Tuesday, April 12, 2011

7 Deadly Sins: Envy and Greed

Before revealing important plot points it is proper internet etiquette to type in caps: SPOILERS. However what I'm about to spoil is a 1986 British mini-series "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," so very little harm will be done. (And the less said about the American movie version, the better.) Taken from a novel of the same name, this is the story of an ugly housewife named Ruth whose life changes when her husband leaves her for a beautiful and successful writer named Mary Fisher. After dumping the kids on the doorstep of the illicit lovers, Ruth blows up her own house to make it appear that she is dead. She then adopts a series of disguises so she can work behind the scenes to sabotage the lives of her errant husband and his paramour. Eventually she drives the writer to suicide and then, through extensive and excruciating plastic surgery, she takes on the appearance of the other woman, winning back her husband and kids. Finally, she takes over both the identity and the elegant lifestyle of her rival. This outrageous uber-feminist satire one-ups "The Count of Monte Cristo" as the ultimate revenge fantasy. It is also a good parable of today's twin sins of envy and greed.

Mary Fisher covets Ruth's husband. At first, we think all Ruth wants is revenge. But the twist ending of the tale reveals that Ruth not only wants what Mary took from her but also wants to be Mary! The mini-series' final shot show's Ruth's grotesque features morphing into Mary's delicate ones. It is as disturbing as anything you've seen in any version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It also illustrates both what is alike and what is different about greed and envy. Greed, or to use its old name, "covetousness," is wanting what someone else has. Envy is wanting what someone else is. Both are prime examples of the cold-hearted category of sins.

While warm-hearted sins are usually controlled by the emotions, the cold-hearted ones are directed primarily by the intellect. And, as Dorothy L. Sayers points out, "The cold-hearted sins recommend themselves to Church and State by the restraints they lay on the vulgar and disreputable warm-hearted sins." Because of the self-discipline they exhibit, we tolerate misers better than we do gluttons, welcome social climbers while shunning slutty people, and prefer those who feel that certain behaviors are beneath them over those who are emotionally volatile. There is some snobbery involved. The warm-hearted sins are considered lower-class; the cold-hearted ones are much more respectable. But until recently they were less glamorous.

The 80s made covetousness sexy. "Greed is good, "said Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone's movie "Wall Street." In fact, Wall Street wheelers and dealers started dressing like Gecko's character, rather than it being the other way around. Many vices were sanctified as virtues and greed was their king. Our whole economy still seems to be based on selling ever more stuff. And that means we consumers have to want more stuff. So R and D dreams up new stuff, marketing figures out how to sell it, and advertising stirs up our greed for this stuff we don't need, along with envy of those who already have it. Consequently we have to work more to be able to buy more of this stuff. Call it treadmill economics.

The Bible does not condemn wealth in and of itself. But it is concerned with how you get it, what you do with it, and your attitude towards it. If wealth is the result of honest hard work, good. If you use it to help the poor, great. If your attitude is that it is not yours to do with as you wish but a loan from God for use in serving Christ in others, excellent. If, however, you act like the rich man in the parable who neither notices nor nurtures poor, hungry, sick Lazarus at his very gate, God will not be happy. He gives to us that we might share with others. But oddly enough, the more we have, the less likely we are to part with any of it.

People may be greedy out of insecurity. Some people came out of the Great Depression with the ability to make do on less; some emerged from it with an unquenchable thirst for more. They want a large reserve, just in case. As he toured on the vaudeville circuit, W. C. Fields socked away money in numerous bank accounts under baroque pseudonyms. He did this, it is presumed, for the proverbial rainy day but he also may have been trying to hide it from the IRS. Decades after his death, banks were coming across inactive accounts for clients with bizarre names like Mahatma Kane Jeeves, which they suspected were his.

I once did private duty nursing for a rich man who had, I discovered, a virtual discount store in his basement. He asked me to change the battery in his smoke detector and directed me to an enormous pharmacist's chest of drawers in which he kept dozens of bottles of mouthwash, cartons of light bulbs, stacks of canned goods and every kind of battery you could think of. He apparently stocked up every time there was a 2 for 1 sale and the like. It was not simply being prepared, it was pathological. As Christians we need to discern between thriftiness and hoarding. The latter, when not a mental disease, may be a symptom of not trusting God enough. It is definitely a control issue. Ultimately God is in control and all attempts to wrest control from him are doomed. Jesus assures us that God knows what we need and will provide it. Expressing such trust is easier said than done. However, learning to rely on God does free one up from all of the unnecessary and impossible burdens we try to carry.

