Why winning the lottery won't satisfy your soul

Powerball jackpot co-winners Lisa and John Robinson speak to the media at the headquarters of the Tennessee Lottery in Nashville, Tennessee January 15, 2016.  Reuters

There's £33 million at stake, and it may all hang on an ill-advised jeans wash.

A winning National Lottery ticket from January 9 may be invalid because the person who bought it put it through the washing machine and crucial information is illegible.

Of course, it may not be the winning ticket after all; Camelot has still to decide. And since news of that story broke, hundreds of other people have come forward with similar stories about their ticket being lost, damaged or stolen. It could be you – or you, or you.

If the ticket really was bought by the jeans-wash lady and she doesn't receive the money, you have to feel for her. Most of us never come close to such untold riches. To have them snatched away as the result of a simple human error might prove very hard to bear.

However, in Christian terms, it's not a tragedy.

That's because the Christian relationship with money is fundamentally different from the world's relationship.

The huge lottery prizes on offer in recent years – the recent Powerball jackpot in the US saw three winners splitting no less than $1.6 billion between them – have led to a mini-industry in studying the question: "Do big wins make you any happier?" After many surveys carried out by academics and pollsters, the answer still isn't entirely clear. A survey of 137 British winners of sums up to £120,000 found that they went on to exhibit "significantly better psychological health". On the other hand, a survey of winners in Holland found that six months after a modest lottery win, people were generally no happier.

On the whole, the evidence seems to be in favour of modest improvements on the happiness scale. If you're really poor before you win, you're more likely to be worried about money, stressed and resentful. A big win can remove all those external pressure points. If you're comfortably off anyway, perhaps a big win will let you expand your horizons and give you even more options to enjoy what are termed the good things in life.

But if the research shows anything, it's that money doesn't buy happiness if other things in your life aren't right. It just gives you more options – and those options include messing things up really badly. And here's where the Christian attitude to money comes in.

For Christians, money is neutral. The key is rejecting its control over us.

Jesus told the story of a rich young man who asked him what he should do to get eternal life. "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven," Jesus said. "Then come, follow me." We're told that "when the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth" (Matthew 19:16-22).

In 1 Timothy 6: 9-10, Paul tells Timothy: "But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."

In the Bible, some people are rich and some are poor. Riches aren't condemned; what's wrong is holding on to money and not being willing to let it go, especially to meet the needs of the poor. If we try to grasp wealth, we find it grasps us.

For many Christians, gambling of any kind is wrong. For some, this is because it seems to try to undercut or second-guess the sovereignty of God; they believe everything happens according to his will, and games of chance appear to deny that. Others point to the social cost of gambling. It creates addicts and the consequences can be dreadful.

But gambling is not prohibited in Scripture, and we ought to be very wary of going beyond what the Bible says in this sort of area. Many people are able to stake small amounts of money without coming to spiritual or financial harm. They don't expect to win anything, though it's nice if they do; and perhaps the odd daydream about a big win is natural enough.

But maybe the best question for us is not, "Will winning a large amount of money make me happy?" But, "Have I developed the sort of Christian character that would mean a big win wouldn't change me?"

Do our churchgoing, our prayers and our trust in God lay a solid enough foundation for us to able to smile when we win, but smile when we lose, too?

In the end, money is only a small part of life. But it's very, very potent if we have the wrong attitude toward it and let it dominate us. Hold a tiny coin up close enough to the eye and it can blot out the sun.

We can be sorry for the woman who might have lost the millions she never had. But we should be sorrier still if the loss leads to a lifetime of regret. Jesus urges his disciples to trust God for their needs and to hold possessions lightly. In a world where consumption is king, Christians need to model that teaching more than ever.