With recent headlines and attention on the Lottery, I have been asked several times if it is a sin to take part in the Lottery. Many of us, myself included, have been brought up to believe: Gambling is a sin; the Lottery is gambling; therefore, taking part in the Lottery is sin. Actually there is one problem with this: nothing in scripture teaches gambling is a sin.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying one should gamble or that one should play the Lottery. If I trust in the Lottery or other gambling to make up for my own bad choices (“A winning ticket will wipe away all my errors of financial judgment”) then I am simply being a fool. If one plays the Lottery as entertainment, that is a very different story. Take scratch tickets as an example. If I enjoy the finer points of scratching foil off paper as an entertainment, and you created a set of such cards to sell me so I could enjoy scratching off the foil, would anyone think that to be sin? Of course not! That’s just paying for my fun, which is to be expected. Now, if I did the same thing hoping to uncover a pretty picture, would that be sin? No, again. The same would be true if I liked to see what numbers might be underneath. The only way any of these is sin is if I indulge my new entertainment to the point of taking money away from my family’s needs. That would be sin. But even then, it is not the purchasing and scratching of cards (the entertainment itself) that is a sin, but the overindulgence. Neither is it sin to buy a list of numbers to hang on my refrigerator, even in hopes of winning later.
Many will say, but the difference is that you do it, not for entertainment, but for the chance to gain more money than the ticket cost. OK, is it sin to invest in the stock market? People don’t buy stocks because they like the pretty paper used to print stock certificates (does anyone even still receive stock certificates?). People invest in the stock market for the same reason, and no one calls it sin. Yes, I know some will say that one is investing and one is gambling. However, what is the true difference in these terms? The difference is risk. Gambling takes riskier chances promising a greater return. But funny, when you speak to the person who helps you with your retirement account she will usually asks about risk-aversion and how much risk you are willing to take, because a greater risk promises the possibility of greater returns (and greater losses). Now, I’m not saying investing in stocks is equivalent to buying Lottery tickets. But what I am saying is that once one begins to add rules to the words of scripture one quickly falls into the area of legalism, especially if striving for consistency in beliefs.
So, should a Christian buy Lottery tickets? The answer is far more complex and far more simple than it appears. If you can afford to spend a few dollars on Lottery tickets for entertainment purposes, then there is no sin. Is it foolish? Once again it depends on whether it is for entertainment or if this is making up for a lack of a retirement plan. If the latter, then it is the very definition of foolish.
My wife wanted me to buy a couple tickets this time. We could afford a few bucks, so I did. We had fun dreaming about all the things we would do if we won. Of course, there were the usual dreams: buy each of our children a home, pay off their debts, etc. But, we also dreamt of things many may not consider. I dreamt of endowing a chair of Theology at a seminary. I dreamt of using the funds to plant a Bible College in our city. We dreamt of gifting our church a nice new building. We dreamt of paying the salaries of several rural pastors in Montana, Wyoming and Texas as well as underwriting the costs of one or more mission fields. We also dreamt of being able to forgo any salary as a pastor of our church. Then we went to bed knowing we had already gotten all the value out of the tickets we would ever get—we were inspired to do some sanctified dreaming. Funny thing is, I was once asked by a class of young men, “How do we know what we are supposed to do with our lives?” I told them to find a career where they would still show up for work the next day after winning the Lottery. That is one way to know you are doing what you were meant to do. I know the Lord wants me to encourage biblical scholarship, to support local churches and missions. I already knew all of these things, but dreaming solidified them in my mind. We have our dreams and now to work at making them come true without the Lottery winnings. The tickets were an inspiration to holy dreaming. But these things will only be accomplished through faithful service.