Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Beware of the Ahab Syndrome

As the 1920s are called “The Roaring Twenties,” the 1980s will be known as “The Greedy Eighties.” With a great splurge of economic activity, North Americans were swept along on a wave characterized by the LBOs (leverage by-outs) and Junk Bonds. Vast sums of money were borrowed to buy up companies. These loans (Junk Bonds), carrying a high interest rate, were to be payed off by the profits generated out of the purchased companies. For some these deals were broken by the enormous weight of debt. Bankruptcy became the only way out.

But it was not only companies who showed their hands at greed, so did governments. Governments in Canada and the United States borrowed billions upon billions of dollars to finance their budget deficits. In effect we have mortgaged the future of our children and forced them to bear the burden of our inability to manage greed.

However, none of this would be allowed if it weren’t for citizens who also bought into the notion that there is no limit to what we deserve. The gambling casino, The Taj Mahal, build by Donald Trump in Atlantic City, symbolized the dominance greed has in our culture. Lotteries have ballooned as people look for instant wealth, the easy way. Now the former president of the U.S. collects millions for his appearances and sport figures demand salaries skyrocketing into millions of dollars a year.

How did our culture arrive at this point?

This insatiable demand for “the good life” didn’t just happen. It has been building over the past decades. And neither is it peculiar to this generation or decade. However there have been particular developments which have brought us to this juncture this century.

Following the Second World War, there was a determination to build a new world. Experience gained by the tough lessons of the war taught people that something could not come from nothing. To succeed it called for hard work, frugality and long term planning.

Then the radical 60s seemed to break that apart. Protesting students demanded the establishment give way to their interests. But soon the hippies and radicals of 60s were raising children and paying for mortgages in the 70s. And its amazing how idealism is quickly modified when the mortgage payments come due.

The 1970s became known as the decade of the human potential movement. The line, “you are a somebody,” said it all. Optimism reined as our culture decided that idealism without “the good life” was too limiting. Self help groups sprung up. Pyramid type sales organizations lured people into selling everything from soap to lipstick. Some profited many did not. Physical fitness, diets and meditation came in vogue. Abbie Hoffman of the radical and notorious Chicago Seven ended up selling stocks for a Wall Street firm.

As we studied sociology in the 60s to change our world, psychology in 70s to change ourselves, and business management in the 80s to guarantee our economic future, what will be the 90s? If idealism turns to self interest and self interest to greed, what does greed lead to? If in the attempt to get all you can and you don’t, what then becomes the prevailing attitude?

Ahab, an Old Testament king had all he needed yet he wanted more. There was a piece of land a farmer Naboth owned. Ahab wanted it so badly, even his wife Jezebel noticed. Ahab’s greed became so dominant it turned to envy. And that is the logical extension of greed: envy–defined as “a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another’s advantages, possessions, etc.; resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires.” Webster’s New World Dictionary. This is the “Ahab Syndrome”: envy.

We know that the high rolling days of the 1980s are gone. The oil spill of the Exxon’s oil tanker at Valdease, Alaska was a shocking reminder that energy cannot be had without a price. And sometimes the price may be too high, especially when it comes to the destroying of thousands of miles of shoreland and sea life. It is one thing for your children to play in the backyard but when they come into the dining room and spill their dirty toys over the tables and floor, that’s going too far. And so it is with our communities: Wealth and convenience is not acceptable, at any price.

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1945 and 1965, have become the most dominant age group in our western culture. It is this grouping which has the greatest ability by size and economic clout to influence the attitudes and behaviour of our world. And what is their attitude?

Jane Ciabattari writing in Psychology Today, December 1989 said that this generation reared on high expectations of the potential of their future do not know how to deal with limitations. “If the Depression attitude was, ‘You can’t have everything,’ and the postwar expansionist period crated a credo, ‘You can have everything,’ the 1980s taught us, ‘You should have everything.’ And that shift, coupled with current curbs on potential, has opened the floodgates to envy.”

Christians too are endangered by the “Ahab Syndrome.” I was raised in a minister’s home on the Canadian prairies in the 1950s. We lived very modestly. Our church was certainly no cathedral. Indeed it was called Elim Tabernacle; inexpensive and functional.

