Greed is not a financial issue. It’s a heart issue.  —Andy Stanley

H ave you ever been stopped in traffic and watched an accident unfold, seemingly in slow motion, right in front of you? I saw an accident yesterday afternoon. Coming to a line of stopped cars in rush hour traffic, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see a car moving very quickly toward me, change lanes suddenly to avoid hitting me, only to slingshot into an intersection three cars ahead and hit a mini-van turning through the line of stopped cars. Though no one appeared to be hurt, the accident was senseless. The speeding car was going 40-50 miles per hour, trying to navigate stopped traffic; it was a recipe for disaster.

As I watched the young women get out of her wrecked car, I was struck by an intense impression of selfishness. She was young enough to retain a certain fearlessness but old enough to know better. Whatever urgency was moving her flew in the face of reason – no amount of speed was going to get her anywhere fast. She stood by her car looking irritated, perhaps she felt put-off by the slow-moving mini-van blocking her path. Maybe the accident was just another indignity visited upon her during a day of “bad luck.” Regardless, she was driving very fast because she felt compelled to get around all of these people holding her back. In her mind, her desires superseded the wants, needs, and safety of the drivers around her. The impatient look upon her face only fueled my impression.

We typically associate greed with financial avarice; an intense desire for more money. As a society, we bucket such individuals into simple categories like robber barons, the “1%”, Wall Street bankers, or simply rich people. It is easy to accuse the wealthy of greed and so our love/hate relationship with money continues – the ongoing aspiration to be wealthy melded with the belief that those who have it acquired it with some sleight of hand and in profoundly greedy fashion. Sometimes we associate greed with power; a condition reflected in our political world and even more intensely in the movies and stories we tell of those with or seeking power. As I watched that traffic accident, it occurred to me that it is our selfish pursuit of our own interests that fuels our greed and those interests go far beyond the pursuit of money or power.

If greed is an insatiable desire for more, where else does it rear its ugly head? Everywhere. Consider a few areas on this list:

  • Relationships – our need for more love, more sex, more attention, more affirmation, more of whatever we want, can drive incredibly poor choices. Greedy self-interest often pushes people away and impedes happiness.
  • Negotiations – how many deals break down because we want more? What doesn’t happen because we aren’t getting what we want?
  • Community – what happens in our communities when one person or group imposes their will? Many special interests stem from greed. How many things do or don’t get done in our communities because of someone else’s need for more?
  • Entitlement – if a sense of entitlement appears in the absence of gratitude, what role might greed be playing? When we believe we are entitled to something, where do we draw the line on getting it? It doesn’t have to be wealth to foster an insatiable desire for more.
  • Addiction – perhaps the ultimate “insatiable desire for more.” Food, drugs, alcohol, and a host of other desires can become addictions. At the center is self, even if it is self-loathing, and our greed drives us further and further into that hole. What better definition of greed than “the inability to get enough?”
  • Environment – we see a lot of very broad statements on greed and the environment: pollution, progress, and profiteering have gone hand-in-hand for centuries, a curious combination of greed and problem solving. What about the more mundane? The person throwing trash out of the window of his car as he drives down the street. The cast away cigarette butt that ignites a forest fire. Where is the greed? Convenience. Laziness. Selfishness. Greed reflects our attitude toward the world around us and appears when we seek to use it for our own purposes regardless of others. Greed is not about good intentions gone wrong but the darker motivations moving in and around us.

Greed has many faces and they aren’t all about money or power. Greed is a reflection of self-interest taken to an extreme; selfishness pushed to the point of imposition upon others or the world around you. Like so many negative attributes, greed sits on the flip side of healthy ambition, self motivation, and aspiration to more. Our good intentions gone to extremes. In this sense, we are all creatures of light and dark and our best selves, our greatest gifts, are the same things that take us to our worst when we go too far.

Greed is a reflection of self-interest taken to an extreme…

Returning to the young woman, I’m certain that she did not feel that her actions were a reflection of greed. We are all wired for self-interest and it is closely tied to our survival instincts. However, in a world in which we are mostly way beyond survival, self-interest easily warps into selfish desire: I want. I deserve. I need. Me. Greed occurs when our motivations turn to selfishness and the unhealthy elements of self-gratification. A place in which we place our self-serving idols before others and become consumed with more.

Today, I challenge you to look for the signs of greed in your own life. We all have them, after all, they only mirror extremes of our better selves. Find a place for moderation in your desires and, upon occasion, seek self-denial. Why? Often less is more and we find that it is in the giving that we receive in ways far beyond anything gained by our most acquisitive selves. Recognize the greed in your most basic inclinations and work to balance it with a healthy generosity.