This week will be one of those few unforgettable landmarks of life. People will remember where they were and what they were doing when word of the explosion of the space shuttle reached them. The explosion cost our nation seven of our astronauts, one of whom was a school teacher, who was planning to teach from space. In the eloquent speech of our president, and from the words of many others, two predominant themes emerged as the week went on.
The first theme was the preciousness of human life. While millions of dollars of equipment were destroyed, including an expensive satellite which was to be launched from space, there was almost no mention of these financial losses, because of the sorrow and grief at the loss of seven precious human lives. We were assured by NASA officials that the safety of the crew was the top priority, and that no other considerations would in any way be allowed to jeopardize the lives of the crew of the shuttle.
The second theme was the importance of space exploration. It was clearly stated that space exploration is a dangerous task. Lives had previously been lost, and it was grimly accepted that more lives would someday be lost in the conquest of space. In spite of the near certainty that lives would be lost in exploring the universe, the determination to continue pursuing this goal was reiterated frequently and with resolve.
The relationship between these two values fascinates me. As precious as human life is to Americans, we have openly stated that we are willing to sacrifice human life if need be in the conquest of space. The goal of space exploration, then, is so important that what we value most highly—human life—will be sacrificed.
This illustrates the important role which goals play in our lives. Those goals to which we attribute great importance and value become the basis for making sacrifices. Because our nation views the conquest of space to be of utmost importance, we sacrifice great amounts of money and even human life in the pursuit of this goal.
The subject of our message is covetousness. On the surface, covetousness may not seem to be related to the subject of goals. We will see, however, that what we covet becomes our goal. If we covet the wrong things, we will have the wrong goals, and we may thus sacrifice things of great value in our effort to attain what has little ultimate and eternal value.
I believe that as we study this 10th and final commandment we will discover that we will learn a great deal about coveting. In fact, as my title suggests, we may learn a great deal more about coveting than we really wish to know.
My approach will be to first characterize the coveting which the Bible condemns. This will help to explain why coveting is sin, as well as to enable us to better identify those forms of coveting which have become a part of our own lifestyle. Next, we will consider coveting as a goal, and seek to learn why the Bible calls covetousness idolatry. Then we will seek to learn how our Lord addressed the evil of covetousness in His teaching. Finally, we will seek to discover how coveting corrupts our lives and the means God has provided to cure us of this evil.
As we search the Scriptures we learn that the coveting which is forbidden in the Tenth Commandment (and elsewhere in the Bible) has certain characteristics, which make it possible to identify this evil in it various forms:
(1) Coveting is a desire. It is a matter of the heart, an attitude, a matter of strong emotion. As such, coveting is somewhat unique among the evils condemned by the commandments. The evils prohibited by the other commandments were such that one could be tried and found guilty of committing a certain act. This act was based upon attitudes, of course, but a society cannot convict people for what they are thinking and feeling. The final commandment is a forbidden feeling, as it were, not a forbidden act.
(2) Coveting is a strong desire.58 Coveting is a desire, a motivation so strong that the one who covets something will have it if there is any way possible to do so, even if it involves evil. Coveting is a consuming desire, which is highly competitive. It is an evil attitude, which will likely lead to an evil act. Coveting is a kind of conspiracy in one’s soul to commit evil.
(3) The coveting which the Tenth Commandment condemns is the desire to have something which one does not have, or which one does not think he or she has enough of. In brief, coveting wants more. It is not content with what it already has, no matter how much that might be. As Habakkuk put it, “He enlarges his appetite like Sheol, And he is like death, never satisfied” (Hab. 2:5).
Ecclesiastes also describes the futility of the man who is discontent with what he has:
There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?” This too is vanity and it is a grievous task (Ecc. 4:8).
(4) Coveting wants not only what one does not have, but what one cannot have. Coveting wants what is forbidden, that which belongs to another and which cannot be obtained. It is possible, of course to buy a neighbor’s animal, but not his wife. The assumption here, I believe, is that what we covet is what we cannot have, that is, what our neighbor either cannot give up (like his wife, or his land), or what he will not give up.
(5) Coveting is a deliberate desire, of which one is conscious, and for which one is responsible. The coveting which this commandment forbids is one for which the individual is responsible. In effect, the individual is held accountable for discovering the sin, and for dealing with it. This is necessary because no other human being can know our thoughts. God thus holds us responsible for what we determine in our hearts and minds.
