Avarice, part i

Today’s sermon in Father John’s ongoing series on the seven deadlies addressed avarice. It won’t be posted to the church website until later in the week; perhaps there will be a part ii when I get a chance to re-read it.

Meanwhile, I had a few thoughts.

First of all, it was good that he took the opportunity to remind us why we are doing this series, or why we would study sin. It is not because we must always feel as awful as possible about ourselves and our wickedness. Nor is it in order to judge the wickedness of others and feel superior. It is because we are made for life — and because sin sneaks in and disrupts life. If we learn more about how sin works, we might sooner see the signs of it and take action — repent, seek forgiveness, make use of spiritual disciplines, and so on.

Years ago Steve Camp made a song with this chorus:

Oh, to gladly risk it all
Oh, to be faithful to His call
Abandoned to grace yet anchored in His love
Living dangerously in the hands of God

Partly the song is about devotion and commitment and obedience and service.

Partly, though, it is about walking in faith without fear.

I have a tendency to be pretty fearful. I am often deeply afraid of being wrong and of sinning, of causing pain, of making messes. I am sometimes afraid I will never feel like I have enough love in my life. On the other hand I am sometimes afraid I will never be properly grateful and content with what I do have. I am sometimes afraid that wanting something, material, relational, or otherwise, means I should not have it, especially if I want it “too much.” I am sometimes afraid I ask, desire, expect, demand, need, or want too much, especially from people. I am sometimes afraid that letting go, giving up on things I long for, will mean a cold and lonely and shriveled and dry life.

I would rather live without fear. It would be dangerous — all the things I fear could happen. But I think it would be better to “live dangerously in the hands of God,” trusting in his mercy and loving advocacy, than to live fearfully in my own hands. “Come, thou long-expected Jesus,” as the carol asks, “from our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee.”

Avarice is the inordinate seeking of anything, inordinate affection for anything. It is idolatry, and it’s not just about material goods and conveniences and comforts. Our pastor in Virginia, Steve Shelby, used to define idolatry as anything you try to get life out of. All that God has made is good, and is there for us to enjoy. It is idolatry when our desire or affection for the thing is disordered, when we try to wring life from it, as if it were not a created thing but the Creator, the only fountain of life.

Once when I was six or seven, I was in the backyard, by the lilac bush, wanting something. I “knew” God would not give it to me unless I didn’t want it. So I stood there trying to stop wanting it. Each time I thought I’d succeeded, I would excitedly begin to pray, to ask God for this thing, whatever it was. And I’d stop short, realizing that my excitement meant that I must still want the thing after all. There was no possible success for this effort.

It wasn’t the last time I tried to stop wanting, to curtail my desires, to cut myself down to the size the universe seemed to expect me to be, to make my needs fit the available supplies.

If it is impossible, by strength of will, to restrain and reform our inordinate desires, what then shall we do with them? Must we abstain from good things until we can appreciate them without idolatry? Sometimes? Maybe? Are there times and situations in which we do not need to, or should not, run away from the thing but keep trying, with repentance, with renewed effort, with faith and trust that God is sanctifying us and will continue his good work in us? With a penitent radical acceptance that we do, in fact, inordinately desire that thing, looking to Jesus to change our heart and bring us back into a right relation with him and with creation?

I’m not all that greedy for material things. Most of what’s in our house is from yard sales or thrift stores and we’ve had it forever. (It was hard for me to feel allowed to buy something so extravagant as a dulcimer.) I have been greedy for experiences and for good feelings. I think mostly, though, my avarice is for people — for nurture, for kindness, for devoted attention, for companionship, for affection, for deep fellowship, for understanding.

It is a subtle, delicate thing to consider where the psychological need, the emotional hurt, ends and the spiritual idolatry begins, where the proper boundaries should lie, what is realistic to ask of people, what is appropriate to give and receive. It is an interesting thing to consider how fear and avarice intersect.

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3 thoughts on “Avarice, part i

  1. “It is not because we must always feel as awful as possible about ourselves and our wickedness.” surely hope so!

    “Must we abstain from good things until we can appreciate them without idolatry?” no no no no no no no. desire is wonderful. desire must be kept alive at all cost. desire is LIFE.

    “I think mostly, though, my avarice is for people — for nurture, for kindness, for devoted attention, for companionship, for affection, for deep fellowship, for understanding.” not avarice. desire. love. need. all good and holy things.

    thus spake giovanna.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Gio. I think there is something to this idea of avarice and idolatry — when we can see people and things as they really are, I think we can enjoy them more freely… but in the grip of inordinate desire we can get rather tormented and unable to enjoy at all… and yet the idea of pulling back, tempering the desire, admitting the limitations, can feel just awful and impossible at those times.

  2. Pingback: Avarice, part ii | Becoming Three

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