Just the title alone sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? As I mentioned in Sunday’s post, someone asked me if it was OK for me as a pastor to be playing poker as she had seen on one of my Facebook status up-dates. I shared briefly with her a couple of things and thought…”That would make a good blog post”. So three things I want to cover here. First, I want to share my story as it relates to gambling. Second, I want to touch on the subject of gambling from a biblical standpoint and then finally I want to talk about the motivation behind why I’ve been playing at local restaurants on a weekly basis for the last month or so (Note: these games are all free to enter).
Alright, so what does the Bible have to say about playing cards in general and gambling specifically. First, a little back-story. My family all loves to play cards so I grew up with a pack in my hand…from Go Fish to Crazy 8’s as a kid to Euchre and Hearts in my teens, I loved it! Perhaps this had something to do with my hobby of magic as a kid which lead into becoming a career from ages 16-27. It was during these early years of doing magic professionally that I discovered the game of poker…which in turn was my first real exposure to gambling.
Performing magic pays really well so while my friends were making minimum wage at McDonald’s, I was as a teenager sometimes making up to a $1000 per weekend. Still living at home this meant I had a lot of disposable income. So gambling became a part of my life winning and losing hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars per night. This continued until just after July 27, 1993. That was the day I became a follower of Jesus and it was shortly thereafter that the Holy Spirit convicted me about gambling. Also, I was getting older (now a whopping 20 years of age) and had more responsibilities. So from 1993 until 2 years ago, I never gambled any amount of money on any type of lottery, raffle, drawing or game.
So I went from pretty hard-core gambling to nothing at all for many years. So what changed? Well I was pretty adamant with people that sitting down with their friends and playing cards for $5 or $10 was wrong and sinful (FYI…it can be but I’ll touch on that later). It hit me though one day while sitting in a movie theater watching a movie with Lisa that perhaps I was being a bit too legalistic. Between 2 tickets, a tub of popcorn and a couple of drinks, we had spent close to $30 and called it entertainment. However if someone wanted to spend $10 on a poker game with his buddies I called it sin. If someone had the disposable income to spend $100 or $1000 on their hobby or for a couple rounds of golf or to buy new rims for their car I didn’t think twice about it but if they spent $50 in a casino, the lake of fire awaited their gambling souls. So my stance in the past 5 or so years has changed although I myself still very rarely do it.
OK so what does the Bible have to say about gambling? Surprisingly not a lot. There are numerous times where decisions were made by casting lots (think rolling a die) including using it to discern God’s will but it’s never said to be right or wrong. However that doesn’t mean we can’t find Biblical principles to guide us by when it comes to the topic of gambling.
First in my mind is the issue of good stewardship of God’s resources. God is the owner of every possession and dollar we make and He wants us to be wise in the way we handle HIS money (For more on this subject listen to my 4 part series called “Mind Your Own Business“). This was always a big reason why I said that gambling was wrong…why risk God’s money when you could be investing it in the Kingdom. However as I noted earlier this same thing could be said for why are you going to the movies, spending money on hobbies, etc. So that argument alone doesn’t cut it however…God does give us some clear guidelines that we must be following long before we ever think about gambling or spending money on other stuff.
The foremost of these is tithing (giving back to God 10% of the income He’s entrusted you with). No bill or expense or dollar wagered should ever come before giving back to God what He requires. This also applies to never wagering money that you can’t afford to lose. In other words, if you’re tithing to God and on a budget, paying all your bills on time each month, not going into debt and you have some entertainment dollars left over…great spend them for entertainment purposes. However, it’s wrong to gamble your grocery money or as a way to “fix” your financial woes, even if it is just a couple of dollars.
Another principle is that we should not become mastered by anything. Here is where the real danger of gambling (and many things for that matter) lie. It can be addicting…anything we put before Jesus, His Word, our family, our responsibilities, etc., is said to have enslaved us. Thus it’s an idol…thus we are by default idol worshipers and of course that is a sin. So to me a big part of whether gambling is sinful for you or not has to do with your motivation for doing it. If it’s a recreational thing then fine, but if it gets to the point where the primary motivation is money then watch out. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also”. He wants to be first in your life, not money. The apostle Paul said, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction”. This is one reason I never play the lottery…the only motivation there is to win big money in the easiest way possible. Not only that but the odds are incredibly stacked against you…and it’s only a game of chance.
So one reason I like poker is that it combines a bit of luck with a whole lot of skill. Someone once said that hand to hand and night to night poker is a game of luck but over time it’s a game of skill. I couldn’t agree more…if you’re good at quickly in your head doing statistical probabilities, are familiar with M theory and can also quickly calculate +EV (which is actually is a business principle) then you’ll do better than the average person. Ummm yep that’s me…which partly explains why in the past month playing in tournaments of 50+ people per night I’ve cashed now 7 times. What’s cool is the restaurants I play at do not charge an entry fee because they assume you’ll eat or drink while you’re there. Sometimes I do sometimes I don’t but let’s just say I’m way ahead right now.
However this gets back to motivation. While it’s been cool winning some money, my real reason for playing is the people. One thing all church planters are told to do is make sure you join a group in your community that will allow you to get to know people. Last year when we moved here to Harrisburg I saw they had these Texas Hold’em nights and thought…wow I could meet people and have fun doing it all at the same time (for some reason joining the Chamber of Commerce didn’t sound all that attractive or fun). Unfortunately the first night I went over last summer they were on one of their rare nights off so I just assumed they didn’t do it any more. So imagine my surprise when last month I discovered that they do still have it here and that it’s on multiple nights and locations.
One problem that pastors often encounter is being so busy with church work that we no longer have any friends that are not followers of Jesus. Now I don’t want to stereotype poker players or even the ones I’m playing with, but let me say I’ve already encountered quite a few people who need the love and forgiveness that Jesus offers. So far I’ve kept a pretty low profile as to who I am…I want people to get to know me as a person first and see Jesus living in me before they find out that I’m a pastor and start making assumptions. Ultimately I want to help each person in whatever way I can take a next step towards Christ…for some that may be acknowledging that maybe there is a God…for others it may be counseling them through a situation showing them principles from God’s Word…for others it might mean inviting them to check us out at ExponentialChurch.tv…and yet for others it may mean helping them cross the line of faith into a relationship with Jesus.
Whatever it is, I know that I’m having fun, meeting people, making a few bucks and hopefully being the salt and light that Jesus has called me to be. So again the question is…”Is it OK for pastors/Christians to gamble”? I’d say yes but with some careful guidelines looking at your motivation, making sure it’s only a few entertainment dollars and stopping if it starts to become addictive. There’s so much more I could have said here of both pros and cons (and even some things I probably meant to say but forgot) but this post is already wayyyyy longgggg. Shoot me an email if you have any further questions. I also know this is a hot button issue for some of you so please be respectful of others who may comment here or on Facebook with a differing opinion than yours or mine.