(6) The coveting which the commandment prohibits is a well defined desire. Coveting must be distinguished from lust. Lust is a general desire. Greed is a lust for money and possessions. Coveting is a specific, focused desire, a desire to have a particular thing, which belongs to a particular person. Greed may desire money or material things; coveting desires our neighbor’s car, or his house, or his wife. Coveting is lust well defined and specifically focused. “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 belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:17).
(7) Coveting is a selfish desire, which is willing to gain at the expense of others. The covetousness which is condemned is that which wants what one’s neighbor has. This kind of covetousness is clearly self-centered.
Do not weary yourself to gain wealth. Cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone. For wealth certainly makes itself wings, Like an eagle that flies toward the heavens. Do not eat the bread of a selfish man, Or desire his delicacies; For as he thinks within himself, so he is. He says to you, “Eat and drink!” But his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten, And waste your compliments (Prov. 23:4-8).
(8) Coveting is a devious desire that is complex and complicated, which is often well concealed. The heart, we are told, is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). We must expect that covetousness, which is a matter of the heart, is deceitful and deceptive, and that it may be well disguised.
(9) Covetousness is a detrimental, destructive, desire. One of the reasons why covetousness is condemned is because of its consistently detrimental effects. There are several dimensions of this destructive impact of covetousness. First, covetousness hinders the generosity which God requires of His people.
“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Beware, lest there is a base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the LORD against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings (Deut. 15:7-10).
So I thought it necessary to urge the brethren that they would go on ahead to you and arrange beforehand your previously promised bountiful gift, that the same might be ready as a bountiful gift, and not affected by covetousness (2 Cor. 9:5).
The one who is covetous wants more, and thus he or she will certainly not be inclined to give of what they already have. Covetousness is the number one enemy of generosity. Think about it for a minute. How many occasions have you had to give to someone in need, and as you were thinking about doing so, into your mind comes a specific item that you have always wanted, which you know you will have to give up if you are generous. Covetousness thinks of generosity as a threat to the accumulation of things which are strongly desired.
Second, covetousness is destructive and dangerous because it is often the motive for offenses against one’s neighbor. The man who covets his neighbor’s ox is likely to steal his neighbor’s ox. While coveting does not always lead to sin, sin most often begins with coveting. Thus, the Scriptures speak of coveting as the source of many evils:
“When I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it” (Josh. 7:21).
“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness And his upper rooms without justice, Who uses his neighbor’s services without pay And does not give him his wages, Who says, ‘I will build myself a roomy house With spacious upper rooms, And cut out its windows, Paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.’ Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, And do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord. “But your eyes and your heart Are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, And on shedding innocent blood And on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer. 22:13-17).
“And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as My people, but they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain” (Ezek. 33:31).
Woe to those who scheme iniquity, Who work out evil on their beds! When morning comes, they do it, For it is in the power of their hands. They covet fields and then seize them, And houses, and take them away. They rob a man and his house, A man and his inheritance (Micah 2:1-2).
And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:20-23).
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt any one. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:13-15).
Third, the covetousness of a person is also self-destructive. A covetous person destroys himself, as well as others.
The hope of the righteous is gladness, But the expectation of the wicked perishes (Prov. 10:28).
Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, But righteousness delivers from death (Prov. 11:4).
The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, But the treacherous will be caught by their own greed. When a wicked man dies, his expectation will perish, And the hope of strong men perishes (Prov. 11:6-7).
Do not let your heart envy sinners, But live in the fear of the LORD always. Surely there is a future, And your hope will not be cut off. Listen, my son, and be wise, And direct your heart in the way. Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, Or with gluttonous eaters of meat; For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty And drowsiness will clothe a man with rags (Prov. 23:17-21).
A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth, And does not know that want will come upon him (Prov. 28:22).
“Will not all of these take up a taunt-song against him, Even mockery and insinuations against him, And say, ‘Woe to him who increases what is not his—For how long—And makes himself rich with loans?’ Will not your creditors rise up suddenly, And those who collect from you awaken? Indeed, you will become plunder for them. Because you have looted many nations, All the remainder of the peoples will loot you—Because of human bloodshed and violence done to the land, To the town and all its inhabitants. Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house To put his nest on high To be delivered from the hand of calamity!” (Hab. 2:6-9).
Nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10).
(10) Covetousness is a deified desire—idolatry. The Ten Commandments began with a prohibition of idolatry, and they end with a prohibition of covetousness, which is called idolatry:
But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:3-6).
This text tells us that the covetous man is an idolater. Thus, we have come full circle. The last commandment takes us back to the first commandments, condemning idolatry. But why is covetousness called idolatry? We will now explore the reasons why covetousness is called idolatry.
