“I’ve been addicted to drugs for most of my life as a choice and I am the tail end of that, but there is something about the way poker machines are designed that works on the human system, it’s really dark, really purposeful…it’s so emotional, I think about those poor little kids at home, dad has to come in and lie again, oh, what new lie can I tell them this week, I’ll have to go and get someone to bash me up so it looks like I’ve been mugged or something, that is the extent of the problem.”
This is a quote from Steve Menadue, a gambling addict that spoke on a Four Corner’s report on ‘Wilkie’s Gamble’ this year. He has lost his family and done jail time because of his gambling addiction. I think if we are going to talk about gambling it’s good to hear from someone who actually struggles with gambling because I must admit that I am not really a gambler by nature. I didn’t know much about gambling nor did I have a strong opinion about it until I was forced to think about it in the Baptist Union’s social issues meeting when the topic came up.
The only time I would try to bet on something was with my sister when I was convinced that I was right, and so she normally would back down and refuse to bet. I have had a go on the pokies once and thought it was silly. I’ve walked through the casinos in Las Vegas, I’ve watched a country horse race in Queensland, I’ve played card games that rely on chance and learnt how to play poker with some Christians (not involving money), but everyone was super cautious and the game went on forever. So I admit that I don’t get the fascination with gambling.
But the reality is it’s a huge multi-million dollar industry- the news celebrates when anyone wins, we even watch lottery numbers drawn on TV, and the Melbourne horse races are covered as a big national event and we often find ourselves caught up participating in office sweeps or punting with our friends. The gambling industry even suggests that it’s un-Australian not to gamble, we’re the lucky country after all, we’re a people who love to drink and gamble. And it’s true we definitely spend more money than most countries do on gambling.
But what about those grey areas, I mean what is gambling exactly? Is it wrong to gamble when it comes to the stock market? Isn’t that gambling, an accepted form but still it is taking a chance, or is it an educated risk? And I mean if we start talking about risks, well we take them all the time, in love for instance, and we don’t consider that to be wrong. Gambling is often defined as when you stake something of value on chance, which also begs the question do Christians believe in luck? Do we ever find ourselves almost superstitiously wishing for a lucky break, finding that parking spot, wishing people good luck before exams or a job interview, should we?
May people gamble in the hope they will win, preferably lots and lots of money so they will never have to work again, wouldn’t that be nice? We would never have to worry about how we are going to pay our rent or buy our food, we can live the easy life. Even if we don’t gamble we sometimes find ourselves dreaming of what it would be like to be a millionaire, what we could do with such money for our families, for our church.
Meanwhile we work; perhaps not in a very interesting job, but we’re working hard, long hours for little in return. Then on the weekend or at the end of the day for many people you go to the pub to unwind, you play the pokies and dream for a second that perhaps life could be different, it’s your escape. Many of us are secretly dissatisfied with our lives, why do other people seem to have it all and I don’t? Money will make it all better we believe. We get lonely and the flashing lights and tunes pass away the hours. We get greedy, always wanting more, and we are encouraged to have more and more stuff, to never be content. This is the world we live in. People gamble, people hoard, people save money, people work hard because we think then we will have security, and then we will have a happy life and can take it easy. God doesn’t for most people come into the equation. Especially we Australians, we don’t have time to speculate about anything beyond what we can see; we’re practical people, trying to live like everyone we see around us.
Yet underneath our society is a fear, what happens if the stock market crushes? What happens if I lose my superannuation money and can’t retire? What happens if we go into a recession? What happens if I can’t provide for my family? No, no, that won’t happen to me.
There is something wrong with our love of money, and one of the cracks in our society that should tell us that all is not right are the people who spent thousands of dollars going down into debt as their gambling addiction grows beyond their control- this addiction to gambling that individuals have, an addiction often our own governments and businesses have, relying on the income gambling brings in- gambling is a manifestation that something is wrong in this world.
Jesus had a lot to say about our love of money. He tells this story found in Luke 12:
‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly.’
Today we could substitute the rich farmer for a business person perhaps getting an unexpected bonus, or someone who gambles suddenly winning big. The story continues:
‘And he thought to himself, ‘what should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this; I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
Doesn’t that sound like wise and reasonable thinking? This is thinking we still hear today.
Imagine suddenly getting an unexpected amount of money the first question we would ask, is how we can spend it, invest it and make it grow into more: ‘Finally my house can be finished, I can re-do the bathrooms, put in that swimming pool, buy that surround-sound stereo system I have always talked about, forget that why not just buy a new house, or build a giant house with a harbour view, this will prove to everyone that I am a success, I can take my family on those overseas holidays, give them everything they wanted, maybe put the kids into private schools. I have made it. The easy life is ahead.’
But in Jesus’ story the man’s dreaming is interrupted by none other than God himself!
