yrtr-sideDuring World War II, I was the pastor of a church in my home city of Louisville. I was asked by a member of the church to visit one of his relatives who was a patient at a large tuberculosis sanatorium. When I arrived at the man's bedside, I found him to be a personable and talkative man of about forty years of age. I asked him how he felt about being in the hospital for such a long stay. He responded: "I am being paid back for my sin." I did not quickly move to reassure him. Rather, I asked him: "Your sin? What did you do?" Immediately he responded: "I wanted it all, Reverend." I asked: "What do you mean when you say you wanted it all?" He said: "Well, you know how scarce labor is with all the able-bodied men in the war. I got me a job at ‘the powder plant’ [a munitions factory in our area], and they wanted me to work all the shifts I was willing and able to work. You know the pay is the best I ever made. I wanted it all. I would work three days three shifts without sleeping. Many days I would work two shifts. I was so greedy that I broke my health down and landed in here. That was my sin. The Lord made me lie down."

We talked about his healing process and how the very conditions of healing were a form of God's forgiveness and God's instruction of him in a discipline of his desires to what is really important. What does it profit a person "to gain the whole world and forfeit his [or her] life"? (Mark 8:36).

This honest man was one of the very few persons I have ever heard confess the sin of greed or covetousness. Two stories from the ministry of Jesus present contrasting examples of how greediness requires our very lives of us and, on the other hand, how peace and serene rest of spirit can happen to us when we are changed by the Spirit and invitation of Jesus Christ.

The first story is that of the rich fool:

One of the multitude said to him, "Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?" And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." (Luke 12:13–21)

Here the man's fantasy was that if he simply enlarged his investments, increased his holdings, and laid up ample goods for many years, this would bring ease. This ease would be one he would take, as contrasted to the promise of Jesus in Matt. 11:28 that if we take his yoke upon us, he will give us that same ease, that rest which we are trusting "much goods" to provide us. The very act of wrongly placing our trust can require of us our life, because greed consumes us. Its voracious appetite is cannibalistic.

The second story is that of Zacchaeus:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:1–10)

Zacchaeus had amassed a fortune through his despised task as a tax collector. In coming face-to-face with God in Jesus Christ, he was radically transformed in his attitude toward both his power and his possessions. When Jesus asked to be his guest at his house, he was overwhelmed by the calm forgiveness dramatized in this request. He received Jesus joyfully and announced: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." Jesus assured him that salvation had come to him and his house. The gift of rest and ease of heart became his. He could be freed of the burdens of greed by sharing with the poor. He could be freed of the burden of injustices he had committed by making restitution fourfold to those whom he had wronged. His life was not required of him because of his greed; rather, it was restored to him as he found the Lord Jesus Christ at the center of his loyalties, the controlling force of his behavior.

Kinds of Greed

Greed is not always for or about the same objects of desire. Yet it is one of the reasons most often given for not resting, for being fatigued. However, persons giving the reasons usually are unaware that greed is the source of their restlessness. "Gaining" is the verb that corresponds to the actions of greed. We struggle against poverty so hard and with enough success that the process of gaining money and property becomes an addictive fascination in itself. We gain prestige when we become financially successful; then the power over others associated with money makes money a means to the greed for power and control. We build a certain concept of ourselves as always being in control, "calling the shots," "naming the tune" for others to dance by, and this ego state itself must be fed more and more. Thus the maintenance of a certain image, or ego, becomes a form of greed. Even in the sphere of religious leadership, we may be so greedy for recognition and adulation that we are threatened, restless, and strained when someone else steps into our spotlight. The many-hued spectrum of greed reveals itself upon refraction to be far more than the yen for money and property. Yet we can agree with Virgil, who said: "Curst greed of gold, what crimes thy power has caused." Whatever the kind of greed, all kinds have one thing in common: the appetite of greedy persons is insatiable and leaves them as restless after gaining things as they would be thirsty after drinking seawater.

Loneliness and Greed

A part of this restlessness is the inevitable by-product of the main mechanism of greed—inordinate, compulsive competitiveness. Competitiveness of this kind leads, not to the camaraderie of teamwork, but to isolation and loneliness. Fyodor Dostoevsky speaks of the subtle connection between greed and loneliness, restlessness and genuine security:

All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, "how strong I am now and how secure," and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. by Constance Garnett, p. 363; Random House, Modern Library, n.d.)

Dostoevsky describes vividly what Philip Slater calls our American "pursuit of loneliness." In the pursuit of affluence, prestige, and power, we paint ourselves into corners of quiet personal desperation and loneliness. We perceive others, he says, "as an impediment, or a nuisance: making the highway crowded when we are rushing somewhere, cluttering or littering the beach or park or wood, pushing in front of us at the supermarket, taking the last parking place, polluting our air and water, building a highway through our home, and so on." (Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness, p. 8; Beacon Press, 1970.)

