You Didn’t Win Powerball…So Now What?

January 18, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments


Powerball Tickets

Credit: New York Daily News

The conversation across from me last Wednesday morning as I was sitting at Starbucks reading and sipping my coffee startled me.  Next to me was a table of folks who, from the sound of their conversation, all worked in the same office.  As coworkers, they were doing what coworkers should regularly be doing – they were strategizing, they were planning, they were setting goals, and they were developing financial models…for what they would do when they won the $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot.

With Powerball fever sweeping the nation last week with history’s largest ever jackpot up for grabs, these folks sounded like they needed some Tylenol to bring down their temperature.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more heated, even if not particularly informed, financial conversation in my life – much less a financial conversation that imagines a 1 in 292,201,338 scenario.  Should we take the lump sum or should we take the annuity payments?  How do we set up a trust fund since we’re splitting the pot when we win?  Should we allow this or that coworker to join our pot?

Oh, if only.  But as Daniel Victor of The New York Times points out:

If you printed out the name of every United States resident on individual pieces of paper, put them in a giant bowl and selected one at random, the odds of picking President Obama are not far from the odds of winning the Powerball.[1]

In other words, you are not going to win Powerball.

The way this office pool talked about Powerball, it sounded like all but a sure bet that they were going to be the big winners.  But unless they happened to have just come back from Chino Hills, CA, Munford, TN, or Melbourne Beach, FL with just the right ticket in hand, they were not.  Last Wednesday was not their day.  And today is just another manic Monday at the office for them.

Powerball is an interesting enterprise.  On the one hand, I appreciate that it helps fund education, although I can’t help but wonder if there are other, more efficient ways to fund educational programs.  On the other hand, I am concerned that, from a systemic perspective, it acts as a regressive tax because it has a disproportionate appeal to lower income households who have big dreams of digging out of financial desperation.  Even if it does act as a regressive tax, however, it is important to note that it is a voluntary regressive tax.  No one has to buy a ticket.  Indeed, the fundamental problem with Powerball is not really with Powerball at all.  It’s with us. Far too many of us are quick to disregard the fundamentals of math for a quixotic wish.

“Someone has to win,” I’ve heard time and time again. “And it could be me!”  Actually, someone does not have to win.  This is precisely why the Powerball jackpot rose as much as it did – because someone did not have to win the jackpot and no one did win the jackpot for ten weeks straight because the odds of winning are so abysmal, they are, for all intents and purposes, at zero.  Technically, they’re at .00000034223%.  But it still takes a lot of zeroes in that percentage to get to any sort of a number that represents something rather than nothing.

Why in the world would we get so excited over odds like these?  What are we thinking?

In one way, we’re not.  We’re dreaming.  And, if your dreams are anything like mine, dreams do not have to make sense or be rooted in reality.  They can be sheer fantasy.

But something more is going on here. For not only are we dreaming, we’re hoping.  We’re hoping lightning will strike and we will win.  Or, to use the appropriate odds, we’re hoping lightning will strike 246 times and we will win one time.  We’re hoping our financial troubles will be over.  We’re hoping we’ll be able to quit our jobs and take life easy.  We’re hoping to get rich.

The apostle Paul writes quite extensively to Timothy about the dangers associated with riches.  Two of his statements are especially striking to me as the fervor over Powerball settles:

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. (1 Timothy 6:9)

And:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)

In the first verse, Paul prohibits hoping for riches.  We should not obsess over accumulating treasures on earth because such an obsession is a recipe for depression and, ultimately, for destruction.  In the second verse, Paul prohibits hoping in riches.  Wealth cannot do what many people think it can do.  It certainly cannot solve all your problems, as past lottery winners will tell you.

The problem with the Powerball phenomenon is that its huge jackpots tempt us toward false hope – both for riches and in riches.  And even if Powerball itself is nothing more than a silly game, the false hope it tempts us toward is a dangerous disease.

If you want to spend $2 on a ticket for fun, that’s one thing.  But you should place about as much hope in that ticket as you do in winning your office fantasy football league where the grand prize is a Nerf football that someone spray painted gold to make it look like a trophy.  If your hopes go much further than that, be careful.  Your hope is not in a $2 ticket with long odds.  Your hope is in Christ.

After all, He’s a sure bet.

_________________________

[1] Daniel Victor, “You Will Not Win the Powerball Jackpot,” The New York Times (1.12.2016).

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jon trautman  |  January 18, 2016 at 8:12 am

    My take on the lottery, which I have never played, is that you have the same chance of winning whether you play or not.

    JON

    Reply
  • 2. 2016 in Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 2, 2017 at 5:33 am

    […] The biggest Powerball jackpot ever, valued at $1.5 billion, goes up for grabs.  People across the country flock to convenience stores to buy their ticket, even though the […]

    Reply

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