Greed: When Enough Is Not Enough


These days on television, greed seems to be the fashion: rich oilmen ruin their families for money, drug runners count their toll in ruined lives as a profit, young executives flaunt their successes with expensive cars and fancy condominiums.

Unfortunately, the media glitz suggests that greed is a problem only for certain kinds of people or that it will infect us only a few times in our lifetime. In reality, greed is a fairly universal sickness. Poverty is certainly not an antidote for it, but then, neither is wealth. You can find greed wherever you live—it knows no class, race, nation, or language.

The Symptoms of Greed

Greed shows up in many ways. Paul says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Tim. 6:10; italics added.) The symptoms of greed are legion. For instance, Colossians 3:5 and 2 Nephi 9:30 tell us that covetousness is idolatry. [Col. 3:5, 2 Ne. 9:30] When we set our hearts upon anything other than God, we in effect worship “the image of [our] own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world.” (D&C 1:16.) Another problem that often attends avarice is the feeling that we never have enough. (See Isa. 56:11; D&C 56:17.) In many ways, greed is the antithesis of love: it does not suffer long, it is not kind, it envies, it puffs itself up, its behavior is unseemly, it seeks its own, it is easily provoked, and it thinks evil. Greed also fosters thievery, dishonesty, lust, and pride. (See 1 Cor. 13:4–5; Ex. 20:17; Micah 2:2; Micah 6:10–11; 2 Ne. 28:15.)

I first began to understand greed through one of the most unusual jobs I’ve ever had. My father and two of his army buddies started a government contracting company in South Vietnam after he retired from the service. It was one of several businesses that handled jobs the armed forces subcontracted out. Dad’s company bid on U.S. government service contracts and security jobs. In 1972, Dad suggested that I work with them that summer in helping write bids and contracts. The salary, he pointed out, would cover the expenses of my upcoming mission. Despite the danger at that time in the Far East, I decided to accept the job.

The lure and availability of money in a low-expense, unstable, war-torn nation proved fertile ground for the seeds of greed. Though the official exchange rate was 118 piasters to a dollar, the black-market rate was 450 piasters to a dollar. Many dabbled in illegal investments. At least one American I knew built a fortune that way before he was caught. Buying piasters on the black market and selling them at the official rate further weakened an already-weak money system.

During the three months I was in Saigon and Hong Kong, I spent a total of about four hundred dollars, yet I lived far better than I had in the United States. Most American civilians I knew employed several servants and lived in villas left from the French occupation. I remember several conversations I had with acquaintances about whether we were preying on a weak economy or helping to strengthen it.

Saigon featured an unusual price system—the Vietnamese paid one price, the Americans another. For example, a haircut that would cost me 1,200 piasters would cost the Vietnamese only 20 or 30. Unfortunately, even some of the more well-to-do Vietnamese were drawn by U.S. money to act dishonestly. Policemen, for instance, would stop Americans and fine them on trumped-up charges—they had to be paid before the Americans could go on their way.

That summer, the armed forces put up 690,000 tons of scrap metal for sale. Buyers would be responsible for transporting the metal outside of Vietnam, where markets paid about twelve dollars or more per ton. My father’s company bought approximately 40,000 tons of scrap, bidding seven dollars a ton, which was high bid. Dad planned to find a buyer outside of Vietnam who would advance part of the payment, enabling his company to pay the $280,000 to the U.S. government before the thirty-day deadline was up. As middleman, my father would arrange to cut the scrap into movable pieces, transport it to the dock, load it onto a boat he had scheduled, and ship it to the prospective buyers. The company could make between two and three dollars a ton.

One day, a man representing some Hong Kong investors offered to buy the scrap, promising to pay half now and half on delivery. But he kept stalling, and the deadline for payment kept getting nearer. Dad finally discovered that the man hoped to make Dad’s company forfeit so that he could buy the metal for less when it again went up for bidding. He hid his plans from the people he represented in order to pocket the difference. Fortunately, Dad got an extension to pay for the scrap, and the man was fired. However, the company had to start paying nearly one thousand dollars a day for storage.

As it turned out, there were plenty of bids for the nearly seven hundred thousand tons of scrap, but no one was able to get the metal outside of Vietnam. Transportation and labor costs skyrocketed. Each union—truck drivers, stevedores, and other workers—as well as individuals asked such high wages that moving the scrap would cause a loss. Many even sabotaged others’ efforts by refusing to work. Dad ended up paying more than twenty thousand dollars in storage costs. When the United States pulled out of the country, all the scrap metal was still there.

