Less or Self, More of Thee
In a great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality.—2 Corinthians 8:2
Greed can be defined as “an inordinate desire to acquire and possess.” While envy and covetousness involve an improper desire to possess what someone else has, greed focuses more on endeavoring to satisfy self without a comparison to others. Another definition might be “an inappropriate attitude towards things of value in the mistaken judgment that one’s well-being is tied to one’s possessions.” Whatever the precise definition, greed is scripturally ranked amongst the most grievous of sins.
“Greed” is translated in the Old and New Testaments from various Greek and Hebrew words. Actually, the specific word “greed” does not appear in the King James translation of the Bible. That translation does contain three verses with “greedily” and six with “greedy.” The generic definition of the words as excessive desire indicates the need for context to understand this subject.
When most people think about greed, they probably think about money, and an inappropriate desire for great amounts of it. Today’s newspapers are full of stories of corporate titans and their fall from positions of power and money through scandals involving greed. Some may even think that greed for money is the cause of every type of evil because 1 Timothy 6:10 seems to say so: “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” The New International Version, as well as many other Bible versions, clears up any misconception: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” The remainder of verse 10, not quoted as often as the first part, lends additional insight: “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Then, in verse 11, Paul provides the necessary counsel and correct perspective for the Christian when he states: “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” Greed is therefore seen as a root cause of sin, with many allied forms of unrighteousness manifesting from it.
An effective character development strategy is to focus on root causes of sin and endeavor to overcome them. Once victory is obtained, by the Lord’s grace and our efforts, we will find the challenging task of overcoming to be less strenuous. For example, exaggeration and cheating are different sins, but they come from the same root transgression: dishonesty. Focusing our energies on overcoming the core wrong of dishonesty helps greatly in gaining a victory over its allied sins.
A distinction must be drawn between greed and the legitimate pursuit of money and other temporal necessities: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, NIV). Paul admonishes us to “work with [our] own hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and make an honest living, providing for ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. Paul’s familiar words could not be stronger: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8, RSV). Rather than “an inordinate desire to acquire and possess,” providing the necessities of life is a Christian responsibility.
Students of the Scriptures might be surprised to discover how serious greed is as a sin. Greed’s allied sin of covetousness is actually linked with idolatry: “Put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5, ASV; see also Ephesians 5:5). Greed is a form of idolatry because it places something, or someone, before one’s allegiance to the Lord. Christians are even warned to not associate with those who are greedy: “But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed … —not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11, RSV). In fact, willful and continuing persistence in the sin of greed will disqualify someone from eternal life in God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9,10). It is not surprising then to see a lack of greed as one of the qualifications for servants within the church (1 Timothy 3:3,8).
An unfortunate reality of the fallen human nature is that its appetites are insatiable. Rather than simply wanting enough, we tend to want more. After we get more, we desire more still. All must guard against this tendency. “Let your moderation be known unto all men” (Philippians 4:5) is the Bible’s prescription and antidote. Whether it is the Israelites wanting manna, then not being satisfied with it, or a modern-day couple wanting a needlessly larger and more expensive home, this tendency to want more has a long, albeit ignoble, history in mankind’s existence. By contrast, contentment is a godly virtue. In fact, in many ways, contentment is the opposite of greed: “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Timothy 6:8). “Be content with such things as ye have” (Hebrews 13:5). Paul framed his efforts to be content as part of the Christian learning experience: “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11). Contentment is a character trait that must be developed in the narrow way.
A wonderful example of the opposite of greed in action is found in the early church’s response to the temporal deprivation of the brethren in Jerusalem. Paul speaks of this experience in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9. We might think that temporal giving was challenging for most in the church at that time, and it evidently was. God tends to not call the privileged of this world (1 Corinthians 1:26). A wonderful lesson can be gained by a careful reading of 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, RSV. First, Paul credits their generosity and subsequent actions to “the grace of God” (verse 1). This reminds us of the words of James: “Every good and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Then Paul provides a fascinating formula for our consideration and admonition; in what was to be a severe test upon the brethren, a combination of their joy in the Lord coupled with the reality of their own “extreme poverty” resulted not in minimal giving, but in “a wealth of liberality” on their part. Paul goes on to say in verse 4 that the Macedonian brethren not only gave beyond their means of their own free will, but they literally begged for the privilege of doing so!
He says this generous effort was made by body members, those who gave themselves first to the Lord (v. 5), and then committed their means to the welfare of the saints. In verse 7 he combines the two main aspects of faith: belief and action. After mentioning some Christian virtues, he does not forget the physical aspect when he says, “See that you excel in this gracious work also” (v. 7, RSV). Such action proves that our love is genuine (v. 8). Paul caps off this passage by calling to mind our sovereign, our Lord Jesus Christ, “That though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (v. 9, RSV) in spiritual blessings.
Yes, the Lord disdains greed but “loves a cheerful giver” (vs. 7). What a lesson is found in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. There are so many familiar verses, but hopefully not so familiar that we overlook what they teach us: “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully” (vs. 6). “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye … may abound to every good work” (vs. 8). So many wonderful things came from this one act of generosity:
1. The impoverished Jerusalem brethren were assisted temporally.
2. These brethren were assured of their fellow saints’ fervent Christian love for them.
3. The brethren who assisted were enriched by the experience of giving.
Greed continues to manifest today in many forms, including an increasingly popular phenomenon found in some religious movements known as “prosperity theology.” This is the belief that God will materially bless Christians to demonstrate his favor in their lives, often in response to a believer’s tithes and offerings. Summed up, this increasingly popular view states that the more you give (often to the religious organization espousing the philosophy), the more the Lord will bless you materially. Conversely, a lack of material riches is an indication of a lack of faithfulness to God.
Such a teaching is an example of greed in the extreme. It is an old sin cloaked in religiosity and disguised to suit our present-day material world. There is no doubt that it also financially enriches the religious leaders who preach this idea.
Drawing from the actual Old Testament teaching that God did indeed favor his chosen people with material blessings, Scriptures such as Malachi 3:10 are cited: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse … and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” Another oft-quoted passage is at the end of the book of Job: “So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and … seven sons and three daughters” (Job 42:12,13).
Because there is a complete absence of such passages in the New Testament, proponents of this doctrine misapply and redirect God’s promises to faithful Israel to the New Creation of the Gospel age. The “riches” promised for the Christian are spiritual, not material, in nature. One verse in 1 Corinthians 16:2 may seem to indicate that the Lord promises us material wealth: “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him.“ The Revised Standard Version clears up the possible confusion with the phrase “as he may prosper” rather than indicating that God himself has materially blessed believers.
The Lord’s people are graciously promised the basic necessities of life: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, … [or] what you shall put on … will he [God] not much more clothe you?” (Matthew 6:25-30, RSV). That agrees with 1 Timothy 6:8, “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” Indeed, rejoicing in the Lord’s bountiful provisions for us, temporal and spiritual, is a sign of mature Christian character.
Let us realize that obedience to the Lord and his standard of righteousness will bring what we need to make our calling and election sure: an overabundance of the best kind of blessings, the fruits and graces of the spirit.
Contrary to a popular line in today’s avaricious culture which claims “Greed is good,” greed is a grievous core sin. It is contrary to the will of God; it is the foundation of many human ills, destruction, and heartache. As Christians, we are to strive for joy and satisfaction in that with which the Lord has blessed us. And we know that such striving is well worth the effort, for “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6).