Such encounters as Slater describes are filled with strain, stress, feverish hostility, and even rage. Rest, tranquility, and renewal are the antithesis. In all our getting we have gotten neither rest nor peace.

 Excess Baggage and Fatigue

The end result of the day-to-day existence of greed-ridden persons is to be weighed down with and worn down by the excess baggage of things and power they have collected. Their lives become cluttered with more than they can use, more than they need or want. The mere accumulation of things, houses, land, and money becomes an energy-consuming force in its own right. In a sense, "all these things" begin to develop a life of their own. If you are such a person, they control you and you are not in control of your own life. Ecclesiastes 3:5 says that there is "a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together." Maybe you have already gone through your time to gather stones together and it is time, as was true of Zacchaeus, to cast away stones. In Heb. 12:1 the faithful Christian is urged to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely" in order to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. This is not a race to get the most, to get it all, to get there ahead of everyone else, to have the last word, to hush everybody else. No. This is a collaborative race in fellowship with other Christians. We compete with each other only in doing honor to one another and in loving our neighbor as ourselves because we love God.

Such a perspective will help us get a fresh angle of vision on what is most important in life. Those whose greed makes them unhappy unless they are $100,000-a-year persons may be working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, putting in 112 hours a week. Even at the baseline of a 50-hour week, this is working more than two shifts! Such persons are not $100,000-a-year persons but $50,000-a year persons who work two shifts! I have seen patients come into our hospital exhausted, depressed, and having made some very unwise decisions. In one case the patient had worked 183 days without a day off. Those were fourteen- to sixteen-hour days.

Similarly, I have counseled married couples in which both partners worked such hours. Their relationship to each other suffered enormously. Efforts at intervening in this system of work were very difficult. Yet the concerns that brought them in for counseling were not about their relationship to each other but about the behavior of adolescent sons or daughters. I am not suggesting that we go back to the old "submission" system of the wife not working. I am suggesting that lowering the standard of living, creating more quality time together, and spending money on family events rather than bigger houses, more clubs, more and finer automobiles, etc., would make better use of the resources of life. You will not rest unless you create time for rest and for peaceful communion with your family. Even if you do gradually start blocking out time for yourself with your family, at first you will be anxious and feel at a loss as to what to do with yourself. You will have to break through that wall of anxiety to rest peacefully.

The Simplification of Life

You have a right to rest without selling that birthright for all of the excess baggage that you are accumulating. The liberation of your life to rest in the way God created you lies within your own power if you will discipline your desires and distinguish between what you really need and what you think other people expect you to have, not even necessarily what you yourself genuinely want. Mencius, in the fourth century B.C., in his Oriental wisdom said: "To nourish the heart there is nothing but to make the desires few." You and I have much more time to replenish and recuperate our total beings if we learn (get someone to teach and encourage us, if necessary) to get along, as Zacchaeus did, with half the stuff we have and feel we must have in order to be a person. As Richard E. Byrd, the Antarctic explorer, said in his account of a journey: "I am learning . . . that a man can live profoundly without masses of things."

A Living Example of Simplification

One remarkable example has been set for older persons in the simplification of life by some young people. I know a large number of them who have simplified their lives drastically as contrasted with us as their parents. As married couples, they share in the preparation of meals. They plant and cultivate a garden. They make Christmas gifts by hand, applying arts and crafts they have learned and learned well. Out of sheer curiosity, they have learned several skills. Their clothing is appropriate but simple, casual, and comfortable. They are as likely to ride a bicycle to work as to drive a car. Increasing numbers of them, if married, are managing as a one-car instead of a two-car family. When they go on vacations their main solution of their need for housing is to camp or to stay with friends along the way. They tend to enjoy hiking, swimming, searching for food at the seaside, in streams, or in meadows and woodlands, where wild plants and berries can be found. If they do buy food, they usually prepare and cook it themselves over a campfire or stove.

Frankly, I admire their simplicity and the functional ways they have of making life pull their families and their friends together into a community rather than apart in isolation. As Dostoevsky again says: "True security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort" (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 363). These younger persons reflect the wisdom of our elder son, Bill, when in 1959 we moved from a smaller house with one bath into a larger one with two baths. He had been uprooted from his friendship group in "the old neighborhood," as he called it. He was eleven and his chums meant much to him. He said: "I would rather have two friends than two baths!"

