The Dangers of Playing the Lottery

The lottery is a game in which players pay for a ticket (usually for $1) to randomly select a group of numbers or symbols, and win prizes if enough of their selections match those drawn by machines. Prizes range from cash to goods to services such as cars and vacations. The game is popular among people of all ages and incomes. Some governments organize state-run lotteries, while others offer private games run by retailers and other businesses.

The history of lotteries dates back to ancient times, including biblical references such as Moses’s instructions to take a census and divide the land by lot. The Roman emperors also used lotteries to give away property and slaves, and the medieval world saw private, privately organized games for everything from church lands to tithes and taxes on livestock and grain. In the 15th century, the Low Countries saw the first state-run lotteries, with town records showing public lotteries in cities such as Ghent, Bruges, and Utrecht.

Lotteries aren’t just games of chance; they’re also exercises in covetousness and greed. The Bible clearly warns against coveting, telling us “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that is his.” People who play the lottery often have the mistaken assumption that money can solve their problems; they’re hoping that if they hit the jackpot, their financial woes and personal troubles will disappear. This hope is empty and reeks of greed (see Ecclesiastes 5:10).

In fact, lottery winners often find themselves in just as much trouble as those who didn’t win. They’re likely to spend the money quickly, and their debts can accumulate rapidly as they try to keep up with their new lifestyle. Some will even lose their homes or families in the process of trying to pay off their debts.

Some will also fall prey to a temptation that is inherent in all forms of gambling: the illusion that they are not at risk when they gamble, and that their fortunes can be won without the need for risk or sacrifice. This is the most dangerous misunderstanding of all, because it allows people to indulge in their most basic urges, such as the desire for instant riches.

Lottery advertisements rely on two messages primarily. One is that playing the lottery is fun, a great way to fantasize about winning a fortune for a few bucks. The other message is that states benefit from the money players voluntarily spend on tickets, a message that obscures the regressivity of lotteries and their hidden cost to the poor. It’s a message that should be replaced with a truthful statement about how much state governments lose to this hidden tax on the middle class. Until then, the oh-so-cheeky billboards on the highways will continue to draw folks into a deadly game of chance.