“What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.” (James 4:1-4)
God’s last commandment of the Ten prohibits coveting: “Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex. 20:17). This command prohibits desiring things that are not in God’s will for me: my neighbor’s house, wife, slave, ox, or donkey—anything that belongs to him. By specifying neighbor, God didn’t mean it’s OK to covet something that belongs to someone who isn’t a neighbor. He just intended to focus on things that are nearby and thus accessible and enticing. For you it may be your neighbor’s car, your coworker’s watch, or an anonymous advertiser’s product. I’ve often wondered why this one internal sin, a sin of the mind or spirit, was included in the Ten Commandments along with the action sins. Why not include pride or lust? We’ll see that coveting is a fundamental command that, if kept, helps us remain faithful to all of the others.
Covetousness is a strange human characteristic. God views it as a terrible evil; humans view it as the route to all kinds of personal fulfillment. God put it in the Ten Commandments and listed it in the New Testament along with idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, and thievery; people consider it the least of human foibles. How evil is covetousness from God’s viewpoint?
Covetousness is such a terrible sin that it separates a person from God, destroys community, breaks fellowship in the church, is the just object of church discipline, brings the wrath of God on humankind in this age, and brings the wrath of God in eternity. It is a form of idolatry, substituting things for the living God.
How could such an innocent feeling be so evil from God’s viewpoint? We will find the answer by examining what covetousness is. To covet is to seek something, someone, a position, a recognition, or a pleasure that is not God’s will for me. Notice that I used the word seek rather than desire. To covet is not merely wishing for more but going after it, lusting for it, working to hold on to it. Although the terms used in Scripture for a covetous attitude speak of strong desire for any of the things I mentioned, the chief use of the term, especially in Paul’s letters, refers to longing for and going after material things. Although the slightest desire to get something or to hold on to something God doesn’t intend is rightly called sin, the original word covetous is strong, meaning greedy, avaricious, insatiable. It seems the whole American culture is designed to cultivate covetousness. A consumer culture is fueled by the insatiable desires of the covetous.
The desire to have things is not evil in itself. It is the distortion of this God-given desire, a grasping for things that are not in God’s will for someone, that is such a terrible and destructive sin; God deals ruthlessly with that. Yet we American Christians domesticate this sin like a house pet, feeding it with all of the enticements a materialistic society offers so seductively. Jesus often warned us not to accede to the world’s offers of things and pleasure. In fact, He said more about our relationship to possessions than He did about heaven, hell, or prayer. Knowing covetousness stood in the way of a commitment to God, Jesus told the rich young man to sell his possessions in order to follow Him. But the young man could not let go of them and went away grieving (see Matt. 19:16-22). In contrast, Zacchaeus rejoiced to give half of his possessions to the poor and repaid fourfold the people he had cheated (see Luke 19:8). Many of Jesus’ teachings on coveting are summarized in this succinct statement: “Watch out and be on guard against all greed because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Why do you think God finds covetousness so objectionable? Like the other commandments, breaking this one interferes with our relationship with God and harms us. In fact, violating this final commandment can lead us to break the other commands. What do you really want today? What are you going after, lusting for, or working to hold on to? Join me in a prayer for freedom. “Lord I want to know the freedom and contentment you intend for your children. Help me to express gratitude and act with generosity this day and every day.”