Dragon-sickness: a term for delusional greed coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit.
We hear of it first when Tolkien describes the dragon as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm called Smaug” (23), who, he later says, dreamed “dreams of greed and violence” (177). But once Smaug has been slain, the sickness endures. As the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield claims his throne as King under the Mountain, the dragon-sickness falls on Thorin. Which is powerfully captured in the final Hobbit film Battle of Five Armies.
Greed first blocks Thorin’s compassion. In the opening scene, his company of dwarves stand in horror looking out over the distance toward Lake-Town with compassion on those enduring the wrath of the dragon which the dwarves have awakened. Meanwhile Thorin has his back turned to the tragedy, and his gaze is fixed on the now unguarded Lonely Mountain and the massive treasure hoard within.
Greed also makes him fearful. When Smaug has been slain by the brave bowman of Lake-Town, Thorin barricades himself and his men into the mountain, fearing others will seek some portion of his gold. Once he had been a man of his word, but now he refuses to keep his promise to repay those who had helped him on his journey. He then becomes suspicious of his most loyal men, suspecting irrationally that they are hiding from him his most precious jewel, called the Arkenstone.
And greed blocks his love — as he even abandons his own kin, his cousin Dain, who greatly outnumbered, fights the enemy for him at Thorin’s own threshold.
Finally, by some strange, miraculous light, his wits return. He is freed from selfishness, fear, and indifference, and leads his men valiantly into the battle that likely will spell their end.
And so Thorin joins Hollywood’s Gordon Gekko and Dicken’s Ebenezer Scrooge among the manifestly greedy who show us in story-form the often subtle and always diabolical greed that stirs in our own hearts. But even more real than fiction are the biblical portrayals: Elisha’s assistant Gehazi, the rich man who built bigger barns, and most frightening of all, the one who betrayed God himself in human flesh thirty filthy pieces of silver.
What’s caricatured in Thorin and Scrooge, and terrifying in Judas, is that same sin of greed at work in all of us. Rich and poor. Unbelieving and born again. If you think that greed is not in you, you’re in the gravest of danger.
Greed, Breathing Fire
By way of definition, then, greed is our inordinate desire, our excessive love, for wealth and possessions, for money and the things money can buy — and even for self-esteem, security, status, and power. Greed’s object is money and things, but it is not to be identified with those things. Greed is a misplaced craving in the heart. It is good desire gone wrong. God made us to have and to hold, to desire possessions and things as his creatures in fitting relation to him. The problem of greed is not that we desire things, but that our desires are misdirected and out of proportion.
Greed lurks in our hearts, often unnoticed, as we walk the aisles of a store, or consider cheating on our taxes, or ponder how much to tip the waitress, or how much to give the church, or whether to help a friend in need. We could be browsing Amazon or flipping through a catalog, or evaluating our insurance and retirement, when our sinful and broken hearts swell in their desire for the things of earth in a way that eclipses our valuing the God of heaven.
We will not be done with the battle against greed in this life. It is not a fight that will be won in a moment, but in the Spirit-powered progression of little moments, some attacks smaller, some larger.
“The problem of greed is not that we desire things, but that our desires are misdirected and out of proportion.”
But we do not fight with uncertainty about the outcome. Jesus dealt dragon-sickness its deathblow at Calvary. He smote the ruin of the Dragon and sin and greed and hell on the mountain when he was nailed to the tree and broke the chords of death with resurrection life — the life we now taste, and one day soon will fully possess.
Our practical path, then, to victory over our dragon-sickness requires both offensive and defensive tactics.
It begins with a battle plan, call it a personal or family budget, as a blueprint for generosity, for contributing regularly and sacrificially to the needs of the church and the progress of the gospel among the nations.
Our premeditated decisions about finances should flow from Jesus’s own vision of money, that it is not evil in itself, but that money is a tool in the hands of eternity. “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth,” says the Master in Luke 16:9.
