In the previous posts we examined the root sin of pride and then the sins of vainglory, anger, and sloth.  The next three deadly sins—greed or avarice, gluttony, and lust—represent a shift in perspective.  Traditionally they are denominated as sins of the flesh, whereas the previous ones are categorized as sins of the spirit.  Before discussing the specific sin of avarice, we need to clarify this distinction between types of sins and demonstrate its dangers and advantages.

The phrase “sins of the flesh” is meant to designate those sins that are more directly related to material existence, specifically possessions, food and drink, and sex.  The sins of the spirit concern mental attitudes and are considered more fundamental than those of the flesh.  While the distinction is rather straightforward, it does have the potential for being misleading.

The danger in this distinction is twofold.  First, there is the issue of terminology.  “Flesh” in this division generally refers to our material, even bodily, existence.  However, it needs to be remembered that biblically “flesh” often refers to the man’s sinful nature.  For example, Roman 7:18 states, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.”  Therefore, all sins are of the “flesh” in this specific biblical sense.

The second problem has to do with theological anthropology, the nature and structure of the human considered theologically.  Biblically man is understood as a whole.  The sins of the flesh have roots in our mental attitudes, and our sinful mental attitudes often are expressed as greed, gluttony or sexual lust.  As Jesus said of coveting or avarice, it is from the heart and defiles the person (Mark 7:21-23). Thus, the distinction between sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit must not be permitted to separate them into airtight compartments.

Nevertheless, if the abovementioned dangers are kept in mind, the distinction is helpful.  The so-called sins of the flesh tend to be more evident or visible.  They are more obviously related to addiction and obsessive-compulsive behavior.  These sins are often perceived as more degrading or dehumanizing—as animal-like behavior.  Finally, they do create more obvious social problems because of mankind’s shared material existence.

Given this background, let’s consider greed or avarice.  Greed can be defined as an inordinate or excessive love of possessions and of possessing.  Greed can cause us to value too highly possessions or to possess or desire to possess that which is not ours or should not be possessed.  Both of these ways of understanding this deadly sin imply, as does the definition, that there is a proper type of possession and way of possessing.

The Scriptures clearly do not condemn possessing in and of itself.  In the Ten Commandments the implication of the commandment against coveting (Exodus 20:17) and also the one against stealing (Exodus 20:15) is that someone may legitimately possess something, making it wrong to take it from them or desire to have it.  Micah 4:4 describes the eschatological kingdom as every man sitting “under his vine and under his fig tree.”  Thus, in the ideal society people possess things.

Greed takes different forms.  One of the strangest is that of the miser. Like the legendary dragon, the miser always wants more gold but not to spend it and certainly not to give it to others.  Rather, the miser merely loves possessing.  The classic example of the miser in English literature is Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge is wealthy but lives in bleak and solitary conditions.  His devotion to possessions has led him to forfeit happiness.  He lives a lonely and miserable life, shackled by his self-forged chains.

Coveting is another form of greed.  It is the desire to have another’s possessions. As mentioned above, Jesus teaches that coveting comes from the heart.  It is a desire and an expression of our sinfulness.  When Exodus 20:17 condemns coveting, it does not condemn the desire to have a house or a spouse.  Rather it condemns the desire to have another person’s spouse or house.  The sinful desire often leads to the sinful action of stealing, which is an act of violence against another person.

The fact that greed can lead to violence demonstrates that this sin of the flesh has social consequences.  It is not merely an individual sin that affects the interior or soul of the greedy person.  The ethos of a whole society can be characterized by greed. Besides the obvious social consequences caused by theft, the consumerism of modern prosperous societies promotes greed.  The essential problem is not that the prosperity of a consumerist economy depends upon people purchasing more than they need.  After all, one of the great benefits of advanced societies is that they do provide more than the bare necessities. Libraries, museums, advanced education, and the oft-maligned entertainment industries can enrich our lives if used wisely.

