If you go to your psychotherapist complaining of depression, anxiety, a sense of emptiness in your life, a collapsing marriage, uncontrollable children, headaches, and ulcers, one thing he probably won't say to you is: "Herb, you're greedy. You need to change your whole attitude about money, turn your mind to healthier objects. The therapy I would suggest, for starters, is that you give away something that is of great value to you, and that you volunteer for a couple of weeks at the Salvation Army soup kitchen."

Our culture is little inclined to see greed as a major source of human troubles. Rather, it is seen as what makes the world go 'round. It's not a vice but a virtue.

Still, we have the apostle's words, "The love of money is the root of all evils" (1 Tim. 6:10). As a form of idolatry (Col. 3:5), the love of "goods" cancels out faith in God, since no one can have two absolute masters (Luke 16:13). Greed can create the anxiety, depression, and loss of meaning that often comes in middle age after a "successful" life of acquiring the "goods" of this world. Greed tempts us to other forms of corruption, such as lying, swindling, cheating clients, and cheating the government.

The psalmist says the righteous will hold in contempt those who trust in abundant riches (Ps. 52:6-7). A camel slips more easily through the eye of a needle than a rich person into the kingdom (Luke 18:25). To a wealthy man who has kept the law but still seeks salvation, Jesus says he must give his riches to the poor and follow him (Luke 18:18-22). A rich man who builds bigger barns so that he can use his agricultural fortune to secure himself is called a fool (Luke 12:15-21).

James puts the point more strongly than any: "Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days" (5:1-3; the following Bible references are all from the NRSV). No wonder rich people who believe in the authority of Scripture are so alarmed!


Why are shopping malls so popular? Why are they a place not just to make purchases, but to be entertained without even buying anything?

One answer is greed. Greedy people seek out stimulations that arouse and titillate their acquisition fantasies, just as lustful people seek out stimulations that arouse them sexually. If lust finds a certain frustrated gratification in perusing the pages of Playboy or Playgirl, greed finds similar satisfaction in ogling stylish clothes, computers, furniture, and kitchen appliances.

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Greed and stinginess are twin vices concerned with the taking and giving of things of value. The greedy take too much, the stingy give too little. Greed is not just the behavior of taking too much and giving too little. The heart of greed is certain attitudes, thoughts, and emotions concerning things of value.

The importance of attitudes can be brought out by thinking of one of greed's cousins, covetousness. Covetousness is not just wanting lots and lots of something, but wanting, in an improper way, something that belongs to another. Imagine a farmer who covets his neighbor's rich land. For 20 years his mind dwells on it, turning over schemes to get it for himself, but none of his plans ever comes to the point of execution, and finally he dies. Even though he never took a single thing unlawfully from this neighbor, his coveting corrupted his spiritual attitude toward his neighbor, preventing love and friendship, and it filled his heart and mind with this futile and unworthy wish.

It is not vicious to want to acquire things. Having possessions is as natural as eating and sexual relations. It would be a sign of ill health if we took no interest at all in these things. Desire is not by itself vicious; it becomes vicious when disordered, when the desire for food or sex becomes obsessive, for example, or directed toward improper gustatory or sexual objects.

A sure sign of greed (the disordered desire for wealth) is that your wanting things always outruns your having them. Greed is the successful business person who tells you, without blinking, that he is on the brink of poverty. It is the middle-class couple who say they cannot afford to have another child. It is "upward mobility," the climb that ends not in satisfaction and peace, but in exhaustion, disappointment, and emptiness. "Sweet is the sleep of [poor] laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep," says the Preacher (Eccles. 5:12). Greed in its advanced stages will not let us rest content.

Jesus connects greed with anxiety: "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed… . Do not worry about your life …" (Luke 12:13-34). Anxiety about our "security" drives us into a pattern of acquiring more and more, but the acquiring of more also leads to anxiety: the more we have to protect, and the higher the "standard of living" we must maintain, the more fragile we become, the more vulnerable to changes of circumstance.

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If greed, covetousness, and stinginess are the vices of exaggerated attachment to possessions, generosity is the proper disposition. The generous person is loosely attached to goods and wealth and more deeply and intensely attached to God and his kingdom. Stinginess is not just a pattern of bad behavior, but a bad attitude, a bad state of the heart. Generosity, likewise, is not just giving away one's goods, but having a certain mind about them. The generous person acquires goods in a different spirit from the greedy, and unlike the stingy, she does not cling to the ones she has. She sees her possessions differently, because she sees both herself and other people in a different light.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their contribution to the church in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9), he told them to give not reluctantly, or under compulsion, but gladly. Paul saw that the Corinthians might give lavishly but still not be generous. They might give to avoid embarrassment when Paul visited them, or in a spirit of competition with other givers. But God is unimpressed with such giving, "for God loves a cheerful giver" (9:7).

What is this gladness that goes with generosity? Not just any cheerfulness will count: God takes no special joy in the toothpaste manufacturer who cheerfully gives out lots of free samples in hopes of future profits. The generous person is glad that her beneficiary is being benefited, and glad for the beneficiary's sake. It pleases her that the gift will help the recipient out of some trouble, or will give him some pleasure, or be useful to him in some way. She has the good of the other in view.