‘But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared whose will they be?’
So it is for those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich to God.
We spend so much time and energy pursuing wealth that it begins to distort our lives, some of us become workaholics, some of us become gamblers, and death and God seem very removed from us, death doesn’t happen to people like us. But this story warns us that if we are not careful we might get a surprise one day, God might suddenly show up and intrude into our lives and we will have to give an account for the way we have lived, we will have to explain why our possessions are more important to us than helping others, we will have to explain why the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer, we will have to explain why we wasted our money gambling it away instead of using our wealth to serve others. You know in the parables that Jesus told, God hardly ever directly appears, and the fact that he does in this story makes me wonder if Jesus wanted to stress just how much of a jolt we need.
God reveals himself to be a personal being. There is not some impersonal force out there randomly choosing who to bless and who to curse, there are not hundreds and thousands of gods we need to try and appease, though sometimes it feels like things are out of control, and perhaps they are for us, the scriptures declare that there is one God who created us and sustains us, and nothing is beyond him. And he knows the mess we have made in this world, in our lives.
Some of us right now might want to cry, and drop to our knees and say, yes, yes, I know, I am sorry, I don’t want to live this way, I don’t want money to control my life, I want something more that what this world offers me, I want to be free of the fear I feel when I look to the future, but sometimes I can’t seem to help it. Help!
The good news that the scriptures also declare to us, the heart of the Bible is that Jesus not only warned us about the danger of money, he not only showed us what is more important, relationships, a relationship with God, and with others, but he saves us.
We’ve gambled away our lives, we have wasted them on things that don’t really matter, we have wasted our resources, the gifts God has given us, we have wasted them too often on ourselves, we are so much in debt that we can never pay it back, we owe God to much, our lives, the mess we have made in this world. But Jesus in his rich mercy has paid our debt for us, he took it on himself, all our greed, all the hurt caused by gambling, all our selfishness and more, when we look to Jesus dying on the cross we see the great price it took for our debt to be paid. And when Jesus rose from the dead we have the assurance that the debt is now cleared, and that those who put their trust in Jesus might find forgiveness, might indeed find a new way to live.
Jesus told another story expressing how his followers are to live in response; Jesus says these words just before he told the parable about the rich fool, found in Luke 12:22:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[a]? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
Christians are to live differently. For we have been set free of our fears and debts. God calls us to a new way of life. We are not to be people anxious about which way our luck might be going for we trust in a sovereign God who is in control and who loves us. That knowledge should set us free from the need to gamble instead focusing on what really matters.
We are to be like our God, we are to be rich towards others instead of ourselves, we are to love and forgive like he has forgiven us, we are to be people who are generous, and don’t hold on too tightly to the things in this world. We need to ask ourselves does our gambling practices serve others, are they building up people in love? If I participate in this gambling activity am I being a wise steward of the good gifts God has blessed me with?
Christians have traditionally condemned gambling because they see the negative effect it has on families and communities. Indeed particularly the older folks might be aware of this but back in the 70s Baptists were urged to ‘refuses to take part in any form of gambling, even such seemingly harmless forms as raffles and office sweeps’. At first I thought isn’t that extreme? But at the same time I was kind of impressed, the church was trying to show that there is another way to live.
Many Christians are deeply concerned about the harm and risk of gambling. Some have experienced or worked with people who have suffered from a problem with gambling, losing relationships, money, houses, jobs because of gambling. Mission Australia wrote a report in 2009 about how there is a great shame and guilt that many gamblers feel, often they begin gambling as way of trying to escape life, because they are lonely, or some painful event has occurred.
As a church we should be a community where such gambling addicts feel welcomed and can find a place to belong, or even one step further loving people before they get to that stage, loving the lonely, and those who are struggling. There are many Christians working with gambling addicts, and that is good and right, we are to support those who are suffering from gambling addictions, we are to love and assist them in finding the right professional help such as the G-line or Gamblers Anonymous.
People who see the devastation of gambling often then become passionate about the wider issues, and in compassion go even going further recognising that there is a wider systematic failure going on here, and so they join in lobbying the government to put measures in place that will reduce the damage people can get themselves into, this is for the common good of society placing restrictions and boundaries that will limit the damage, and if you would like to stand up and say something on this issue there will be an opportunity to respond and voice your concern at the end of service.
But maybe like me you don’t know anyone who has a problem with gambling, and you’re thinking you’re ok. As I’ve thought about this issue I’ve realized we can separate those who are problem gamblers from the rest of us who can supposedly control ourselves, but in many ways what motivates people to gamble, wanting money, fun, security, motivates us as well, and we might not gamble but we are still guilty of chasing after money, wasting our time and gifts, ignoring God, we still worry and fail to trust God to provide. We need to come to God and repent as well.
Let’s spend some time in prayer doing just that.