Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally ran in August 2012. It has been updated as of December 2014 to include additional content and advice from Dr. Roger.
Is it a sin for a Christian to purchase a lottery ticket?
Once upon a time I played the lottery—just once, just one ticket. Our family was playing Yahtzee, which is a lot like poker, only you play with dice instead of with cards. The goal is to roll more good poker hands than anyone else. Rolling five dice with the same number at the same time is called a “Yahtzee” and is worth fifty points.
The odds of rolling five dice with the same number at the same time are 3,125 to 1. In the first game I rolled a Yahtzee. We all cheered with delight.
In the second game I rolled another Yahtzee! 3,125 to 1 again!
We couldn’t believe it.
In the third game I rolled another Yahtzee. No one said a word. We were all dumbfounded. I grabbed my dad and said, “This is a sign from God. We have just enough time to get to the “7-11” and buy a lottery ticket before the lottery ends at 10:00 p.m.” As I recall, it was one of those power ball lotteries worth at least half a billion dollars. Well, not that much. But it certainly felt like that.
I bought one ticket. One was all I needed to win. The check was already in the mail! Dad and I raced home to watch the drawing on TV. I compared the numbers on my ticket with the ones drawn on TV. By the second number I was out of the game.
My mother asked my dad if he’d bought any tickets and he pulled twenty losing tickets out of his pocket. She yelled at him for the next fifteen minutes for wasting twenty of their hard-earned dollars.
It is no wonder, T, that you’ve asked this question because gambling and buying lottery tickets are never expressly approved or condemned in the Scriptures.
We must be careful in deciding what to do with issues that aren’t expressly forbidden or approved in the Bible. Considering the issue of gambling and lottery tickets, we must not turn our personal convictions into what we consider to be Biblical truths for ourselves and for everyone else (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:1-12; 1 Corinthians 10:13-33-Romans 11:1).
Whether or not a buying a lottery ticket is a sin depends on our personal convictions. Personal convictions are the expressions of our inner conscience. If we think it’s a sin to buy a ticket and proceed to buy one, then we’ve committed a sin because we’ve violated our consciences. Violating our consciences is expressly forbidden in the Bible because a violated conscience impairs our ability to hear God speak. (Romans 14:23: “Whatever is not of faith is sin.”)
This is why the same behavior can be a sin for one person and not a sin for another. If you can buy a lottery ticket without breaking your conscience then buy the lottery ticket. You have not sinned. Understanding the relationship between sin and the conscience is the key to handling the “gray areas” of the Bible which are not expressly forbidden or approved—or not even mentioned.
By the way, always beware of Christians who try to make their personal convictions into biblical truth. They harm Christians.
My personal conviction is to not gamble. I used to pitch nickels and shoot marbles for keeps when I was a kid. I once played poker for pennies with the older boys down the street. Once I put a quarter in a slot machine in Las Vegas. I once bought a lottery ticket. I felt guilty for both last two because I was now old enough to know that I was breaking my conscience.
My personal conviction is that I do not buy lottery tickets. I’ve thought this through and have a number of reasons for refusing to buy one. Buying a lottery ticket may be all right for you; but it is not right for me.
I don’t waste money on the lottery because of the Biblical teachings about stewardship and management (1 Corinthians 6:19). Not a single dollar that comes into our hands is ours. It all belongs to God. We are to manage it well.
I perceive that the Lord Jesus is not particularly excited to watch us throw money away. We have such slim odds of winning that we might as well drive by the “7-11” and throw money out the car window.
Here are the odds of winning some recent lotteries:
The Pennsylvania Match 6: 1 in 4,661,272.3
The New Jersey Pick 6: 1 in 13,983,816
The Ohio Mega Millions: 1 in 175,711,536
You can purchase a ticket if you want to. After all, Paul wrote: "Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible—but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
God says that there are better things to do with our money than throw it away. Excess money should be saved for future needs or given to the Lord’s work, not gambled away (1 Corinthians 4:2).
Several other Biblical principles come into play regarding my conviction not to play the lottery.
The Bible clearly states that the lottery is a “get rich” scheme and “get rich” schemes are to be avoided at all costs. Solomon wrote from experience: “A faithful man will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 28:20). (See also Proverbs 13:11; Proverbs 23:5; and Ecclesiastes 5:10.) The principle is that if we spend the same amount of time planning and investing as we do trying to get rich quick we will come out way ahead in the future.
Get rich schemes often tempt us away from trusting God as the real source of our financial security. They can lead us to trust more in our money than in our God. They can mess with our minds regarding the real dangers of materialism (Matthew 6:24; 1 Timothy 6:10; and Hebrews 13:5).
People often ask, “Isn’t buying stocks like playing a long-term lottery?” No, investing in the stock market is not gambling. The difference is that in the stock market we actually own a portion of the companies that we invest in. We are buying something of value in the stock market.
Others ask, “Is it OK to play poker?”
Playing poker with friends is seldom a sin. We receive real value when we play poker with friends—the value of a good time and enhanced friendship. In one sense this can be the same as going to a movie with our friends. We buy a ticket and receive value in the form of enjoying the movie and in experiencing it together. We go to a good restaurant and pay more money for an expensive meal than we should. We receive value in the form of good food and a pleasant evening with our friends.