Some Simplification Disciplines

Cultivating Inner Serenity Instead of "Other-Directedness." Many years ago David Riesman, with others, wrote a book entitled The Lonely Crowd (Yale University Press, 1950). In it he spoke of the "inner-directed," who have a heritage of a clear sense of direction in life and who live according to self-chosen goals. He contrasted such persons with the "other-directed," those whose contemporaries or peers provide their sense of direction. Other-directed persons shift direction and change goals as they are swayed by the media and friends. In being exceptionally sensitive to the wishes and actions of others, they find life becoming increasingly complex. You can readily see that to be too literal about Riesman's different types of persons can become absurd. You do not want to be sensitive to doing things to please everybody with whom you come into contact. Yet you do not want to be self-centered and inconsiderate of everyone but yourself. This reduces the insight to absurdity.

This is not what Riesman, or I, would want to convey. Rather, my point is that your life becomes more simplified if you draw on the inexhaustible riches of the mind and teachings of Christ for your sense of direction in life rather than on the fads, fashions, and total approval of the style setters around you. No greed is quite as subtle and yet as all-consuming as the greed for everybody's approval. A reverse form of this is the greed for everybody's disapproval—both are other-directed. You and I will simplify our lives, what we do, how we do it, what we buy, wear, eat, drive, and enjoy when we are guided by the inner wisdom and balance of an austerity and simplicity we draw from Jesus of Nazareth. Our lives become complex when we are consumed by our greed for being like everybody else, following the latest advertising hype, and living life in hourly awareness of being conspicuously in the spotlight of other people's expectations.

Facing Rather than Retreating from Loneliness. I have spoken, and quoted Dostoevsky, about how greed isolates. Loneliness produces restlessness. Loneliness is another thief of sleep. You may escape loneliness by fretfully working more, making more money, buying more things. In your loneliness you may assuage the pain by going on a buying spree. Then you are in debt and you punish yourself for your extravagance by working more and resting less. Overwork is one way of running from your loneliness.

To simplify your life, turn and face your loneliness for what it is. Arnold Toynbee said that he was a confessed work addict and that the source of his work addiction was his fear of loneliness.

Carl Sandburg spoke most eloquently of loneliness in an interview with Ralph McGill in 1966. He and McGill were walking about Glassy Mountain, near Sandburg's home. He said to McGill: "I often walk here to be alone. Loneliness is an essential part of a man's life and sometimes he must seek it out. I sit here and I look out at the silent hills and I say, ‘Who are you, Carl? Where are you going? What about yourself, Carl?’ You know, one of the biggest jobs a person has is to learn how to live with loneliness. Too many persons allow loneliness to take them over. It is necessary to have within oneself the ability to use loneliness. Time is the coin of life. You spend it. Do not let others spend it for you."

When you keep pushing more and more work into the lonely spots of your life, you are ordinarily letting others spend time for you. Do it yourself and quit running from your loneliness. The rest you get will be healing.

Learning How to Get Along Without Things. My mother was an uneducated woman who worked in cotton mills from the time she was ten until she was seventy-two. She taught herself to read, write, and count, and she learned the oral tradition her mother—my grandmother—gave her and later gave me. She lived to be ninety-one years of age. Upon our visits back home, I was always impressed by the simplicity and ingenuity with which she lived. She could have done even better at it if she had not by brute poverty been forced into a life-long habit of borrowing money. She did this out of habit long after there was any necessity for it. Occasionally on my visits, I would suggest that I buy something for her that would make life more comfortable or pleasant. She refused, saying: "I'm all right. I'm used to doing without such things." She could say with the apostle Paul: "I have learned to find resources in myself whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be brought low, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have been thoroughly initiated into the human lot with all its ups and downs-fullness, plenty, hunger, and want. I have strength for anything through him who gives me power" (Phil. 4:11b–13a, NEB).

A good sense of humor about the vanity of greed taking away our rest and churning our spirits with restlessness is an antidote to the toxic powers of greed.

This wisdom brings back to me the story of our friend Portie Tipton. My wife and I spent a night in his home as his guests. About nine o'clock in the evening, as we sat before the open fire, he suddenly said: "Dr. Oates, are you and Mrs. Oates feeling well?" We both said that we felt quite well. He said: "Well, good. I'm not going to sit up with you. I'm going to bed. I only sit up with sick people!" Then he added: "If there is anything you can see that you need, it is yours. If you can't find what you need, call us and we will help you look for it. If we don't have it, we can teach you how to get along without it." Yet for you and me this is easier to say than to do.

We could have more time for leisure and the enrichment of life if we had someone to teach and encourage us to get along without half the stuff we think we need. But then we would have to learn how to use that leisure.

 

PREVIOUS CHAPTER | TABLE OF CONTENTS | NEXT CHAPTER

The republication of this book was made possible through a grant from Eleanor Bingham Miller