A number of years ago, my then-girlfriend now-wife Neva and I decided to throw a party for my friends in my apartment. I was between jobs at the time, but I still wanted to show our friends a good time – or so I thought. Looking back now, I can see that my eagerness to have a party had less to do with blessing my friends as it did presenting the image that I was stable and unbothered by my unemployment.
Early in the evening, one of Neva’s friends asked for a drink; naturally, Neva went to my refrigerator to find one. Out of nowhere, a sense of protective anger welled up inside of me. I pulled Neva aside and said, “If you wanted to give your friends a drink, you should have brought your own. These are mine!” My hideous greed revealed my true colors: my possessions meant more to me than friends. Worse than that, I was using my loved ones to validate a false image of myself; an image built on insecurity and pride rather than generosity and mutual care.
“Greed, like pride, deceives the heart and blinds us from seeing our own corruption.” It is a rot, a cancer, which eats away at our souls and crushes those whom we love. Greed shuts our heart to the generous, life-giving Spirit of our Savior.
Our greed has real consequences. In a recent article, America Fails the Civilization Test, Derek Thompson reveals that while the United States ranks among one of the wealthiest countries, we have the highest mortality rates among our peer countries. The typical American spends 50 percent more than the average British citizen. At the same time, the average American is 100 percent more likely to die than the average Western European at every age from birth to retirement. Our obsession with freedom (which is only one piece to the puzzle) has produced a society that is obsessed with guns, is gluttonous for food, and selfish over our own possessions.
We are a greedy society, and we don’t care about the consequences. Though we are spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally sick, we continue drinking the poison and call it “freedom.”
The Dutch Theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) warned of the dangers of greed when applying the Eighth Commandment (“Thou shall not steal”). In his Ethics, Vol. 2, Bavinck rightly said: “The warnings against riches are more plentiful… Holy Scripture is not favorable toward wealth” (388-389). The love of our stuff, Bavinck said,
… is a sin against God, against the neighbor, against oneself, against every Christian virtue: faith, love, compassion, generosity, and more. It leads to lies, falsehood, perjury, deceit, theft, fraud, wagering, lottery, gambling, counterfeiting, advertising techniques, bankruptcy, indebtedness, betrayal, and murder: think of Judas! Covetousness enslaves more people than any other drive. The miser is drawn away from God (cf. Matt. 13), falls into all kinds of temptations (1 Tim. 6:9), and lives in constant unrest, fear, and anxiety.
How do we return to health? Some have looked for answers in taking a vow of poverty. This too is fraught with danger, as Bavinck rightly explained:
Such vows are to be condemned because they fail to supply the virtues people expect from them and render impossible other virtues, like generosity, compassion, and help. Furthermore, a vow of poverty in itself is open to other dangers – pride, self-righteousness, idleness, mendicancy – and does not put to death the seed of sin within us, but at most supplies sin with a different form of manifestation (393).
A vow of poverty keeps wealth and possessions as the central, gravitating force of our lives. It is the same poison by a different flavor.
What then should we do? Is there any hope? Yes, and Bavinck gave us a hint where it can be found:
The basic rule is, property must be used for the purpose for which God created it; thus, not merely for alleviating want but also for making life more pleasant. God also created flowers and gave gold, silver, and ivory their glitter and glamor. Yet excess must be avoided as well, by thanking God for his gift. Gratitude and intemperance cannot go together (391).
When we practice gratitude for all that we have – for all that we experience and enjoy – we rightly situate ourselves as creatures subject to Divine benevolence. Ours is a life dependent on the Creator for every good gift (James 1:17). Such gratitude teaches us that our possessions are not our own but belong to God. Gratitude frees us from the vices that enslave us and opens us to the possibility of generosity.
As our hearts become open to the mercy and kindness of God, we no longer look to our wealth, possessions, or time to be our all in all. Generosity becomes the antidote to our greed, as we are restored into the image and likeness of God (Eph. 4:24).
Such practicing of generosity releases our hearts to be like that of our Savior, who was generous to the end of all his resources, even his own life, for our sakes! “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Generous love produces generous people.
Our hearts are sick, but Jesus has given us the cure. Will you take it?
Jesus, our hearts are darkened by greed. We are given to all kinds of vice and fail to practice the virtues of love which most demonstrate your loving kindness. Forgive us and renew our hearts with gratitude leading to generosity. Free us from our bondage into a life of service to God and neighbor. Heal our communities through the witness of generous Christians who testify to a life that is to come, a world of love and compassion.
Questions for reflection:
- Think about a time where your greed really showed itself. What was the situation? Did your greed surprise you? What does that moment teach you about your own heart and inclinations to different vices – lying, pride, fraud, etc.?
- What would it look like for you to practice gratitude three times each day? Examples: Prayer, conversation with others, intentional refocusing of your time/resources, etc.
- Dream for a moment about what your local community would look like if Christians practiced intentional, counter-cultural generosity. Is such a thing even possible?
- How does Jesus want to free and heal you of your greed, right now, in this moment?