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Greed and Envy: The Twin Terrors

When we set our sights on God, we're freed from greed and envy by practicing generosity and gratitude.


Let's begin with a story I read in The New York Times. It's a story told by a young Wall Street trader who found himself addicted to money—not just to money, but to more money. I'm going to let him tell the story in his own words.

Eight years ago, I walked onto the trading floor at a bank in Boston to begin my summer internship. I already knew I wanted to be rich. When I walked onto that trading floor for the first time and saw those glowing flat screen TVs, high-tech computer monitors, and phone turrets, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was competitive and ambitious—a wrestler at Columbia University. After graduation, I got a job at Bank of America. I was sharp, clear-eyed, and hardworking. At the end of my first year, I was thrilled to receive a $40,000 bonus. For the first time in my life, I didn't have to balance my checkbook before withdrawing money. Over the next few years, I worked like a maniac and climbed the ladder. Four years later, I made $2 million a year, rented a $6,000 per month loft apartment, and got myself a girlfriend. I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan or be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game, just by picking up the phone.
Still, I was nagged by envy. On a trading floor, everyone sits together. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, your $2 million doesn't look so sweet anymore. I went to work for a hedge fund, working elbow-to-elbow with billionaires, and became a giant fireball of greed. In my eighth year on Wall Street, my bonus was $3.6 million, and I was angry because it wasn't enough.

To make a long story short, that ended up being his last year on Wall Street. At a certain point, he woke up to what was happening to him and to those around him, and he ended up walking away. The first year was incredibly hard, he said: waking up at night panicked about running out of money, scouring the newspapers to see which of his old co-workers had gotten promoted. Over time, it got easier, but his addiction to wealth hasn't fully gone away. He admits he still buys lottery tickets sometimes.

Not many of us will make or see that kind of money in our lifetime, but we are just as vulnerable to the deadly sins of greed and envy. These twin terrors can afflict any of us—no matter where we find ourselves in the financial universe. Like the other vices we've been talking about, these two can rob us of joy, ruin our relationships, and drive a wedge between us and God.

Let's try to understand them first, and then we can consider how we might find healing and freedom from them. They really are twin terrors in the sense that they feed off each other, as we heard in this story. They are both violations of the tenth commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Ex. 20:17).

Covetousness is simply an inappropriate desire for something someone else has. It's interesting that covetousness should make the top 10 list; it sure doesn't seem as bad as idolatry, stealing, murder, or adultery. But it can be deadly, as we're finding out. It had something to do with Cain killing Abel, and something to do with religious leaders killing Jesus. Greed and envy are similar, but distinct. Chances are most of us are more prone to one than the other. See which one strikes closest to home for you:

Greed is about having more.
Envy is about being more.

Greed is about more for you.
Envy is about less for your neighbor.

Greed delights in your good fortune.
Envy delights in your neighbor's misfortune.

Greed is about stuff.
Envy is about status.

Greed prompts us to compare ourselves to others.
Envy prompts us to compete with others.

Both of these sins cause us to look across the fence to our neighbor's backyard and conclude that his grass is greener than ours. If we're greedy, we want our grass to be as green as his. If we're envious, we just need his grass to turn brown!

Greed and envy are alike, yet different. Let's take a closer look at each of them for a minute, because they are each going to require slightly different antidotes.

Twin terrors

I'm going to define greed as "an insatiable desire for more than you need." The problem with greed is that it's never satisfied. John Ortberg calls this "the myth of more." He writes, "We suffer from a phenomenon called 'reference anxiety,' more often referred to as 'keeping up with the Joneses.' We don't ask if our homes and cars meet our needs. We ask if they are nicer than our neighbors. We work like crazy to make it so. But what do you do when the Joneses refinance?"

Listen to some of the symptoms of greed, and see if they apply to you: a preoccupation with money. Letting the cost of something keep you from enjoying it, or taking a job or promotion simply for the money. Compulsive spending. Buying things because you're bored, depressed, or simply because they're on sale. Hoarding. Buying more than you need, or hanging on to things simply so you'll have them. Conspicuous consumption. Buying things so people will know you have them, or simply because you can. Miserly living. Depriving yourself or your family of necessities. Being stingy with tips and gifts. Overspending. Living beyond your means. Carrying credit card debt. Improbable risk. Reckless investing, gambling, or buying lottery tickets.

Any of those sound familiar? Kind of like having your heart up on the big screen?

I've never really thought of myself as a greedy person. Money doesn't tend to motivate me, and I've never been big on cars, technology, or furniture. (Just don't let me wander around Sports Authority for too long.)

For the first 20 years of my marriage, my wife and I never owned a home. We lived in student housing or parsonages. The nice thing about that was we never had to choose a home—we just took what was offered and made the best of it.