The essential problem is when advertising promotes the concept that you are what you possess or consume.  When people identify themselves with what they possess and consume rather than as the image of God, two negative consequences follow. First, the consumerist identity is competitive because one’s value is based upon possessions, something external to one’s self.  When someone has more than we do or our group does, the result is anger and the resentment of envy and conflict both between individuals and large segments of society.

Second, the consumer identity leads directly to greed.  We value possessions more than we should because we believe that our very self is enhanced by what we own.  The greed of the consumer identity results in a restless spirit.  The value that society places upon certain products is always changing.  We feel the need to attach our identity to these new products and thus the necessity to possess these new items. Ultimately, since God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we are never satisfied and end up greedily seeking the latest thing to quiet our restless spirit.

The final result of the identification of self with possessions, whether as individuals or a society, is idolatry.  Colossians 3:5 states that avarice is idolatry.  In Romans 1:29 Paul writes that sinful mankind is filled with covetousness or greed.  As with this entire catalogue of sins, the root cause is man’s idolatry in which he worships the creation rather than the creator (Romans 1:23, 25).  Ultimately, then, greed falsely exalts our possessions as the gods whom we worship.

Ultimately, greed is a failure to live by love, faith, and hope. It is a lack of love for God, because we worship possessions not him.  It is a failure to love our neighbor because greed makes us exploit him or keeps us from helping him.  Greed also reveals a lack of faith that God will provide for us and that our value consists in being made in his image.  Finally, greed does not hope in God.  It finds its treasure in earthly possessions and the pseudo-prestige that they give rather than in Christ, the new life he gives, and the promise of the fulfillment of all life in heaven.

Here is a list of several practices that can help us overcome greed.  Perhaps you can suggest some others.

  1. Before we buy something, we should ask ourselves why we want to purchase it. Do we need it?  Is it something that will actually enrich our lives?
  2. Resist advertising pressure by avoiding it, critiquing it or even mocking it can be effective.
  3. A particularly bad sign is when we feel an undefined need to buy (There is even a word for the psychological need to buy—oniomania.). If we do feel that way, we should realize that we need to ask ourselves whether we have built our identity on the quantity and quality of our possessions.
  4. Practice charitable giving. The joy of giving more generously of our money and sharing our possessions with others can serve as an antidote to greed.
  5. Finally, spend time worshipping God and rejoicing in who he is and what he has done for us. It will free us from the idolatry of greed.

Our next post will deal with the falsely jovial sin of gluttony.

 

26 Responses to “Avarice”

  • Sophie Cather:

    I appreciated the subcategorization of avarice into the miser and the covetous person. This differentiation reminded me of the circle of greed in Dante’s Inferno. In that circle, there were two groups rolling enormous stones at each other, the avaricious and the prodigal.
    Greed’s ability to provoke violence parallels with Dante’s contrapasso because both people are unaware that their actions are harming another’s wellbeing.
    I also agree with you on your point that mass advertising creates a sense of greed in man that is against biblical principles. Not only is it the product with which we associate happiness and worth, but also the lifestyle that is portrayed alongside said product. I know I personally succumb to greed when I want the name brand, not only to appear well off, but also because another seemingly-prosperous person has it

    • Thank you for your comment, Sophie. I need to read Dante again! I had forgotten how insightful he can be. Your point about the lifestyle that goes alongside the product is important. I think that sometimes this shows how greed easily connects with the sin of vainglory in which we want people to praise us and we think that we’ll get that by possessing the right brands, living the right lifestyle, etc.

  • Halle Pavlik:

    When I heard that we were discussing greed I thought it would just be be the excessive desire for material possessions. By reading this article I have realized how much more there is to it. I definitely think greed is one of the sins that can definitely lead to bad habits and then eventually to character development. I think that I can now add to my understanding that greed could be put as not being content with what the Lord had given us. It could also be looked at as being not thankful. I really appreciate and enjoyed how you included how to overcome this sin because it is definitely hard to do. One more tip I would add to yours (that personally helps me sometimes) is just writing down everything that you do have. When I write down all my material possessions, I see just how long that list is and makes me realize that I need nothing more.

