Greed is so common in our culture that I don’t even know if much of anyone even counts it as a sin anymore. Most think greed as a good thing, but they couldn’t be far from the truth.
The dictionary defines greed as “an intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.” And, as that definition suggests, you can be greedy for a lot of different things. You can be greedy for power, greedy for fame, greedy for food. Greed is an intense love of and desire for wealth or any possession that money can buy.
Though our society may not consider greed to be a sin anymore, the Bible has a lot to say about our attitude toward money. In fact, there are more references to money in the Bible than there are to sex, which may be an indication of both the frequency and the seriousness of this sin.
Examples of greed in the Bible would have to include King Ahab who wanted his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard and ended up killing him to get it. There is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Paul said that the love of money is “a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). So how is a love of money the root of evil? Is it because money is so attractive that we will commit many sins in order to acquire it? Or is it because money gives us the power to satisfy any sinful desire we may have?
Perhaps the most famous statement in the Bible regarding money is Jesus’s warning, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:24).
But, that makes us wonder, why can’t we be both be rich in material wealth and rich in love for God? After all, Abraham, the great man of faith, was a wealthy man. Job was a wealthy man. David was a wealthy man. Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man.
Mankind is quick to rationalize all the wealth we’ve accumulated. We would agree that greed is a sin, but not for us. We tend to shrug off greed by comparing ourselves with those who are richer than we are and thinking that greed is their problem. “When I’m a multimillionaire, then I’ll worry about greed!”
However, Paul wrote the book of Colossians to average Christians in an average small-town church. And he told them that they must put to death their sinful nature with regard to “greed, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). If greed was a problem for them in that culture, then surely those of us who live in this prosperous nation, need to be very careful about greed.
Greed is not an easy subject to understand. How do you identify greed? It’s obviously a heart issue, but the condition of the heart will always manifest itself by what we do, and greed will always demonstrate itself through our actions. So, are we being greedy by living in nice, spacious homes furnished with all the conveniences of modern life, when there are millions of people around the world living in shacks with no indoor plumbing? Are we being greedy if we have nice cars in our driveways or a wallet full of credit cards?
Exactly how do we identify greed? Because let’s be honest — most of us can easily identify greed in just about anyone who has more than we do, but how do we identify it in our own lives?
Greed vs Generosity
Perhaps the best way to identify greed is by comparing it with its opposite. The opposite of greed is generosity. A greedy person isn’t generous, and a generous person isn’t greedy. John said in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” The question we need to be asking ourselves is this — are we eager to use what we have to help others or do we have a strong tendency to hold tight what we have?
You may have noticed that the more money and stuff we possess, the more money, time, and energy we need to protect and take care of it all. You would think that having more stuff would give us a greater sense of security, but it really does just the opposite — wealth actually increases our worry, our insecurity, and our desire for more.
Generosity makes it easy to loosen our grip on our stuff and allows us to give it away. I think of the Macedonians that Paul referred to in 2 Corinthians 8:2-4. He said “Their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints…”
Paul said, “I didn’t want to take their money. I thought it was too much. But they begged me to take it and to use it to help Christians who are in need.” A mark of generosity is the way it becomes a natural part of who we are, so that giving isn’t some burden that we have to do, but rather it’s a joy, it’s something that we get to do. In fact, one of the tests of generosity is whether giving things away is easy and enjoyable.
Generosity’s measure is not how much we give away, in terms of the flat amount, but rather the way that we give it. The way we give reveals something about our heart.
In Luke 21, Jesus told about the widow who gave her last two copper coins out of devotion to the Lord, and Jesus commended her (Lk 21:1-4). Her coins couldn’t buy even a loaf of bread, but there was a willingness to give.
Matthew tells us about the expensive gift of a newly cut tomb for Jesus’s body, given by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57-60). The mark of his generosity was not the size of the gift, but his readiness to give what he had to God.
We’re still left wondering, how generous does a person need to be to avoid being greedy? Because let’s be honest – most us could give away pick-up loads full of clothes or other household goods and hardly even notice a difference in our lives.
