There once was a king who ruled a vast kingdom, larger than any king possessed before. His palace was filled with gold, silver, and precious gems. His storehouses were filled with grain. He had more livestock than what could be counted. He had married the most beautiful maiden in his kingdom. His army was both loyal and mighty; no other kingdom dared attack him.
The king had everything one could possibly want. Yet, he was not satisfied. He would count his wealth, number his livestock, delight in his beautiful wife, but he was not content; he wanted something more.
He called in his advisors and asked them what he could do to be truly satisfied, what more he could possess to be content. But his advisers could not come up with anything.
Finally, an old sage, wrinkled and bearded, came to the king and told him he knew how the king could finally be satisfied. He said to the king, “To be truly satisfied requires a very deep magic. You must find one man in your kingdom who already is truly satisfied, take the shirt off his back and put it on, and then you will be truly satisfied.”
The king quickly summoned the captain of his army and told him to gather his soldiers and search throughout the kingdom, find one man who is truly satisfied, take the shirt off his back, and bring it back so the king could wear it and experience true satisfaction and contentment.
Immediately the soldiers began scouring the kingdom, searching for a man who was truly satisfied. The days went by, the weeks went by, the months went by. Finally, after many months of searching, the captain of the army returned to the king.
“Your majesty,” he said, “I have good news and bad news for you.”
The king replied, “Please tell me the good news.”
The captain said, “Your majesty, in a distant corner of your vast kingdom we finally found a man who is truly satisfied.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed the king. “And where is his shirt?”
“Well, your majesty,” the captain responded slowly, “That leads to the bad news. You see your majesty, he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He doesn’t even own a shirt.”
The point of that story is not that we must get rid of everything we possess and never desire anything to be satisfied. For there are plenty of people who have little who are not satisfied, and there are people with much who are. But more than a few people have fallen for the lie that true satisfaction and contentment are found in possessing more things and more money and more success and more prestige and a more youthful appearance, and so on. Probably some of us, maybe all of us to a degree, have fallen for that lie. But the fact is, true satisfaction and contentment cannot be found in material things or outward circumstances. For we are made for a higher purpose, and only in realizing that purpose can we be truly satisfied.
Unfortunately, we can easily deceive ourselves, can’t we? We may think we are pretty satisfied with life – until we see the latest car advertisement and that kindles a desire within us, or the state-of-the-art home entertainment center our neighbor just purchased and that triggers a longing within us, or until our brother-in-law boasts that his mutual fund rose 20% last year while ours only gained 10%. And then we realize we are not as satisfied as we thought, and that in fact, we have a covetous streak in our heart.
Today we come to the last of the Ten Commandments, found in Exod. 20:17. It states: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” I’m guessing this is a commandment that challenges us.
This commandment is different from the others in that it deals primarily with the desires of our hearts instead of our actions. To covet is not only to desire something; it is to desire strongly, passionately, so we think we absolutely have to have it – even though it may belong to someone else. The other commands – you shall not steal, you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery and so on, while they are rooted in desires they deal with actions. And therefore, we know very clearly whether or not we have violated those commands. We either have done such things or we have not.
But this command goes deeper for it addresses the attitude of our heart. Thus, it’s a more challenging command, for it is more difficult to change our attitudes than our actions. In fact, we can change our actions but still have the same attitudes or desires internally.
What is coveting really all about, besides obviously desiring something strongly? Coveting reveals several things that are true of our hearts. When we covet it reveals a lack of contentment in what we have and who we are. It reveals a lack of trust in God - that God really understands what we need and is able to provide that. And it reveals that we have wrongly assessed those things we desire, for the reason we desire them is we are convinced they will bring joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment to our lives.
This commandment is not limited to the six specific things mentioned – coveting our neighbor’s house, wife (or we could include husband), manservant or maidservant, ox or donkey. The commandment ends by saying we are not to covet “anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Anything means anything, not just money or material things. It includes such things as their career, their position at work, their status in the community or their role in the church. It includes their educational opportunities, their talents and skills. We may covet someone’s sense of calm under pressure, their singing or speaking ability, their good health, or their youthful energy as we get older and can’t do all that we used to do. If we’ve always struggled with our weight, we may covet someone’s faster metabolism that makes them naturally thin. If we’re short we may covet another’s height, or if we’ve lost a good deal of our hair we may covet the full head of hair that our neighbor sports.
Some of those things we desire so strongly we may try to seize, such as greater wealth, a larger home, or our neighbor’s spouse. And some we may not be able to take for our own, such as our neighbor’s good health, youthful energy, or thick, healthy hair. Either way, the attitude of coveting runs counter to God’s good intentions for our lives. For it means we have wrongly valued the things of this world, that we are looking to the wrong things to give us meaning and satisfaction, and that we are not trusting in God’s goodness and wisdom to provide what we truly need.
