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Lesson 17: When Greed Becomes God (Colossians 3:5b)

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March 13, 2016

Preaching about greed is not easy. Almost everyone agrees that greed is bad. So they sit back and say, “Amen! We’re against it. Preach it, brother!” And, we’re all quick to judge greed in others: “Did you see that expensive new car so-and-so was driving? How can he justify that with all the needy refugees in the world?” But few of us admit, “I have a problem with greed.”

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, I’ll worry about it!” Yet we need to realize that Paul wrote Colossians to average Christians in an average small-town church. He told them that they must put to death their sinful nature with regard to “greed, which amounts to idolatry” (Col. 3:5). If greed was a problem for them in that culture, then surely we who live in this prosperous nation, must come to grips with greed.

But it’s not an easy subject to understand. Are we being greedy by living in nice, spacious homes furnished with all the conveniences of modern life, when there are millions around the world living in shacks with no indoor plumbing? Are we being greedy when we have nice cars in our driveways and expensive toys in our garages? Where should we draw the line? How can we keep greed from becoming our god?

Last week I developed the idea from Colossians 3:5-7 that Christians must radically separate themselves from all sexual immorality and greed. Since Paul uses four words for sexual immorality and only one for greed, I focused on moral purity. But now I want to focus on greed. Paul is saying that…

Christians must radically separate themselves from all greed.

As we saw last week, when Paul tells us to put to death our members on earth (the literal rendering of verse 5) with regard to sexual immorality and greed, he means, “Radically separate yourself from these sins, beginning on the thought level.” We are to do so in light of our new identity in Christ (Col. 3:1-4) and in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13). But, we are responsible to do it! Today I want to answer four questions: (1) What is greed? (2) How should Christians view greed and wealth? (3) How can I know if I’m greedy? (4) How can I deal with my greed?

What is greed?

1. Greed is the insatiable desire to have more money or possessions for self-gratification, while ignoring God and eternity.

That’s my own definition. Webster defines it as “excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness.” It defines the synonym, “covetous,” as, “marked by inordinate desire for wealth or possessions or for another’s possessions.” The problem is, those terms are subjective. Most of us would say, “I don’t have excessive, reprehensible, inordinate desires! I would just like a little bit more” (and more, and more!).

The Bible uses several words for greed. One means, literally, the love of silver. Paul uses it when he states (1 Tim. 6:10), “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.” Another word, used to translate the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7), means “desire.” It often refers to “lust.” With regard to things, it means wanting what belongs to someone else. The main New Testament word for greed comes from two words meaning literally, “to have more.” It’s often used in the sense of taking advantage of another person. But the main sense is the desire to have more and more things in an attempt to satisfy myself.

In Mark 7:21-22, Jesus mentions a long list of sins, including “deeds of coveting,” which He says come from our hearts. So greed is not primarily concerned with amount, but rather with attitude and motives. The poor can be just as greedy as the rich.

Greed is the attitude that’s never quite satisfied, that says, “All I want is a little bit more.” We see this in the parable Jesus told in Luke 12:13-21. A man in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Being fair, I would have expected Jesus to say, “Bring that scoundrel here!” And He would have confronted him about his greediness. But instead, Jesus tells the man with the complaint, “Who made Me a judge or arbiter over you?” Then He told the whole crowd (Luke 12:15), “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”

Then Jesus told the story of the man who had too many crops for his already-full barns. So he planned to build bigger barns, while he congratulated himself that he had plenty stored up for years to come. But God said (Luke 12:20), “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” Jesus concluded (Luke 12:21), “So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” The man wasn’t content, even though he had plenty. He wanted more and more. And it’s clear that he intended to keep it all for himself. He wasn’t thinking about God’s kingdom or the needs of others. That’s greed.

There’s a story of a financier who was visited by an angel who told him he would grant him one wish. The businessman asked for a copy of the financial news one year in advance. As he was greedily scanning the stock prices, drooling over the killing he would make on his investments, his eye glanced across the page to the obituaries where he saw his own name. Suddenly his investments didn’t matter quite so much!

Greed puts a wrong value on temporal things. It treats temporal things as if they, and we, will endure on earth forever. But, in fact, we could die today or all our things could be taken from us instantly. There’s no such thing as financial security in this world. Greed also treats eternal things as if they aren’t real and never will happen. But when we’re in eternity, this speck of time we call life will seem like a blip on the radar screen. So we need to ask ourselves, “In light of eternity and the brevity and uncertainty of this life, am I managing what God has entrusted to me so as to be rich toward God?”

How should Christians view greed and wealth?