    • Thanks, Halle, for the comment and the very good suggestion. I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have time to write everything down. As you get older, er mature (!), one of the things that you begin to think about is what to do with all your possessions. Even if we don’t list them to limit our possessions, it would be a great way to help us thank God for what we have. Thanks again.

  • Drew Sullivan:

    I find greed is often one of the most sly of the deadly sins at getting into my life and the people around me. Consumerism is virtually inescapable now and I’ll find myself and others saying, just this one more thing I’ll get and then I’ll be satisfied. But it doesn’t work like that, greed only grows as one possesses more and more and is never satisfied. But to counter greed, I find people in the church around me constantly saying that giving and generosity grow as well,as you practice them. I’m looking forward to discussing some ways to overcome greed, great post.

    • Thanks, Drew. The promotion of consumerism is pervasive in our society. Ecclesiastes 1:8 makes your point about the lack of satisfaction. “Eye is not satisfied with hearing, nor ear filled with hearing.” It will be interesting to discuss ways to overcome greed.

  • Tess Ewing:

    Thank you for this blog post Dr. Isley! While reading this, I appreciated all of the distinctions you made between greed/avarice and covetousness, because there is a big difference there. A question that I came upon was this: some people receive love in a different way. Some of the most common ways are quality time, words, physical touch, acts of service, etc, and one one of them is receiving gifts. This is meaning that some people feel really loved if someone were to get them a gift. By doing this/looking forward to possibly getting something, would that be considered being greedy? Because in that case you are looking forward to gifts, but your whole focus on being friend with that person is still because you cherish them, and is not just for the gifts. I hope that makes sense. I also did agree with you and like how you put that some greed can be good, like how God can be depicted as a greedy God, in that he does want us to love him with all of our heart, soul, and strength.

    • Thank you, Tess. It is certainly not wrong to feel loved by someone giving you a gift. That is what we should mean to convey when we give birthday or anniversary gifts. One needs to make sure that they don’t love the gift more than the giver. Also, with the exception of special days when we give and receive gifts, it seems odd to me to be hoping for a gift. Maybe I’m wrong. Also, remember God is said in the Scriptures to be a jealous, not a greedy God. Greed is an excessive love of possessions, but God’s “desires” are never excessive. He is jealous in the sense of maintaining what is his.

  • Jude Borchers:

    One thing that immediately struck me is that it’s good to have things. It’s not just permissible or okay, but in the ideal world, we are meant to have things. This surprised me because when thinking about greed, it’s easy to start thinking that possessions themselves are to blame. That’s clearly not the case. One question I have regards the miser. Does he only make money and hoard it, or could he spend it then hoard the things he bought? When I think of examples of greed in my life, it could be wanting money too badly or wanting things too badly, so I’m wondering if they’re both in the miser category.

    • Thanks, Jude. When I think of the miser, I think of somebody who just hoards money. He doesn’t want to spend it. There are hoarders, who are people who compulsively buy things and won’t get rid of them. It would be interesting to hear what Mrs. Gossard says about these problems from a psychological viewpoint. I doubt very much that you are a miser. My suspicion is that, like most of us, you’d like to have money so that you can buy things. This isn’t bad as long as it’s not excessive or compulsive.

  • Chandler M Vincent:

    Dr. Isley,
    So when first reading this the idea of coveting (which you brought up) so does this mean that greed and envy could be in some way related? Would these two sins be an example of the web of sins analogy we used at the beginning of the year, where one thing leads to another. Therefore, could envy lead to greed (or vise versa)?
    When you said, “Greed also reveals a lack of faith that God will provide for us and that our value consists in being made in his image. Finally, greed does not hope in God. It finds its treasure in earthly possessions and the pseudo-prestige that they give rather than in Christ, the new life he gives, and the promise of the fulfillment of all life in heaven”. I had never thought of greed’s consequences or outcomes of greed in that sense before.
    Greed is also spending money? I had never though of greed like that before either. I suppose I had always thought of greed in the way you described the dragon, having a whole bunch of possessions and not wanting to give anybody any of them because they are all for him. So, I guess I had only ever looked at the selfish aspect of greed. Because I spend a lot of money, not only on myself but I just do not really care so I let others use my money as well. Is that greedy because I am spending so much? I do not care about the possessions either I just think buying stuff is fun, so I go get food or go thrift shopping a lot. I guess I am just confused on what would be defined as greed in the sense of spending to much?
    Anyways, this was a very interesting and as I usually say (because it’s always true) very thought provoking read. Thank you so much for taking the time to research and write it. Now I shall think on how I am greedy in my life and how I can fix it.

