverbs 12:11). The apostle Paul expresses the work ethic of the Bible: “Even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat’ ” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
2. Gambling exploits the poor. Gambling is dependent on the losses of many for the benefit of one. These “many” are usually the poorest. For people in financial straits, gambling provides a false hope that sometimes prevents their taking positive steps toward a solution. This expectation of a miraculous turnaround keeps many on the path of financial irresponsibility.
3. Gambling misuses our God-given resources. The Bible tells us that we are stewards of God’s creation. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). Jesus taught that we are to be held accountable as God’s servants (Matthew 25:14–30). If the billions of dollars spent on gambling were used for the benefit of the poor—for better education and disease prevention, for instance—society would be much better served.
4. Gambling is founded on greed. Gambling is an attempt to obtain the resources of others without providing anything of real value in return. In a society that seems to value possessions above all else, it is not surprising that people may want to take shortcuts to get them. The tenth commandment prohibits believers from coveting another’s possessions (Exodus 20:17), and Paul spoke against the insidiousness of greed when he wrote, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:9, 10).
5. Gambling overlooks God. Finally, gambling opposes the principle of trusting God. It is motivated by our discontent with our material blessings, and it leads us to trust other sources that are in direct opposition to the way God provides for us.
So in conclusion . . .
So what’s the lesson in all this? How should we respond to the problem of gambling? We should avoid it ourselves and warn others about its dangers. We should not support either persons or measures that encourage gambling. We should show concern for those who have become addicted to gambling. Because gambling addiction can rob a person of his or her ability to change the behavior, treatment is absolutely necessary.
Gambler’s Anonymous is a proven resource for group therapy, and certified counselors are available in many cities.2
One of my favorite Bible verses since childhood is appropriate counsel when tempted by gambling or the challenges of any other compulsive behavior: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5, 6).
FAQs about problem gambling
What is problem gambling? Problem gambling includes all gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt, or damage personal, family, or vocational pursuits. The essential features are increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, “chasing” losses, and loss of control manifested by continuing the gambling behavior in spite of mounting serious, negative consequences. In extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, or even suicide.
1Isn’t problem gambling just a financial problem?
No. Problem gambling is an emotional problem that has financial consequences. If you could pay all of problem gamblers’ debts, they would still be problem gamblers. The real problem is that they have an uncontrollable obsession with gambling.
2Aren’t problem gamblers really irresponsible or weak-willed people?
No. Many people who develop problems have been viewed as responsible and strong by those who care about them. Precipitating factors can be changes in circumstances, such as retirement or job-related stress.
3What kind of people become problem gamblers?
Anyone who gambles can develop problems if they are not aware of the risks. When gambling behavior interferes with finances, relationships, and the workplace, a serious problem already exists.
4Can people be problem gamblers if they don’t gamble every day?
The frequency of a person’s gambling does not determine whether a gambling problem exists. Even though problem gamblers may go on only periodic gambling binges, the emotional and financial consequences will still be evident in the gamblers’ lives, including the effects on their families.
5How can people be addicted to something that isn’t a substance?
Although no substance is ingested, problem gamblers receive the same effect from gambling as others may get from taking a tranquilizer or having a drink. Gambling alters peoples’ moods, and they keep repeating the behavior, attempting to achieve that same effect. But just as tolerance develops to drugs or alcohol, gamblers find that it takes more and more of the gambling experience to achieve the same emotional effect as before. This creates an increased craving for the activity, and gamblers find that they have less and less ability to resist as the craving grows in intensity and frequency.
6Are problem gamblers usually addicted to other things too?
It is generally accepted that people with one addiction are more at risk to develop another. This does not mean, however, that a person with a gambling problem is certain to develop other addictions.
7Can children or teenagers develop gambling problems?
A number of states allow children under 18 to gamble, and youth also participate in illegal forms of gambling, such as gambling on the Internet or betting on sports. Therefore, it is not surprising that research shows that a vast majority of kids have gambled before their 18th birthday and that children may be more likely to develop problems related to gambling than adults.