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I bet Jesus wouldn't play the Powerball

People outside a newsstand in Manhattan purchase Powerball lotto tickets. The new Powerball jackpot hit a staggering $700 million, making it the biggest in U.S. history. Powerball jackpot hits record $700 million, New York, America, January 7, 2016 (Credit: AP Images/Erik Pendzich)What are your chances of winning the Powerball? Well, first off, if I am not playing, then they increase exponentially. But you still have a one in 292 million chance of winning. To put this into perspective, imagine if everyone in the United States decided to meet in the Dallas Cowboys' stadium. Because, after all, no football is being played there right now. Then Simon Cowell of American Idol fame walks in. After glaring around the stadium for a time, he renders judgment and picks someone. That lucky someone is not only the next American Idol, but the Powerball winner.

Even though the chances of winning are slight, this is not stopping the American populace from trying to be the next Powerball winner. According to one estimate, Americans spend over seventy billion each year on lottery tickets. If we think about that another way, Americans spend that much money combined on the following items:

Coffee ($11 billion)
Gym memberships ($2.6 billion)
Over the counter teeth whitening ($1.4 billion)
Easter ($16.8 billion)
Pet Costumes ($.3 billion)
Engagement and wedding rings ($11 billion)
Video games ($17 billion)
Tattoos ($2.2 billion)
Taxidermy ($.8 billion)
Ringtones ($5 billion)
Toilet paper ($2.6 billion)

While not everyone is doing it, many are spending their two dollars for a chance to win the $1.5 billion jackpot. But as the boy who jumped off the cliff with his friends reminds us, just because everyone else jumps does not mean we should do it.

Arguments against the Lottery

Under the assumption that the biblical narrative is a lamp to your feet and a light for your path (Psalm 119:105), many argue that is antithetical to the Christian walk to buy lottery tickets. In their argument, they speculate upon the rumblings and motivations of the heart.

If you buy lottery tickets, you are hoping to achieve instant wealth, or so it goes. Driven by greed, the person who buys a lottery ticket disregards the commands not to covet (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5), which inevitably is a form of idolatry.

In buying lottery tickets, it also reveals a lack of faith in God's provision. Instead of trusting in the Lord, you have chosen to trust in chariots filled with lottery tickets (Psalm 20:7). Jesus did not encourage his disciples to watch and wait for just the right time to buy tickets, but to look to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Just as He took care of the flowers and birds, though they did nothing, he would take care of them (Matthew 6:25–34, Philippians 4:19).

However, the difficulty with these arguments against gambling is that it requires someone to be a spiritual cardiologist. They are the credentialed doctors that examine the heart and motives of the player and diagnoses them with an illness (i.e. sinfulness). Assumptions, like good intentions, often lead to bad places. And the same Scriptures that warn about greed and idolatry also speak about the mysteries of the heart (Romans 7:14–25).

"For who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them (1 Corinthians 2:11)?"

Arguments for the Lottery

While those opposed to the lottery assume all whom participate have ungodly motives, there are some who believe it is just good old fashioned fun. Lottery tickets are a commonality by which different people can come together to strengthen their bonds of friendship through ribbing each other and competition. It is a form of entertainment, like bowling or scuba diving. They are not in it to get rich, but rather to enrich their friendships.

Not only are they enriching friendships, they are also investing in others. Many state lotteries are set up to channel proceeds to educational causes, such as funding scholarships. They might even use this point to argue that it is a positive good in society that they gamble, loving their neighbor in order that the neighbor might go to college and love the Lord with all their mind (Matthew 22:36–39).

Another argument for the lottery is the silence regarding it in the Bible. The Scriptures lack explicit commands not to gamble. On the contrary, these proponents of the lottery point out that gambling is present throughout the text. There are repeated examples of casting lots in the Bible, an antiquated form of rolling the dice. They cast lots when selecting a scapegoat (Leviticus 16:8–10), allocating the tribal inheritance (Numbers 26:55), when determining an offender (Joshua 7:14) and selecting a disciple to replace Judas (Acts 1:12–26).  

However, a closer look at the text and a wider reading of the entirety of the text reveals something else. Just because it is present in the biblical narrative does not mean it is encouraged. David cheated on his wife, but the Bible clearly forbids such actions. Moses killed a guy, but the Bible is pretty adamantly opposed to such actions. There are descriptive passages and prescriptive passages, and gambling would fall in the former.

Regarding loving your neighbor by supporting education, it is interesting to note the harmful effects of the lottery upon the very people who are said to benefit from it. Some call the lottery a form of economic predation, "grinding the faces of the poor into the ground." By portraying illusionary promises of wealth and grandeur to lower classes with typically lower wages, it really benefits multinational corporations. Clotfelter and Cook in their book Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America found that ten percent of lottery players account for fifty percent of their purchases.

So who is buying these tickets?

Research showed that in Georgia, zip codes with average household incomes below $20,000 bought approximately $249 per resident per year in lottery tickets. In zip codes with incomes above $40,000, the lottery sold on average $97 per resident per year. Not limited to Georgia, a 2007 analysis of Chicago found that the ten highest zip codes for lottery participation were from some of the poorest areas. All zip codes had incomes of less than $20,000. Eight of the ten had higher unemployment rates than the city average.

Those for the lottery will often reply that there is a need to lighten up. Those against the lottery will retort that it is hard to lighten up when so many are being put down. One side speculates upon the motivates of the other's heart, while the other side points to other activities that are just as devastating, calling the person to examine the log in their own eye.

This issue is somewhat contentious, which is ironic considering that it was meant to be a source of recreational fun. But whatever you decide using your liberty (1 Corinthians 8, Galatians 5:1), remember that though the lot is cast, its every decision is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:33).

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