After last September's collapse of Lehman Brothers in New York and the beginning of much global financial misery Andy Sewer (managing editor of Fortune) and Alan Sloan (also of the magazine) wrote the following:
"It's horribly confusing, not to say terrifying: even people like us, with a combined 65 years of writing about business, have never seen anything like what's going on ... How did this happen, and why over the past 14 months have we suddenly seen so much to fear? Think of it as payback. Fear is so pervasive today because for years the financial markets - and many borrowers - showed no fear at all. Wall Streeters didn't have to worry about regulation, which was in disrepute, and they didn't worry about risk, which had supposedly been magically whisked away by all sorts of spiffy noveau products - derivatives like credit-default swaps ... This lack of fear became a hothouse of greed and ignorance on Wall Street - and on Main Street as well. When greed exceeds fear, trouble follows." (Time 29 September 2008).
This particular form of greed led to practices that seemed so easy and simple:
"If you borrow 35 times your capital and those investments rise only 1%, you've made 35% on your money. If, however, things move against you – as they did with Lehman – a 1% or 2% drop in the value of your assets puts your future in doubt."
Why people have been so angry is that this greed saw people in finance companies betting "big with someone else's money," again to quote Sewer and Sloan;
"if you win, you get a huge bonus, based on the profits. If you lose, you lose someone else's money rather than your own, and you move on to the next job. If you're especially smart - like Lehman chief executive Dick Fuld - you take a lot of money off the table. During his tenure as CEO, Fuld made $490 million (before taxes) cashing in stock options and stock he received as compensation. A lot of employees, whose wealth was tied to the company's stock, were financially eviscerated when Lehman bombed."
Greed and sexual immorality
As I was writing the above words, a journalist rang me to ask about Jonathan Ross. His BBCTV show was returning to our screens that evening after he had been having an enforced absence due to uttering obscenities (together with Russell Brand) on another BBC show. That such episodes are now, sadly, commonplace should not be surprising following the screening by the BBC of Jerry Springer, the Opera in 2005 (see Coloured Supplement April 2006). But also it should not be surprising that a culture of sexual permissiveness should go hand in hand with a culture of greed.
Such permissiveness then gives rise to various forms of sexual immorality and a sink culture in which communal effort is demotivated and people will not care about one another. Selfish greed will thrive. E.J.Mishan memorably writes that in a society made up of people who seem happy to tolerate a sexual free for all, an individual may well ask some questions:
"are these the sort of people for whose society he must stand ready to make sacrifices? ... Can anyone care very much what happens to a society whose members are continually and visibly obsessed with sexual carousal - to a society where, in effect, the human animal has been reduced to a life-style that consists in the main activity of alternatively inflaming itself and relieving itself?"
The clear teaching of the Bible is that there is an association of sexual immorality and greed. The Bible also teaches that this combination of sexual immorality and greed will result in "the wrath of God". Paul writes in Colossians:
"Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming" (3.5-11).
Of course, we have to be careful. To suggest that the current financial collapse is God's judgment on human sinfulness, should not lead us to say that someone loosing their job or surrendering their home is because they are especially sinful. Jesus warned against coming to such a conclusion. He spoke on one occasion about a tragedy where people lost their lives and others were tempted to speak of their guilt. This was the collapse not of an economy but of the tower in Siloam:
"Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13.4-5).
In that situation Jesus seems to be warning his audience of the fact that, in some way, all are guilty. So at such times we all should take stock, spiritually speaking, and check up on our own lives. We should ask ourselves whether we might be guilty of the very things of which we think others - the big "fat cats" in the banking world - are guilty. So Paul sees the need to warn believers of temptation with regard both to sexual immorality and to greed:,blockquote>"But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people" (Eph 5.3).
What is greed (or covetousness)?
Greed in the Bible is sometimes translated as "covetousness". There are a range of similar words that the writers use but they all relate to the tenth commandment, "You shall not covet." This is the only one commandment (among the ten) that is about the inward sins of our thoughts as distinct from the outward sins of our words and deeds. It is referring to uncontrolled desires addressed to the wrong objects. And the commandment spells out some of these wrong objects as
"... your neighbour's house ... your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour" (Ex 20.17)
"Covetousness is a dynamic state which is liable to explode into violent action but more often it stimulates plans to get the things so much desired. That is the course of covetousness in strong men. Covetousness in timid people shows itself in resentment, discontent, irritability and a readiness to belittle the possessor of the coveted thing or things."
If greed, or covetousness, is a failure to control wrong desires, it is obvious that a culture that encourages giving in to sexual urges (as of right) and discourages sexual restraint, is unlikely to be nurturing a culture of deferred gratification in terms of wealth and possessions. Expect, therefore, greed and covetousness to accompany sexual laxity.
Contentment - the opposite of greed
Put positively the tenth commandment, prohibiting greed, is a call to contentment. So Hebrews says:
"keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.' So we say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'"(Heb 13.5-6).
Interestingly, this verse follows a call for "the marriage bed [to be] kept pure" and a warning that God will judge "the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."
So "fear" or being "afraid", Hebrews indicates, is not part of contentment. The world hopes that fear will exceed greed. That should then prevent the worst of the consequences of wrong or evil desires. Fears, however, cannot be lived with for long. Various forms of escape will be attempted sooner or later. Perennial favourites are drugs, alcohol and sex. But then expect an explosion, at some point, of those worst consequences. The Bible teaches that a consciousness of the presence of God protecting and providing is a saner and safer way of overcoming fear. This follows Jesus' teaching against fear or "worry" in the Sermon on the Mount. He taught that worry is useless and unnecessary. For, he said, "your heavenly Father knows" your needs, and if you trust him, he can be relied on to supply them as you "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Mat 6. 27,32,33).
Contentment does not mean the elimination of desire, as philosophies like Stoicism and religions like Buddhism seem to suggest. Contentment is the elimination of our selfish desires and the adoption of desires for God's will and others' good. That may, indeed, involve making money but honestly and responsibly, as Paul did through his tent-making (Acts 18.3).
Thomas Chalmers spoke of "the expulsive power of a new affection". He was referring to the knowledge of Christ's love for us which helps us redirect our desires so we put God first and others second and our own self-gratification last. Such "godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6.6).