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Don't Bet on It

Is it okay for Christians to play the lottery?

Should Christians participate in state or private lotteries? Will such an act bring dishonor to Jesus Christ?

—M.J. Kumardoss, Republic of Seychelles

Lotteries raise a host of questions for believers: Is it okay to buy a lottery ticket if you plan to tithe part of your winnings? Should Christians ever put their trust in anything decided by chance? Is it okay to play bingo if it's sponsored by a church?

Christians have historically been wary of letting "fate" decide their future. God is in charge, and what he arranges is more properly called providence. But placing a challenge before him is presumptuous and falls under the heading, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God" (Matthew 4:7). Playing the lottery places hope in "fate" to give us something-for-nothing, and seems a second cousin to worldly superstition.

Yet there are several examples in Scripture where believers used random means to discern God's will. Gideon placed a fleece out of doors to gauge God's approval (Judges 6:36-40), and the apostles cast lots to identify Judas's replacement (Acts 1:21-26). So that's not what's troubling about lotteries. Nor is it the mere engagement in a game of chance; Candyland and Scrabble are games of chance. Neither of these things are inherently dishonoring to Christ.

One of the dangers in lotteries, however, is their disruption of the natural cycle of labor and reward. "If anyone will not work, let him not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10) is not a hard-hearted punishment but a description of how life operates.

Most people don't look at lottery games as a fun way to pass time and win a buck, as the festive TV and radio ads would have us believe. Instead, they see it as a practical way to pay off their debts, send their kids to college, and retire early. That's not good.

Statistics show that lottery wins don't buy happiness. A 1997 article in the New York Post estimated that a third of millionaire lottery winners wind up filing for bankruptcy. What's more, it is the desperate poor who are most likely to be lured into pouring what little money they have into the weekly—and even daily— purchase of lottery tickets. Lotteries throw a wild card into a community's economy, and even the winners don't win.

Private lotteries aren't much better. A church should sustain itself on the tithes and offerings of its members and not bank on games to make up the budget. Early Christians treated the bringing of the offering as an act of worship. It can't be replaced by bingo.

It's not that there is something inherently evil in lotteries. The problem is that there's so little good in them—and so much potential for damage. We should always be aware of the danger that gambling poses to the "weaker brother." Gambling addiction is like alcoholism, and the sheer availability of lotteries ensures that some people who would otherwise never discover their weakness will be sucked into its grip.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is the author of The Illumined Heart (Paraclete Press).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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