2. Greed is a serious sin to be avoided; wealth is a serious responsibility to do good.

Paul says that greed is tantamount to idolatry and brings the wrath of God (Col. 3:5). Elsewhere (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5) he warns that the greedy will not inherit the kingdom of God. He means that those whose lives are characterized by greed are not true believers and they will go to hell. Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:10-11) not to associate with anyone who claims to be a Christian but who is greedy—not even to eat with such a one. He warns (1 Tim. 6:9-10),

But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

In almost every catalog of sins where greed is mentioned, it’s coupled with sexual immorality. As I mentioned last Sunday, if Christians saw greed as equal to idolatry and as serious as sexual immorality, how could we have tolerated for even one second the flamboyant TV preachers who flaunt their extravagant wealth and brazenly tell everyone that financial prosperity is their divine right? Peter denounces such false teachers by comparing them to Balaam and saying that their hearts are “trained in greed” (2 Pet. 2:14-15). Greed is a serious sin to be avoided!

But does that mean, then, that we must take a vow of poverty and get rid of all our possessions? How should we view wealth?

The Bible views wealth as a serious responsibility to do good. All wealth comes from God as a gift entrusted to us to use properly for Him. We are free to enjoy without guilt the wealth God bestows, but we’re also stewards of it for Him. Paul’s counsel applies to us (1 Tim. 6:17-18): “Instruct those who are rich in this present world [we are rich in comparison to most] not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.”

While hard work is the normal means God uses to bestow wealth, we should never think that we are the cause of our own success or that God owes it to us as our due. Moses warned Israel before they went into Canaan (Deut. 8:18), “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” That covenant was God’s promise to bless Israel so that they could bless others (Gen. 12:1-3).

The Bible views wealth as good, but dangerous. It’s like a loaded gun. If I’m in the woods and an angry bear is charging at me, a loaded gun is a good thing to have! But a loaded gun is always dangerous, especially if it’s in the hands of a five-year-old. If we’re careful to be good stewards of God’s gift of wealth, using it to promote His purposes, it’s good. But if we’re deceived by our wealth (Matt. 13:22), so that our trust shifts from the Lord to our riches, or we squander it on selfish living without regard for God’s purposes, we’re in danger of spiritual ruin.

Now for the convicting part of this message:

How can I know if I’m greedy?

3. There are many signs of greed.

Before we look at these signs, let me warn you that we need to be careful to judge ourselves and not others (Matt. 7:1-5). It’s easy to apply this to others and to justify myself, but I need to remove the log from my own eye. If you think that another Christian is being deceived by greed, your responsibility is gently to seek to restore him (Gal. 6:1). But we each have to stand before God someday. So we need to face these matters personally and honestly on the heart level before Him.

I assure you that I am a fellow-struggler with you on these hard questions and it’s a constant battle! Should we trade in our old car for a newer one? If so, how much should we spend? Should we enjoy a vacation in a nice hotel when we can camp? Do I need the latest gadget that the digital age is dangling in front of me? Should I set aside more for the time when I can’t work, or give it to the Lord’s work now?

The problem is, while biblical principles do apply, there are no hard and fast rules to guide in every situation. For example, Paul says that if I don’t provide for my own family, I’m worse than an unbeliever and have denied the faith (1 Tim. 5:8). Those are strong words! But also, I’m commanded not to store up treasures on earth, but rather to seek first God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:19, 33). How do I balance that tension? Here are some questions to help you take your spiritual pulse with regard to greed:

1) Do I view my money and possessions as mine or God’s?

This is the basic stewardship question. While the Bible recognizes personal property rights (the commandments against stealing presume that I own some things and you own other things), there must be the fundamental sense that God owns all that I have. I manage it for Him, and at the judgment, I will give an account to Him (Matt. 25:14-30; Rom. 14:10, 12).

2) If I knew that I were to die in one year, would I do anything different in my management of God’s resources?

Would I buy this item? Would I give more to His cause? Would I spend what I spend on entertainment? At the end of the movie, “Schindler’s List,” the war is over and Mr. Schindler is leaving the many Jews whom he saved by employing them in his munitions factory. He has spent his entire personal fortune to bribe German officials in order to save these people from the death chambers. But as he looks at them, he breaks down weeping and laments, “I could have done more.” They try to console him, but he points to his nice car and says, “I could have sold it and saved a few more lives.” He pulls out an expensive fountain pen and a watch and says, “These could have been sold to save another life.”

Schindler was not a Christian and he was not saving souls for eternity. But, still, when we think of our Savior’s commission, to preach the gospel to every creature, we all need to ask ourselves, “In light of the brevity of life and eternity ahead, could I do more? Am I valuing souls above earthly things?” If I rejoice when I win a raffle or door prize, but I yawn when I hear about a soul being saved, I’ve lost the eternal perspective, which is a sign of greed.

3) Why do I want more money?

This is a question about motives. Do I want more to provide more adequately for my family? That may be legitimate. But if I want more just to buy bigger and better stuff that I really don’t need, I may be drifting into greed.

4) Am I more concerned about making money than I am about my eternal destiny?

This is the question Jesus raised in the parable of the man who wanted to build bigger barns. He was laying up treasure for himself on earth, but he wasn’t rich toward God. I realize that it takes a lot of time and energy to earn a living. And there’s nothing wrong with working hard to succeed in your career. But if my every waking moment is consumed with how to succeed financially and I seldom think about how I can succeed at seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness, I’m probably tainted by greed.