The generosity of a believer is a response to Jesus Christ and never merely a "human" virtue. The gospel is about the generosity of God: God owed us nothing, and yet, out of sheer enthusiasm for us and desire for our well-being, God sent Jesus Christ to dwell among us, to reconcile us to God, and to usher us into God's fellowship. Through the influence of this welcoming word, our minds are renewed, and we come to see all things in a new light: God is our benefactor, our neighbor is a precious brother or sister, and our possessions are good, in large part, because they are things with which we can serve God and bless our neighbor. When the Holy Spirit has written this word of grace on our hearts, we become generous.

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The generous person is not indifferent to possessions. He does not say, like the Stoic, that possessions are of no real importance. But they do not have the same importance for him as they have for the greedy person.

Consider someone's attitude toward a car. To the stingy person, the importance of the car is strongly tied up with its being her possession at her disposal. She will not be inclined to let other people use it, unless they pay her for its use. For the generous person, the value of the car is not nearly so tied up with its being his. So when it would be helpful or pleasurable for someone else to use his car, he is glad to have it so used. He takes pleasure in someone's getting some good out of it, even if loaning it out is inconvenient.

The generous person also has a distinctive attitude toward the recipients of her generosity. She sees them as fellow travelers on life's way, or as brothers and sisters in the Lord. She has a sense of being in some sort of community with these people with whom she shares. They are not alien to her, but united with her in bonds that make their pleasures, convenience, and safety important to her.

Christians do not have a monopoly on generosity, but generosity is very characteristic of the Christian who has taken the gospel to heart. At the center of that rebirth of self is the perception that fellow Christians are brothers and sisters in the Lord, and that even the non-Christian and the enemy are our neighbors whom God loves with the same concern with which he loves us.

The idea of a "Christian" who sees some other humans as aliens, whose well-being is of no interest to him, is a contradiction. And the idea of a greedy Christian does not make sense, though, of course, many people are struggling to be Christians, and part of their struggle is the battle against their own greed.

There is a difference in self-concept between the greedy and the generous person. The self-concept of a greedy person is very tied up with her possessions, which make her feel secure. Such a person sees herself as weak or vulnerable to the extent that she is short of possessions, and strong and secure if she has them.

The generous person, by contrast, does not think of herself as built up or secured by what she possesses. Her security and her substance come from elsewhere, so she can give away her material goods and do so cheerfully. Again, Christianity has no monopoly on generosity, for there are a number of different ways the self can be conceived as secure and substantial independent of possessions. But the truly converted Christian thinks of herself as a spirit, secured and made real by her relationships in a world of spirits. She trusts God for her security and is made real by God's loving intention. And she finds her substance as a person, her integrity and solidity, precisely in those acts of sharing her possessions, time, attention, and concern that most express the Christian virtue of generosity.

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It is in giving to others that we find ourselves; it is in letting go of the ordinary securities of life that we find our true security.


So how do we make sense of what appears to be blatant appeals to self-interest by Paul and Moses on behalf of generous behavior (2 Cor. 9:6-11; Deut. 15:10)?

The Stoics had the idea that to live well is to live in harmony with the universe, to live in a way that reflects the real order of things. On their view, generosity is the natural or appropriate way to live, because it reflects how human nature and the universe are arranged; greed is a disharmony with the universe.

Christian teaching agrees, though it differs about what human nature is and what the universe is like, and so it has a different view of generosity and what's good about it. The Puritan Urian Oakes put the matter this way:

Man had originally an Empire and Dominion over these creatures here below. But sin hath inverted this Order, and brought confusion upon earth. Man is dethroned, and become a servant and slave to those things that are made to serve him, and he puts those things in his heart, that God hath put under his feet.

We were made for spiritual attachments to God and neighbor, to find our life's purpose in them. Generosity expresses such attachments. But the greedy person is out of harmony with her spiritual nature, for she tries to find the meaning of her life in possessions.

Jesus made a statement about human nature when he said, "One's life does not consist in the abundance of one's possessions" (Luke 12:15). It should not surprise us if a being that is made to find life in God and neighbor gets messed up when she tries to find it in her possessions. It is like being created to eat vegetables and meat but trying to live on Hostess Twinkies; it is not natural and won't work!

The whole idea of a possession in the mind of the greedy person is out of harmony with the nature of things. From a biblical perspective, we have dominion over material things, but we are stewards (temporarily appointed caretakers) rather than possessors of them. This fits the temporary nature of our mortal life on earth better than the greedy person's idea of a possession.

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Tuberculosis was once called "consumption," because it causes people to waste away. Greed is a form of spiritual consumption. To the greedy person who is "successful" in his pursuit of possessions, it may seem for a while that he is gaining a more substantial and robust life through his accumulations; in truth, as his soul becomes more and more invested in his possessions, and his heart becomes more and more identified with them, he becomes less of a person.