When we moved to Massachusetts some years ago, it was our first opportunity to buy a home. That was the summer of 2000, and the housing market was through the roof at the time. There weren't many homes on the market, and there wasn't much in our price range in suburban Boston. For a while, we despaired of finding anything that would work for us—then, suddenly, a house came up that was just right for us. It was in the town we wanted and for the exact amount we had to work with. It was bigger than our parsonage in New York, had a nicer yard, was in a quiet neighborhood, was walking distance from the schools, and had a pool in the backyard. It was more than we could have asked for, and we ended up getting the house, even though our bid was less than others offered. It was clearly a gift from God. We didn't think we would ever own a home, and now we had one that seemed perfect for our family. And I was more than content with it.

That is, until I started driving around town. I'd see other houses for sale and think to myself, Now there's a nice house! I wonder what that's going for? I'd drive through another neighborhood and think, Now this would be a nice place to live. Why we didn't look here? It was terrible. Days after buying more house than we ever thought we could afford, I was dissatisfied. That's what greed does to you. The more you get, the worse you feel. As we learned from the story in our introduction—it's never enough.

How about envy? If greed is an insatiable desire for more than you need, I'm going to define envy as "an incurable fear that others have it better than you." While greed is driven by desire, envy is driven by fear, by feelings of insecurity and inferiority. While greed is about comparing ourselves to others, envy is about competing with others. You want to look better, feel better, live better, be better than everyone else.

Jealousy and envy are different. Jealousy is about holding on to what you have—and there are times that's appropriate. God is jealous for us. Husbands and wives should be jealous for each other's love. Envy is about wanting what other people have. But if you can't have it, you don't want them to have it, either!

There's a legend about an old saint who came upon two men arguing about which one of them was the greatest. He said to them, "Make a wish, and I will give you anything you ask for, providing your adversary is given twice as much." The first man was given a choice. What would he ask for? If he asked for riches, the other man would have twice as much. If he asked for fame, the other man would be twice as famous. Suddenly, it dawned upon him, and he knew exactly what to ask for. He asked to be made blind in one eye.

That's what envy does to you. It only makes you miserable—because no matter how much you have, achieve, or enjoy, you can't be happy because there's always someone else who has more, achieves more, or enjoys more. When you think about it, envy is the only one of the seven sins that gives you no pleasure at all, right? All the others offer at least temporary or shallow rewards—pride feels good, anger lets off steam, gluttony tastes good going down, lust gets your blood going—but envy never feels good.

My wife Karen sometimes gets to speak to women's groups, and when she does, she sometimes speaks about the awful feelings women can have standing in line at the checkout counter, looking over the magazines on the rack. The women in those magazines always seem to have better bodies, hunkier husbands, smarter children, newer houses, trendier wardrobes, and tastier menus. No wonder so many women feel so insecure.

Men have their own struggles with envy and competition. Who makes more? Who's better known? Who's in better shape? Who has more hair? As William Willimon aptly puts it, "Envy begins in the showers after the junior high basketball game."

While greed is not generally a vice for people in ministry, envy often is. One of the pastors on our staff was, for many years, the solo pastor of a couple smaller churches. He talks about how he used to dread going to the annual convention of his denomination. Each pastor in a given state or region would report on the growth (or lack thereof) of his or her church. A book would be compiled and distributed with statistics on worship attendance, funds raised, and how many people were baptized. It was a feeding ground for comparison and competition. He knew he was supposed to rejoice with those who rejoice, but when he had worked and prayed and sacrificed so much, only to end up on the bottom of the list, it was hard to be happy for the pastor who had just had another banner year.

From idolatry to contentment and security

We have these twin terrors, greed and envy: an insatiable desire to have more than you need, and an incurable fear that others have it better than you. Chances are you are prone to one or the other.

While these two sins have their differences, they are both forms of idolatry in the end. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul gets at that idea when he says, "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (3:5).

That final phrase, "evil desires and greed," seems to capture these two in its sweep—greed and envy. Both are forms of idolatry in that they compel us to look to other things for what only God can provide. When we're struggling with greed, what we're really after is contentment: being happy with what we have. When we struggle with envy, what we're really wanting is security: feeling okay about who we are.

Those are the lively virtues that correspond to these vices. Instead of trusting God for our contentment and security, we think that having more will make us happy, and that being better will make us feel secure.

How do we deal with these two terrors? How do we get beyond them to a better place? Let's turn for a moment to Psalm 73, where we find a spiritual leader who also struggled with these two vices. This is recorded as a psalm of Asaph.

(Read Psalm 73:1-13)

Can you hear the unhappiness and insecurity? The comparison, the competition? The desire to have more and be more than those around him? Remember this is a believer: a worship leader, probably. But these twin terrors have gotten hold of him, and he's miserable. He's lost sight of the fact that he belongs to God and that God is good. That's what happens to us when we start looking over the fence at others' backyards instead of appreciating the yard God has given to us.

What's the remedy? How do we break free of this obsessive comparison disorder? Let's keep reading.

(Read Psalm 73:16-19)

You see what happened? When he entered the sanctuary—the worship space—he took his eyes off his neighbors and directed them toward God. As he watched the smoke of sacrifice rise, and his eyes were directed upward, toward heaven, he remembered that God is the source of life, the giver of all good gifts. He remembers how fleeting this life is, how quickly fortunes are made and lost, how surely sin eventually finds us out. He remembers that God is the judge who will finally and fully reward those who put their trust in him.

