(This post is part of the Enemies of Grace Series. Click here to learn more.)
They sat there in my closet, judging me as I tried to fall asleep. Two bags. One with some adorable gray fashion boots and a pair of black ballet flats. The other stuffed with several cute tops and a new necklace.
And all I went to the store to purchase was a new pair of jeans.
My denim “mom uniform” had grown near-scandalous with its threadbare patches on my thighs. So when I found myself with an extra hour before school pick-ups that day, I’d stopped by the store for a quick peek to see if I could replace them.
And I had a 30% off coupon! And extra cash-back points that were due to expire the next day! And there was shirt with lace-inset sleeves that came in my favorite shade of plum! Crunched for time, I grabbed a few items that caught my eye, tried things on in a flurry, and made quick decisions.
Now, a few hours later, regrets wrapped tight around me as I laid sleepless in bed. How did this happen again? I thought in frustration. My mind went to war against itself—one part wanting to assuage the guilt and return things, but the other part pouting like a little girl: But I really like those things! They make me feel so cute when I have them on!
But I wasn’t only haunted by my shopping choices that night. Because I also live with an unforgettable image of big, chocolate-brown eyes. I was in Ethiopia when I saw them. Traveling with my husband on our adoption journey to bring our daughter home.
We’d made a brief stop so another traveller could buy medicine, and I stayed in the van to wait. Some street kids approached our vehicle, tattered clothes clinging to their scrawny bodies and a pleading message on their faces that needed no translation. They were hungry, and my eyes connected with one boy ever so briefly before our traveling companion climbed back into the van, purchase in hand. And then we were off, the children left behind in the dust stirred up by our wheels.
I will never forgot those eyes. They seared their way into my heart and prompted my involvement with several orphan care ministries. They made me more deeply aware of my own abundant blessings. More willing to consider how I can share my own resources with those around me.
And even still, I couldn’t say no to the pretty things at the store.
In the end, I fell asleep after deciding to keep one of the tops, but bring everything else back to the store. I wasted precious time returning items I never should’ve bought to begin with. And the shirt lost a little of its luster and shape after the first washing. (Of course.)
I’m a nice Christian girl with a lot of love I want to share with those around me. But I also fight this struggle. A force I just can’t seem to control. One that grabs hangers off racks and propels my feet to the register. And it has an ugly name: it’s greed.
Does it sound a little familiar to you too?
Deep down, we know better. We don’t want to give in. We can see through the advertising tricks. We know when it’s excess, when it’s financially unwise. We even know that it’s not going to satisfy. Because we’ll go back to buy again. And again and again and again.
And yet, greed often tugs at our hearts with its mighty invisible force. And we just can’t help ourselves.
An Ancient Struggle
Greed has been festering since long before glossy magazine ads and blinking advertisements in Times Square. It stood there in the garden, beckoning Adam and Eve to grasp more knowledge from the forbidden fruit. And then it played another lead role in the story of their sons, Cain and Abel. (See Genesis 4.)
Abel, a shepherd, offers God the best of his flocks, while Cain offers just “some” of the produce from his farming enterprise. Abel gives generously with open hands, while Cain makes stingy sacrifices from clenched fists. God notices the discrepancy, and looks more favorably upon Abel.
Greed grips Cain: It’s why he holds back from giving the best to God. But it’s not enough to gain material possessions. He also wants the attention and favor God has given to his brother. In the end, greed twists Cain’s heart into a grotesque shape. He just can’t help himself. In a fit of frustration and anger, he takes Abel’s life.
And does greed help Cain gain the affirmation he craves? Not even close. He ends up wandering for the rest of his days. Always looking. Always searching. Never settled.
That’s how greed operates. It fishes with many lures, but they all sparkle with the promise of happiness. Try this new experience. Renovate that room. Go to the mall for some retail therapy. Then you’ll forget the struggles. Then you’ll be noticed by others. Then you’ll finally feel that sense of peace, or affirmation, or control.
Except. It never delivers, does it? This Do-It-Yourself Happiness turns into a project that never ends. Our hearts keep yearning. Our little kingdoms keep spinning out of control. And there’s always one more thing to buy.