In those three months, I learned some sobering facts about greed. No one is immune to it, and everyone must guard against it. It shows itself in a multitude of ways. At its worst, it results in cutthroat business practices, dishonesty, cheating, lying, disloyalty, theft, inequality, and murder. At its subtlest, it alienates friends and distorts one’s values.

Another reason greed is so insidious is that it can be nearly invisible. Our contemporary life-styles not only encourage but also mask it.

A few months after my experience in Vietnam, I left for a mission in Japan. Then, in 1976, I returned to Japan, with my wife and daughter, to teach English. We rented a sparsely furnished Japanese-style house with a tiny backyard. The largest room was both living room and bedroom. We had no oven, clothes dryer, or central heater. (Most Japanese still don’t use them.) For transportation, we used bicycles and buses. Our life-style was not much different from that of most Japanese.

We enjoyed our three-year stay in Japan immensely. I missed having an oven, but I loved the way we could roll up our beds and stuff them into a closet. Cleaning such a small house (about four hundred square feet) was a snap. I learned to like sundried clothes better than clothes tumbled in a dryer. I fell in love with bicycles, and using them to go to church or to go shopping proved to be easier than I had thought. The simplicity of home life was a welcome change from the hectic pace of teaching twelve language classes and fulfilling several callings in a small branch of the Church. We could save fairly easily, too. We weren’t tempted to buy things on credit—the practice was minimal in Japan—and our expenses were low. (Our rent was about $125 a month.)

Although learning to do without some conveniences I had been used to was not easy, coming back to the States was even more difficult. I’m still amazed at how much Western society encourages and, in some cases, forces spending. Furniture, appliances, and cars are just some of the things many families expect to own. American manufacturers, for example, offer major appliances in sizes ranging from large to largest. In Japan, we owned the second-largest refrigerator model available, and it was still smaller than the smallest standard model I could find in U.S. stores. In the United States and Canada, houses are big. Those who buy a house expect to spend between $45,000 and $200,000, depending on where they live. There aren’t many less-expensive alternatives, and most of us don’t anticipate any.

Of course, living comfortably isn’t a sin. But some societies have developed such expensive standards of living that greed surreptitiously begins its work. Home owners buy larger and more expensive beds, furniture, fixtures, drapes, television sets, refrigerators, ovens, washers, dryers—and then add garages, patios, and dishwashers. Typically, people take out extensive loans and use up much of their savings and much of their income to buy these things.

Such a life-style sets traps of greed. For example, doing without can easily create a feeling of dissatisfaction, especially when we’re doing without things that we consider necessary and not luxurious. On the other hand, buying them burdens our income, and we may find ourselves chafing under financial bondage. Without realizing it, we start to long for more money, complain about how little we have or how hard things are financially, and feel that we do not yet have the “essentials.”

In thinking of the expenses of furnishing a home and putting in a yard, I often forget that I already have four to five times as many material things as I had in Japan. And compared with what the Vietnamese had when I lived in Vietnam, I’m fabulously wealthy. We simply may not recognize what we have because we’re so busy thinking about what we don’t have.

On top of this are the vast number of material attractions that go with life in well-to-do countries. Everything has better, more-expensive brands or models. There are also articles not considered “essentials” that would be fun to have: computers, videocassette recorders, second or third cars, motorbikes, boats, motor homes, air conditioners, satellite dishes, and so on. All are advertised in endless array.

Are any of these extras really bad? Many people have a number of them, and we ourselves may have bought some and discovered how much fun they are. But if we aren’t careful, can we begin to covet these things and push our faith in Jesus Christ to the background? Does our desire for pleasure and physical gratification ever undercut our efforts to live the Lord’s commandments?

It isn’t the possession of these material things that injures us as much as it is our attitudes toward them. Those of us who have sufficient for our needs must constantly guard against false expectations and warped attitudes. Dissatisfaction with what we have and eager anticipation of what we might buy next are subtle manifestations of greed. They can lead to anger about tight budgets and apparently inadequate incomes. Our attitudes and expectations can also be colored by ignorance. We may think we don’t have much or that we have about what other people have. But our lack of knowledge about other people and economies may mislead us into thinking that our standard of living really is “standard.” Last year, for instance, a visitor from Shanghai stayed with my family for a few days. He was about to return to China and wanted to take his wife some inexpensive gifts not readily available there. We took him to a department store, where he pointed out all sorts of small items that were new to him. He ended up choosing mirror sunglasses and a can opener with revolving handle.

