Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Demon Avarice

In our materialist era, it is worth considering John Cassian’s description of avarice in his treatise “On the Eight Vices.” (This treatise brought to the Latin West Evagrius' list of eight vicious thoughts and it is from this treatise that Gregory the Great would later develop the idea of the seven deadly sins). Cassian, whose feast would be tomorrow if this were a leap year, identifies the relationship between the destructive influence of demons and excessive worldly possessions. This vice, he teaches, is contrary to our true nature as creatures of God. It grows into an all-consuming passion, but we can overcome it.

Cassian does well to emphasize the role of the demonic in encouraging sinful passions. In this treatise, he begins his description of the struggle against each vice, except gluttony, the same way, as a “struggle against the demon.” In the case I am now considering, “our… struggle is against the demon of avarice.” By attributing evil thoughts instead to nature, the present age too quickly discounts the activity of evil spirits. Remembering that it is not from our selves that avaricious thoughts and desires come properly externalizes the enemy many all too readily internalize and consider to be only natural. Just as an abused child constantly told that he is useless and no good may begin to believe these lies about himself, so we become when we believe the lie told to us by demons that our sin is in our true nature.

We may have been “born this way” (Gaga), we may have been brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Ps. 50/51:5), but it is not our true nature. There is a struggle within us. In that struggle, it is good and helpful to remember that we are not created sinful and avaricious, but holy and generous.

This vice is a sickness contrary to our true nature and thus needs healing. “It enters from the outside,” as Cassian writes, because it is concerned with possessions and the external things of this world. Cassian is careful not to “accuse nature of being the cause of sin.” The false belief that sin is our very nature leads to despair of the possibility of freedom from sin and the battle is lost before the fight begins.

Concerning avarice particularly, it is important to reference, as Cassian does, the scriptural description of the love of money as “the root of all evil” (1Tim 6:10). This image of the root is evocative. It is easy to pull up the roots of a very new and young plant. If the plant is allowed to grow, however, it roots grow deeper and stronger and soon it becomes difficult – eventually nearly impossible – to pull it up. It is the same way with the vice of avarice. One begins by setting aside perhaps more than they need to. Another begins by reducing, just a small amount, but for no good reason, the offering they put in the collection each Sunday. Habits contrary to a generous attitude begin to wear on the individuals that practice them. Soon, they are giving nothing and hoarding all. Instead of supporting the poor and hungry, perhaps they purchase a luxurious automobile. They convince themselves that they deserve to have fine things, even while their neighbors go without necessities. At this point, the roots of avarice are deep and strong.

The vice of avarice presents a particular problem for those of us who are living in the world rather than the monastery. Cassian writes of overcoming avarice, “This uprooting is difficult to achieve unless we are living in a monastery.” Monks, to whom Cassian primarily addresses his treatise, live in such a way that the daily necessities of life do not need to occupy so much of their attention. Those who have families to provide for or others that depend on them are unable to avoid some contact with money. Nonetheless, it is important that they do not love this money or make an idol of it. Some of what Cassian says about a monk applies also to those who are in the world. For example, “raging fury when he happens to sustain a loss,” or “gloom and dejection when he falls short of the gain he hoped for” reveals sinful and idolatrous passion in a layman as much as in a monk. Even those who have not renounced the world entirely should not have a “fear of poverty.” Such fear “comes from lack of faith.” The Lord calls all alike to trust in Him. Not only monks, but also each of us, must live in faith.

Cassian’s remedy to the vice of avarice of utterly renouncing the world and all possessions is a good one, but it is not a virtuous option for those who already have responsibilities for the welfare of others in the world. Consequently, I will conclude with some of his suggestions for healing vices generally. For example, against dejection he recommends “prayer, hope in God, [and] meditation on Holy Scripture.”  These remedies are efficacious not only against dejection, but also against the love of money. Rather than hoping in money to provide for our needs, we should hope in God and look to Scripture to teach us its proper use.


Stephanie said...

I wasn't quite sure where the line came down on original sin or the idea of obtaining sinlessness in our earthly life, but I see the benefit in being reminded that God did not create us for sin, which is true. Although we may be sinful in nature, the Holy Spirit works to perfect us as we were meant to be . Therefore, it behooves us to remember Paul and how in Christ we are a new creation.

Phelps said...

I think my friend John makes several good points. Man being created in the image of God (Genesis 1) certainly can overshadow the fall (Genesis 3). Demons certainly do exist and are present in society, just the same as the realness of you or me.

That being said, we must be careful not to attribute outside demons as responsible for our personal sin, and then attribute an internal struggle of good verses evil as what brings salvation. Just the same way that I would not blame murder on the weapon being used, I do not blame sin on the tempter. I blame it on the one who sins. We are created in the image of God; that image is our true nature. John and I agree on this. But our true nature has been corrupted and therefore, without God’s grace, we are helpless to escape sin. Without the prevenient grace of God calling us to Himself, we cannot hope to have salvation. Thus human nature is to blame for sin. And it is a nature that wants to sin for the sake of sinning (think Augustine and stealing the pears). We need to be convicted of this in order to give us a reason to turn to God.

On Demons: I agree with John that we do a disservice by ignoring demons and treating them as unreal. On the other hand, I have seen Christians who constantly blame the devil, or his demonic forces, for their sin. These people often take no personal responsibility for their sin. This should not be done. While demons might tempt us, demons are not the cause of our sin (explained above). Although I come at it from a different angel, I do agree with John that Christians do not have to give into temptation and that the sin nature is not our real nature. Those saved in Christ have been saved not only from their sins but from the slave hold that sin has on them. Through God’s grace, we have the power to conquer temptations (the all-consuming passion as John describes it) (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 1:8). As such, we are called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). God lives in us and has created us a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Forgetting this, we give demons more power than they really have and we lessen the power of God.

On material wealth: I may be too simplistic, but we have too much material wealth and we do not know how to handle it properly. This a very serious issue that all Christians in our country need to be aware of. Even our poor are rich to some degree. I appreciate John’s last paragraph on this. On a side note, to suggest that monastic life is a better cure for the temptation of money may be an overstatement. Yes it is true that monks often live very simple lives and they are commended for it. But one only has to look to leadership throughout church history to know that monasteries can be a very profitable; income can be abused and has been abused by those in church leadership. Yes, even Monks too can be tempted by material wealth.

Phelps said...

Yikes! It seems I start out with a major mistake. I meant to say, something like, Man being created in the image of God (Genesis 1) certainly can be overshadowed the fall (Genesis 3), but should not be.

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