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Playing the lottery: Nudging Providence?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 20, 2015

The darndest things catch my attention. Today it was this headline: Italian parishioners asked to donate lottery cards. Apparently the church of San Martino in Cigola, Brescia needs a new roof, so the pastor has asked parishioners to donate their lottery cards in the hope that, with a large number of them, the church will win enough to cover the expense.

Is this a good or a bad idea?

I admit to buying a MegaMillions ticket and a PowerBall ticket in the Virginia Lottery once a month. I won $100 once (which I collected), and I’ve occasionally won $4 (which I haven’t). Two dollars a month doesn’t break the bank, and I find it entertaining to think about what I would do with the money if I hit the jackpot. The one-sided conversation in my mind usually goes something like this:

Don’t worry, Lord, I’ve learned quite a bit about myself since we last had this conversation. I can definitely promise I’ll not be corrupted by the money and I’ll use it all for good. Except I do need to set up a nest egg for each of my kids. And I’ve always wanted waterfront property. But after that, I think we’d be home free.
Of course, it would be nice to have extra special vacations, but I wouldn’t do that too often. And we could improve our carbon footprint if I got my hands on a cute little Mini Cooper S convertible. I’m at that age, you know. But since you can’t tow or carry anything in a Mini, I’d need a powerful pickup truck, on the side so to speak. Nothing too elaborate.
The simple life for me, but think of the things my wife deserves to have! (But don’t ask her if she thinks I should win.) I could certainly help out a few special friends. Come to think of it, I could look at the sailboat market again. A few minor things, too, perhaps. A surround sound system for watching movies wouldn’t be a significant expense. Nor would a few more restaurant meals during the week.

Not all of my thoughts are selfish; mostly I recognize that there is no special reason God should want me to win, and it is just a little fun. At times, though, I’ve thought winning the lottery would be a great way to establish a non-profit foundation to take care of certain chronic needs, like the ongoing costs of running CatholicCulture.org.

The Catholic Gambit

Actually, I doubt the last idea is much good. I’ve always argued that apostolates which can be supported by those they serve ought to be supported by those they serve. The problem is simple: Big money makes it very easy to do lots of ineffective things, even in the name of Christ, whereas depending on contributions from users is a good way to measure effectiveness. I would not feel comfortable asking everybody who uses CatholicCulture.org to donate lottery tickets to Trinity Communications. I do not believe this is wrong or evil in itself. But I do think it could blur the lines of responsibility, both for management and for donors.

So what about a Catholic parish? Somehow I don’t think this plan strikes exactly the right note. Should the mindset of a parish be that we fund the Church through lottery winnings, and if that doesn’t work, it doesn’t get funded? Some churches are too missionary to receive adequate financial support, and some have (speaking frankly) endured past their sell-by date, and so face the same problem. But ordinarily?

No, ordinarily a parish should be a joint responsibility: On the part of the ministers, to provide truly excellent ministry; on the part of the people, to ensure that the costs of truly excellent ministry are covered; and on all sides, collaboration. The work of the Church should be carried out through a kind of living gratitude. Consider that gratitude is the mother of generosity, and even of sacrifice.

Providence

I feel no need to condemn the lottery gambit. I don’t know the circumstances of St. Martin’s Church, nor the attitudes of flock and shepherd, nor the wealth available, nor what sort of sense of humor animates the community. If I won the lottery, I hope I would take the money and try to use it for good, just as I am sure this parish would.

But this is one of those little stories that prompts reflection, particularly reflection on our understanding of Providence. In my private conversations about the Virginia Lottery, I’ve wondered whether it is legitimate to use the lottery as a way to provide a special opportunity for Providence to act. After all, the lottery ticket is bought with a certain outcome in mind. I grant that the outcome is going to be Providential either way, as nothing operates independently of either God’s active or permissive will. But the ticket is a pointer...from God to me.

So it seems that deliberately using the lottery to “nudge” Providence must be spiritually dangerous. It is almost as if we have to see a mechanism we understand in order to expect Providence to work. Or that, in our willingness to help God out, we are calling His attention to something He can use to get His job done in a way that would really work for a change. I don’t think the greatest spiritual deficiency here is our enjoyment of God’s decision to let us win. Rather, it is the subtle suggestion that God needs a little help in doing what He ought to want to do for us.

“Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test” (Lk 4:12). The lottery may be construed as a kind of test: If God can’t control the outcome of a measly number drawing, what can He control?

Or perhaps there is an unspoken reality that we trust God more when we can understand the mechanisms of Providential operation. We understand how lotteries work; we grasp the marvelous “opportunity” they provide for Divine action. But there is a problem: While lottery results (like all things) are always Providential, the mechanism of the lottery itself is the antithesis of Providence. It is the difference between playing the odds and relying on God’s mercy—the antithesis between chance and love.

If we trust love, we have nothing to fear, but do we trust love? Our typical use of lotteries may be quite innocent, but a great truth remains: The choice between chance and love marks the difference between paganism and Christianity. It is the difference between turning to the fortune-teller, and turning to Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: till8774 - Oct. 21, 2015 8:47 PM ET USA

    Regarding playing the lottery: I do not play the lottery, but one day I was tempted to, and was talking to my friend, and said, "Maybe I will buy one ticket, in case God wants me to win the lottery." My friend said, "If God wants you to win the lottery, someone will give you the winning ticket!" I've never been tempted to buy one again!

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Oct. 20, 2015 10:11 PM ET USA

    One time when I was a child I read something that said that the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. So, since I don't have even a few dollars that I can afford to throw away, I have never felt inclined to play. If somehow I win the jackpot without playing, I will make sure I share some of it with CatholicCulture.org, a cause worth supporting.