Coveting has been around a long time; it really is at the root of original sin. When Adam and Eve walked in the garden they had everything they needed. They had each other. They had a beautiful, serene environment to live in. They experienced deep and intimate fellowship with God. God met all their needs. And yet when the tempter appeared and told them that there was one thing yet that they didn’t have, they coveted. They wanted more. They weren’t content with all the good things and the good life God gave them.
And isn’t the same often true for us. No matter how much we have, we’re not satisfied and so we desire more, or we think we’re satisfied until we see our neighbor pull into his driveway with a brand new car. If we were to examine our own lives and the sins we struggle with, I’m guessing that many of them would find their root in covetousness – always desiring something more.
At the same time, we must note that by means of this command God is not saying that we shouldn’t desire things. Christianity, unlike certain other religions, is not a religion that calls us to die to all desires. Certain Eastern religions teach the goal of non-desire. Perfect peace, they proclaim, is found in not wanting anything. Buddhism teaches that the root of all suffering is found in desire, and therefore one must learn to desire nothing at all. But Christianity is far different. For when God created this world He filled it with good things, things for us to enjoy. So God is not commanding us not to enjoy these good things. But this command instructs us not to desire these good things in the wrong way or for the wrong purposes.
The fact is, God has not only filled His creation with good things but God has created us with this quality of desiring. And proper desires are beneficial for ourselves and others as well. Desire leads us to learn more, to pursue better health, to discover greater truth and to invent new things. We desire to acquire certain things because we need things to survive in this world. A person who doesn’t desire anything is soon living off the charity of others.
We have a desire for relationship, both at the friendship level and also at the deepest level of all between a man and a woman. We desire relationship for the meaning and joy it brings us.
We desire to succeed. That is a good desire for it pushes us to be the best we can be, to do the most with our lives. Desire is a good thing.
The problem arises when these good desires for good things are misdirected and even perverted. When we desire things to the extent that we are never satisfied with what we have and so we want even what our neighbor has, it shows we have wrongly valued such things. And it indicates that our orientation is completely selfish in nature – I have to have more, even more than my neighbor. When I desire not only to succeed but to succeed at all costs, when I have to attain the success my neighbor has, it shows that I cannot love myself simply for who I am and that I mistakenly think my worth is measured by some worldly standard of success.
How do we know when we have crossed the line from normal desiring to coveting? Perhaps these guidelines will be helpful. We covet when we desire excessively. What we have is never enough. We always have to have more and we find ourselves dreaming of more. We don’t simply want a nice home to live in; it has to be an exquisite home – the nicest in the neighborhood. We don’t simply want a nice car to drive; we have to have the latest model with all the bells and whistles. We don’t merely want nice clothes to wear; we want clothes that make a statement. In other words, we’re talking about greed. When we desire excessively, when enough is never enough, when we constantly dream of having more and more, we have fallen into coveting.
Second, desiring becomes coveting when we desire illegitimately. There are some things that God has said are off limits. When God created the man and woman and put them in the garden, He said they could eat of any tree in the garden except one. Of course, that’s the one they went for. They coveted it. For us, there are certain areas of life around which God has put a fence with a sign that says, “No trespassing!” And so it’s great to desire a wife or husband, but God has declared your neighbor’s wife or husband off limits. That is an illegitimate desire, and to desire that is to covet.
Related to that, we desire illegitimately when we would have to do something wrong to attain it. If I desire a larger and fancier house but can’t afford it, so I steal some money from work or fail to disclose some money on my income tax return, I have fallen into coveting. If I desire a more prestigious job so I lie on my resume in hopes of gaining that job, I have coveted for I am trying to seize what I have no right to.
Third, desiring becomes coveting when I desire exclusively. In other words, when this one desire crowds out other important and necessary aspects of my life, I have coveted. Suppose I desire to move quickly up my career ladder and to keep receiving promotions. If I then give all my time to work and thus have no meaningful time left over for family, I have coveted because I have desired a morally neutral thing – career success – to the exclusion of other important obligations and relationships. So we covet when we desire excessively, illegitimately, or exclusively.
So what can we do about the coveting that we all fall victim to? The remedy to coveting is found in Heb. 13:5, where we are exhorted to “be content with what you have, because God said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” Covetousness and contentment are polar opposites. If we covet that which belongs to others, we will never be content. But if we are content, we will not covet what others have.
And the key to contentment is not to somehow force ourselves to stop desiring things. That will probably just make us desire them more. Rather the key is to remember who God is. If we struggle with coveting, we must take time to remember and reflect on who God is. This is why the writer of Hebrews related our contentment to God’s character; He is the One who has promised to never leave or forsake us. When we really come to believe that we will stop coveting because we will know that our Heavenly Father, the One who loves us perfectly and whose power and wisdom are not limited, will never turn His back on us or be oblivious to our true needs. God alone knows what we really need, how much of it we need, and when we need it. And He will not forsake us but will provide what we truly need. So we can be content, not only with what we have, but we can be content with the assurance that God will provide what we need.