    • Thanks, Chandler. If we continue to understand envy as the pain we feel when someone possesses some good, but we don’t necessarily want it for ourselves, then greed and envy are distinct. Envy is directed at people; greed at possessions. However, our emotions and sins can swing back and forth so that we may change the object of our sinful desires or we may be greedy just about some things and not about others. Your self-description does not strike me as greed at all. You sound like someone who does not care too much about money and that you enjoy shopping as a kind of entertainment, like going to the movies. Remember that just because there is a sin, it doesn’t mean that your committing it. 🙂

  • Skylar Ball:

    I thought this blog was very interesting, I was just wondering why the person who has all the money will not spend it at all. Is it just because the idea of possessing the money is more important to them than actually spending it? Or is it the feeling of like better self-worth having all the money, and making others think more highly of them?

    • Thank you for the good questions, Skylar. I’m not sure that I understand the miser’s motivation, except that it is a love of possessing wealth. Perhaps, they like feeling better than others, maybe even keeping it from others. Maybe someone will have a better idea in class.

  • Kylie Cleverdon:

    A thought that I kept going back to, while reading this blog, was how it’s so incredibly sad how we are so quick to letting greed take ahold of us, and we never stop to think about those who are less fortunate than us. It’s a very easy thing to do, but it still amazes me. Why is it that, because of our nature, we care about our status, if we’re good enough, and what possessions we have? We want more, more, more. And like Drew said, we try telling ourselves “I’ll buy one more thing and then I’ll be satisfied” ,but that’s not how it works. One thing that stuck out to me in this post was how you said that we tend to worship the creation and not the creator. This one hit home for me because I find myself doing this a lot, and sometimes without even realizing it. It’s just so hard, because I can’t get away with committing one sin, because by default, I end up running right into another sin. I enjoyed this blog post a lot! Thank you, Dr. Isley!!

    • Thank you, Kylie. We are all plagued with a sinful nature that causes us to be selfish and that selfishness can easily take the form of greed. Worshipping the creation rather than the creator would appear to be an inherent problem, at least Romans 1:18ff would seem to direct our thoughts to that.

  • Hadley Taggart:

    Thank you, Dr. Isley, for another eye opening post. I was thoroughly surprised when you said that the evil/danger of a consumer society was not having that which exceeds what one needs. I would have initially thought of that as selfish and therefore evil. Enjoyment in and of life is not inherently evil and praise and thanks to God for the comforts he gives us. I do see more how identifying oneself with possessions is the evil and danger of a consumer society. This blog post, as Sophie said, reminded me of Dante’s Inferno, especially due to dividing avarice into two categories. Dante uses the avaricious (like the dragon example) and the prodigal (spend, spend, spend).You used in your blog was the miser (like Dante’s avaricious) and the covetous (desiring something wrongly). These are very similar but have some differences. Which distinction are you trying to make from prodigal by the use of the term covetous, if any at all?

    • Thank you, Hadley. I’m so glad to see our Cair Paravel students relating their classes to one another. it’s been a good while since I have read the Inferno. I’m not sure that the covetous and prodigal match up. The basic definition of the former is to want something that belongs to another. The latter’s is excessive spending. Of course, both are a kind of greed.

  • Taryn Durbin:

    Thank you for another good post Dr. Isley! I liked how you touched on the “sins of the flesh” and the “sins of the spirit.” It gave me a better understanding of what they both mean. “Sins of the flesh” are sins more directly related to material existence. Avarice, gluttony, and lust are examples of this. Whereas “sins of the spirit” are the sins of vainglory, anger, and sloth. The “sins of the spirit” concern mental attitudes and are more fundamental than the “sins of the flesh.” Before reading this post, I did not realize that greed had two different forms: the miser and the covetous person. I have always thought of avarice/greed as the desire of wanting material possessions. By reading this post, it has helped me to realize that there is much more to greed than just that. My question is, is it bad to want possessions? Because I always thought that it was good to have possessions here on this earth as a gift from God.

