READ : 2 Corinthians 8:9
You’ve heard the biblical saying, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” That’s really about greed.
Greed is the sin of wanting and getting. It also involves snatching and grabbing, since so often in order to get we have to take from somebody else. But despite these characteristics, greed masquerades as the most respectable of all the seven deadly sins. In fact, far from condemning greedy or avaricious people, we often admire and envy them. We look up to such people and tout them as examples of success. We observe that one of the keys to prosperity is a voracious appetite, one that drives a person to constantly strive for more. The film Wall Street perfectly portrays the spirit of ambitious avarice that dominated the decade of the 1990s. The movie’s most famous line is delivered by the main character, a horrible Wall Street trader named Gordon Gecko, in a speech to a group of stockholders. He summarizes his view with blunt simplicity “Greed is good.”
So who’s right? The world, which says that greed is good, that it’s a positive economic force, or the church, which says that greed is a deadly sin? To answer that question an important clarification is necessary. Christian teachers have long observed that evil is always a corruption of the good; in other words, evil has no objective being of its own. Satan can’t create anything; he can only spoil what God has made. So sins are really perversions of virtues. Each of the seven deadly sins can be understood as a distortion or exaggeration of some good quality. Thus, lust is a misdirection of healthy desire, pride is unbalanced self-esteem, envy is admiration run amok, and so on.
With this distinction in mind, we can recognize the difference between greed and healthy ambition. I once was leading a men’s Bible-study group in a discussion of the sin of greed, when someone interjected an honest question: “Is it wrong to want to be financially successful?” And the answer is: of course not. It’s not only natural, it’s a good thing to want to do well and to be successful, including financially. Yet the problem behind that question is how to know when my natural desire to succeed might cross over the line into the deadly sin of avarice.
Recent months have seen a flood of shocking revelations about the financial misdeeds of corporate executives in America. Countless thousands of ordinary people have lost their jobs or have been ruined financially because of the unbelievable greed of managers and accountants. How could respected business leaders behave in such a way? What led them to believe their avaricious crimes were justifiable? Most importantly (for my own personal spiritual health), how can I guard against the temptation to do similarly selfish and underhanded things which, though different in scale, are no less greedy in nature?
SYMPTOMS OF GREED
In order to search my own heart for potential signs of greed, a few probing personal questions might be helpful. The first question is this. Ask yourself, “What am I willing to do to make money?” Greed will do just about anything. Greed cares more about money than it does about ethics. It throws moral scruples out the window. It is totally self-absorbed with no thought of the well-being of others. Greed doesn’t ask whether something is right or wrong, only whether it is profitable. It doesn’t care what it has to do in order to get ahead. Greed will lie, cheat, steal, swindle. It disregards human law whenever it thinks it safely can, and it disregards God’s Law always.
You’ve perhaps heard the biblical saying, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). That’s really about greed. Listen to that text again carefully. It doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil, but the love of money. Nor does it say that the love of money – that is to say, greed – is the only root of evil, but that it’s capable of producing every kind of evil. Greed is the root from which all sorts of wickedness will grow if allowed to go unchecked. Think of all the sins and crimes that human beings have committed in their pursuit of wealth. People have cheated their own parents or spouses or brothers and sisters for money. They have exploited or even sold their own children. They have tortured or murdered innocent victims. People have betrayed their countries for the love of money. They have betrayed their closest friends out of greed, as Judas who sold his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.
Greed is by nature predatory. It feeds upon the misfortunes and weaknesses of others. It indulges in what we sometimes call sharp practices, those things which may not technically be illegal but nevertheless are unethical. And greed always takes advantage of other people’s bad luck, ignorance, stupidity – or even their own greed. The stock market was originally intended as a means of raising capital for honest ventures, but greed can transform it into a gigantic game of “cheat your neighbor.” What that means is that we look for other people who are equally greedy but who are just a little bit slower or more stupid than we are so that we can make money at their expense. That’s the predatory nature of greed, and if you’re worried about this sin, then you should ask yourself, “What am I willing – and not willing – to do to my neighbor in order to make money?”
