Thou shalt not covet

This morning I was listening to one of the Bible verse music CDs that I play for the kids on the way to school when I was convicted of a sin that I have not really thought about in some time. I covet.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)

“Covet” simply means “yearn to possess” — a step beyond merely wanting something or taking a fancy to something and actively lusting after it. It’s something you crave that you do not have but want to have desperately. The sin here isn’t just what coveting can lead to, but the fact that it’s already led to discontentment with the blessings and gifts that God’s given to you.

It makes me think of the story of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Gollum used to be Smeagol, a generally nice, typical Hobbit. But when his friend found the One Ring in the river, the corruption of the Ring preyed upon Smeagol’s heart, leading him quickly to covet what his friend had. Even though it was Smeagol’s birthday and he had received presents, he wanted that one thing his friend had and he did not have. He coveted, discontent in his current possessions, and murdered his friend for the Ring. This corruption followed Smeagol, now Gollum, for the remainder of the series. Gandalf pities the creature he’s become, obsessed by this possession (his “precious”) and tormented by its loss that he follows Frodo across the world to get it back. He is miserable, he is angry, and he is never seen as truly content, even with the Ring.

When King David coveted what he saw in his neighbor’s wife, it led to adultery and murder. When Gideon created an ephod out of the spoils of war, his family about tore itself apart desiring it. Judas coveted wealth, stealing from the disciples and eventually betraying Jesus for money. Joseph’s brothers coveted his coat and their father’s attention, leading them to sell Joseph into slavery.

Ambition, drive, and having goals aren’t necessarily breaching the boundaries of coveting. What God is establishing in this commandment is a healthy way to live with a healthy relationship between us and God and us and others. We may desire things that we do not have, and we may pursue some of those things if they are not sinful. But throughout this, we should be filled with contentment and happiness with our current station, our current possessions, and our current blessings.

To covet breaks down that relationship between us and God, because how are we to praise God and thank him for what he gives us if our heart is unsatisfied? The Hebrews in the desert had daily bread and yet they were malcontent, complaining about the same food day in and out until God gave them meat as well (and even then, that wasn’t enough to stop them from coveting their old life in Egypt). It’s so hard not to covet in today’s world because marketing bombards us with goods and services that are promoted as things to fill us with happiness and make our lives better and easier. The message of these commercials and ads is, “If you don’t have this, then you’re missing out. You need this. You should want this. You should be unhappy until you obtain this.”

God, on the other hand, fills our lives with the abundance of his grace, mercy, and blessings, and then has to listen to our hearts yearning for even more. Have you ever done something nice for someone only to hear them gripe that you didn’t do or give them more? I know how that makes me feel, and I can only imagine how frustrated God gets when we’re like that too.

Coveting also breaks the bonds of harmony and love with other people. When they have something we desperately want, then we grow to resent them. We wonder why they get it and we don’t. We blame them, if silently. How can you love and be friends with someone in those circumstances? All too often we see people using each other, pretending to be friends, just to get access to things we covet. I know that as a kid, I sidled up to other kids who had video game systems I didn’t in hopes that I would get invited over to play on them.

So I was convicted today because, sure, I break this commandment. I think we all do. The only counter to it is to develop contentment in one’s life, and that comes through the daily exercise of praise and thanksgiving in our prayers. When all that we have comes from our Father and all belongs to him, we do not have the right to demand it anyway, but to be happy for what we are given. I may not be the richest, the best-looking, the smartest, or the most geographically blessed person in the world, but what I have is immeasurable. A wife who shows me sacrificial love every day. Children who abruptly come up to me for hugs and to say that they love me. A home that’s warm in the middle of a brutally cold winter. Food on the table. A Bible in my hand. The freedom to worship without fear of persecution. And a personal relationship with my Redeemer which will extend into eternity. There should be no room to covet in all of that.

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