And with it, we hear the words of the apostle that it is not Christian to channel money to ministries far and wide while neglecting those in our homes. First Timothy 5:8 is one of the most striking words in the New Testament: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
We strategize for the battle, but then we must fight the foot soldiers on the ground. So here are three battle cries for your fight against the dragon-sickness of greed, each with texts from the Ancient Book. These are for the moment of temptation, when that inordinate desire for money and stuff and security and power raises its dragon-head in our hearts. They are given with the prayer that God’s Spirit would give us the wherewithal to sense its rise, to acknowledge its danger, and strike with his Sword.
Battle cry #1: I can wait.
Because greed is good desire gone wrong, we need to realize that there is some God-designed impulse in and under this sin. God created us to come into possession of an inheritance so great we can only begin to fathom it. One day soon we will have it all. Already now we have the downpayment of the Holy Spirit, who, according to Ephesians 1:14, is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.” Our Father owns the universe and everything in it, and in union with our brother Jesus, it is all coming our way as a part of our everlasting joy. It’s just a matter of time.
“God created us to come into possession of an inheritance so great we can only begin to fathom it.”
“Blessed are the meek,” he says in Matthew 5:5, “for they shall inherit the earth.” Or, to quote his apostle at the end of 1 Corinthians 3, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (vv. 21–23).
When my heart is more set on Jesus than money and stuff, then I am ready to possess with him all I can imagine, and ten thousand times more. I can wait.
Battle cry #2: Giving is better.
Remember the words of Jesus in Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
When every sinful impulse in us wants to take and take and take, we fight back with superior pleasure: Giving is better.
Giving is happier than getting. Even, and especially, when we give till it hurts — which is called “sacrifice.”
Which shouldn’t be construed as a blank check for those who give recklessly and fall into the condemnation of 1 Timothy 5:8. But most of us, brothers, are not in any danger of giving too much. And we need the reminder, when considering what to contribute regularly to the church and to missions, and what to give spontaneously for joy to some special venture, that giving is better. And when we trust Jesus’s words, and learn to walk in this truth experientially, then we grow increasingly as cheerful givers (2 Corinthians 9:7) like our Father, who is the consummately Cheerful Giver.
Take something as small as tipping. It is so easy to always round down, always give just enough to get by, or a little bit less. But if giving is better, then this generous tip is for me. Leaving a generous rather than miserly one is not only about kindness toward the waitress, but about not giving greed a foothold in my own heart, and experiencing the joy of generosity now. Giving is better.
Battle cry #3: I have the Great Possession.
Here, finally, is the deepest campaign against greed. The fight against greed is a fight to be satisfied, not only in what is coming, but most importantly in what we already have — whom we already have.
He is the treasure hidden in the field, worth selling everything to have (Matthew 13:44). He is the one of surpassing value, worth suffering the loss of all things to gain (Philippians 3:7–8). He is the better and abiding Possession of Hebrews 10:34 who is more excellent and more enduring than every other possession we have or ever could have. He is both better in depth and better in durability.
Valuing Home Above Gold
As Thorin lays dying, broken from battle but now in his right mind, he utters his final words to the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins: “If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place.” Yes. And how much more when we value our true home. And still more when we value the one whose presence will make it truly home.
“Our Father owns the universe and everything in it, and it is all coming our way. It’s just a matter of time.”
Christian, we have a greater possession than the Arkenstone. We have a treasure infinitely greater than all the gold in Erebor. His name is Jesus. To be at home with him is our great reward. He is our better possession and abiding one. We are our Beloved’s, and he is ours.
And when he is our Great Possession, dragon-sickness has lost its power, and we are finally freed to possess the kingdom our Father created us to inherit. And even on that day when we finally have it all materially, our greed-free hearts will gladly say, “All I have is Christ.”
David Mathis contributed a chapter on greed to the new book from Desiring God, Killjoys: The Seven Deadly Sins. All electronic versions of the book are free of charge at desiringGod.org. Print copies are available through Amazon.
Killjoys was written to lead you deeper in love with our God and further into war against your sin. Pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust are woefully inadequate substitutes for the wonder, beauty, and affection of God. This short message was part of the 2015 Conference for Pastors.