Coveting is especially significant because it is a “root sin,” from which all kinds of other evils flow:
But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang (1 Tim. 6:6-10).
Just because coveting is the root of all kinds of evil, we must be very careful not to conclude that all coveting is evil. The term “covet” for most of us is a loaded one, suggesting only evil desires. In the Scriptures, however, “covet” may be used both positively and negatively. One may covet in a good sense or in a bad sense, depending on the context in which the term is used.59 Our Lord strongly desired (He desired with desire, Luke 22:15) to eat the Passover with His disciples. Paul strongly desired to know Christ more intimately (Phil. 3:7-14), to be with those whom he loved in the Lord, as well as for their spiritual well-being and growth (cf. Phil. 1:7-11). Paul also encouraged the Corinthian saints to covet the better spiritual gifts:
But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31).
Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:39).
The covetousness which the Bible prohibits is restricted to the illicit strong desire to possess what one doesn’t have, which rightfully belongs to another, and which we cannot rightly obtain. Thus, we should not conclude that all coveting is sin, only that misdirected desire is evil. What, then, is the good which we should covet, and why is other covetousness evil?
The answer can be found by employing a bit of biblical logic. I will first develop this line of logic, and then show this to be the teaching of our Lord:
(1) It is only wrong to covet what God has denied us, or what is of little value. In the Tenth Commandment God has forbidden us to desire those things which He has not given and which we cannot rightly have. Coveting is only evil when we covet the wrong things.
(2) W covet most what we value most, what we believe to be good. Coveting is a reflection of our value system. No person covets what he believes to be of no value. We do not covet our neighbor’s garbage, we covet those possessions of our neighbor which we value highly. I have never known a man who coveted another man’s wife, whom he thought to be ugly and undesirable. We covet most those things which we value most.
(3) What we covet most we will sacrifice to obtain. We will sacrifice those things which we value less to gain those things we value most. Thus, whatever a man covets is something he will make sacrifices to attain. What he will sacrifice is determined by what he most values, for ultimately a man will sacrifice most anything for what he values most highly.
There are some times in life when the hard choice of giving up some things in order to keep others is imposed upon us unwillingly. Sometimes these choices are agonizing. I remember one of my college professors telling of his days as a prisoner of war in a Japanese P.O.W. camp during the Second World War. The prisoners were all to be marched up into the mountains, to a remote camp. Each prisoner was granted 20 pounds of goods to take along. All the prisoners were instructed to go around in a circle, placing in the center those items which they were disposing. The problem was that when one man cast off an item, another decided he liked it more than what he had, so the event turned into a giant swap meet, which the Japanese soldiers eventually had to terminate.
The point is that life imposes these agonizing choices upon us, so that we must give up some things to attain others. What we value most determines what we are willing to give up. In the case of exploring space, this is a goal of such value, our government has determined that we will sacrifice life to attain it.
(4) If God is the greatest good and of infinite value, then we men should covet having fellowship with Him, and make whatever sacrifice is required to attain and enjoy it. If we once agree that God is the greatest good, then He must be man’s highest goal. Whatever sacrifices a man must make to know God and have fellowship with Him is worth the price.
(5) To covet anything more than God, is to place that thing we covet above God, which is idolatry. Coveting anything above God is making that thing our god. It is assigning to that thing ultimate value and worth. That which has ultimate value and worth in our eyes is our god, it is our idol. Thus, covetousness (which assigns highest value to things, rather than to God) is idolatry.
Coveting is a crucial matter because it assigns value to certain things, and at the same time is willing to sacrifice other things to attain what is coveted. This is what our Lord taught in the New Testament. This can be demonstrated by considering several New Testament texts.
Matthew 13:44-46 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”
Our Lord here taught that what one recognizes to be of great value he will seek to attain, and that he will pay a high price to do so. In the context, it is clear that it is the kingdom of God which is the treasure which men should sacrifice anything to attain. He is the kingdom personified, so that it is Jesus Christ who is most precious, for whom men should be willing to give up all to gain.
Luke 12:13-21 And someone in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But He said to him, “Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbiter over you?” And He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a certain rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
The point which our Lord makes here which is of particular importance to our study is that what we covet (possessions, things) are not the essence of life. In the words of our Lord, “… not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (v. 15).
In the gospel of Matthew, our Lord puts the matter even more pointedly:
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26).