5) What is the source of my security: money or God?

Be careful with this one! We all know the “right” answer. But what if all my things, my bank accounts, everything was taken from me, as has happened to many of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East? Could I trust God if, like Job, I lost everything? The next question is related:

6) How much do I mourn the loss of money and things?

Or, if I’m considering buying something, how hard would it be for me to give this up later? My level of grief when I lose something is directly proportional to my emotional attachment to that thing. It’s normal to grieve when we lose something of value, whether a possession or money. But if we’re trusting the Lord and recognizing that all we have belongs to Him, we shouldn’t be devastated. If we are, we may be greedy.

7) Do I cling to my things or am I generous and ready to share?

Ask yourself, “Would I get as excited about taking advantage of a strategic opportunity to give to further the Lord’s work as I would with a great investment opportunity?”

8) Do I compromise godly character or priorities in the pursuit of making money?

Some things ought to count far more than making money: God’s reputation through my testimony as a Christian; my relationship with Jesus Christ; a clear conscience; my relationship with my wife, my children, and other people. If I sometimes cheat, lie, or steal to get ahead financially or to avoid loss, I’m being greedy. If I’m willing to shred relationships or to take advantage of another person for financial gain, I’m being greedy. If I care more about making money than about being a witness for Jesus Christ, I’m being greedy.

9) Am I prone to get-rich-quick schemes?

If I feel myself drawn to some easy, instant way to making a fortune, I probably need to deal with my greed. This includes gambling and playing the lottery. I admit that it can be tempting when the Powerball gets into hundreds of millions, but gambling is poor stewardship of the Lord’s resources. If you dream about winning the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, you need to ask, “Why do I want to win?” Be honest: Is it really so that you can give away most of it to the Lord’s work around the world? If the real answer is, “So that I could be rich,” you may be into greed.

10) Am I in bondage to credit cards and debt?

I realize that some are in debt because of being out of work or because of unavoidable hardship. I’m not talking about that. But most people who are in debt have a problem with overspending. They’re buying into the advertising pitch that you need more junk to be happy. That’s a sign of greed!

That’s the test. You could probably add more questions. If it uncovered some seeds of greed, then consider the final question:

How can I deal with my greed?

4. I must radically separate myself from all greed, beginning on the thought level.

Putting myself to death with regard to greed means taking radical action to cut it out of my life, beginning on the thought level. You may say, “That sounds rather unpleasant! Why would I want to do that?” Paul’s answer (Col. 3:1-4) is, “Because you have died and have been raised up with Christ. Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Because the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8) are more precious to you than all the riches that this world has to offer. He is the treasure in the field for which you sold everything to gain Him. He is the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46).

In light of having Christ and finding joy and contentment in Him, you then acknowledge God to be the owner of all you have and view yourself as the manager who must give an account to Him. You adopt the Owner’s priorities: His kingdom purposes. Ask yourself, why do I need more stuff (even if it’s nifty stuff)? Resist sales pressure. Pray about major purchases before you buy them. Get rid of all the needless stuff you can and then to seek to live as simply as possible. You may need to create a budget and live within it. Learn to walk in the Spirit so that His fruit of self-control governs your impulses.

Also, to rid yourself of greed, make a faith commitment to give generously to the Lord’s work. Giving is the drain plug for greed. Trust God by giving off the top of your paycheck, not giving if there’s something left over at the end of the month. Give in a prayerful, planned way, rather than giving when you’re pressured. Give when it hurts a bit: there are other things you could do with the money, but you joyfully sacrifice so you can give it to the Lord’s work. For most of us, giving generously means giving far more than 10 percent. For most American Christians, tithing is a cop out from our responsibility as God’s stewards. With kingdom priorities and careful stewardship we can give far more.

If you say, “If I just made more, I’d give more,” you’re probably fooling yourself. Why not trust God and increase the percentage you give now? When you get an increase in income, ask God where He wants you to direct it, rather than automatically spending it on more stuff.

Conclusion

The best sermon I’ve ever read on greed was by a non-Christian! It’s John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. It’s the story of a happy, but poor, pearl diver who dreams of finding the perfect pearl. One day he finds it, but rather than bringing him the happiness he had hoped for, it brings him one problem after another, because everyone is after his pearl. He almost gets killed. His son is killed. He and his wife are at odds. His formerly tranquil life is totally upset because of his attempts to cling to this pearl. Finally, he stands at the shore and hurls the cursed pearl as far into the sea as he can. That’s what we must do with our greed! Radically separate yourself from it! Put it to death! “For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come!”

Application Questions

  1. Does being content rule out bettering my circumstances if I get the opportunity? Why/why not?
  2. How can we be on guard against all greed? Is all luxury wrong? How do we define luxury in light of the world’s poor?
  3. How can we apply a verse like 1 John 3:17 in a world where the needs are bottomless?
  4. Are things like insurance, savings, and investments opposed to trusting God and seeking first His kingdom? Biblical support?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Finance

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