The Seven Deadly Sins: Greed

If you aren’t the proud owner of a twenty-pound unabridged dictionary, let me remind you that Christmas is just around the corner. The dictionary is capable of doubling as a weapon and I can assure you that the definitions in my unabridged are much more enlightening than online dictionaries. Take, for example, the simple word greed. Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster.com use the following definitions: “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions” and “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed.” But my unabridged adds “an excessive, extreme desire for something, often more than one’s proper share,” and lists seven synonyms.

A couple months back I blogged about Best Buy’s marketing slogan: You, Happier. I visited Best Buy again a couple of weeks ago in search of a VCR (lots of VHS tapes and a broken player) but they don’t have them anymore. They didn’t have the You, Happier. banners either, which I initially thought was kind of cool, but then the employee I was chatting with pointed up to the Happier, Holidays. banner. Ugghh. Best Buy’s unabashed appeal to greed promotes the pervasive idea that more and better stuff leads to happiness. But consider our own grandparents: we have more possessions than they dreamed possible, and yet we seem to be less content. We can think of and have lived many examples of how more is not better or how that thing we just knew would make us happy did not. But we can’t seem to accept that the formula always fails. Instead we believe that we just haven’t yet acquired the right stuff.
Jesus tells us in the Bible that He came so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10), but He warned us to be on “guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15). So obviously an abundant life is not a function of stuff. So why are we so inclined to this excessive, rapacious, extreme desire? Given how rich our society is as a whole, greed is even hard to pinpoint. Sometimes it’s manifested personally as tightfistedness or an unquenchable thirst for more, but sometimes it’s more social in nature, wanting to have more than others or wanting what belongs to others. Greed is not knowing what is enough, it’s not living the virtue of temperance, and at its core it’s a disposition of the heart about stuff. So really only you know how greedy you are. Well, you and your Maker.
So what’s the cure for greed. It’s actually quite simple. I found it right there in my beloved unabridged. The antonym for greed and its cure is generosity. I said it was simple, not easy!
Think of the most generous person you know. Don’t you just love and admire that person? Now, think of the most generous person that ever lived? And I’m not talking about Bill or Melinda Gates. Although it’s truly incredible how much their foundation has given, the biblical view on giving is proportionality and so they haven’t given as much as the impoverished woman who gave her last two coins (Luke 21). And the most generous person who ever lived was Jesus Christ. He wasn’t generous in terms of giving away great wealth (there’s no evidence that he ever had much), but He loved people. He took time for people. He asked for the little children to be brought to Him. And ultimately He died a brutal death for the scoffers who spit at him. Now that’s generosity.
We are called to emulate His loving and generous spirit. (John 13). It is a high standard — one that we can only hope to work toward.
Let me close with a thought-provoking and convicting question: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3: 17)

You, Happier.

Last week I went in Best Buy with a broken camera and a broken cell phone, and an hour later I walked out with…a broken camera and a broken cell phone. Actually it wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t merely that three wild and destructive little guys were in tow. Something about contracts and upgrades, and finally “oh fooey, I’ll have to come back.” But since the four of us spent a good sixty minutes in there, I had ample opportunity to consider the banners hanging from the rafters. You, Happier.

Do you think stuff from Best Buy will make you happy? The latest greatest gadgets, and the turbo fastest, blu-ray, bluetooth? Will that make you happier? And by the way, I know there’s not really a blu-ray bluetooth, at least not yet. What I’m saying is that although it might seem silly–gadgets having anything to do with happiness–those banners wouldn’t be there unless some marketing guru and some not so meager focus group agreed the “You, Happier.” campaign works. Major corporations like Best Buy don’t often make New Coke mistakes. New products and marketing strategies aren’t just thrown into the marketplace to see if they stick. Somebody somewhere has analysis that proves just how effective those two little words are.
And maybe it’s not so silly anyway. After all, who doesn’t want to be happier? All of us have a longing in our hearts for more. The rub lies in identifying more of what. And oh how glorious to know what it is not! And it ain’t stuff. I’ve lived among some very well-to-do people–Washington attorneys, lobbyists, and overachieving physicians–the kind of people who have gadgets coming out of their ears. From my experience the relationship between stuff and happiness may actually be inversely correlated. The more stuff you have, the less happy you are. Certainly, it’s not a hard and fast rule. There are some happy people who have lots of things. And I’m not exactly techno-deprived myself. But as much as I use and appreciate my iPod and my cell phone and my laptop, these are mere conveniences. They have nothing to do with my happiness.
My joy is derived from purpose, not possessions. And I believe every person’s purpose is the same: to glorify God, our loving Creator and enjoy Him forever (See Westminster Shorter Catechism). He’s given us different gifts (Romans 12: 6), and so the ways in which we glorify Him are as varied as we are, but what joy, what energy to do whatever it is you and I were created to do. And what futility to pursue possessions as a means to anything more than a pile of stuff.
So, You, Happier.? Not at Best Buy, not apart from God.
The words of Lewis on this issue are hard to beat:
“God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (Mere Christianity)
Or perhaps even better:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory)
Amen. Let us aim beyond best buys and mud pies!