You shall not covet… Exodus 20:17
Do you ever covet things? Hanker after things that belong to someone else? Are you ever prone to envy?
You would be very unusual if you didn’t, especially in the wealthy and materialistic world in which many of us live. And of course it’s not just a matter of coveting somebody’s money and possessions, though that is perhaps what we think of first. No; you might covet their health, or their looks, or their talents, or their success, or their marriage, or… oh, the list is endless.
I sometimes feel that the whole advertising industry is designed to stir up the poison of covetousness within us. “You deserve it…” the adverts coo at us. And, fools that we are, we believe them.
Why exactly does God tell us not to covet? Let me boil it down to some of the most obvious reasons…
First, it is essentially selfish.
It elevates what I want to the top of my list of priorities. It puts me and my needs (or should I say my wants?) before generosity, kindness and compassion. It’s all about getting rather than giving – and didn’t Jesus say there is more joy in giving than receiving (Acts 20:35)?
Second, it suggests a failure to trust in God for all we need.
God promises to look after those who trust in him, so if we covet it means, in effect, that we are saying to God, “Your provision isn’t good enough for me – I’m not really sure you will look after me.” It’s striking how often, in the Gospels, Jesus is saddened by lack of faith, by lack of simple, childlike trust; and delighted by its presence.
Third, it destroys peace of mind.
The more focussed you are on other people and what they’ve got, the more chewed up inside you will be because you lack those things. Covetous people are rarely happy people (plenty of novels and plays bear that out!). Some wise words from Billy Graham: “Envy takes the joy, happiness and contentment out of living.”
Fourth, it can lead to seriously damaging consequences.
Have you ever noticed how some of the Old Testament’s most graphic stories are about covetousness? – and how in each case havoc results?
Eve coveted the fruit God said she and Adam shouldn’t touch (Genesis 3) – and their relationship with him was fractured. Achan coveted the treasures of the Canaanites (Joshua 7) – and both Israel as a whole as well as Achan and his family suffered dire repercussions. King David coveted another man’s wife (2 Samuel 11) – and ended up feeling he had no choice but to have him killed. King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) – and likewise ended up hatching a murder plot into which he drew many other people.
Why not take another look at these stories, and see the carnage that resulted in each case? The fact is this: covetousness isn’t just something that lurks unseen in our minds and hearts. No, it spills over into all sorts of sin and ugliness.
Covetousness is, in the end, a form of idolatry – putting someone or something in the place that only God should occupy. And idolatry always ends badly.
But now let’s be positive…
By the same token, the person who has learned not to covet experiences real liberation. (Granted, the learning process can be painful – let’s be honest about that.)
If we have reached a point where we can say, with Paul, that we will be “content” with the basic necessities of life, whatever God may see fit to give us, then we can cheerfully shrug our shoulders at the world around us and get on with the business of living a Christian life. We’re free! And if someone has something we wish we had – well, good for them! And may God bless them.
Paul’s words are worth quoting in full: “Godliness with contentment is real profit [as opposed to the mere “financial gain” mentioned in verse 5]. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
That word “content” is important. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ambitious in a good sense – ambitious, say, to make the most of our talents and abilities – but it does mean that we’re happy to leave our lot in this life in the hands of a God who is our heavenly Father, and who loves us more than we can know.
How are you doing in the class of those who are “learning to be content”? Don’t be in any doubt, the effort and discipline will be well worth while…!
Father God, as I seek to follow Jesus – he who had none of this world’s wealth, not even anywhere to lay his head – help me to sit light to everything the world has to offer. Help me to learn to be content and also generous with what I have. Amen.