Why I'm Not Playing Mega Millions This Week (or Anytime)

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Friday, March 30, 2012 at 10:54 AM

I will never forget.... It was more than fifteen years ago, in a rural E. Texas town, and my wife Susan and I were at the small video store, thinking about renting a movie. As we looked around the store, I noticed a woman enter whom I recognized. She walked over to the counter and proceeded to purchase $10 of lottery tickets and then left. I don't think she spotted me.

However, a week later this same woman was in my office at the church I was serving, telling me she didn't have enough money to feed her two children, and asking if the church could help her out. She was not a stranger to our church, showing up 2-3 times a year for financial help, which is why I recognized her in the video store. The $10 she had spent that time on lottery tickets (and who knows if there were other times) could have fed her kids for a few days back then.

It was then that the statistics became so real to me. The lotteries and gambling tend (and notice my word choice) to be played most by those who can afford it least. Sure, there a lot of folks who gamble and play the lottery for whom the money spent doesn't affect the bottom line of their lifestyles. They spend it there while I spend it on fishing gear or an upgrade to my computer. It's discretionary money, and God entrusted resources to us with the idea that at times in our lives it's perfectly ok for us to spend appropriately on things we enjoy. 

But there are others who see it as their ticket out or their ticket up. Today (3/30/12) on my iPhone app, the USA TODAY headline reads, "Mega Millions jackpot sets off ticket frenzy," and the first line of the article reads, "With a world record $540 million (and growing) jackpot at stake, much of the nation is gripped by Mega Millions fever." This bothers me because I have seen families destroyed by gambling addictions, just as others have been destroyed by alcohol or drug or sex or shopping addictions. But my focus here isn't even those who battle addictions.

The USA TODAY article says there are places around the country where folks are waiting up to three hours to buy tickets. "It's something people here can really look forward to," says a woman in New Orleans. A guy in Minnesota said, "My 401(k) is worth so little. My only chance to retire is Mega Millions." (italics added) Someone on Twitter wrote, "I'm reading an article about what to do after you hit the mega millions jackpot. Next article, how to housebreak your unicorn." The chances of winning, according to Mega Millions - 1 in 176 million!

I have concerns about a lottery like this - actually I'm personally opposed. Let me just hit the high points. First, studies have shown that folks who win the big lotteries are not happier (in fact, most are extremely unhappy within a few years of winning), and many end up wishing they had never won it (and quite a few end up going bankrupt). Our joy and our enjoyment of life is not tied to having more stuff but having the right relationships, vertically with God and horizontally with others. Madison Avenue would lead us to believe it's all about having more stuff, but no matter how little or much we have, more is never going to be the answer.

Second, studies have shown that those who most often play the lottery tend to be those on the lower end of the economic ladder. Their odds of winning are so astronomically small, but they spend their hard-earned cash to try to get ahead, like the woman I encountered. Lotteries are effectively regressive taxes that often tax those who can afford it least. Lotteries discourage a healthy work ethic, leading some to believe they can get something for little or nothing. I have a real problem when our government promotes the lottery on one hand, but then pays out hundreds of millions to help those who are struggling economically. It's a very mixed message.

But above all, I have a problem when we put our hope and faith in something or someone besides Jesus Christ. He is the one hope who never fails us, yet too often we turn to him only after we have exhausted every other form of "hope" out there. God warned us to have no other gods before him, yet anything or anyone I put my hope in, other than God is a god, an idol. For too many, quick-fix wins through the lottery or gambling are some of those gods. The truth is, the gospel of Jesus Christ competes in this world against the promise that all our problems will go away if we win the big one.

And this is why I do not support the lottery and gambling. Not because some don't have a good time, but because some are tragically hurt as they are misled or falsely believe that the answer to their problems lies in winning the lottery. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39), and Paul tells us to do nothing to cause our brother or sister to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9). Cain discovered that we really are supposed to be our brother's keeper (Genesis 4:9) and protect those who are most vulnerable. All across our country this week some of the most vulnerable (children, spouses, families) will suffer a little more because so many spent tens, hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a chance to win big - a chance that probably isn't so different from being hit twice in a row by a lightning bolt.

In a perfect world, folks would always make the right decisions about whether or not they should engage in something like gambling. But this isn't a perfect world - it's a fallen world, with a real enemy who is out "...to steal and kill and destroy...." But Jesus says his purpose  "...is to give them (us) a rich and satisfying life." (John 10:10) That life comes as we put our faith and hope in Jesus Christ, not this week's Mega Millions jackpot.