Paul said in Ephesians 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Paul said that’s why we work. That’s why we make money. So that we’ll have something to give to anyone who is in need. Most work so that they can have more things, more pleasure, or more comfort in life.
Why is Generosity Difficult?
So, what is it that makes it so hard for us to give things away? What is it that drives our acquisition and possession of material goods?
First, because we’ve earned it! It’s hard to give away something that we have earned ourselves. It’s much easier to be generous with other people’s money, but what we earn and what we buy and possess feels like a part of us. Greed is not just about having more; it’s holding on to this idea that this is mine. Everything in my house is mine. Everything in my bank account is mine. I earned it. I brought home the paycheck. It’s mine. And it’s hard to be generous with something that I worked so hard to obtain.
Secondly, it’s hard to give away things once you have experienced extreme poverty in your life. People who have gone through poverty work hard and save their money like a bee does honey. It becomes very difficult to let go of what is keeping the wolf from the door. Thus, being greedy becomes a defense mechanism against returning to poverty. What we forget is that we are not trusting God for anything in our life when we do such things.
Part of being generous is adequately trusting God for the future. We see this in Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.” (1 Tim 6:17-18). Paul says, Trust in God, not your money. And one of the ways that we demonstrate this trust in God is by being generous, by letting go of our money and sharing with others.
Greed and Trust
The opposite of greed is trust in God. In Proverbs 28:25, we read, “A greedy man stirs up strife, but the one who trusts in the Lord will be enriched.” Notice the parallel here. On the one hand, you have a person who is greedy. On the other hand, you have someone who trusts in God. Which means that greed and trust are opposites.
For all of us, it comes down to the question, “Who (or what) do we really trust?” Do we trust that God will take care of us, or do we feel the need to accumulate enough money to take care of ourselves? I find it ironic that all of our money has the words “In God We Trust” printed on them, but for most people, their trust is in the money itself.
Material wealth can give us the illusion of self-sufficiency—and therefore serves as a powerful incentive to deny our need for God. Perhaps greed is the root of all kinds of evil because greed itself is rooted in pride. Having the means to provide for ourselves is much easier than trusting God to provide for us. Greed is the desire to be able to provide fully for ourselves, and therefore not to have to depend on God.
How Much is “Too Much”?
How much is “enough”? How much is “too much”? How much do we truly need for ourselves and how much should we be giving away? James Twitchell once defined a luxury as “something we absolutely do not need.” But we have such a warped view of what we think we need.
You might think that all of the early Christian fathers thought that Christians should get rid of everything and live on the bare essentials, but that’s not true at all. Their point was not that we should live on crusts of bread with bare walls and threadbare clothes. Rather, their point was that our lives should be lived in such a way that we are free from being enslaved to our stuff. Our possessions are meant to serve our needs, rather than our possessions being the center of our lives.
The truth is, money and possessions are not themselves evil. Solomon wrote that “money answers all things” (Eccl 10:19). In fact, money is rather useful when used wisely. Even luxury has its place in our lives. Jesus fasted on numerous occasions, but there were also times when he feasted. Avoiding greed doesn’t mean that we have to live on the bare necessities. However, the problem is, whenever our lives we are filled with greed, we don’t know what “enough” means anymore.
Escaping the Grip of Greed
The first thing we have to change is our attitude toward money and possessions. Yes, there were rich men of old but it was God who made them rich. When we are given something, it is more easily to be generous with it. If I give you 100 dollars to give away, it is not hard for you to give it to someone you think may need it. It was God who made some of you healthy enough to work hard and earn a good paycheck. It was Jesus who told the young rich ruler, “If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt 19:21).
If we truly want to escape greed, we will remember that we cannot take our possession with us once we die. We came into this world with nothing and we shall return back to God with nothing. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. (Job 1:21). Don’t work hard to harbor your money in a bank or to buy luxury items for yourself and for your family. Work hard so that you might be able to give to those who have nothing. The scriptures remind us, “I have shown you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).