Life, Jesus taught, eternal life, is not attained by gaining, but by giving up. The gaining of things, even the whole world, does not gain one life. To gain everything at the cost of one’s soul is a bad bargain. Thus one must give up his own life to gain it; one must give up the gaining of things in order to gain his own soul.
Matthew 6:19-24 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
At the outset of His ministry our Lord warned of the danger of covetousness.60 Covetousness (an “evil eye”) could corrupt a person. The covetous person becomes the slave of possessions, and thus one must choose between serving God or money, for he cannot serve both (v. 24). The way for a person to cause his affections to turn toward the kingdom of God is to have his treasure there, and the way to have one’s treasure in heaven is to “lay up treasures in heaven” by using money to help others, rather than to indulge self.
What our Lord taught in a general way in Matthew chapter 6, He applied specifically to the rich young ruler:
Mark 10:17-22 And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property.
It is of great importance to note that our Lord loved this man. Some seem to think that our Lord was brushing this man aside, or that He asked something excessive and unnecessary. My conviction is that Jesus acted entirely out of love and that what He required was both necessary and beneficial. To what ever degree we identify with the grief of this man at the words of our Lord we reveal the same kind of covetousness which kept him from heaven.
The issue which Jesus raised with the “rich young ruler” was that of “goodness,” occasioned by the words of the man himself. He had called Jesus “good teacher.” Jesus pressed him to define this goodness. Our Lord pointed out that God alone is good in any absolute sense. Had this man really believed that Jesus Christ was good in the same way that God is good, then he would have to admit that Jesus Christ was God. Had He acknowledged Christ as God and as (ultimate) good, he would have had no problem giving up everything to follow Him, just as the man who found the pearl of great price gladly sold all that he had to obtain the pearl.
This man believed that he was a Law-keeper. Jesus cited every Law of the Ten Commandments which related to one’s relationship to his neighbor, save one. The one commandment which our Lord did not mention was the Tenth Commandment, the commandment which forbade coveting. It is this evil which our Lord exposed when he commanded the man to sell all that he possessed and to give the proceeds to the poor. Had the young ruler sold his goods and given the proceeds to the poor, his heart would have turned from earthly treasure to heavenly treasure. Jesus was urging him to redirect his heart by divesting himself of his worldly riches, which had become his highest good, and thus his god. The man who began by thinking of himself as a Law-keeper now had to accept the fact that he was not willing to forsake covetousness, and was thus a Law-breaker.
The rich young ruler’s problem was, at its roots, a problem with his values, with what he believed to be good, and what therefore constituted his goal in life. He was willing to serve Jesus in addition to serving money, but he was not willing to sacrifice his money to serve God. Consequently, this man went away sad. Because he coveted money, he served money as his highest goal, the highest good. Because he served money, he sacrificed his soul, his relationship with God. How tragic this story is.
Understanding coveting gives us a very practical insight into the pathology of sin, and thus a means of avoiding the evils which stem from coveting. Many Christians have puzzled at how a mature brother or sister in Christ can throw off the teachings of the word of God and pursue some blatant sin. Surely one who knows Bible doctrine so well could not fall prey to such obvious sin. The explanation is frequently found in an understanding of coveting and its relationship to one’s ultimate goals. Once our heart is turned toward that which is forbidden as our highest (or at least most desirable) goal, we are willing to sacrifice whatever we value less to attain it.
It is seldom lack of knowledge of what is right (or wrong) which is the reason for man’s sin, it is his decision to desire the wrong things, and to whatever is necessary to have them. When a man decides to forsake his wife and family it isn’t that he doesn’t know its wrong, it is that he has no commitment to do what is right. The reason why we do the wrong thing, knowing it is wrong, is because we want (covet) it more than we covet what is right. Coveting what is wrong causes us to be willing to sacrifice what is right to attain what we want, even if it is sin.
The bottom line is simply this: sin is more often a problem with our heart (coveting) than it is a problem with our mind (knowledge). Solomon knew more than any man who ever lived, and yet his heart was turned to foreign wives, until finally his heart was turned from God by his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-8). Such is most often the case. We sin, not because we don’t know better, but because we desire to have what is wrong more than we desire to know God and to serve Him. It is indeed tragic that Solomon did not take his own advice: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).
One of the most common reasons why men refuse to submit to Jesus Christ and to follow Him is because they cannot commit themselves to Christ and continue to covet things. Covetousness and Christ are two different masters, and many men do not wish to forsake their coveting for Christ. This is because coveting has made things their god, and God (in Christ) will not take second place to things.