    • Thank you, Taryn. That’s a very nice summary of the sins of the flesh and spirit. I think greed probably has several forms. Hadley’s comment mentioned the prodigal spender as an example too. It is not a sin to want possessions. Remember that these fleshly sins are excessive loves of material things. Wanting possessions is not wrong in and of itself, especially when it becomes an occasion to thank God for his gifts, as you mention.

  • Lauren Drum:

    Thank you Dr. Isley on yet again another great blog post. Something stood out to me and got me thinking while I was reading this post. It was when you mentioned Scrooge and how that kind of related to greed. Then I started thinking about how our society talks about and often mimics the things we read or hear, and if we are teaching these things to our children, then we are almost saying that we agree with that person or characters situation and how they handled it, therefore making it okay for them to do that as well. But this isn’t just specifically for children with the example of the whole Scrooge thing, but rather for adults and maybe even more so for young adults or teens that are trying to find their footing in society. They have been taught that this is okay and that everyone does it so why can’t they, and so on. That part is really important, because who is more likely to copy a story or “trend”? A young child that just wants to play with his or her friends, or a teen or young adult that is trying to find their “click” or possible “true friends”? Sorry, I kind of went on a bunny trial but I was just sitting here thinking and this is where I ended up. I hope you kind of get what I am trying to say. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Lauren, and your concern is a very important one. We should consider the influence of what we read and watch on us, and as parents, on our children. I think that this is true with regard to movies, television shows, and books, but the subtlest way with regard to greed and some other matters is advertisements. By the way, Scrooge changes in Dickens’ story. He sees how empty and cruel his miserly life has been and finds joy in generosity; so, in that sense the story is meant to have a positive influence.

  • Jaley Barkley:

    Greed is such a strong sin that can take over your whole identity. I feel like greed is a very hard sin to overcome because it is a natural human way for someone to we something appealing and desire it. Even if someone knows that they may never get it, it is very easy for people to desire it. It is very present today in our age to identify people with what they own, which is the act of only examining the outside and not the inside of someone. I really enjoyed your ways to overcome greed, they are all very helpful. I also liked how this blog also went deeper about greed and how it affects our relationship with God. I was wondering if there was a person who was rich because of there job or something and didn’t give any money to anyone, does that make them greedy? Sorry again this is late 😉

    • Thanks for your comments, Jaley. To me one of the sicknesses of our society is how it promotes identifying worth with possessions. I would say that a person who was rich but did not give anything away was greedy. The sin of the rich man who hoarded his goods is an example of greed (Luke 12:13-21) and the rich man who didn’t care for Lazarus is condemned for not helping him (Luke 16:19ff). Don’t worry about the lateness. It is better to submit a good comment late than a poor one just to beat the deadline.

  • Kassidy R Napier:

    I apologise for the late comment. I think what I wondered about the most while reading (and during class today) was, “What if your greed stems from past trauma?” I know we touched on this during class but it seems that the 5 ways to combat greed seem much more difficult. For example, if someone comes from a background of poverty, they would have a tendency to store and save. That is the lifestyle that has been engrained in them. (Of course, it’s not bad to budget) They’d say, “Who knows when I might need ___.” It was mentioned that an overstock can give the feeling of control. It’s sort of interesting because this is where things like eating disorders or hoarding can stem from.

    • Thank you for your comments, Kassidy. The point about trauma or just a difficult background is important in our helping people and also in not judging falsely. Aristotle makes this point well. He says that for someone from a background that would lead to greed, what to us would appear to be a small step towards generosity would actually be a huge leap for them. This is one reason that we need to understand each other and not be quick to judge. The relation between the desire to control and hoarding and eating disorders was not one that had occurred to me. Please mention it in class Monday.

Leave a Reply