In the end, we just feel guilty. We are guilty—of turning to things for the peace and purpose that only God can give. Turns out, you can’t really hold God’s grace in your hands if they’re already clenched around all your stuff.
Greed’s a tricky enemy. It can lurk right there next to our generosity–prompting us to give only “some” away while we seek out more. It can get tucked right next to our gratitude, making us clutch the very things we’re thankful for.
Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies that have helped me minimize the greedy girl within. Maybe some of them can help you too:
- Avoid unplanned or “quick a minute” shopping trips: Greed thrives in quick decisions. Plan ahead so you know what you’re really shopping for and have the time to consider your best options.
- Make lists: Write down what you intend to buy on a list, and then stick to it.
- Find Other Ways to Have Fun: Sometimes we end up overspending out of boredom. We head to the mall (or an online store) because we’re just looking for something fun to do. Consider other activities you enjoy and make them your “go-to” when you’re feeling restless.
- Use a budget and track your expenses: It’s not glamorous or fun, but it’s an effective way to set financial priorities and prevent overspending in your “weak” areas.
- Tithe first: Dedicate a percentage of your budget to God and give it to him as soon as the paycheck arrives. When we wait to give generously until after all our spending, we often find there’s nothing left to give.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal: Make a weekly habit of jotting down the things you are grateful for. This can help us re-set our focus on the blessing we already have instead of looking for more.
This list isn’t exhaustive, by any means. There might be other strategies you can develop to fight overspending. But can I just be brutally honest for a moment?
These things are just band-aids and pills. They treat the symptoms of greed, but they don’t get at the root cause. They help us build virtues like gratitude and generosity, but greed can shift tactics. If it fails to suck us into overspending, it can show up in eating habits, the way we spend our time, or the ways we measure our success in work and ministry. Greed’s a tricky enemy, friends.
So if we want an antidote, we must shine a light so bright that it can no longer hide. And we must pick up a shield against its attack. That shield, I think, is emblazoned with faith.
I am no saint. I have not always done the brave and obedient thing. But when I have? Each time I’ve mustered the courage step out in faith, God’s filled me with things that are so much better than things. He’s given healing, identity, purpose—the inner affirmation and security I crave.
Greed shows up in our hearts when there’s something we’re trying to fill. It might be selfish desires. Or a longing for greater meaning. Relationships that are no longer satisfying or festering emotional wounds. But we won’t overcome greed until we actually trust these things to Jesus.
I don’t say this lightly. Faith is no fairy tale: There are no guarantees for worldly or material success. Just look at Cain and Abel’s story. The good guy is murdered. The one who trusted loses everything, his life bleeding into the ground.
Abel’s name means “breath.” And that’s all this faithful man was. A short breath. Here one moment and then gone. Just a short mention in a few verses of Genesis. How, in the face of this reality, can we really trust? If that’s how God takes care of his people, aren’t we better off with greed—and just trying to take care of ourselves?
Abel shows up again. The lips of our beloved Jesus call him “righteous Abel” (Matt. 23:35). And he’s there in Hebrews 11, too—that roll call of heroes who held on to God’s promises despite all the odds. “By faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb. 11:4).
Abel was but a breath. His life just a blip in time. But his story still speaks to us all, if we will listen.
We are all just a breath, friends. Fragile beating hearts. Who just can’t help ourselves. We cannot mold meaning and purpose from our own two hands—though greed will tempt us to try. We cannot buy the love we crave.
But it is God’s breath that blows through us. And he can wrap our story up with all the others who’ve gone before, tying our destines together in unfathomable ways. He can look upon simple lives and see their eternal purpose—even when we cannot. And in the mysterious math of grace, he takes the sum of all our foolishness and it still adds up to his never-ending love.
Isn’t that more than enough?
If Abel could sit here and talk to us about greed and grace and the fierce faith it requires to trust our resources to God, I think he’d simply ask: What is it—there in your restless, hurting heart—that you’re trying to fill?
And then he’d lean over and whisper:
Because one deep breath of Jesus really satisfies more than all the treasures of this world.
(This post is part of the Enemies of Grace Series. Click here to read more.)