The previous two articles in this series dealt with the sins of the flesh: gluttony, an inordinate focus on food, and lust, inappropriate use of our sexuality. In this article, we deal with avarice, a sin with obvious similarities to the previous sins but one that is not directly physical. Like the glutton, the avaricious person always wants more and better, only avarice craves possessions rather than food. And like gluttony and lust, avarice takes something that is good and even necessary—we need some physical resources to survive—and twists it out of shape into an obsession that controls us. Avarice is thus a transitional sin, bridging the gap from the sins of the flesh to the sins of the heart and mind.
Avarice is defined as an excessive or insatiable desire for money or possessions. As is true of all of the Seven Deadly Sins, it can manifest itself in several ways. The traditional picture of avarice is the miser, who hoards all his money and refuses to spend anything except the bare minimum to keep alive. Misers exist, and they make their own lives and the lives of everyone who depends on them miserable—a word that is etymologically related to “miser.” Think Ebenezer Scrooge before his conversion.
But the miser is only one way that avarice can manifest itself. Avarice may focus not so much on possession as acquisition. A typical example of this would be the person who is very interested, almost obsessed, with purchasing something, yet once the person buys it, he loses interest in it. It goes into a closet, drawer, box, or basement, and is soon forgotten. Variations of this include the compulsive shopper and the recreational shopper—the thrill is in the purchase, not the possession.
Yet another manifestation of avarice is conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption involves buying things primarily because they are status symbols rather than because of the value or utility of the items. This again can take many forms. One of these has been termed “competitive consumption.” This could be simply the old mentality of “keeping up with the Joneses,” or it could involve one-upping the people in your peer group or social circle. A potential example of this is home-buying. Many people buy houses far larger than any conceivable need in the family. Why is that? What is the reason behind the purchase? Is it to impress someone (or yourself), or to keep up with other people in your peer group?
Cars can also fit into this category, as can any number of other luxury items.
But it isn’t only durable goods that are objects of competitive consumption. The average American wedding today costs over $35,000, and often involves taking on substantial debt. It may make the event more memorable for everyone and impress the guests (in other words, it may be a status symbol or competitive consumption), but does it do anything to enhance the marriage? Probably not—it may, in fact, stress it when the bills come due.
The examples can be multiplied. It is all part of the consumerist mentality that is a central element of American culture. We “purchase” things on credit, mortgaging our future income to satisfy our immediate desires, with the result that today, the average American has over $5,000 in credit card debt. We are defined by what we have, not by who we are, and our value is tied up with our net worth and our possessions: “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.”
While this may sound as if it’s an upper- or middle-class phenomenon, it isn’t. The poor are just as likely to suffer from consumerism and other forms of avarice as the wealthy. In fact, the people I know who are most controlled by money are those who do not have a lot of it. They become obsessed with finding ways to make more money, or on get-rich-quick schemes or the lottery. Some from poorer communities engage in their own forms of conspicuous consumption in the form of jewelry (“bling”) or owning a BMW. Envy of those who have more money and possessions is another expression of avarice. Much of the concern for guaranteed minimum income, “economic justice,” and redistribution is built on the assumption that life does consist in an abundance of possessions, and if we could only get everybody their stuff, social problems would go away—a position rooted in an avaricious worldview.
In short, whenever money or possessions become the driving force in your life, whenever you let them define you or determine your worth either in your own eyes or in the eyes of others, whenever you see in them the ultimate solution to your own or to society’s problems, you have effectively turned them into an idol and are guilty of avarice.
Dealing with Avarice
The first step in dealing with avarice is recognizing that we have a problem. This is not easy: everything around us encourages a consumerist mentality. We know intellectually that we do not need more, but we still buy things anyway and we have to rent storage units to hold all the stuff that doesn’t fit in our houses. When it comes to money, we can cloak greed behind terms like economic security, financial success, living the good life, etc., while in reality it is more about the money than about us. Money has become our idol, and we serve it rather than using it to serve ourselves and others.
So, self-examination and brutal honesty are critical here: we need to reassess our attitudes toward money, toward acquisition, toward our possessions. To do this, commit yourself to recording every penny you spend for a month, and then look back over your purchases and determine how many of them were necessary and how many of the others you still think were responsible purchases. This will help you identify impulse purchases, binge shopping, and the like. Consider bringing in a close friend who knows something about finance to work through this with you. You are less likely to deceive yourself with someone you trust working with you.
Ask yourself if you think money or possessions will make you happy. Studies consistently show that once basic needs are met, more money does not produce more happiness. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: more wealth frequently leads to greater anxiety due to fear of loss, protecting assets, etc.
To break the hold of money and possessions on your life, make a habit of giving it away. Many charities would welcome your excess property or could use money to help those in need, to advance a ministry, etc. Watch your heart as you give: do you feel anxious? If so, give more. In fact, the biblical standard of giving is generous and even sacrificial giving, such that you give so much that you can no longer do something you would otherwise want to do.
Using money for positive ends, giving it away to help others in need, takes away its power over our lives. That is the critical step in overcoming avarice. In the process of giving, over time we develop the virtue of generosity, which is the antithesis of avarice and is the virtue that most directly fulfills the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.