Unlike Christ, Christians today attempt to lead men to Christ by minimizing the cost of following Him. Throughout Jesus’ life, He refused to minimize the cost of discipleship. Jesus refused to commit Himself to those who were uncommitted (John 2:23-25). He gave no encouragement to those who would have half-heartedly followed Him (Luke 9:57-62). He said that those who would follow Him would have to deny themselves and take up their cross (Matt. 16:24).
Why is it, then, that we try to make discipleship so undemanding, so easily attained? Why are we reluctant to ask men and women to give up everything to follow Him? Why are we so timid as to only ask people to follow Christ conditionally? The great travesty of this is that it demeans the worth of our Lord. It suggests that He is not worthy of a total sacrifice of self and of self-interest. It is no wonder so many fall away, when they finally realize the high price of discipleship.
Let me make the gospel as clear as I possibly can. There is nothing you can do, no sacrifice you can make which will ever be sufficient to earn salvation. All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags, the Bible tells us (Isa. 64:6). There is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor, for we are dead in our trespasses and sins. We are helpless and hopeless, apart from God’s grace (Eph. 2:1-3). The gift of salvation is free to the sinner, but at great cost to God—the death of His only Son (John 3:16). To receive the gift of salvation, all one has to do is to acknowledge his sinfulness, his lost condition, and receive by faith the death of Jesus Christ in his place. You need only trust in the righteousness of Christ which you receive by faith in His death, burial, and resurrection in your place.
Having said that we cannot earn our salvation by self-sacrifice or good works does not mean that discipleship is of no personal cost or sacrifice. The Scriptures clearly stress the high cost of discipleship, and we dare not minimize it. When we recognize Christ as the “pearl of great price” we should be willing and ready to sacrifice anything and everything in order to follow Him. Let us never lose sight of the self-sacrifice which our Lord requires for discipleship.
Covetousness is something which our culture seems to value, and which the church has become accustomed to, even catering to it instead of condemning it. I honestly believe that if coveting were to immediately cease in America, our economy would be in shambles. Madison Avenue incites us to covetousness, and credit buying enables us to buy what we don’t need and can’t afford. If coveting stopped, our economy would collapse. Coveting therefore seems to be one of those “sacred sins” which we dare not tamper with.
Competitiveness is another of the foundational elements in American society. We will hardly consider hiring or promoting anyone who does not have great ambition, but at its roots, ambition is built upon the competitive desire to do better than his neighbor so that we can have what he or she has: their position, their prestige and power, and their pleasures.
With covetousness so interwoven into the fabric of our society, one would expect that the church would be condemning covetousness, especially among the saints, as the Old Testament prophets did. This is seldom the case. Instead, the church treads softly on matters of covetousness.
Worse yet, the church has come to accept covetousness as one of the “givens” of our culture, and has gone so far as to capitalize on covetousness by appealing to this illicit desire to motivate people to serve and to give. The “gospel of the good life” is one form of this error. We tell people that if they “do things God’s way” God will wonderfully bless them and prosper them. We tell people that God’s desire is to prosper everyone, if they will simply follow God’s prescribed guidelines for success. We appeal to men’s covetousness when we present the gospel, making it sound as if discipleship were the key to success and prosperity. We minimize the cost of discipleship or its demands of self-denial and self-sacrifice. We speak only of its benefits and blessings.
When we speak of the benefits of discipleship we often refer to those passages which promise us that God will grant us the desires of our heart (cf. Ps. 37:4). In our carnality, we tend to think of these “desires” as the things which we covet. The commandment not to covet is a command to clean up the “desires of our heart” so that our desires conform to God’s word (cf. James 4:3).
We do not ask Christians to give sacrificially, without any expectation of return, we speak of giving as a sure-fire investment, for which the giver is certain to gain back many fold. Whenever we attempt to induce people to give because of the returns they will receive, we are appealing to the ungodly motivation of covetousness, not the Christian motivation of sacrifice. We cease talking of treasures in heaven, and talk only of treasure here and now. I am sad to say that I know of very few Christian ministries which ask people to contribute without promising to give something (a book, a tape, a “cloth”) in return. In doing so we are in danger of appealing to people’s covetousness, not their commitment to Christ. God help us in this area.
The church should therefore be calling Christians to self-sacrifice, but all too often it is the church which is characterized by self-indulgence. The Laodicean church of the Book of Revelation (3:14-22), for example, was very comfortable, but also very complacent and self-satisfied. We, too, are very much like the Laodicean church, I fear, and rather than calling the saints to commitment and self-sacrifice, we are caving in to the covetousness of our society.