Here’s another warning sign that greed might be a problem for you. Are you obsessed with getting lucky? That’s the allure of gambling in all its forms, everything from lottery tickets to football pools to casino games. It’s the attraction of becoming rich without hard work, in fact, without any work at all – the allure of winning something for nothing. Organized gambling is a cancer spreading with increasing aggressiveness throughout society, much of it, shamefully, under state-sponsorship. Gambling feeds off greed; it can’t survive without it. So it panders to avarice and cultivates the desire to get something for nothing through skillful advertising. The advertising is a lie. Gambling isn’t about fun or entertainment. It’s all about money – hundreds of billions of dollars per year. And where does that money go? It doesn’t go to enrich the lives of the people who spent it. It doesn’t go to provide necessities for them, or even luxuries. It certainly doesn’t go to charity. No, it disappears into the pockets of those who are just as greedy – but not as stupid – as the gamblers themselves.
The always-wise Dorothy Sayers, in her little book on the seven deadly sins, has a whole list of further questions we should be asking ourselves if we want to search for the warning signs of greed in our hearts. Listen to what she wrote:
When we invest our money do we ask ourselves whether the enterprise represents anything useful, or merely whether it is a safe thing that returns a good dividend? . . . When we read the newspapers are our eyes immediately arrested by anything that says “MILLIONS” in large capitals, preceded by the ? or $ sign? . . . Have we ever refused money on the grounds that the work we had to do for it was something that we could not do honestly, or do well? . . . Do we never choose our acquaintance with the idea that they are useful people to know, or . . . that there is something to be got out of them? And . . . when we blame the mess that the economic world has got into, do we always lay the blame on wicked financiers, wicked profiteers, wicked capitalists, wicked employers, wicked bankers or do we sometimes ask ourselves how far we have contributed to make the mess?
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Other Six Deadly Sins
A SIMPLE ANTIDOTE TO GREED
Greed is a gruesome parody of the love of Christ which the Bible commends to us as the motivating and guiding force in life. The Bible says that it’s the love of Christ that should control us, not the love of money. So what can we do to overcome the powerful hold that money-love exerts upon us?
Well, there is one sure and immediate antidote to greed in all its forms. It works every time. Start giving your money away. The results will be immediate and dramatic. Do you remember Zacchaeus, the “wee little man” in the Bible who climbed a sycamore tree one day to get a better look at Jesus as he was passing by? (Luke 19:1-9). Zacchaeus’s besetting sin was greed. He was a tax-collector, and he used the power of his position to extort a personal fortune from his fellow citizens. But when he met Jesus, all that changed instantaneously. Zacchaeus said, “Lord, right now I’m going to give half of all my possessions to the poor, and if I’ve cheated anybody, I’ll repay them four times as much.” And Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Lk 19:9, niv). The antidote to the poison of greed is the grace of generosity.
Generosity is also the special grace of our Lord Jesus himself. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 the apostle Paul describes Jesus this way:
For you know the generous act (literally, “the grace”) of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Paul describes Christ’s generosity as “grace.” What he means is that Christ’s generous gift of himself to be the Savior of the world was strictly voluntary. It was something he didn’t have to do. Nothing but personal choice caused Jesus to be so generous – a gift totally unprompted by anything in its recipients, except for their need.
But in addition to that, Paul tells us that Christ’s generosity was costly. For our sake he, though he was rich, became poor. Jesus gave until it cost him something; in fact, until it cost him everything. He not only gave up his heavenly riches, all of the glory that was his by right as God, all of the privilege of his place at the right hand of the Father. He even gave his very life. He gave until he had nothing left. “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
How different Christ’s giving is from ours! You and I, even after we’ve given, still have more than enough to be comfortable, don’t we? Most of us don’t really know what it is to exhibit such costly generosity as that of Jesus Christ. We rarely give so sacrificially that it impoverishes us. Many churches today talk quite a lot about the abundant life. Less often do we hear the New Testament call to poverty anymore. When is the last time a preacher invited you to embrace poverty for the sake of following Jesus? How long since you have seriously wrestled with that most difficult of Christ’s commands, “Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me?” I know it’s been a long time for me.
It used to be a saying of John Wesley’s that whenever he received some extra money, he would give it away as fast as possible, “lest,” he said, “it find a way into my heart.” Wesley also said that if he died with ten British pounds in his possession, it would be a testimony against him that he was a hypocrite. Costly generosity is not an easy grace to cultivate. But I do know this. It will kill the deadly sin of greed every time. And, paradoxically, it will make us happier than the richest miser surrounded by all his heaps of gold.