What is "bluffing?"
It's the deliberate attempt to manipulate reality, isn't it? It's an overt action designed to either convey something that isn't true, or to create significant doubt regarding the veracity of something.
Bluffing is an action that subverts another person's well-being for the sake of our own.
In other words, it's a form of lying.
And Christians who play poker say bluffing is just part of the game. So what does that tell us about poker?
And, indeed, the Christians who play it?
Jerry B. Jenkins is co-author of the wildly popular Left Behind series of Christian books, and a former vice-president of publishing at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Jenkins still sits on the board at Moody, and serves as its chairman.
He's also an unapologetic poker player. According to World magazine, Jenkins defends his poker playing by claiming to reporter Daniel James Devine that since poker is a game of skill, he's not gambling when he participates in poker championships from California to Indiana. He thinks he's pretty good at it, even though he says he's lost about as much money as he's won playing it. So it's not like he's taking unreasonable risks with his money.
Nevertheless, if, using Jenkins' self-professed experience, one has to be a pretty good poker player to just break even at it, what does that say about the game itself, and what one must do to win?
One of the main reasons gambling, of which poker has traditionally been accused by fundamentalists as being, is such a "bad sin" involves how financially costly it can be. Neither gambling in general nor poker specifically are listed as sins in the Bible, but we're not supposed to waste the money God gives us, either. Some people also point to gambling's addictiveness for some people, plus the fact that most gambling halls are run by people who also profit from clear-cut sins, like prostitution. But many Christians are loathe to dwell on addictions, let alone gambling, since addictions can include even more common items like coffee and chocolate. And if we were to start not doing business with people who make money in other, more nefarious enterprises, where would it end?
If you want to knock Jenkins for wasting money on his poker, that's a hard sell in his case. For a guy who's sold tens of millions of books, and readily admits to being "a high income person," the amount of money he's won and lost becomes a relative concept. Perhaps the $12,000 or so Devine has tallied in Jenkins's winnings over the years really is the chump change Jenkins claims it to be, as are his corresponding losses. For him, it would be similar to normal-income Christians playing for dimes, quarters, or even dollar bills.
But is it really losing money that makes poker bad? Is the amount of money you win worth the losses you accrued in building up those wins? Can Christians keep a slush fund of cash that isn't important, and can be marginalized in the broader spectrum of their income and ability to generate positive cash flow? Who gets to decide how much money we can afford to lose at something unnecessary like gambling? What's the difference in determining the skill necessary to win at poker, and to win at Wall Street, or any number of speculative entrepreneurial ventures a person might undertake? And what if you win? What if you can bluff your way out of anything, and you're making a ton of money at the poker table? Does winning justify poker and gambling?
And what about this whole freedom-in-Christ thing, the umbrella of grace under which people like Jenkins enjoy what others consider to be vices? Jenkins even says his winnings go to charity, so what's to complain about here?
One of the issues here involves the reasons why we do these things. Why poker, or gambling in general, or even drinking alcohol, or smoking, or any number of things that Christianity has broadly identified as sinful behavior in the past?
Why do we want to do these things? Because we believers in Christ are entitled to have fun!
And We'll Have Fun, Fun, Fun, 'Till Daddy Takes...
Quite honestly, "fun" is not a Biblical concept. Having fun is not unBiblical, but no believer in Christ is guaranteed fun. We're not to expect it. Christ did not die so we could have fun. Could it also be that our well-argued freedoms in Christ aren't so much about what we can do, as they are what we don't have to do?
Let's be clear: God is no cosmic kill-joy. Think about it! He has created many things that don't directly impact the essential functions or functionality of His Creation, yet from which we can still derive "fun." The changing colors of leaves in autumn, for example: instead of purples and reds, God could have just let them fade to a nasty, brownish black. God could have avoided humor altogether (as some people think He did with my sense of it). And have you ever heard of the Fibonacci sequence? It's a naturally-occurring, mathematically-irrefutable series of numbers replicated in things as diverse as pine cones and architectural form that is pleasing to the eye and structurally perfect. Only God could have created it, and we see it so often, we take it for granted, but God could have just plopped a bunch of seeds onto a flower.
