The same Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice was, replied, ‘Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.’
Avarice (or greed) is one of the eight deadly sins. For those exploring the spiritual life, the eight deadly sins are the fundamental sins which one must overcome in one’s life if one wants to attain purity of soul. They are the eight major root sins; from them, other sins flow. This is what makes them so deadly. They destroy one’s relationship with God. They kill the soul, and so we must fear them: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
By following one of the root vices one’s perception of the world changes. The world is seen in and through the lens of sin. They become never-ending desires, bottomless spiritual pits. They demand us to sacrifice some aspect of ourselves to them, and we get some temporary pleasure from them in return. That pleasure, however, is momentary, requiring us to sacrifice more and more of ourselves to the sinful desire, until at last, we end up sacrificing our conscience, and we end up willing to do all kinds of evil for the pleasure the vice offers us.
Those sins which encourage us to do other sins must be seen as more deadly to the soul than those sins which end in the performance of the sin itself. The root vices are the eight deadliest sins to the soul because of how all other sins can and do flow from them. What comes out of them must be accredited to them, for effects are, in a way, already pre-conceived in the cause which leads to it. Thus, while abortion is a grave evil, what causes one to have an abortion is far deadlier to the soul than the abortion itself, because what causes one to have an abortion causes one to follow many other sins as well. If we can overcome the eight deadly sins in our lives, then the secondary sins which flow from them can be stopped as well. Our fight therefore must focus on the root sins of gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, despair, acedia, vainglory and pride if we want a healthy soul.
Now, Abba Isaiah explains to us what avarice is, not by giving us a definition of the word, but by telling us what factors lead to its development. This is an interesting but important approach. It shows us that even the eight deadly sins have causes of their own. If we understand what leads us to the root vices, what makes us engage them, we will have a far better understanding of how we can overcome them in our lives. So, what does Abba Isaiah tell us about avarice? People engage avarice when they do not have proper faith and trust in God. People accumulate wealth because it provides a sense of security. Those who have faith and trust in God will feel such security without need of wealth. They will keep in mind what Jesus said:
Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them (Luke 12:27 – 30).
Eventually, something changes in us. When we find ourselves having achieved a great amount of wealth, though we still seek to attain more to make sure we are secure, we begin to see ourselves as special. We start looking at ourselves as having attained the good life, and we like to let others know it. We boast to those who we feel we have become superior to because of our wealth. But once we start boasting, we again feel the need to attain more wealth, so that we can boast of our accomplishments to more people. This aspect of avarice is always there, though it becomes more evident the more wealth we have.
It is important to realize what Abba Isaiah says about avarice should be seen as a diagnosis of our society at large. Capitalism is about the accumulation of wealth, about the attainment of goods, and the more one accumulates, the more one is seen to have proven themselves to one’s peers: the more we own, the more successful our lives appear to others. Yet, why do we follow through and look for success in this way? Because we have lost our faith in God. Capitalism offers something else for us to put our faith in: indeed, we are told that the accumulation of goods leads to earthly happiness. Avarice is encouraged, and seen no longer as a vice, but as a good. The moral decay which flows from this should not be a surprise. It does no good to speak against vices one does not like, if one keeps praising the social condition, the capitalistic society, which creates them. Those who keep defending the capitalist way of life, ultimately, are defending the vices which flow out of it.
If one has been poisoned, one must first eliminate that poison. If we want a better, more moral world, we must eliminate the poison of avarice, both in ourselves, and in society at large.
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 70.