Why Are Grown Ups Fighting Over a Ball?
I was recently asked if Torrey Gazette had anything to read on the recent Powerball phenomenon. We didn't. It is a rare thing for us to respond to something that is socially relevant and already receiving a lot of noise. I do not feel like I have much to add, but I was intrigued that Christians are arguing about whether we should gamble. I have few things to say.
I'm a computer engineer. I also was only a few college hours away from a Masters in Math. I tutored all college math subjects for almost three years. I breathe math and to this day find statistic more interesting than almost anything. I understand the odds of the Powerball without someone explaining it to me. But guess what? It's not because of my math skills. Most people inherently understand the odds without someone explaining it to them.
I work on a hallway of engineers, and yesterday the subject of the Powerball came up. We were all cracking jokes and asking what the other people would buy. What we would buy for each other. What we would do with our lives (I would pay off my house and start a brewery). None of us actually play the lottery but it was a good time. Until one of our co-workers came down the aisle rambling on about the odds and what a waste of time it was to play.
One of my co-workers, in particular, felt rather demeaned and frustrate that a fun conversation was derailed by a rather pointless piece of information. Don't be the person wandering around with a demeaning script about the odds. Take it from someone who is guilty far too often of being demeaning, it ruins relationships and frustrates friendships. Yes, the odds are bad. Everyone knows this. This is part of what makes it fun. The unique and randomness. The scarcity. Every year in the NFL there is the chance of the perfect team. In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors have a chance to topple a previously "unreachable" regular season record set by the venerable Chicago Bulls. Something in us just loves underdogs and bad odds.
Stop being C3P0 to everyone else's Han Solo. Just quit.
The Economical Impact
There are a number of things that can be said about the financial side of the lottery. There are serious questions about where the money goes. There are questions about how winning the lottery can change a person. Many even refer to the lottery as a "poor/dumb tax." All of these things can be considered and discussed. But do they really have an impact on whether or not a person should play the lottery?
Daily people waste money on coffee that they could make at home for 85% cheaper. People could rightly criticize how much beer I drink as a waste of money. The fact of the matter is that commercialism is built around people spending money on what they want. Some people want stuff. Some people want experiences. Gambling provides a unique experience that some people find enjoyable. This is not unlike some people's obsessions with thrill rides and jumping out of airplanes. There is nothing wrong with gambling if it is not an addiction. Addiction takes a harmless enhancer and turns into something that deprives homes. It becomes the controller of our lives and makes us poor stewards of what God has given us. It doesn't matter if the addiction consumes time or money.
Similarly, there are many things that can tempt an individual. We cannot avoid all financial temptations. Job was tempting by having everything taken away from him. The temptation to curse God falls upon all men whether they are in the garden or Eden or the destruction depicted in the book of Revelation. Sinful man will find any reason to depart from His God. Simply that there will be temptation is not a reason to abstain from playing the lottery. That said, I cannot fault a pertinent individual who decides to refrain. That much money so quickly will overwhelm most people. But it does not need to. People who decide to refrain cannot turn around and demand it of others. And if they are going to discuss the issue they should pursue a merciful and non-demeaning tone.
However, I do think that these hypothetical thoughts on winning point to something deeper. And it is here that I would like to say a few words. My concern is that many play the lottery for one specific, sinful reasons—they do not want to work. When God created Adam and Eve, He made us to be workers. Workers in His garden and His world. We were made for vocation. The lofty ideal of "not working" is against God's order. It is borderline Gnostic. This ideal is found in cultural ideas of "empty nesters," "retirement," and even "heaven" (though I'll leave this one for another time).
Contra our cultural understanding, retirement means that you have more time to spend on the Lord's work not more time to golf or shop. The Lord's work is not necessarily work in the church body, but with your prior vocation completed you do not simply become vocation-less. God made us with the expressed purpose of working in this world. Similarly, the departure of your own biological children does not simply mean no more poopy diapers. It means you get to turn to focus on the church's children or perhaps on adopting/fostering any number of children daily rejected by their family. Retirement from a job and having an empty home means that you can finally be undisturbed from the Lord's next work for your life. And yet, I do not believe individuals imagine this when they imagine winning the lottery.
For instance, I cannot help but recall with mild tears the beauty of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof singing "If I Were a Rich Man,"
If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.
The great sin that underlies playing the lottery is the same great sin that plagues all of us even when we don't play the lottery—we want to be the gods of our own time and money. We want to be in charge of our days and who receives our time. We image that winning the lottery might finally help us accomplish this. We imagine retirement will help us accomplish this. We imagine no more kids will help us accomplish this. The problem is not the lottery. It is our hearts.
The proper course of corrective action? Be content with the work God has placed before us. And to wish upon ourselves blessings and money only to better worship and serve the Lord. For that truly would be the sweetest thing of all.