God's fascinating arrangement of seeds, petals, and spacial hierarchies isn't necessary for our existence on this planet, yet He has given them to us for our enjoyment. So we're not talking here about believers in Christ having to live in pious refutation of all things pleasurable.
But often, we act as though we have a right to all of these things. We're justified so we can justify our fun. We like to frame it with spirituality and say that we glorify God by having fun, but might it be more a frame of fuzzy rights and responsibilities? The only thing to which we have any rights before we're saved is damnation to Hell, and the only thing to which we have any rights after we're saved is the Kingdom of God. And what is in God's Kingdom? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Obviously, fun does not automatically correlate to sin. But seeing as how fun is not a Fruit of the Spirit, shouldn't we exercise particular diligence in those things from which we derive our fun? Many Christians bristle at such a question, because to them, it smacks of legalism. But might it simply be bothersome because, if we were to analyze the things we do, we might actually end up parsing them against our true motives, and perhaps, our hidden flaws?
Slavery, Freedom, Sin, and Righteousness
Isn't it easier to just claim grace and call it a day? We love Galatians 5:1, which says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."
But what is this "yoke of slavery?" We like to read Romans 6:14-20 with an eye towards the "not under law" part, but there's more to it than that:
For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey - whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I [Paul] put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.
Many Christians forget that freedom does not exist in a vacuum. When we were slaves to sin, Paul points out that we were free from Christ's control. But were we really free? No, we were slaves to sin. Now that we're supposed to be under Christ's control, we're free from the law, but slaves to righteousness.
Now, maybe there's something righteous about trivializing our responsibility to what we consider to be small amounts of money God gives us. For people like Jenkins, who have earned millions in their "legitimate" careers, a couple of thousand dollars here and there "lost" via poker might mirror the couple of hundred dollars somebody else of lesser means might spend on a hobby. After all, we all like to have fun, and Jenkins' version of fun simply happens to cost more than somebody else's. He's probably still tithing, still giving to charity, still providing for his family, and still paying his bills. Are we going to say that no Christian can have a hobby that costs any money?
Then maybe there's something righteous about spending our hobby money with organizations that have historically enjoyed ties to organized crime, prostitution rings, and even money-laundering. If you've ever eaten at a restaurant in New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, how do you know you weren't helping to fund less legal activities? Maybe there comes a point where we need to be strictly responsible for how we spend the money God gives us, and the people to whom we give God's money become immediately responsible for how they spend it. We wash our hands of it when the money leaves them.
Addiction to gambling? There's plenty of resources out there to help you. In Jenkins' case, it sounds like he knows his limits, so who are we to judge?
If you've gotten this far in your quest to legitimizing gambling, there's likely little fault left to poker. Hey, you don't even have to play for money! You can play for Ritz crackers or pretzel sticks.
But what about the way poker is played? What is a key ingredient for success in poker? It's a player's ability to bluff, isn't it? If you're not bluffing, you can still win a hand but, according to ThePokerBank.com, you're not really playing poker then.
So, what is a bluff? According to Pokerology.com, it's "an act of deception - meant to make your weak hand look stronger than it is - with the intent of getting your opponent to fold." According to Cardschat.com, bluffing can vary in its execution, but it still involves an attempt at falsifying reality. You're also capitalizing on another player's insecurity, which is hardly a Christian ethic, but the main point is that you're deploying deception for personal gain.
Oh, but it's just a game, right? What's the big deal? All I want is a little fun.
Christ died so that we could have life, and have it more abundantly. If abundant life to you means that you get to have fun, and bluffing is an acceptable way to have fun, then how would you react to the idea that Christ is bluffing when He says He died for you? All in the name of fun.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. How are we supposed to treat each other?
If we want what we want when we want it, and we expect it despite the reality of what Christ's gifts of freedom and grace are supposed to do through us for Him, then perhaps you're really a gambler for whom poker makes a lot of sense.
Meanwhile, sometimes we've just gotta know when to fold 'em.