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Tuesday
Oct212003

Playing the Lottery, Idols

[Today’s Christian, September-October 2003]

Q. May Christians participate in state or private lotteries? Will such an act bring dishonor to Jesus Christ? —M.J.K., Republic of Seychelles

A. Lotteries raise a host of related questions. Should Christians ever get involved in something decided by chance? Do you buy a lottery ticket, hoping to win the Daily Million’ What about tossing a coin to see if you should take that job in Chicago? Is it OK to play bingo, if it’s sponsored by a church?

Christians have historically been wary of letting ‘fate’ decide whether they win cash, marry Susie, or get a Doberman. Of course, there’s no such thing as ‘fate;’ 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 falls outside trust in God’s providence and our own labor. It places hope in ‘fate’ to give us something-for-nothing, and seems a second cousin to superstition.

Yet we can’t draw lines as starkly as would first appear. There are several examples in Scripture where believers used random means to discern God’s will. Jacob placed a fleece out of doors; the apostles cast lots to identify the one to replace Judas. While it would be wrong to use chance as a substitute for prayerful discernment, and idolatrous to use divination to tell the future, there are a few Scriptural examples where God responded to believers’ request for direction by means of lots.

That’s not what’s troubling about lotteries, then. Nor is it the mere engagement in a game of chance; Candyland is a game of chance. Any pastime based on spinning an arrow or drawing scrabble tiles is governed by chance. It’s not even the fact that the winner stands to gain something that causes concern. You can win a fondue pot as a door prize, or a strawberry shortcake at a cakewalk, and not be spiritually injured. Nothing so far is inherently dishonoring to Christ.

The danger in lotteries, public or private, 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 works. The establishment of a parallel, effortless way of getting money undermines industriousness and our mutual sense of fairness.

Statistics show that lottery wins don’t even 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 fall for ads suggesting that they could change their lives with a single stroke—people who are the least able to spare those extra dollars for a ticket. 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. Financial commitment to the worshipping community is an important element in a believer’s spiritual growth, part of the time-honored trio of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Early Christians treated the bringing of the offering as a liturgical act. It can’t be replaced by bingo.

It’s not that there is something inherently evil in lotteries, but that there is so little good 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; it’s one thing to raise a glass of champagne at a wedding, and another for your local government to host round-the-clock liquor stores. The sheer availability of lotteries ensures that some people who would otherwise never discover their weakness will slip under the power of gambling addiction. And that is a tragedy for us all.

***


Q. Our parents are not Christian. They want us to worship idols and took our son to fortune-telling. In our culture we obey and honor our parents very highly. How can we follow Jesus without dishonoring our parents? —Name Withheld

A. Christians in every culture are called to honor their parents and others in authority, but sometimes ‘We must obey God rather than man’ (Acts 5:29). This was Peter’s response the very first time Christians were persecuted for their faith. Jesus himself said that believers would sometimes have to choose between their family relationships and following him (Matthew 10:34-39).

Yet you don’t have to treat your parents with dishonor. You should communicate to them your respect and gratitude, but also say that your faith has standards which you insist they uphold even if they don’t understand them. Among these would be the requirement that they not expose you or your children to fortune-telling or idol worship. It may feel very uncomfortable to you to say these things to your parents. You won’t be the first to feel that way. Pray that God will give you wisdom to speak the right words, and maintain the hope that one day your parents will be believers too.

For encouragement, read the story of Gideon in Judges 6:25-32. God commanded young Gideon to destroy his father’s altar to Baal, and Gideon was so nervous about it that he did it in the middle of the night. But when daylight revealed the toppled altar his father saw the truth: if Baal was a real god, he could have defended his own altar. Because Gideon obeyed God’s leading, even with fear and trembling, his father was brought to faith. May God lead you just as clearly today.

 

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