Belief in the “Gospel of Wealth”

Sometimes greed infects those who mistakenly believe that God rewards righteous living with material wealth. Certainly, one of the oft-repeated promises in the Book of Mormon is this:

“If ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land.” (Alma 37:13.)

That parallels the more general promise: “Keep the charge of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, … that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest.” (1 Kgs. 2:3.)

There is a difference between wealth and prosperity, however. The Lord has promised that if we serve him, we will prosper and have sufficient for our needs. But wealth is another matter. With so many millions in the world who don’t have enough for their daily needs, why should we expect the Lord to make us wealthy?

And yet, many of us continue to expect that our material conditions will automatically improve if we remain faithful. Some tithe payers even think of tithing in terms of an investment—expecting their tithes, like good stock investments, to pay dividends in greater material wealth. After all, they feel, the Lord has promised that he will open the windows of heaven to those who tithe. (See Mal. 3:8–12.) That promise, however, may have spiritual as well as temporal overtones. The only concrete promise in Malachi is that the Lord will rebuke the devourer; it makes no promise of material gain.

Elsewhere, the Lord talks about the nature of the riches that he may give us: “If ye seek the riches which it is the will of the Father to give unto you, ye shall be the richest of all people, for ye shall have the riches of eternity.” Then he adds a warning about earthly wealth: “It must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give; but beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old.” (D&C 38:39.)

There is no doubt that the Lord does bless us—but in his way. Many who diligently try to keep the Lord’s commandments do not flourish financially. Many, in fact, may find themselves at times unable to make ends meet. Yet they can point to spiritual riches the Lord has given them that they would never trade for a new car or a more luxurious home.

They are experiencing the blessings that accompany this admonition: “Seek not for riches but for wisdom; and, behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.” (D&C 11:7.)

Sadly though, some fall victim to greed when they think that the Lord and his church are failing them economically. Paul describes the result in his love-of-money passage: “They have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Tim. 6:10.)

A modern-day account illustrates what some have called the “gospel of prosperity.” One couple, when they joined the Church, were enthusiastic about the gospel and Church service. But after two and a half years, they left the Church. They could never shake the idea that they ought to receive something for everything they did. The spirituality and joy they initially felt were soured by their expectations of material rewards.

We ought to have faith that the Lord will bless us for our efforts, but we must not hand him a “shopping list” of the blessings we expect to receive. Our greed begins when we think more about what God owes us than what we owe him. The Lord has promised the faithful the “riches of eternity.” We should be content with that promise and serve for the joy of serving.

Some Cures for Greed

Fortunately, the Lord has not left us helpless in a world that promotes the philosophy that we can have anything we want for money. Not only has he described the symptoms of greed clearly in the scriptures (see Prov. 15:27; Luke 12:15; Mosiah 4:21–25; D&C 104:4), he has also given us instructions on how to prevent greed or overcome it. Just as greed can undermine our allegiance to gospel principles, our allegiance to gospel principles can fortify us against greed.

One cure mentioned more than a hundred times in the standard works is giving to the poor. The ideal—no poor among us—was, in fact, achieved at least three times previous to our dispensation by people who unselfishly shared what they had. (See Acts 4:32–34; 4 Ne. 1:3; Moses 7:18.) One period in the Church during Alma’s time exemplifies how wonderfully greed can be stayed by giving:

“In their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.” (Alma 1:30.)

Here, prosperity worked for the people instead of against them because they gave liberally and did not set their hearts on their possessions. If there is a “gospel of prosperity,” perhaps this is it.

Gratitude is also a wonderful cure for greed. As awareness of the gifts and love of God deepen within us, we begin to put our lives in eternal perspective. If we understand the Atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ, how can we possibly expect our good works to “earn” us more than what God has already given us? King Benjamin taught:

“If you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—

“If ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.” (Mosiah 2:20–21.)

Perhaps the best preventive medicine is love of God and others—for charity does not envy, is not puffed up, and does not seek her own. The love of money may be the root of all evil, but “charity preventeth a multitude of sins.” (JST, 1 Pet. 4:8.) A person with the pure love of Christ wants to help, bless, and care for others rather than acquire material things to feed a self-centered attitude. Greed is an attitude we can change. We should be thankful that the Lord has given us the means by which we can overcome it.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Carol Norby