Deuteronomy 5:21 (You Shall Not Covet)

Covetousness is a very grave sin; indeed, so heinous is it that the Scriptures class it among the very gravest and grossest crimes (Eph 5:3).  In Col 3:5 it is “idolatry”, while in I Cor 6:10 it is set forth as excluding a man from heaven.  Its heinousness, doubtless, is accounted for by its being in a very real sense the root of so many other forms of sin, e.g. departure from the faith (I Tim 6:9-10); lying (II Kings 5:22-25); theft (Josh 7:21); domestic trouble (Prov 15:27); murder (Ezek 22:12); indeed, it leads to “many foolish and harmful desires” (I Tim 6:9).  Covetousness has always been a very serious menace to mankind, whether in the OT or NT period.  It was one of the first sins that broke out after Israel had entered into the Promised Land (Achan, Josh 7); and also in the early Christian church immediately after its founding (Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5); hence so many warnings against it.  A careful reading of the OT will reveal that a very great part of the Jewish Law – such as its enactments and regulations regarding duties toward the poor, toward servants; concerning gleaning, usury, pledges, gold and silver taken during wars – was introduced and intended to counteract the spirit of covetousness.  – William Evans, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Vol. 2, p. 733) (1930)

The tenth commandment is the only horizontal command that specifically addresses only the heart.  The final six commandments all deal with heart attitudes and motives, but only the tenth deals with the heart exclusively.  Coveting does not require any outward actions at all.  It is an inner attitude that is not necessarily obvious to others until it shows itself through the violations of other commandments.  What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?  Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?  You lust and do not have; so you commit murder.  And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel (Jas 4:1-2).

It is the tenth command that tells us the commandments overall are not limited to external actions.  If the final commandment addresses the heart, then how can the seventh only refer to a physical act?  How can the prohibition of murder not also apply to the thoughts that lead to it?  The tenth is the command that indicts the Pharisees’ teaching on righteousness.  It backs up Jesus’ contention that their focus on the letter of the Law completely misses the Law’s intent (Matt 5:21-48).

In many ways this is the perfect final commandment because it brings us back to the first.  The command not to covet is really a command to have no other gods.  We covet when something other than God has our affections – when someone or something other than Him sits on the throne of our lives. Have you ever considered that the Ten Commandments begin and end with virtually the same commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet” are almost equivalent commands. Coveting is desiring anything other than God in a way that betrays a loss of contentment and satisfaction in Him. Covetousness is a heart divided between two gods. – John Piper.

Coveting is desiring what we do not have to satisfy a need God does not meet.  The one who covets says to God, “You are not enough, and You do not have the answer to what will satisfy me.”  We covet when we are drawn away by our love of the world and search within it for something to satisfy the longing of our soul.  The coveter desires creation more than the Creator and says in his heart, “THAT is what will make my life better.  If I had THAT I would be happy and content, and until I get it I will be neither.”  He also effectively says, “God has not given me enough – I need more to be content.”  When we associate contentment with something we do not have (and it is not God), we covet.

A good way to understand this command is to state it positively – “You shall be content.”  Contentment shows trust and satisfaction in God.  When He is enough and is truly the only one we worship, we are content.  God commands contentment because it shows we serve only Him.  Coveting is sin because it comes from a heart not satisfied in God.

Just like lying, we can trace coveting back to the beginning.  If the first temptation was Satan’s lie to Eve, the first sin was Eve’s coveting.  Satan deceived her into wanting the fruit by saying, “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” [In some ways you could say that every temptation in the history of man is based in coveting – “This is what will make you happy and you do not have it – take it!” (or do it, or think it, or watch it, or say it, or desire it, etc.).  Satan always operates from a base of coveting – perhaps this is why God chose to end the Ten Commandments with this command?].  Eve’s reaction to Satan’s words is telling – When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate (Gen 3:5-6).  Eve’s response is a perfect description of coveting.  She became enamored with the creation instead of the Creator.  The tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, desirable to make one wise – she saw nothing but the fruit and thought about nothing other than its delights.  It looked good, it looked like it would taste good, and it promised satisfaction (for a need she did not have before Satan suggested it).  Her every thought was selfish.  Obedience was overwhelmed by desire.

