America is a wealthy nation, and people who live in a wealthy culture (like America) develop a tendency toward an obsessive, and unhealthy, quest for more and more and more. Over the last 20 years, many have been using the word Affluenza to not only describe how our wealthy society is creating overload, debt, and stress as we pursue more, but also how it is infectious – it’s hard for any of us to escape, even Christians.
Today I’m talking about the condition of the heart that gives rise to greed, coveting, and the love of money. This is bad stress, because it doesn’t help us change or improve. It is just stress. But, I’m also describing wisdom from the Bible to help us heal from these stressors, and overcome this condition.
You see, a person with affluenza is always comparing and contrasting their life with others who have more than them, or that they think have it better. But, the Bible teaches us that peace is found in contentment with what we have, and that our contrast should be focused away from people who have more, and toward others who have less, and helping them with their needs.
Greed, Coveting and the Love of Money
There are three related concepts, all declared as sin, that we see communicated in the Bible. Greed is considered to be a selfish desire for more money, or more stuff. The Love of Money is a focus and pursuit of more stuff, and is sometimes called the Love of the World. Coveting is a strong desire to have more stuff from the world, and is sometimes considered to be the stuff that others have.
The Bible talks about all of these as being evil. The greedy (1 Corinthians 6:10), those who covet (Ephesians 5:5), and those who love money (loosely 1 John 2:15-17) describe symptoms of those who are separated from God. If one is able to admit that they suffer from this condition, then this can provide a warning and motivation to change a path that is headed toward ... ummm ... hell.
America, however, is so infected with these sins, that it is hard for us to see them as a problem. It’s like cursing. If everyone around you uses cursing in their regular conversation, then cursing no longer seems inappropriate, but normal. So, most Americans are likely to think that sins like greed, coveting and the love of money aren’t problems for them. We perhaps imagine that these are something that other people suffer from – you know, like all those filthy rich people.
The Bad Stress from Money
Managing money in the modern world is complex. It is not as simple as getting cash from your work, spending some of that cash on your daily needs, and putting the rest in a cookie jar to save for bigger purchases. We have credit cards, late-payment fees, loan payments, taxes and fees on most everything we do, automatic payments, and a near constant buzzing of scammers flitting around us. We can get stress just from participating in this financial world.
Many of these financial tools are really designed to service America’s appetite of coveting, greed, and the love of money. Credit, for example, is specifically designed to offer you the ability to have more than you can afford right now.
James 4:1-4 describes how the pursuit of the world creates stress. We have our eyes fixed on obtaining more and more – for some it is more money in the bank, for some it is more stuff, and then others pursue more luxury, more experience, more pleasure, or more pampering. It’s never enough, and it just continues.
Digging into the Bible – What is Coveting?
I’ve had many people tell me that they never covet because coveting involves desiring a specific thing that someone else has (like is implied in Exodus 20:17). They tell me that desiring a copy of what a neighbor has is not coveting. For example, they don’t want the new iPhone that their neighbor has, but they want a copy of it at the iPhone store. And, even if it is coveting, then coveting is solved simply by purchasing the new iPhone.
That is missing the point. Greed, coveting, and the love of money (or the love of the world) all emerge from a heart condition that seeks satisfaction, or contentment, from the world instead of God. It is like always eating, but still hungry for more.
In our translations of the Old Testament, there are three Hebrew words that we translate into coveting. The first means to desire a neighbor’s possession, the second means to desire dishonest gain, and the third means selfish desire. In the New Testament, the Greek words we translate into coveting mean intense desire, selfish indulgence, or acquiring more than you need. In Romans 7:7-8, the words Paul uses here simply mean craving or desiring (with a tone implying it is evil to desire it). In Mark 7:22, the word Jesus uses here means the excessive and immoderate desire to acquire more and more (wealth).
So, is coveting desiring what your neighbor has? Sure. But, it is more than that. It is a heart condition that is never satisfied, and craves more.
A Heart Test
So, how do you know if you are greedy? How do you know if you covet? How do you know if you love the world?
There is a scripture from Ecclesiastes that we can use to evaluate our attitude, and it gives us a simple measure:
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. (Ecclesiastes 5:10, NIV)
A complimentary passage is found in the New Testament:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have. (Hebrews 13:5)
Of course, a person in poverty is discontent with what they have, and they desire more because they need more. But, this charcter of desire is not typical for most in America. Most Americans have their basic needs met, but they are seeking more of the P’s: pampering, possessions, prestige, pleasure, etc.
Contentment is difficult because discontent is everywhere around us, and marketing is always prodding us to spend more to get more. These scriptures reminded me of a survey from at least 20 years ago, asking people what it would take for them to make enough money at their job. If I recall correctly, the conclusion was that the typical person wanted an additional 10% more, and it didn’t really matter if they were making $10 an hour or $100. Whatever they were making was not enough, and they weren’t satisfied.
Some Guidance to Change
When I was younger, growing up in Tennessee, my family voted me most likely to become a millionaire. I’m not sure what they were seeing in me, but I would assume that they were seeing the love of money. Because … well … looking back, I loved money.
And that became my biggest pursuit. I attended church, and I called myself a Christian, but my pursuits were guided by the world around me and not the Word of God. I remember one time praying to God that if He would let me win the lottery, then I would be faithful and give him 10%, unlike others who would keep everything for themselves. (Yeah, it is embarrassing for me to admit how spiritually immature I was, but I specifically remember that prayer).
I didn't realize it at the time, but a core contrast in my life was wrong. I needed a different contrast.
Contrast is the comparison between two things that are strikingly different, and contrast has power to create tangible vision in a person’s life.
For example, if you aren’t that funny but you want to be a better comedian, you would study and observe those who draw large crowds, make you laugh out loud, and are consistently creative. They become a role model for you, and inspire you. You wouldn’t hang around equally unfunny people, and hope that they will inspire you.
In terms of wealth, my contrast was people much wealthier than me, with the large salaries and the large houses. I was interested in what they were doing, and I wanted to form my life after their image. To me, this felt pretty natural, because most of the people around me were aspiring to the same life, even the people in the church I attended.
Seeds of Change. One weekday, I was invited to get up super early in the morning, drive into DC, and serve breakfast to the homeless. Another time, a second person asked me to help out at a day-time facility for the homeless. Though I didn’t regularly participate in either, it began to form a different kind of contrast – people with less, who needed something from me.
My contrast started to change, and my stress started to change. That is, rather than being stressed about not having more, I became stressed that others don’t have enough. The former doesn’t help me grow, the latter does. The former is bad stress, and the latter is some mild, but good stress.
I began to embrace a characteristic of love that Paul describes:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
And, in another letter, Paul gave some guidance on how rich people can begin to break free from the chains of greed, and pursue God.
17 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. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Why do I try to inspire others to engage with our friends on the street? Why do I want people to go to Haiti or Mexico?
For those who need it and are ready, I am hoping your contrast will change from greed to generosity. I’m hoping to change your stress so you can grow toward God.