Our church today no longer has to say “silver and gold have we none.” And that is true of the evangelical church in much of the western world. Our church congregations and people reflect the mainstream culture. Our churches are some of the best built and financed in the community. Our parking lots on Sunday morning are usually filled with modern, up-scaled cars. The pyramid and multi-level sales organizations have been very successful in recruiting our church members to be part of their sales forces. We have been bitten by the “theology” of financial prosperity, popularized over the past decade. In short, Christians today may be infected with the drive for financial success as are their unbelieving neighbours.

As with Ahab, greed will inevitably lead to envy. There is no stopping of greed. It will spawn a heart of envy. For greed, by its very nature, is never satisfied.

While greed is a driving force, pushing one to get more, envy is that which sets up false battle lines with others. Naboth became the enemy of king Ahab. He didn’t know he had. And neither would Ahab have predicted Naboth would become his enemy. Naboth had not done anything against his king. In all likelihood, Naboth was a loyal member of the kingdom, paying his taxes, caring for his family and attending the annual visit to Jerusalem for the great religious feasts. So why was he seen by Ahab as an enemy? Envy had established false battle lines. It had turned a loyal subject–at least in the eyes of Ahab–into an enemy.

Envy also eats away at one’s inner life. Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, saw him one day moaning on his bed. He wasn’t sick from what he ate. He had become sick because of envy. We often fail to understand the intricate relationship of our thoughts and feelings to our physical body. Ahab lost his ability to function; all because he wanted what someone else had. His inner life was inebriated by the poison of envy.

Along with building false battle lines and loosing control of his inner life, in functional terms, Ahab no longer acted as king. The kingdom had become vulnerable all because of envy. Not only are inward attitudes affected but so are outward responsibilities.

Some would argue, “since Jesus promised us ‘I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly’ that therefore I as His child have a right to financial prosperity.” I don’t dispute that in the course of your life and use of your gifts, financial prosperity may be yours. Money is not the issue. It is the control that expectations have over one’s thinking

The health of the Christian and indeed of the church living in a world fed by greed and surrounded by envy can only be maintained when we are willing and able to take a hard look at the antidote to envy.

The 10th commandment reads, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or his male servant or his servant of his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Exodus 20:17, NASB. It does not say it is a sin to have as many donkeys as your neighbour. Neither is the sin in wanting the same things your neighbour has. The sin is when you become so possessed by the desire to have what your neighbour has that your relationship to the neighbour is distorted, your inner control lost and your responsibilities put on hold.

To envy is to violate Christ’s command, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all you mind…You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Matthew 22:37, 39, NASB.

Francis Schaeffer in reflecting on this commandment wrote, “It is an intriguing factor that this is the last command that God gives us in the Ten Commandments and thus the hub of the whole matter…Actually we break this last commandment, not to covet, before we break any of the others.” (True Spirituality, Tyndale House Publishers, 1971, p.7)

As our culture pursues its interests of pleasure and materialistic self interests we would do well to take a lesson from King Ahab. As king he was called to protect his people. But his greed and ensuing envy distorted his understanding and performance of his kingly role. How could he have prevented that? By loving his God and finding contentment in that love. Schaeffer says, “first, I am to love God enough to be contented; second, I am to love men enough not to envy.” (ibid., p.9)

The simple command to love our God is the bedrock of healthy living. Paul also understood. “For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of abundance and suffering need.” Then he follows up with this clincher; “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4: 11-13 NASB.

Postscript: I watched in late 1989 as the Berlin Wall came crashing down and celebrated with those who streamed across the border. I hoped that those who came were not driven out of envy for the materialistic artifacts of the west. If they were then their future will be filled with a compelling greed and not the aspiration to live freely in God’s world.

If the Ahab Syndrome characterizes our culture this decade, I pray that our love for our God is so central that the surrounding culture will take its cue from the Naboths who refuse to sell their inheritance, regardless of the price, and not from the Ahabs, frenzied by envy.

Published in The Decision Magazine, May 1999

Brian C. Stiller:
Executive Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Editor in Chief, Faith Today magazine, author of A Generation Under Siege, Victor Books, 1983, and co-author of Lifegifts, Stoddart, 1990.