Sometimes greed is a way of amassing money to achieve power. Again this is a control thing but of a much more serious nature. By power we mean power over people: power to bribe, tempt or coerce them into doing what we want. Let's face it, whatever his personal charms, a large part of Hugh Hefner's success with women young enough to be his grandchildren is due to his wealth and power. If he were any other 80-year old man walking around in his pajamas he would not be fawned over by the caliber of beautiful and ambitious people that he is. It is well documented that a certain soft drink company and a certain famous fruit grower were able to use their influence to make our government stand aside and let a duly elected leftist president of another country be assassinated rather than let him nationalize certain industries.

This use of power to corrupt and manipulate is especially corrosive to the soul because it is the opposite of the way God would have us use power. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to misuse his divine power. He was tempted to use it to make a sensation, to satisfy his own appetites, to become the ruler of the world by giving the devil his due. He chose instead to use it to heal and help, a rarity for the very powerful.

We needn't belabor the connection between greed and theft. When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly said, "Because that's where the money is." Likewise, we needn't underline the fact that people are more important than money, though there was a 19th century miser who let her son lose his leg after a street car accident while she delayed treatment to seek a free clinic. But let us go to the heart of the matter. Covetousness is more often just an attempt to fill the God-shaped gaping hole in our soul with gold and glitter. Mammon is still God's rival because he makes less demands and fulfills all requests. And yet the heart never seems satisfied with the cold hard stuff. Sins seldom deliver what they promise.

Envy never does. Wanting to be someone else is a real recipe for misery. But envy tries to make up for that by trying to pull that person down to our level. Envy is the mother of gossip, a sin often mentioned in the Bible but seldom in the church. We love to hear Horatio Alger stories: "local boy does good" and all that. But once someone has reached the pinnacle of success, we get restless if they sit up there too long. We secretly desire to see them fall. That's much of the appeal of gossip websites. Watch those rich people crash and burn! "I may not be rich and famous but at least I'm not a slut/alcoholic/addict like that celebrity." It's the equivalent of slowing down and looking at a traffic accident but much more comforting.

Envy can fuel people's drive to success. Wanting to be like one's idol can impel one to emulate him for good or for ill. In the 20th century, the rivalry of identical twin sisters led them both to the top of their profession: advice columnists Ann Landers and "Dear Abby." Sibling rivalry is often about envy. The famous punch line of the Smothers Brothers, "Mom always liked you best," was funny because we recognize the authentic feelings behind it. We all want to be the primary object of our parents' attention and affection. We are afraid than any directed towards a sibling may mean a shift in parental love.

So envy, like greed, may also arise from insecurity. And the mean things we do out of envy--character assassination, gossip, tattling, maybe even blackmail--are ways of trying to take control of the situation. As we said before, we can never really in control of, well, anything. People and situations can slip out of our grasp. Even our bodies and our minds, through illness or accident, can fail us. We need to learn to let go.

Paul wrote the Philippians that "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me the strength." And what is the secret that takes away the insecurity, that fills the aching emptiness within and allows us to be content?

God loves us. He has always loved us. He will always love us. His love and faithfulness towards us does not waver. We need to take the time to reflect on this fact often. We need to luxuriate in it like a hot bath at the end of a hard day; we need to draw it around us like a big comforter before we drift off to sleep; we need to strap it on like body armor each morning before we venture out into the world.

God loves us as we are. He created us as we are, gave us gifts and abilities, put us in a certain time and place where we can use them. When we accept ourselves as God's beloved creations we can let go of our desires to be someone else and to have their gifts and abilities. We can concentrate on using our abilities to their fullest. As we explore our gifts and mature our abilities under his guidance, we will find ourselves growing into more than we were. Not that it will be easy. It will mean confronting those things we don't love about ourselves, things that put the Son of God on the cross, things we must crucify daily in ourselves. But instead of letting them drive us to desire what belongs to others, let them drive us to desire what belongs to us. Because, as children of God and heirs of Christ, all the riches of God's kingdom belong to us.

If we are to be greedy, let us be greedy for his blessings. And if we want to be like someone else, let us want to be like him. Let our only discontent be that of children, who want most of all to grow up and be like their parents. Because we were intended to be like him who loves us self-sacrificially.

But be warned: if we really open ourselves up to God he will not merely fill our lives, but cause them to overflow with the abundance of his blessings. We cannot hoard them; we must be generous. We cannot hold in his love; it will run over as love for others. Because he is infinite and we are finite. We cannot contain him; but we can be channels of his goodness. Even this materialistic world perceives that, no matter what it says, it is not he who has the most toys that wins but he who distributes the most gifts. After all, who do you want to be: Scrooge or Saint Nicholas?

God is the ultimate giver and he created us in his image. To resist the urge to give is to warp who we are. The paradox is that the more we give, the more we get. It may not be in wealth or possessions but in love and gratitude and purpose and contentment. For such is the currency of heaven.

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