Jan 22 The trap of greed. Contentment, Scriptures: Ecclesiastes 2:1-11, Phil 4:10-13
An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life...
He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
One wolf is evil – this wolf is fear, anger, envy, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, desire, lies, and greed. The other wolf is good---this wolf is courage, peace, friendship, humility, compassion, joy, generosity, truth, and contentment. This battle goes on within me.
This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too."
They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied: "The one you feed".
When I think about the war that rages in me I think perhaps it should not be two wolves, it should be two packs of wolves, wolves that as you feed them, they breed even more wolves of evil or wolves of good. The wolves that particularly interest me today are the wolf of greed and the wolf of contentment. Inside us we have two voices, one argues that having even more is better, the others argues we should be content with what we have and perhaps even make do with less. Which one should win? Which one should we feed by following its advice? We all want to be content, but contentment is not found in feeding our greed.
It is natural for us to want more. Children quickly learn the concept of mine. That’s mine. When I was a child there was an expression I heard at family dinners – my eyes are bigger than my stomach. We were expected to eat everything we took, but it was not unusual for our eyes to want more than we could pack in. It is natural to want, but Jesus taught in Luke 12:15: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” This is the principle I have been chasing these last few weeks, arguing that desire and wealth and today greed do not fulfill the promise of lasting pleasure but instead result in pain and suffering.
We have considered our natural tendencies to suffer from Afluenza – the desire to have bigger and better and more things, and Credititis – the illness of taking on debt because we can buy now and pay later. A third malady is our tendency to never be satisfied with anything long term, which Adam Hamilton calls the Restless Heart syndrome. We are always looking for the next new and better thing. What we have loses its appeal when compared to the shiny new things. Our two year old car that could still go another 100,000 miles can’t compare with the one that smells brand new. Our 3G phone isn’t so good when the 4G service comes on line. Our old wife doesn’t look as good as our new co-worker. If we allow our restless hearts to drive us we chase an ideal all the way to disaster.
But how can we be sure that greed is bad, it certainly motivates people to action? Perhaps the people with the most stuff really are the happiest. Maybe someone should do an experiment. The book we call Ecclesiastes, it’s in the Old Testament right after Proverbs, is a report from a man who did an experiment in having everything he desired. He denied himself nothing. Come now, he said, I will make a test of pleasure, I will have whatever I desire. Greed is the excessive desire for more than one needs. And this man did a test to see if having everything he wanted, way more than he needed, would be fulfilling. He wanted to know what would happen if he gave into his greed?
He tried wine, or drinking to excess, he tried folly – doing whatever foolish or useless thing he felt like, he tried building bigger homes and gardens, he bought lots of slaves to work for him and herds and flocks – he had more stuff than anybody in the capital city of Jerusalem. He gathered gold and silver and treasures, he hired the best singers and entertainers and even had many concubines. He was famous. But in the end it was all vanity –emptiness- and chasing after the wind. The end result was nothing gained. His conclusion was that, while it felt good to gather all these pleasures to himself, in the end it left him empty and searching. Giving himself over to his greed did not bring contentment.
Of course, some level of discontentment makes for a great motivator to get us busy and accomplish things, so it is not all bad to want better things or want things to be better. The problem is when we allow our desire for more than we need, our greed, to devalue the things and relationships we have or destroy the commitments we have made. The hard part is deciding what to be content with and when not to rest. When should our self-control slow us down, and when should it force us on?
A Scottish philosopher and politician named James MacKintosh said (p. 56): “It is right to be contented with what we have, but never with what we are.” In other words, discontent should be a powerful motivator to “improve our moral character, our spiritual life, our pursuit of holiness, our desire for justice, and our ability to love.” In the area of material things we should be quick to say enough is enough. In the area of our moral character and our relationship with God and others, we should always be moving on toward perfection.
This is not an easy task. It is easier to buy a new suit than it is to put on the armor of light, or cloth ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, as Paul says in Romans 13 as he is urging Christians to live lives of love. But the new suit will not make me the man God wants to make me. Each of us gets to decide what we will put on, what impulses we will allow to reign in our lives, which wolves we will feed. So how can you feed the wolf of contentment? In his book, Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, Adam Hamilton lists four keys to cultivating contentment that he finds in Paul’s letter to the Philippians which we heard this morning (Phil 4:11). Paul endured all kinds of difficulties, but he had learned the secret to being content with whatever he had. Hamilton sees four keys in Paul’s statement:
Remember it could be worse. When something seems bad, imagine how it could be worse.
Ask yourself, “How long will this make me happy?” When you consider something, ask if the lasting effect will be good.
Develop a grateful heart. List out the things you have to be thankful for.
Ask yourself, “Where does my soul find true satisfaction?” Recognize that things cannot fill the hole that only God can fill. Don’t expect more of people than they can give.
So let’s, say you are convinced that contentment is a superior approach to life than greed. What steps could you take to help simplify your life and begin to starve the wolf of greed? Hamilton has five steps for simplifying your life I’d like to give you:
Choose to reduce your consumption and live below your means. Pick a habit you don’t like and begin to cut back.
Before purchasing consider your needs and wants. Always ask, is this a need or a want? What will happen if I don’t buy it?
Use something up before buying something new. Many times new is not necessary. Take better care of your stuff. Reduce, reuse and recycle.
Plan low-cost entertainment that enriches. There are many ways to interact and have a lot of fun that do not require a lot of money.
Consider major changes that would simplify your life. Big ticket items like fancy cars and big homes can have an impact across your whole budget. Stop chasing the American dream of everything in excess and live a simpler lifestyle.
Sometimes major changes are too big a place to start and we need to begin just by starting to exercise the muscle of Self-control. I’m reading a book called We Have Met the Enemy by Michael Askt. In it there is a fascinating record of how Americans are losing the battle of self-control. We live in a land of great opportunity and freedom but many of us are literally killing ourselves because we use our freedom to indulge ourselves. Smoking, over-eating, and excessive drinking impact our health over the long term and yet these behaviors continue. Askt says “dangerous habits like smoking, eating the wrong things, drinking too much, and having risky sex account for more than a million fatalities annually in this country, or close to half of all U.S. deaths.” (p. 6) Not only are people dying, but the impact on the population around them because of these habits is also keenly felt. The problem is not that we don’t know the acts are harmful, we seem to lack the control needed to stop. Our lives are cluttered with problems of our own making. What can we do to help each other in a way that respects the freedoms we have and motivates us to seek contentment in the right places?
Paul says that in Christ Jesus we have been called to freedom (that’s Galatians 5:13), only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. How will we chose to live? Hamilton asks the question this way, Which tent will you live in? Discontentment or contentment. Feeding your Greed leads to discontentment. Simplicity and self-restraint lead to contentment.
We have the ability to choose our response to what is happening around us. Paul said “in any and in all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” This is a man who found peace and contentment in the midst of persecution and rejection and shipwrecks and imprisonments. He did not enjoy those events, but as he kept his eye on serving Jesus, he found he could do all things through him who strengthens me. An active and healthy relationship with Jesus is the key to contentment and to joy and to abundant and eternal life. What could be more important than feeding your relationship with Jesus Christ? And we know how to do that, prayer, reading Scripture, worship, Christian fellowship, acts of service. As you choose to feed the correct wolves, you are choosing to allow God to work in your life. Say no to things that do not satisfy. Say yes to the things of God.