In 1 Corinthians 6:10, Paul lists people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven—and he includes “the greedy.” Presumably, greed is not synonymous with wealth, as there are greedy poor people and generous rich people. It can be hard to know when I’ve crossed the line from making or saving money into the sin of greed. Are there diagnostic questions to help me identify greed in my own life?
Greed is certainly a deep concern of God’s. In addition to the passage you reference, we see greed described in Scripture as something that brings ruin (Prov. 15:27), stirs conflict (Prov. 28:25), and destroys (Prov. 29:4).
As with most other sins, it’s easy focus on egregious examples or external manifestations while overlooking the roots tangled up in our own hearts. We can point to stereotypes of overpaid CEOs or purveyors of the prosperity “gospel” and say, “That’s greed.” Seeking a definition of sin from extreme cases, though, lets most of us off the hook, since we don’t feel greedy—even as we mirror the same attitudes and habits on a smaller scale.
Greed is an especially easy sin to succumb to in our time and place. Even the term “consumer,” which the global economy is eager to label us with, speaks of an underlying hunger or dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is not money, per se, that is “the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), but the fact that we love it. And as my friend Michael Rhodes writes in Practicing the King’s Economy, “If the biblical authors thought a peasant’s love of money could drag them to hell, what would they have to say to us?”
We don’t serve a god of scarcity, but the God of abundance and provision, who has poured out his bounty on the earth and given us the riches of heaven through the sacrifice of Christ (2 Cor. 8:9). But just as Israel forsook God to follow after the Baals in the land of Canaan—idols that sold them economic promises of rain and harvests and fertile livestock—so we are constantly tempted to turn our attention from the God who gives in order to sacrifice to the Baals of the American Dream.
Compared to much of the modern world—and compared to all of history—every person reading this article is astonishingly wealthy. Yet, as you say, we must be careful not to conflate wealth with greed. Where is the line between healthy participation in economic activity that builds up a community, and a self-replicating cycle of accumulating money and stuff?
If the biblical authors thought a peasant’s love of money could drag them to hell, what would they have to say to us?
You’ll find it in the heart. Greed is an internal sin, a species of covetousness or longing for that which you haven’t been given. It’s less visible as moments of active sin, and more evident in its long-term corrosion of our souls. It’s also a sin of faithlessness; greed is the opposite of trust in God’s provision, a grasping for security instead of resting in him.
As Karen Swallow Prior reminds us, virtues represent the mean between two extremes. You can fall away from economic prudence into one ditch (careless, profligate spending) just as surely as you can fall into the other (an all-consuming quest for wealth that insulates you from surprises).
So how do you when know when you’re veering into a ditch? Ask yourself some of these questions:
- Could you live with contentment on the same income you earned five years ago?
- Is your gut impulse, when someone asks you for money or time for kingdom ministry, to find a way to give?
- Do you believe—and act as if—one’s economic status indicates their value as a person?
- Is there anything in your daily life you could go without in order to free up more money for generosity?
- Are you willing to forego or limit time spent on a favorite hobby in order to free yourself for service in your church or another ministry?
This list isn’t exhaustive, of course, but if you find it difficult to answer any of these questions with a “yes,” you might be farther down the path of greed than you realize.
We live in a time and place of enormous wealth; in our culture, the soil of our hearts is tilled and prepared for greed to take root. Earthly riches—which can be sweet blessings from God, and part of his plan for taking care of others through us—are a gift that many of us, frankly, are not spiritually prepared to bear.
Taking that warning seriously is a good step toward crucifying the sin of greed in our hearts.