A good story almost always requires a villain. Everyone loves to detest and blame that guy who is despicable. And what is easier to despise than a creep motivated by pure greed?
In movies, a hero commonly struggles against a filthy rich tycoon or corporation seeking to add to their already-huge pile of money. The greed of the wealthy is a motif routinely used in Hollywood and politics because of its almost-universal capacity to stir up deep emotional responses—usually animosity. It’s a theme that has struck a chord in every generation. Afterall, it is so satisfying to see such evil motivations and actions exposed and justly punished!
But is greed a sin exclusive to the 1%?
It’s defined in one dictionary as “excessive desire for wealth or possessions.” Notice, it does not say it is the desire only of those who already have more than they need. “Excessive desire” can take root in the heart of any person. And that’s why it is counted as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.* Greed is an equal-opportunity vice which begets many other transgressions (such as cheating, lying, stealing, abusing others, avoiding paying debts, and even homicide) in those who let it dominate them—be they rich or poor.
Greed among Jesus followers
Jesus addressed the problem of greed (also called covetousness) among His disciples, even though they weren’t known as the wealthiest of society. In Luke 12:15 He said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” The driving desire for more possessions has long been a problem for Jesus followers. Regardless our economic status, the allure of finding comfort, security and status in stuff, easily keeps our affections focused on the short-term, temporary side of life. But God’s got bigger and more long-lasting things in mind for us.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable which is commonly known as “The Rich Fool” (Luke 12:13-21). A man gives his life’s energy to figuring out ways to keep his material wealth safe for himself. He then dies one night leaving it all to someone else without realizing that there was another kind of treasure he could (and was meant to) have taken with him. If only he had chosen to focus his attention on what God values.
What does it look like in me?
While greed can manifest as an insatiable desire for many different things, it is fundamentally a ravenous appetite for security that is based solely in the material world (typically money and power). And it’s never satisfied. I believe it’s possible for even the poorest of Jesus followers to wrestle with this sin. During some of my family’s financially neediest seasons, my greatest struggle has been to choose to be generous like my Heavenly Father. I’ve never had a lot of money, and I’ve never felt I needed a lot to live my life. But what I do have, I find myself protecting with a suspicious eye cast toward anyone I feel might be trying to take it away. I have “sticky-finger syndrome.”
So, I tend to live a contradiction. I say I’m trusting God to provide for all my needs, but I am not believing God to be my ultimate security—money in my hands still holds that place in my heart. I’m driven to find ways to add to it and grip what I do have tighter, which gives me a sense of power. This is the basic definition of greed.
What to do?
Admit it’s there. And then choose to fight it and hate it, not just in others but where it is found in yourself. Ask God to show you how He wants to be your security in this world with money used as a tool, not as an identity. In Colossians 3:5, greed (or covetousness) is called idolatry. It is worship of stuff and earth-bound security. Idolatry and following Jesus never go together. Affection for and dependence on God must have first place.
It’s also appropriate to ask yourself what you associate in your heart with having that “cushion” of financial resources tucked away somewhere. Besides “peace of mind,” I link empowerment and independence with money in the bank and investments in my portfolio. When I don’t have it, I tend to feel weak, anxious and less-than. Do you depend on access to stuff to prop up your personal sense of value and ability to make meaningful choices? Then that stuff is not merely stuff, but it has become god-like—an idol that competes with God.
It’s a fight
In the end, we are not being called to repent of having material possessions but of the place they and money hold in our affections and thinking. For some of us, Jesus may be saying what he said to the rich young man, “Go and sell all that you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (read the whole story in Mark 10:17-31). He may be urging others of us just to listen to the Spirit’s promptings to give to others generously, even when it hurts, trusting Him to cover all our needs. Submitting ALL we have to Jesus is how we fight this deadly sin which can corrupt anyone if not consciously resisted.
Even our just condemnation of corporate greed rings hollow if we have not addressed it in our own hearts. For us Americans, an ironic truth faces us every time we look at our money. It boldly proclaims, “In God We Trust.” Yet as a people, it is more accurate to say, “In Money We Trust.” Our national god is not the Lord but having more of the latest stuff as our security.
As followers of Jesus, how is He calling us to be different, to trust Him and live more generously?
*Also known as “cardinal sins” or “capital vices,” they include pride, greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony and lust. They are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one’s natural passions. For example, the sin of greed as a desire to have my needs met (which is natural) but now turned to worshipful idolatry of possessing more stuff in order to make me feel more secure.