What About Greed?

Many people define greed as simply the desire to have something more than one needs. Yet the drive for almost all productivity is born of working to achieve more than one’s simple needs. Humans long ago moved beyond the simple hunter/gatherer approach of getting enough for survival, then store up a little against a harsh winter, and that’s it. Even the desire to plant crops to relieve oneself from the constant search for food goes beyond this; along with the idea of food preservation in order to extend the life of a food and enjoy it long after its usual season.

When one builds a home of sturdy materials to liberate his family from constant reconstruction and pursue other interests, one is reaching beyond mere needs.

Any act of betterment, any pursuit of education and training to become something one was not—a teacher, doctor, lawyer, engineer, manufacturer, more effective farmer—goes beyond trying to meet basic needs.

Therefore, the simple definition of greed does not describe the evil God condemns: even saying, that no “greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”

The Greek word translated as greed in the NIV is quite simple – pleonexia, made up of two roots that simply mean “have more.” I find it expresses itself well when one says it rather loudly in a hoarse, monster-like voice: “HAVE MORE!” One can picture the monster advancing in the night, never satisfied with what it consumes, still coming on in spite of obstacles, expressing its unstoppable craving, “Must HAVE MORE!”

On top of that, Biblical greed is equated with idolatry in two places (Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5).This gives a new dimension to our pursuit of understanding the sin of greed. It means that our craving for more things moves into God’s place in our lives. We believe that if we had more ______ (whatever we fill the blank with), we would have more security, be happier, have more self worth, more value to others, more fulfillment, and more meaning in our lives.

In recent years in our society, we have developed a tendency toward what one labeled, “conspicuous consumption.” This is the desire to have something bigger and better than last year’s model; to own the latest and greatest version of whatever it might be. From homes… to TV systems… to cell phones… to boats… you name it.

Now, to a large extent, this “conspicuous consumption” has given us the greatest economic expansion known to humankind. Many have benefited greatly from this drive through jobs, greater disposable income, improved technology, and higher standards of living throughout the world.

However, this desire for better things has been driven to a large extent by greed, especially the type of greed that is a drive to gain at the expense of others or in excess of others. We went beyond trying to “keep up with the Joneses” to surpassing the Joneses. Our society departed from improving one’s lot in life to creating a lifestyle that would exceed our parents’ wildest dreams and become the envy of the world.

In the past, one of the limiting factors of these pursuits would be our ability to actually earn and purchase that which we craved.  We might want to “HAVE MORE”, but we found that there was a limit to what we could actually have. We then would have to tell ourselves, “we must be content with what we had, we must be content with what we had,” chanting it to ourselves like a mantra to soothe the wild beast within.

Then came CREDIT! We no longer had to delay gratification. We no longer had to better ourselves to expand our earning power. We no longer had to wait until we could save up the money for something. We could have it now and pay later! How liberating!

And if we exceeded our credit limit, we simply applied for a new card or had our limit bumped up. Greed was no longer a monster to be tamed, but an energy to be channeled.

People found that lenders were more and more willing to allow them to extend themselves. Why stay in my old car that was beginning to give me trouble when I could get into a brand new car with a warranty with a ridiculously low interest rate? Why, it was a steal.

Along with this, the housing market took off as down payment requirements were slashed. Both partners went to work to increase the size of house and the neighborhood in which they could buy.

Then the greed of the lenders kicked in. With ever-increasing housing prices, caution was thrown to the wind. Since homes constantly appreciated, it was not considered as risky to follow questionable lending methods. Both prospective home owners and banks became speculators. Surely, we could all cash in on this boom. No one wanted to be left behind, even if it meant that the only way one could “afford” a house was if one took out an “interest only” adjustable rate mortgage. Who cared what the rate would be in five years, one could always cash the house in and enjoy the profit from the appreciation of the property.