And that is what coveting is.  It is desire based in selfishness.  I want it because of what it does for ME.  I want the status or the pleasure or the comfort.  It is not about anyone else and it is certainly not about God – it is about ME.  Desire pushes out obedience when all I can see is ME.

It is probably easier to define coveting than it is to identify it.  How do we know when we are guilty of it?  Is it okay to admire our neighbor’s house?  Is it okay to think, “It would be nice to own a house like that?”  Is it okay to imagine how fun it would be to drive our neighbor’s car?  Is it wrong to desire anything we do not own and cannot reasonably afford?  Is it wrong to want anything we cannot have?

Perhaps the best way to identify coveting is with examples.  It is reasonable to assume the following is alright – “I really like that house.  It would be fun to own something like that – the kids would really like it and it would work great for entertaining.”  However, the following is when it becomes coveting – “It’s not fair that I can’t have that house.  Why is it that I can’t afford it and he can?”  The following is also coveting – “I would definitely be happier if I could live like that.  If I could afford a house like that my life would be better and I would finally have all I need.”  Coveting occurs when we move from admiration to longing or from imagination to bitterness.  As we noted above – when we associate contentment with something we do not have, we covet.

American Christians live in a society that breeds coveting.  Everywhere you look there is stuff – shiny stuff that catches the eye.  Whatever you want is available – or at least available to look at and dream.  Whether you like cars, houses, vacations, clothes, money, furniture, appliances, lawn equipment, boats – anywhere and everywhere you can see examples that cater to your desires.  If what you want is intangible – perfect kids, perfect spouse, great looks, fame – our society brings examples to your fingertips of those as well and shows how others have them and you don’t.  The combination of television, internet, and streaming services makes it easy to covet both by catering to our materialism and to our lust (another form of coveting).  The world screams out, “You have to have THIS if you want to be happy!” – and the prosperity and technology of our times put the messages in front of us with more frequency and ease than at any time in world history.

It is interesting, however, that in an incredibly prosperous society happiness and contentment are not on the rise.  People aren’t any more satisfied than earlier generations who had much less.  As a matter of fact, it seems that as prosperity increases – or as technology makes the spoils of prosperity more available to everyone – the desire for more increases too.  We have more but we want more – and what we cannot have is increasing as fast or faster than what we have. 

In 1995, Richard Easterlin, then an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, published a paper which argued that economic growth does not necessarily lead to happier citizens.  Easterlin showed that people in poor countries do become happier once they can afford basic food, shelter, and clothing – not a big surprise.  But what was surprising was Easterlin’s finding that, after these basic needs have been met, additional income and possessions add little to one’s life satisfaction.  Recent research by Ed Diener, a leading happiness researcher, found that positive and negative effect, job satisfaction, and life satisfaction all level off when household income reaches $40,000-$60,000 per year.  This is additional evidence that more money does not necessarily mean greater happiness.  Further gains appear to simply raise the bar on one’s desires – a process commonly referred to as “adaptation.”  As noted earlier, we humans tend to quickly adapt to changes in our life circumstances, considering our new situation the baseline from which to judge future events. – James A. Roberts, Shiny Objects (pg. 84)

Our society’s lack of happiness even after pursuing the rewards of the world and having access to more of them than any prior generation shows the lie of coveting.  The Enemy promises that there is always something out there that will bring us contentment.  It is always something else and always something we do not have.  That we do not have it is key; we either cannot be happy without it or would be happiER with it.  And the fact that every other thing we have placed our happiness in has not paid off should be ignored – the next thing is what we need.  Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, nor are the eyes of man ever satisfied (Prov 27:20).

It is amazing how prone we are to fall for this lie.  It does not matter how many times we have been fooled, we still believe in an ultimate lifestyle that will bring happiness and satisfy our desires.  If only we could have _________, THEN we would be satisfied and would not need anything else.  Even believers who know the rewards of the world can’t satisfy, fall for the promise that if we just had a little more we would be content and life would be better.  We are not satisfied now – and we were not satisfied yesterday – but if we had something else or something more we would be.  We just need something we do not have and we will be done wanting.

