Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Should I Play the Powerball?

Maybe the most talked about thing in the country right now is the historically high jackpot for the Powerball. As of my writing this, it has not yet been won and stands at $1.5 billion. The more it grows, the more people get on board in an attempt to win this life-altering sum. Of course, the odds never improve. Your chances at getting the right combination stand at 1 in 292,201,338, per ABC News. As Wired.com puts it, that is about as good as the odds of having your name randomly drawn from a hat containing the name of every person in the United States.

The Powerball and Meaning

What does that have to do with the quest for meaning, you ask? Some people would say, quite a lot. As a culture, we place an extreme emphasis on money. Most of us seem to measure our lives by what we do, which is to say, by how much we make. Just ask a stay-at-home mom. She knows she is making one the most valuable investments imaginable, but she also knows the ways others look down on her because she isn’t making money. Stay-at-home moms are underappreciated because there is no way to calculate their appreciation. Cash is king.

The Powerball, then, represents a powerful allurement to us. Most people talk about it in terms of, “Just think of what you could do with all that money.” But go ahead. Really do it. Do you think it is possible to fathom that amount? It’s basically monopoly money past a certain point (which says a lot about the super-rich and our government). So the temptation isn’t what you can do with it. It is what you think the money will make you. If we are all measured by our money, and you have a lot of it, then that means you are a good person. It gives you value. It makes you happy.

Confronted with this, most people would probably not admit it. But we act like it every day, and “investing” in the lottery is just one example. It preys on our dissatisfaction and our greed. How else are we supposed to be fulfilled, except to be rich? The cultural messages around us tell us that is what we need, and the Powerball seems like an easy way to get there.

Setting the Tone

I could go on and on about the evils of the lottery, but I am not going to. For one thing, you can get enough of that from this article by John Piper. His tone is a little harsh, but he makes some good points. But I am also not going to go on precisely because of tone. If I come off as judgmental, then how can I be properly understood?

I am not interested in making you feel bad for playing the lottery. You need to take a look at yourself and decide whether or not it is doing real harm. I can’t do that for the average person, and for the few specific people for whom I could venture a guess, it would hardly be helpful. Somewhere, they know the damage they are doing to themselves. I don’t have to scream it at them. No, I want to offer a better alternative.

Finding Value

There is a particular story of Jesus that I think applies here. One time, He was approached by a young man who asked Him what it took to get eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments. Now, the thing is, that isn’t possible. We all act selfishly in one way or another, which the commandments tell us to stop doing. But the young man either wasn’t aware of this, or more likely, didn’t want to admit it. He claimed he kept all the commandments, but he still wasn’t sure he would live forever. He wanted to know what he lacked.

We are told that Jesus, looking at the young man, loved him. Maybe I am off base, but my guess is that Jesus’ love came out of pity (makes sense, since that is how His love comes to any of us). He did lack something, and he wanted to know what, but he couldn’t answer for himself. He was in the dark, so Jesus offered him light. He gave the young man a way to find out the truth about himself, and about eternal life. Jesus told him to “sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). If he could abandon everything he had for Jesus, Jesus would give him everything.

But he couldn’t. The story continues that the young man walked away sorrowful. You see, he was rich. He wanted eternal life, but not more than he wanted his things. The things he relied on in this life were too valuable for him to give up so he could find happiness in the next. That is why Jesus said to those still with him after the young man left, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).

You, Money, and God

Well, so what does that have to do with the Powerball? The people who buy lottery tickets aren’t rich, right? Maybe, but maybe not. When it comes to their actual possessions, yes, they are most often poor. At least, they are not wealthy. But in their imaginations, they see themselves being so, and it drives them. They want money more than anything, so it is controlling everything they do. And so just like the rich young man, it is standing between them and God.

Now the point of all this is not that money is bad. We need it. But if we dream about it and dwell on it until it matters more than anything else, it can be very dangerous. A fascination with the lottery, as though it can solve all your problems, can only lead to heartbreak. Because only God can fulfill you the way most Americans seem to think money will.

Take Inventory

This isn’t about trying to judge you, then. I am just asking you to take your own inventory. Keep it between yourself and God, if you like. But think about these things. Why do you want to win the lottery? What do you think it will make you? What happens if you lose? What happens if you win, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations? Where does God fit into all of this for you? Do you think you don’t need Him? Do you think it is worth holding on to anything more than Him?

The lottery is a study in contrasts. It seems like the stuff dreams are made of; it often results in a nightmare. It can be harmless fun; it can also be a dreadful addiction. It hurts the people who fund it; but they choose to hurt themselves. And win or lose, it can create a barrier between us and the Lord who alone can fulfill us.

I am not going to tell you to stop playing the lottery. I will simply ask you to think about what it really means. You have to count the cost. What matters most to you? If the answer is money, then you will be paying a terrible price in the end. You will be walking away from Jesus. Please don’t do that. The fleeting wealth of this world won’t save your soul. To rely on it is to worship it. And to worship it is to lose everything. Don’t miss the kingdom of God for a couple bucks.

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