That's why we need worship. In truth, worship is the antidote to all of these deadly sins, because it gets us focused again on God and his goodness, righteousness, and justice.

Generosity and gratitude

But there are two forms of worship that are especially powerful in overcoming greed and envy. The first is generosity. Generosity is the healthy habit that frees us from greed and leads us to contentment. When we give money away, when we give stuff away, when we share what we have freely with others, we break the grip of greed; we pry its fingers off our throats.

Think about it. We all know wealthy people who are greedy, and we all know wealthy people who are generous. Who's happier? The generous ones, right? Neuroscientists have discovered that when people give something to another, pleasure centers in their brains light up. It feels good to give! It's what we were made to do. I can honestly say—and I'm sure you'd agree—that I have never regretted one dollar I've given to God's work in this world. I've regretted plenty of dollars I have spent on stuff and experiences that I thought would make me happy, but I've never regretted one dollar I have given to God's work.

Generosity breaks the stranglehold of greed by reminding us that God is the source of all good things: that he knows what we need and that he can and will provide for us.

The second form of worship that helps us overcome envy is gratitude. Gratitude forces us to stop looking at what others have and instead to appreciate what we have. Instead of obsessing over how green or brown our neighbor's lawns are, we instead receive and enjoy whatever lawn God has already given us. Instead of comparing the size of our home or bank account or church to our neighbor's, we simply enjoy the home and money and church that God has given to us. When I stand on my little deck and look out over our backyard, when I think about all the good times we have enjoyed in our home over the years, when I think about the people we've been able to know and minister to in our community, I am so grateful for the home and yard and neighborhood that God placed us in. I thank him for it all the time.

I hope you do that. Take time each day to thank God for his gifts, to remind yourself and your children how good God has been to you. It's good to bow your heads three times a day to thank God for your food. It's good to begin or end your quiet time with prayers of thanksgiving. It's good to keep a journal beside your bed and to record and remember the good things and important things God is doing in your life—because when we remember how good God has been to us in the past, we find our security in him rather than in our social status, bank account, or good looks.

Generosity is the healthy habit that leads to contentment, and gratitude is the healthy habit that leads to security. To put it in a sentence: When we set our sights on God, we're freed from greed and envy by practicing generosity and gratitude. Generosity and gratitude set us free to enjoy all that God has given us, and all that God has called us be, without having to compare or compete with those around us.

Look at where Asaph ends up by the end of this worship experience: "Whom have I in heaven but you? / And earth has nothing I desire besides you. / My flesh and my heart may fail, / but God is the strength of my heart / and my portion forever" (Ps. 73:25-26). He realizes that in the end, God's goodness is enough for him, and even more than enough.


I mentioned earlier that envy is a common malady among pastors, and I am certainly no exception to that. There was a popular professional journal for church leaders called Leadership Journal. It was a quarterly collection of leader profiles, best practices, book reviews, that sort of thing. To most of you, that probably sounds about as exciting as reading the phone book, but if you were trying lead a church, it was a big deal.

I remember reading it as a young pastor and being so impressed by the leaders and articles I would find there, written by pastors of great churches all over the country. I remember wondering what it would be like to have an article published in Leadership Journal, how it would feel to see my name and picture there at the end of an article, proving to everyone that I'd arrived—that I had something to say.

As it turned out, many years later, I did actually get something published in that journal. I remember opening it up the day it arrived, finding my article in the table of contents, and flipping to the end of it to see my picture and read my bio—only to discover that there was no picture. They had either never received it, or decided it was too scary to print, so there was no picture: just a name. Then I noticed they had edited and re-arranged the article in ways I didn't like. When I read it through, it wasn't nearly as brilliant as I remembered it being. I was embarrassed, angry, and dissatisfied. Something I thought would make me feel good about myself—getting published in a professional journal—turned out to be a big disappointment.

That's the way it goes with these deadly sins, especially greed and envy. They seem to offer something life-giving, but end up robbing us of the very thing we are looking for. Greed makes us unhappy with what we have, and envy makes us insecure with who we are.

Looking back, I'm so glad that first article came out with no picture and a sense of disappointment. The Lord used it to teach me how foolish it was to measure my worth by comparing myself to or competing with people—and how foolish it is to think my security as a pastor or a person rests in my performance or my reputation.

A few years later, I had another article published. This time they included the picture, and you know what? It was awful! I thought I was way better looking than that. But I was able to laugh it off and move on—because I know that God has given me more than I ever could have asked for or imagined, as a pastor and as a person. I'm free to be myself, to enjoy my life and ministry, to share it freely as I have opportunity, and to rejoice with others when they find prosperity or success.

I won't pretend that I don't still struggle with envy and greed, but little by little, the Lord has been liberating me from the tendency to measure my worth by what other people say about me or to find happiness in what I have or accomplish. I'm free to live the life and become the person God uniquely called and created me to be.

The same can be true for all of us when we find freedom from greed and envy: by setting our sights on God's goodness and practicing generosity and gratitude.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Twin terrors

II. From idolatry to contentment and security

III. Generosity and gratitude