God created us with a longing in our souls so we would pursue Him.  Sin perverts this longing and the Enemy twists it to focus on other things.  Satan tempts us to fill the hole in our lives with everything other than God.  It is made for God and can only be filled with Him, but Satan points us to the innumerable other things that we can try to fill it with.  The numbers are on his side – there is one right answer and billions of wrong ones. And the fact that none of them actually works plays to his purposes too – it keeps us searching and distracted as we cycle through the choices.

The Bible promises satisfaction too.  Unlike the world, it points us to a Person.  Jesus said in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”  In Matthew 5:6 He said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  Paul said in Philippians 4:11-13, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  It is the pursuit of Jesus that leads to contentment. 

In I Timothy 6:6-12, Paul expounds on this idea.  He builds the case that covetousness leads to all kinds of sin, whereas the pursuit of godliness – the pursuit of Christ – leads to ultimate satisfaction.  He explains how we should live and in so doing gives us the weapons to fight against coveting.  In verse 6, he says that godliness is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment.  Godliness is what ultimately enriches us – not money or possessions.  He proves this by stating in verse 7 what we all know to be true but do not think about as often as we should – For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either.  The rewards of this world stay in this world – they will not help us in the next.  They are not a means of gain because only godliness pays off in eternity.

He says in verse 8 what is the logical conclusion to verses 6 and 7 – And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.  We must have our basic needs met in order to live – but since we cannot take anything with us, what is the point of heaping up or worrying about material possessions?  Why covet anything beyond what we need to live?  [There is no way to get to this kind of thinking apart from the Spirit’s work in our lives.  This thinking is logical based on the facts Paul lays out, but is utterly impossible to incorporate into our lives apart from the power of God.]

Verses 9-10 define why coveting is so dangerous.  Those who covet – those who want to get rich – end up being plunged into ruin and destruction.  They take their minds off what is eternally important and focus on what ultimately is not and thus lose their way.  They end up in ruin.  The ruin he discusses seems to be eternal because he says in verse 10 that the love of money can cause a man to leave the faith.  The one who covets risks eternity; his love of money precludes a love for God (Matt 6:24).

Verses 11 and 12 give the answer to how to pursue Christ and fight covetousness.  We flee from the love of money (the love of the rewards of the world) and instead pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.  We must forget the world and become like God.  These are attributes of God’s character (like the Fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5) that grow in the believer’s life as he walks with Him.  Paul says in verse 12 to fight the good fight of faith and take hold of eternal life.  We do not covet when our faith is in Jesus and our view is eternal.  Why desire the rewards of a world that is not ours?

To fight the good fight of faith refers to how we walk.  When we walk with our eyes full of Him the world becomes less shiny and less attractive.  When we honestly fill our minds with Him – through prayer and the word – the world with its cares and rewards becomes less important.  We fight to walk with Him and know Him.  Through this fight He causes His attributes to form in us such that we value what He values – we pursue what is eternally important and what pleases Him.

There is no secret here – no golden pill that releases us from the temptation to covet.  It comes down to what and who we are pursuing.  Where is our time spent?  What fills our thoughts?  What do we feed our minds?  The more time we spend contemplating Jesus through His word and through prayer, the less we will be drawn away by the lusts of the world.  The more we fill ourselves with the gospel, the less space we will have for worldly desires.  And we do not simply stop pursuing the rewards of the world; we must instead pursue godliness through the Spirit of our Savior.

Coveting is serious and carries with it eternal ramifications.  It is the cause of many sins and is at the heart of almost every temptation.  In the believer’s life it is a sign of misplaced priorities or an unrenewed mind.  We must be diligent to notice the signs of covetousness and address them continually because they ultimately point to unbelief.

Contentment is about walking by faith and not by sight.  We do not fall for the Enemy’s temptation to glory in what is around us because we do not base belief on what we see.  We instead revel in our redemption and look forward to our eternity.  We – through prayer and the power of the Spirit through the word – refocus continually on God and on becoming like Him.  We know where our true home is and long for it and for the One who is there rather than for the immediate and unsatisfying pleasures of the world.

Walk by sight and not by faith = covetousness.
Walk by faith and not by sight = contentment.

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