It sometimes happens that a rich person comes face to face with this emptiness of life. Although the Preacher accomplished great works, he came to see that as so much "chasing after wind" (Eccles. 2:4-8, 11, 17). He no doubt thought he was enthroning himself by accumulating this world's goods, but he was dethroning himself, becoming a servant to what was made to serve him.

Having a self is a spiritual matter of finding meaning in one's life, and possessions cannot supply meaning that endures. Contrary to their fondest intentions, the greedy pursue a course of self-loss and emptiness. So being generous is in our self-interest.


How can we become more generous and less greedy? Jesus said: "The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil" (Luke 6:45).

The influence of thinking on greed was argued in a study conducted by Cornell University researchers. In a survey of U.S. college professors, they found that, despite having relatively high salaries, economists, most of whom assume that self-interest drives behavior, were more than twice as likely as those in other disciplines to contribute no money to private charities. In responding to public television appeals, their median (and most common) gift was zilch. In laboratory monetary games, students behave more selfishly after taking economics courses. These researchers concluded that economists need an alternative model of human behavior, one that teaches the benefits of cooperation. (The study, conducted by economist Robert Frank and psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Dennis Regan, is entitled, "Is the Self-interest Model a Corrupting Force?" [ms., Cornell University, 1991].)

If we can get greedier by digesting the selfish ideology of some economic theories, we might become more generous by taking to heart the Word of God: "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit" (Rom. 8:5).

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Christians have an "alternative model of human behavior" and of the universe; setting our minds on certain aspects of that "model" is a discipline by which to root out greed. In trying to become more generous, Christians are trying to change not just their behavior, but their minds. What are some things we might do to cultivate a Christianly generous mind?

First, we might think about possessions. What is a house, a car, a wardrobe, a library, a television set, a well-equipped kitchen, a computer? As useful and pleasant as they may be, are they what life is about? Would life be desperate without them? Do they improve a life that is not otherwise in good order? In the Christian "model," such things are good but optional. Life without them would be different—more difficult in some ways, but also perhaps more deeply meaningful.

Mission workers in primitive circumstances attest that the lack of possessions and conveniences is not all loss; it is also gain. They can identify with Paul when he said, "I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need" (Phil. 4:12). His secret seemed to be his life in God, which relativized these goods, making them good but not necessary.

Jesus thought it easier for a camel to get through the needle's eye than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God; God's reign is foreign to those who think their possessions are necessary. So Jesus prescribed radical therapy for the rich ruler: that he give away his possessions. Nothing short of experiencing the absence of possessions could make him see their true significance.

We can try setting our minds on the biblical concept of possessions by contemplating people whose lives are happy without them. But in all likelihood we will not put material possessions in proper perspective until we start giving them away. Try this exercise. Look among your possessions for something that is quite meaningful or useful to you, something you're inclined to think you can't do without and that you can't easily replace. Then give it away. The experience that will follow may help you to see possessions in gospel terms.

Second, try thinking about others' needs in connection with what you have. Imagine how some of your money would help a school in the Sudan, or some of your time would bless the elderly man down the street. Put yourself in the shoes of those who could profit from these goods; imagine the convenience or opportunity or comfort they may mean to these people.

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Thinking changes us most when it's put into action, when we deliberately "go out of our way" to do something for someone else. Doctors can volunteer for short-term assignments in Third World clinics; teachers can give special attention, after hours, to certain students; husbands can take an afternoon off from "their" work to prepare a festive dinner for the family.

I am such a stingy person that taking some real care in selecting a birthday gift expands my horizons! I once helped paint a house being built by Habitat for Humanity. Seeing that house, working on it hands-on, meeting the people who were to own it, and experiencing a bit of their joy in the prospect of having a nice place to live gave me a very different perspective on my contribution. It made my mind more generous, more willing to give, and more cheerful in the giving.

If we are deeply stingy, we'll resist the imagining and experiencing that makes us perceive others as our neighbors. We won't want to open ourselves emotionally to their needs and pleasures, lest the appeal to our minds costs us time and goods! So it may take some courage to undertake this second discipline.

The third and last discipline is to think about yourself. Who are you? What is your mind like? Does your life consist too much in the abundance of your possessions? What kind of life do you want? What kind of person do you wish to be? We need to get very clear about how empty a life is if it consists in the abundance of our possessions—and then measure our actual abundance against this standard.

To see the beauty of generosity and the ugliness of greed, it helps to have models like Jean Vanier, Mother Teresa, or some saint in your congregation, people who find joy, fulfillment, and selfhood in God through giving themselves to others. Meditating on these persons as models for life helps us to see what a real, substantial, abundant self is like, and to yearn for that kind of personality.


Robert C. Roberts is professor of philosophy and psychological studies at Wheaton College. This article is adapted and excerpted from "The Sin of Greed and the Spirit of Generosity," published in pamphlet form by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, Wheaton College. Roberts is author of "Taking the Word to Heart: Self and Other in an Age of Therapies" (Eerdmans, 1993).

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