Then some enterprising people in the finance industry figured out a way to slice and dice mortgages into MBS, “mortgage backed securities.” These could be traded and bartered as if they were appreciating assets as well. But the further that these mortgage securities moved away from the origin, the less clear the actual risk was in the first place. The trustworthiness of the actual homeowners and their capability to repay these loans was disconnected from the value given to these securities as they were traded, retraded and invested in.

Of course, other lenders saw the credit jam that people were putting themselves into and came up with refinancing and home equity loans to help them out. The banks and mortgage companies found ways to make even more money on a home that had already been sold. And Mr. & Mrs. John Doe found a way to get their hands on more cash to “HAVE MORE.” Bigger and better, bigger and better, the latest and the greatest, and we can all go farther in this world than ever before.

Sadly, bubbles always burst. We all should have learned that from the dot.com bubble. But somehow it would be different in real estate where one had a tangible asset. “They’re not making any more land, you know.”

The credit crunch was catching up and people were way over-leveraged. People were forced to stop buying and buying. Then that kicked off a whole string of dominoes falling because everyone else was also over-leveraged.  This drove all financial institutions to withdraw much of the credit they extended to many businesses; the lending institutions needed as much money on hand as possible to prepare for the coming losses. Without typical lines of credit, businesses couldn’t meet obligations, started laying people off and thus the housing crisis started having a fallout on the rest of the economy.

The economy responded by slowing down. Cars weren’t being bought, houses weren’t being bought; people stopped the endless conspicuous consumption. Therefore, companies no longer needed their employees to work overtime; the overtime that had fueled conspicuous consumption, the car payments and the mortgage payments. Now jobs were lost and we dove into a recession.

The whole financial industry caved in upon itself. Since it was all built on the idea that the bubble would keep expanding, when the American consumer could no longer keep up its feverish pitch to “HAVE MORE”, everything collapsed.

Those greedy to capitalize on the average American’s greed, those greedy for power and willing to exploit this greed to advance their political clout, fed this frenzy and removed or ignored the wise safeguards of the marketplace—controlled risk.

“How much of a factor is greed in our present economic times?” It is huge. The crisis we face now is due to greed at every level: Wall Street, Main Street and Capitol Hill. Many people are sobered greatly by what they’ve experienced. Many of these will practice a whole different personal economics in the future. However, others are merely on the sidelines waiting for a recovery, eager to get back to business as usual. And there are those who have been milking the system, getting sweetheart deals due to their power and influence, who have not really experienced the brunt of the consequences. Therefore, these individuals are just as greedy for power and just as willing to exploit the lower natures of the citizenry to keep reaping the benefits of their power and influence. This greed will drive us to further, deeper problems as they seek to bribe the citizenry through the same kind of debt that caused the consumer economy to collapse.

God does not condemn wealth and productivity in the Bible. He commends it. His first command was to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. Early in our nation this was understood as a foundational economic principle and changed the work ethic of those who followed it.

Rather God calls the wealthy to use their wealth for His purposes and for His glory. He strongly warns all of us not to love money for those who are eager for money “pierce themselves through with many griefs.”

Because of the idolatrous aspect of greed, the greedy person becomes severed from his Creator. The person who no longer has his goal and fulfillment in God seeks fulfillment in himself, his possessions and his constant desire to get the next best thing. The greedy man turns everything upside down. God wants us to love people and use things for His glory. The greedy man loves things and uses people for his own glory.

In the end greed leads us into bondage, not liberation. Jesus warned that the “deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things” will begin to choke the life out of us. Conspicuous consump­tion is unsustainable. The monster of greed in our hearts will never be satisfied. The nicest thing, the most advanced piece of technology will never fill the hole in our hearts. Jesus asked this profound question, “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his own soul?” Rather than watch for the recovery to get back in the game, wouldn’t it be better to seek the Son who loves us? He wants to give us rich satisfaction in this life and joy and riches unseen in the next.

(Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; Matthew16:25-26; Mark 4:18-19;
1 Timothy 6:6-10)

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