Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street. In his last year on Wall Street his bonus was $3.6 million. And he was angry because he thought it wasn’t enough. He was 30 years old, not married, no debts, no philanthropic plan. Sam said, “I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”
Sam arrived on Wall Street as a 23 year old fresh out of college as an intern. He watched as colleagues earned huge bonuses year after year. He had learned from his dad the dream of becoming rich. His father had made that a quest of his own, but died having never reached it. But he thought about it and talked about it constantly. His father would say, “Imagine what life would be with a million dollars?” His dad, Sam would say, thought money would solve all his problems. And at age 23, so did Sam.
His obsession with money caused him to lose an important relationship. His girlfriend of several years finally said to him, “I don’t like who you’ve become.” After that breakup, Sam worked like a fiend and moved up the Wall Street ladder. By the age of 26 he had a contract to work two years for Citibank at $1.75 million a year.
Still, he was nagged by envy. “When the guy next to you makes $9 million, $1.75 million doesn’t seem like very much.” And so it went. His quest eventually led him to a counselor who recognized the warning signs of addiction. She cautioned Sam that he was using the money to make himself feel powerful and that maybe he should focus more on healing the inner wound that was driving the obsession.
Sam says it was in a meeting with his “absurdly wealthy bosses” one day that turned him. They were talking about the new regulations that Congress had imposed on Wall Street following the big crash. Nobody thought the regulations were a good idea. Sam asked, “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” His boss shot him a withering look and said, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects OUR company. I don’t care about what happens to everybody else.” Sam said he felt like he had been punched in the gut.
From that moment he began to see Wall Street with new eyes. He remembers the rage so many traders felt at having their bonuses reduced after the crash. They despised anyone that threatened their bonuses. “Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his stash? He’ll do anything—walk miles in the snow, rob a family member—to get a fix. Wall Street was a lot like that.”
Wealth addiction doesn’t just occur in the “fabulously well-to-do” people. The “quest” for wealth is just as prevalent in those who don’t have it. It is a disease that affects the poor just as it does the rich—like Sam’s dad who died penniless, but never let go of the quest.
Jesus said more about money than he did almost anything else. He seemed to recognize the power of money—especially the power of money to corrupt and to create a barrier between people and God. Allow me to remind you that Jesus never had a bad word to say about those with money. He simply reminded them how hard it was to serve two masters, how hard it was to leave it behind in order to gain something even more valuable, how hard it was a for a rich man to enter the kingdom—as hard as trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle. But immediately after he says, “But it IS possible—Nothing shall be impossible for God. It’s even possible for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle.”
But as one preacher friend of mine once added, “But it will be very hard on the camel.”
In this season of stewardship in the life of the church, I encourage you to consider how your generosity impacts your spiritual life as a whole. If you don’t already know, trust me when I tell you it makes an enormous impact. Make this year the year of radical generosity in your household and see what difference it makes in all of you.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.