The danger here—whether it is the lottery, or the poker, or the casino is when someone gambles to the extent that they or their families can’t afford food, bills can’t be paid, children can’t be clothed, addictions begin, drinking to excess occurs, and on and on goes the list.
The danger here is if we begin to love money.
I have another thought about buying tickets. When we buy a ticket we become participants in the wicked and immoral ways that our governmental leaders use a lottery to steal from the poor people.
The state government says, “We need more money for education (or whatever) in our state. How can we pay for it (get the money)?” Instead of admitting that we can’t afford it, or that we have to make cuts in other programs because of new priorities, the government officials decide: “Let’s have a lottery that the poor and stupid can play. The rub is that people who have money or who are wise don’t buy lottery tickets. The percentage of tickets bought by the people who can least afford it is through the roof.
The Bible has nothing good to say about entities or people who rob the poor.
He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty (Proverbs 22:16)
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them (Proverbs 22:22-23).
People can go to Las Vegas and have fun. We have. The glitter is incredible. Excitement is all around. Good things for families to participate in abound. There is more to Las Vegas than the “Strip”. The real city is two blocks away on the other side of the Strip. Here we find residential areas with real life people and schools and stores just like any other city.
The tragedy of Las Vegas is not the multitude of people who live and act in moderation while spending time in “Sin City”—among other things. The tragedy is the poor people who will not win. After all there is a reason that the House always wins. All the games are rigged.
The sign at the First Baptist church in Las Vegas loudly announces, “We have no money to give out.” I asked the pastor about it. He said, “We have three or four people every day come knocking at our door who’ve lost all their money and need help with meals, a place to stay, or a bus ticket home. We’ve helped all we can. We have nothing left. We must turn them away.
I am sorry for the church; but the church is not the problem. The gambling industry ensconced in Las Vegas is the problem. Their entire system from dark rooms with no clocks so people lose track of time to free food in buffet lines so people can eat and hurry back to gambling all entice the wasting of more and more money. The casino is designed to oppress the poor and to separate the foolish from their money.
You can have fun in Las Vegas without sinning? Sure, if your conscience is clear and you have balanced limits, keeping in mind the dangers and pitfalls, you can play the slots and receive the value of a fun experience. But, remember Paul’s advice: “All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable.”
Paul gave an intriguing picture of what happens when the line is crossed and we trust more in our money than in the God we worship. Paul addressed this in 1 Timothy 6:6-10):
(6) But godliness with contentment is great gain. (7) For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. (8) But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (9) Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (10) For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Here is the Biblical formula for real wealth .A good paraphrase of verse six is, “Being pleasing toward God coupled with contentment equals great wealth.”
Verses nine and ten are rather strong, aren't they? This verse is talking about “those who would be rich…” In other words, "those who set a goal in life of accumulating wealth fall into the trap that leads to ruin and destruction."
The sin of materialism is the desire to get rich. It is not the possession in and of itself. It is not making a profit in business… having property… but it is the desire to be rich… it is the longing for material things.
Notice what Paul says happens to the person who desires to be rich! He falls into temptation and a trap. It is the trap of materialism. Then he falls into many foolish and harmful desires which – watch it – plunge him into ruin and destruction.
Now, it doesn’t matter whether wealth is sticking to your fingers or slipping through. It doesn’t matter what your level of affluence is… what the size of your bank account is… The question is, what is your attitude toward it?
“Pierced themselves” is an interesting phrase. It literally means to put on a spit. You know what a spit is. You put a raw piece of meat on a spit and then turn it over again and again over an open fire.
I want you to get the picture portrayed here. Instead of putting a piece of chicken or beef on a spit, suppose you put a live human being on the spit and turn him over and over again and roast him on an open fire--a fire ignited by the very material things he has chased after! This is a picture of torture. It is a metaphorical picture of a person torturing his own soul.
Believers who are guilty of being eager for money will ultimately end up being tortured in their own souls.
I want to suggest to you a paraphrase of verses 9-10 which is intended to bring out the richness of the Greek text in order to sum up the essential message of these verses. I don’t claim that this is perfect; but I believe that it will help to make the central message clear:
“They that accept becoming rich as a goal in life fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and hurtful cravings which ruin lives and lead men to hell.
For the love of money is the source from which all kinds of evil can originate.
Some Christians have grasped after wealth and have gone into a reverse spiritual growth process, and have tortured their souls with their sorrows.”
Do you think that those are strong words? I haven’t been able to find any stronger words in the Bible addressed to Christians than these right here.
I think that I know why. Because the sin of materialism is essentially the sin of idolatry. It is the worship of a false god.
Fortunately, Paul goes on to tell us how to find victory and contentment in our struggle with materialism.
He says, "run away from materialism and run toward godliness and holiness.
Well, T, I suppose you will need to answer your own question. The Bible is silent on the subject. Discern what your conscience is saying and live accordingly.
I really appreciate your question. It is so timely and relevant in a society that has lost its way in using money wisely.
Dr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.