In a similar fashion, we need to step back and remind ourselves of the true worth or nature of the things we are tempted to covet. For when we do that, we’ll see that they are not going to truly satisfy us as we had hoped, especially over the long haul.
For coveting is always nearsighted. It sees something and immediately desires it. But it doesn’t see the long-term consequences of having it – that ultimately it won’t satisfy. All we need to do is look in our clothes closet and see those items that we once saw in a store and thought we have to have, but now we realize we haven’t worn them in years. They don’t satisfy us any longer. And coveting doesn’t see the problems that will come if you have attained what you coveted in an inappropriate way. Just look at the problems caused by David for himself and others when he coveted his neighbor’s wife as he lusted after Bethsheba. David felt an emptiness in his heart and he thought it could be filled with Uriah’s wife Bethsheba. Instead of a satisfied heart, David ended up with a heart crushed into thousands of pieces as his family fell into ruin. The consequences of his coveting weighed heavy on David for the rest of his life.
The same is true of coveting things, be it a vacation home at the beach or expensive jewelry. If we are coveting such things, we must remember their true nature, which is that they are temporary. Nothing of this world will last. It’s not that the things of this world have no value, but they have no lasting value, and thus are of secondary importance.
So while we may be able to enjoy such things at times, we ought not covet them, dream about them, think we have to have them for they will somehow complete our life. We must keep them in perspective, remembering they have no lasting value. So Paul wrote in II Cor. 4:18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” The grip of covetousness will loosen its hold on us as we remember that the things we covet have no lasting value. It’s far more worthwhile to give our attention and focus our desires on the lasting things of the kingdom of God. This is what we were made for, and so only here will we find true satisfaction and contentment.
Of course, it’s not only that we covet things but we also covet what they represent. We live in an age in which status and success are often measured by what we possess. The bigger our house, the newer our car, the more exotic vacations we take, the more expensive our wardrobe, the more successful we are viewed by others. But we must remember that just as the things we covet are only temporary, so is the status that comes with them. It can disappear in an instant, and we for sure will not take that with us into eternity. It has no lasting value.
So we remember who God is, we consider the true nature and value of the things we are tempted to covet, and then it is also helpful to stop and reflect on what coveting does to us. When we always have to have more we are never satisfied, always longing for something, and never at peace. That’s not a very pleasant way to live.
When we covet what others have it leads to self-pity. We compare the abundance of others with our more meager lot and conclude that we deserve more. We deserve better. And we end up feeling sorry for ourselves.
We may even become angry – angry at God for not treating us as fairly as we think we should be treated, angry at our neighbor for having more than we have, and angry at ourselves because we haven’t been able to accomplish more or attain more. Self-pity and anger make a very poor foundation for one’s life. And of course, when we have a covetous heart, even when we get what we desired we soon discover it is not enough. We have to have more.
So this commandment is really about grace, the freeing grace of God. God wants to spare us the anger and self-pity that accompany coveting. God wants to protect us from the resentment toward others that builds in our hearts when we covet what they have. God wants to keep us from the disappointment that comes when we don’t get what we covet, or we do get it only to discover that it doesn’t satisfy us like we thought it would. Instead God wants us to experience deep peace and contentment. Again, this doesn’t mean we can’t desire good things, but we trust in the wisdom and goodness of God, knowing that He is our Heavenly Father who will never leave or forsake us, but provide what we truly need.
To be victorious over coveting we must take time to reflect on who God is, on His love for us and faithfulness to us. We must consider the true nature and worth of those things we covet. We must see what coveting does to us. And then it is also absolutely essential to pray. It would be next to impossible to change attitudes of coveting by ourselves. But God wants to change our destructive attitudes and give us new hearts so that we can truly become whole. God wants our hearts filled with unselfish love instead of selfish coveting. God won’t force that on us. But as we pray and earnestly seek after that, we can be confident that God will be at work changing the attitudes of our hearts, for clearly such a prayer is in line with His will for our lives.
Christianity is not about despising the things of this world, but rather keeping them in their proper perspective. Jesus said if we seek first God and His kingdom, all these other things will be added to us. Things are to be kept in their rightful place, which is second place. God must be first, for only God can fill the void inside of each of us. When we covet after things, thinking they will bring us happiness or fulfillment, we ask of them more than they can deliver, like a king thinking that wearing the shirt of a satisfied man can bring him satisfaction.
Through this command God is telling us that He wants us to be free from the insatiable appetite of coveting the possessions or life circumstances of others and instead be content as we abide in Him and His love for us. And only God and the assurance of His love can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts, for that is the way God made us – to find our meaning and our fulfillment in Him.
When our trust is in God, when God is truly first in our lives, we will experience deep peace, abiding joy, and the assurance that our Heavenly Father will never leave or forsake us, but will provide us with what we truly need.