Winning!(?): Christians and the Lottery

An old proverb states that in every bet there is a fool and a thief.  With the backdrop of the Mega Millions lottery jackpot rising towards a record setting $640 million last week, the subject of gambling became a popular topic among many Christians.  John Piper wrote a blog post about why you shouldn’t gamble, Albert Mohler posted an article on his website regarding a Christian understanding of gambling, and numerous other Christians grappled with these issues themselves.

There are a number of issues at play when people are making their case against gambling.  At the heart of the issue is greed, they say.  Gambling shows a lack of trust in God.  But as with a great number of ethical questions, the issue is not always black and white.  If I throw a couple dollars into an office pool that’s going towards purchasing a handful of lottery tickets am I being greedy?  There are no dreams of Ferraris and early retirement dancing in my head as I make my contribution.  I might not even give it a second thought.

We might be willing to accept the premise that gambling represents greed and a lack of trust in our Lord, but how do we define gambling?  If I play a game of poker with some friends with a $10 buy-in am I sinning?  I could counter that my motivation for playing poker isn’t to make a few quick bucks off of my friends, but to simply have some fun and enjoy their company.  I’m prepared to lose my $10; the money is being spent on entertainment, just as if I’d chosen to go to the movies instead.

But I believe the issue becomes much more clear when we look beyond our personal motives and look at the bigger picture.  The lottery provides an excellent opportunity for such an extrospection.  In my opinion, the trump card when it comes to the lottery is its treatment of the poor.  It’s a point that both Piper and Mohler brought up in their articles cited above.  To the lower classes, the lottery teases with the opportunity to escape poverty.  Piper includes a quote from the International Business Times that states that those in the U.S. earning $13,000 or less spend 9% of their income on lottery tickets!  The Chicago Reporter, an investigative news organization with a distinctive focus on social, economic, and political issues related to race and poverty, presented some similar statistics in a 2007 article on the Illinois lottery.  Of the ten zip codes in the Chicago metropolitan area with the highest lottery ticket sales over a six-year period, eight of those zip codes had an unemployment rate higher than the citywide average.  All ten had average incomes of less than $20,000 a year (compared to a citywide average of $24,000).

A myriad of other statistics point to the same conclusion: the lottery system is supported by the poorest among us.  The meager funds that the poor do possess are wasted on a false hope.  For this reason, more than any other, I’m opposed to playing the lottery.  To buy a lottery ticket is to support a system that hurts the neediest in society.  That’s something I’m not comfortable doing.

There is a whole host of other questions of morality surrounding gambling and its different contexts that I haven’t touched on.  But I’m curious to hear what you think about gambling.  Is gambling biblically prohibited?  If so, what constitutes gambling?  Is buying a lottery ticket morally problematic?  With the gambling issue quickly fading to the back of our consciousness in the wake of the Mega Millions jackpot winning, now is a good time for such a discussion.