Put negatively, the Tenth Commandment, confirmed by the commands of the New Testament, is teaching us that we should put off coveting, that we must cease from making anything but God our God. Positively, this commandment is urging us to cultivate a hunger for God, the kind of hunger which characterized the psalmist when he wrote, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1-2). It is the kind of godly coveting on which our Lord pronounced His blessing: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 6:6). It is the orientation toward heaven and heavenly things which the apostles urged the saints to cultivate:
Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things, For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself (Phil. 17-21).
If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).
I believe that more than any other of the Ten Commandments, the Tenth Commandment exposes the depth of our depravity, the seriousness of our sin. Our Lord used this commandment to convict the rich young ruler of his sin. Paul confessed that this commandment “wiped him out” also:
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. And I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:7-12).
May I ask you very candidly my friend, does this commandment forbidding covetousness condemn you, just as it did Paul? Have you ever experienced the kind of coveting for God which we find in the psalmists and in the godly men and women of the Bible? Then I urge you to come to the cross of Christ, where the commandments were nailed to the cross in Christ (Col. 2:14). Jesus Christ bore your guilt, shame, and punishment. He died in your place, and was raised for your justification (declaration of righteousness), if you will but receive Him. Once loosened from the bondage of sin and self-interest, you will find an appetite for God you never knew.
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost (Rev. 22:17).
My Christian friend, may I ask if you still have that same desire you once had? Can you honestly say, with the psalmist of old, that you thirst for God as a deer pants for water? I must admit to you that I have been convicted in my study this week of my own coldness of heart, of my own lack of strong desire for God. There is a way back, for God knows that our love for Him can grow cold. Let me close by suggesting some of the means God has provided for rekindling the flame of our desire for Him.
(1) First, pray that God will renew your heart, and that He will give you a passion for fellowship with Him. David, whose sin with Bathsheba began with covetousness, prayed this prayer, which can just as easily apply to us: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Thy presence, And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, And sustain me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:10-12).
(2) Second, saturate your heart and mind with the word of God, which will expose impurity and which will give you an appetite for the things of God:
Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, And I shall observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may observe Thy Law, And keep it with all my heart. Make me walk in the path of Thy commandments, For I delight in it. Incline my heart to Thy testimonies, And not to dishonest gain. Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, And revive me in Thy ways. Establish Thy word to Thy servant, As that which produces reverence for Thee (Ps. 119:33-38).
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:11-12).
(3) Third, work at your worship of Him, for it is in our worship that we are reminded again of His worth, of His purity and perfection, and thus of Him as our ultimate goal, both to know and to serve.
(4) We must begin to “take up our cross” of self-denial, while at the same time putting off our self-indulgence.
(5) Finally, we should practice sacrificial giving. By thus “laying up our treasures in heaven” we will begin to experience that our hearts will follow our treasure, and begin to focus on heaven and not earth, on Christ and not things.
May God grant that each of us may covet Him, for His glory, and for our good.
57 The key texts for a study of coveting in the Bible are: Gen. 6:5; Exod. 18:21; 20:17; Deut. 5:21; 15:7-10; Josh. 7:21; Ps. 119:33-40; Prov. 11:6-7; 21:25-26; 23:1-8, 17-21; 28:22; 30:7-9; Ecc. 4:8; Jer. 22:13-17; Ezek. 33:31; Micah 2:1-2; Hab. 2:4-9; Matt. 6:19-24; 13:44-46; 16:21-27; Mark 7:20-23; 10:17-22; Luke 12:13-21; 16:14; Acts 20:33-35; Rom. 7:7-11; 8:5-8; 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 6:10; 12:31; 14:39; 2 Cor. 9:5; Eph. 5:3-6; Phil. 3:17-20; 4:11-13; Col. 3:1-7; 1 Tim. 6:6-10; Heb. 13:5-6; James 1:13-15; 4:1-2.
58 Cf. Proverbs 21:26, where the “craving” mentioned is literally a reference to the fact that the sluggard “desires desire.”
59 “The word used for ‘covet’ can also refer to a good rather than an evil desire (cf. Ps. 19:10 KJV …). But here [Exodus 20:17] it is used in a negative sense.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 198-199.
60 The “bad eye” of Matthew 6:22 and 23 is, I think, synonymous with the “evil eye” of Deuteronomy 15:9 and Proverbs 28:22 (contrast Prov. 22:9). An “evil eye” is a symbol, a figure of speech, for a man’s looking on the things of another with the hope that he can have them. In other words, the “evil eye” is covetousness.