What is greed doing to us? It’s a spiritual cancer of which even we Christians are scarcely aware.
Jesus once said: “… it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
So, why is it so hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom?
Not because riches are bad or because money is evil. That’s never the Bible’s view. Riches are a blessing from God.
But the Bible describes the love of money – greed – as an alternative form of worship. In Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5, Paul puts it plainly: greed is idolatry.
The Reformer John Calvin put it this way: The greedy person sets all his heart and mind on material things and forgets God …
And in the 4th century, Basil the Great wrote: The more you love money, the more securely you close the Kingdom of God.
Love of money is spiritually deadly. It’s an alternative religion. And what’s more, it’s a far more likely idol for us to worship than any of the others.
So why is greed so powerful?
The love of money is powerful because we are in denial, because we are anxious, and because it’s addictive.
1. We are in denial about greed. Nobody thinks they are greedy. Be honest: you don’t, do you? When we think about greed, we think of the top-hatted and monocled Scrooge McDuck, who literally swims in his oceans of cash. But these caricatures help us to be blind to how normalised and respectable greed is among us.
We’ve normalised deficiency, as one writer has put it. We’ve become used to focussing on what we do not have. Our whole economic system soaks us in this: you do not have enough, your body is not good enough, you don’t know enough, your social networks are not enough, your financial security is not enough.
And because we’ve normalised deficiency, we cannot see when we want more than we need and that what we want is excessive – when what we have already is often far in excess of what we need.
2. We’re anxious, and we won’t admit it. As Jesus teaches, we worry deeply about ourselves – what will become of us? And because of that, we cling to our possessions as a substitute for certainty about the future. Our possessions act like safety blankets for grown-ups. And this explains why we are driven not just to consume things but to accumulate them. Have a look in your cupboard. How many shirts, how many shoes, are in there? On your shelves, how many books? On your walls, how many works of art? How many cars? How many houses? Our hoarding of these things is surely a sign of a pathology of the soul, a deep insecurity about existence itself. And purchasing more things acts as a kind of material Prozac.
3. And it’s addictive. Boy, is it ever addictive. Like meth and cigarettes, greed leaves us with an itch that we can’t stop scratching.
And what does greed do to us? It’s not pretty.
1. It twists our sense of what is good. Greed warps our sense of what is good. The Bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And how this root produces such an evil crop is by telling us that what we want is good – and that not having what we want is bad.
Greed also makes us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. As the older trader says to Charlie Sheen’s character Bud in the Oscar-winning 1987 film Wall Street: “The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don’t want to do.”
I personally know people in prison because they’ve failed to spot what greed was doing to them. And I have seen families destroyed by greed. I’ve seen people justify cruelty to others because of their greed.
2. It makes us believe we are what we own. But greed also has the effect of making us believe that we are what we own.
The late Rene Rivkin once said: “If I lost my wealth tomorrow, I would feel suicidal. There is no question of that because I would lose most of what is me.”
Rivkin was crass, but he was honest, and he was sadly true to his word. Money promises us ourselves: the ultimate freedom to create ourselves, to express ourselves and be ourselves through our choices. The more money we have, the more exultantly beautiful selves we can become – the more I can find therapy for my pain by trekking in Tibet or swimming with dolphins, or drinking protein shakes.
And the chilling thing about this is that it shows that it’s not that we are owned by what we own. The line between me and mine has been erased.
This is why it is particularly horrifying that some preachers flirt so openly with greed in the doctrines of the prosperity gospel. Encouraging us to want more money is like taking us on a tour of the local strip club.
What can we do then about the love of money? Is it simply a matter of choosing not to love it – of developing greater willpower? But that is treating greed as another command we have to keep.
The rich young ruler in Matthew 19 claimed that he’d kept the commands. But keeping commands wasn’t the rich young man’s problem. His problem was that he was captivated by the wrong god – a god that could not save him from himself.
But remember, Jesus said, only God is good.
That tells us something profound. Only God is good, and so the way out of the maze is not keeping more commandments but resting in the goodness of God. With God, even the rich man may be saved, for all things are possible.
When you have a God who protects you, you need not be anxious. When you have a God who is generous, you need not be stingy. When you have a God whose love is measured in the blood of his Son, then you have an identity given to you that is not the measure of your possessions.
And knowing this can break the hold of money over us.
But it’s an ongoing wrestle. So we need to tend to our own souls – to watch them like shepherds watch sheep. We need to cultivate habits that will help us remember instinctively how hollow the worship of money is.
Here are three of those habits that can provide a powerful vaccine against greed:
1. Be self-aware around money and possessions. That is, reflect inwardly on the attachment of your heart to your things. Take an inventory of your things, and ask yourself – what would it destroy me to lose? Look into your cupboards and shelves: why do you have so much?
2. Practice thanksgiving. Daily, thank God for his generosity to you and practice thinking of your things not as the things that are rightfully yours that you deserve but as the things that you are blessed to have been given.
3. Practice generosity. Practice regular and significant generosity to the poor and the needy. They are your opportunity to relieve yourself of the burden of the money and things you do not need and to become spiritually healthy.
While the love of money is the root of all evil, as Paul says to Timothy (in 1 Timothy 6:6): Godliness with contentment is great gain.
Michael Jensen is the rector at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point and is the author of several books.