My friend, Anna, shared this story about one of her young children who was acting out a bit because the child's sister had just opened many birthday gifts. The child was displaying her displeasure when Anna took her aside and gently sought to make it a teachable moment:
"I know your sister has lots of new Barbies and toys today, and you don't. But today is her birthday, and these are hers. This is called coveting, when we want what someone else has, and we do not want to covet."
"I AM NOT COVETING! I WANT WHAT I HAVE, AND I WANT MORE!" she retorted.
I love the picture of denial and definition in the same response. We learn early, do we not, to deny the presence of undesirable practices or traits in our lives while we manifest them just the same. It is part of the human condition. We only get better at this with age.
"You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight." James 4:2
We do not have to be four or five at a birthday party to see the truth of this scripture. It is as near as our family gatherings, office meetings and political discussions; pretty much wherever people are present there is evidence of the universal experience of selfishness at the heart of coveting. We want what we have, and we want more.
It is not enough to have our needs met, we want more.
It is not enough to have more than most in the world, we want more than others in our zip code.
Selfishness then drives us to think that we are somehow entitled to more which fuels humans' desire to act on that motive.
Jealously, envy and that little-used word, covetousness, are roots of the same thorny tree which snags our shirts and holds us while we think we are free of' its grasp. We are told that we deceive ourselves if we say we do not do this (I John 1:8). I can laugh at the little girl's story above, but do not like to see pieces of me in the story.
I recall a grainy photo on 8mm movie film (before the days of the dvd and cell phone camera) capturing a dark haired little girl near a bakery cake with icing roses for her four year old birthday. I stood beside my two year old brother with open arms spread cautiously around the cake so his finger would not stray near the icing. Yes, that may be normal child-like behavior. But that image has stayed with me as a check point - a kind of visual short hand - for recognizing a similar display of selfishness in adulthood.
Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child...but when we become grown, we learn to put away childish things.....
Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, our former pastor, wrote with his daughter The Seven Deadly Sins workbook which we studied with small groups in the past. It was enlightening. We do not talk much about sin today in America, but we would do well to see how behaviors stemming from self interest and covetousness manifest themselves to damage our lives and relationships. Interestingly, there are corresponding virtues - positive traits - to each of what we call the deadly sins. Picture a spectrum with attitudes and behaviors located along it from one extreme to another if that is helpful.
While there are predispositions and inclinations toward selfishness in us, we face choices daily to act on them or not. We are not victims. "That's just the way I am," is no excuse and does not absolve us from responsibility for our actions.
We can choose to live generously with an open hand, or to live close-fisted lives. With God's help we can become aware of our selfishness and live empowered to overcome it as a driving force for us. The lives of those I admire and seek to emulate are people who have learned to live graciously and generously, whether they give out of their meager resources or out of plenty. It is not a matter of how much someone has, but how much we are willing to let it go in order to grow out of selfishness.
For it is in giving that we receive....(attributed to St. Francis of Assisi).
(image courtesy www.webweaver.nu)