To borrow from the folks over at Sesame Street, if we were to play a round of “One of these things is not like the other” with the 10 Commandments, I think today’s commandment “Do not covet” would be the one I’d choose.
For example, largely speaking what you find in the 10 commandments as you go up and down the list is a list of actions, things that we should or should not do. “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness.” These are actions that we commit with our hands, with our bodies, or with our very words.
And this is where the 10th commandment, “Do not covet” is so very unlike all the others. Whereas many of the commandments before it are “doing” commands, this one is a “thinking” command, a “feeling” command. Whereas many of the other commandments before it address external behaviors, this one addresses an internal one. This one uniquely addresses a sin that is top of mind and cuts straight to the heart.
One of these things, coveting, is not like the others, and yet, upon further review it’s here in this 10th commandment that so many of the themes of this 10 Commandment series converge. Where not only is this commandment to not covet a way in which to love God and love our neighbor, it’s also a sure path to true and lasting freedom, as Lord willing, with God’s help, we move from coveting to contentment to even celebration of what God has given us and others.
So let’s get to it. We’ll begin by learning more about coveting itself, we’ll address why it’s such a big deal, why it’s the sin that it is, and then finally how we get ourselves to be freed from it.
What it is, why it’s a problem, and how we choose the better thing.
When God tells us “do not covet” it is not as though he’s asking his people to set aside their feelings, desires, and ambitions.
No, coveting is something more than that. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile defines it this way, when he says, “If you can imagine the heart having hands, coveting is like the heart grasping for things, desiring things, laying hold of things that don’t properly belong to it.”
I think that’s such a helpful and striking image … if you can imagine the “heart having hands” it’s that reaching, grasping, yearning for more.
And not simply for more in general, but for those things that don’t properly belong to it, those things that belong to someone else. For notice how the commandment reads in full.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
In other words, to covet is to have an insatiable desire to have what your neighbor has, whether it be their belongings, their relationships, or even their circumstances.
This past week we shared an anonymous survey with you asking you to share with us where coveting takes root in your life. In other words, what is it that you covet? Nine of you filled it out, the results are in, and as it turns out, you and I covet a little bit of everything.
For example, we covet our neighbor’s belongings. We covet their houses, we covet their money, we covet the travel and adventures they go on. We don’t however covet each other’s cars, which makes sense to me. More than any other place I’ve lived, here in Montana cars are valued for their utility and function alone, rather than as a status symbol.
We covet our neighbor’s relationships. We covet their spouses, “Look at Bob over there, my husband never does that for me …” Marriage and travel got the most votes, for what it’s worth. We covet their kids. “Did you notice their boys? They always listen and say thank you.” We even covet their friendships. I know as an introvert, I sometimes covet just how easily some people make friends. How do they do it?
We covet our neighbor’s circumstances. We covet their health, we covet their looks, their appearance, we even covet how much more time others have than us.
Finally, one person mentioned “fencing,” saying “I don’t really covet it so much as finding myself recognizing a deep appreciation of good fencing.” We all have our things, I guess.
Put it all together and what you find is that we covet just about everything, whether it be our neighbor’s belongings, our neighbor’s relationships, or our neighbor’s circumstances. Reaching out as though our hearts had had hands, an insatiable, relentless desire to have what their neighbors have.
That’s coveting. Let’s now turn our attention to our second question. Why is coveting such a big deal? Why is it the sin that it is? Why does coveting make the cut here in this list of 10?
Chances are we can intuitively see and know from first-hand experience that our coveting does us no good and is ultimately to our detriment. Where in a way, coveting is self-inflicted harm. It’s like shooting ourselves in the foot, because it makes us far sighted, where we see so clearly what belongs to our neighbor off in the distance, while making us blurry-eyed with what’s right around us, overlooking the often very good things that God has blessed us with.
And yet, the damage runs far beyond that. After all, as we’ve highlighted throughout this series, the 10 Commandments are at their core, commandments that lead us towards Jesus’s greatest commandment, to love God and love our neighbor. And when we covet, we fail to love either.
For example, when we covet, we are not loving God as we ought, since in many ways, we make that thing that we’re coveting a god in and of itself. In other words, we’re breaking the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” “We say to ourselves, if only I had a wife like that, then I’d be happy” “If only I could retire and travel, then I’d be happy” “If I could get down to this number on the scale, then I’d be happy.” When we think those things, we’re making something else our God and we’re failing to love the one true God above all.
Even more, when we covet we’re often questioning or critiquing what God has created or how he has distributed what he has created. For example, a number of you said you covet the looks or appearance of another. Well, let’s talk through that for a minute.
Scripture tells us that God created each and every one of us. Psalm 139 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
And this God who created you left nothing in this universe to chance. It is beautifully and intricately designed. Think about just how insane it is that there is life here on this earth. We’re 93 million miles from the sun. If earth were any closer, we’d burn in flames. If earth were any further, we’d freeze to death.
And yet, you want to tell me that the God of this universe got it wrong when he made you? That he made a mistake when he made you? That he made something less than when he made you? No ma’am. No sir. No way. Not a chance. He got it just right.
The Psalmist continues on …
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
When we remember that the God of this universe made you, we can be confident, not because of our beautiful selves, but because of the beautiful God who made us.
When we covet, whether it be our neighbor’s looks or whatever else, we fail to love God as we ought.
Even more, when we covet, we are not loving our neighbor as we ought.
This connection, admittedly, is a little harder to see. We can easily see how murdering our neighbor, or not honoring our parents, or stealing from one another is a failure to love our neighbor, and yet, if coveting is an internal sin, a heart sin, how is that hurtful to my neighbor? What difference does it make in terms of my relationship with my neighbor? Isn’t this one just between me and God?
Well, here’s one example that all of us have or will experience at some point in life, “Are we able to find contentment within ourselves and celebrate with others when their gain touches our pain? Are we able to show up and joyfully celebrate with others when their joy touches our grief?”
For example, students when your friends win an award or make the game winning play, are you able to celebrate with them or can you only covet what they’ve accomplished and wish that was you?
When you're single for years on end and every single one of your friends are getting married, are you able to celebrate with them or can you only covet the love they’ve found and wished that was you? As they say, always a bridesmaid, never the bride.
When everyone else your age is having grandkids and you’ve got no grandkids in sight, are you able to celebrate with them or can you only covet the growing family they’re a part of and wished that was you?
When your friends are all enjoying retirement and you’re still clocking in and out, are you able to celebrate with them or can you only covet all their leisure time and travel and wish that was you?
And to my 4H friends, when your friends get higher ribbons than you and when their animals go for more money than you, are you able to celebrate with them or can you only covet what they’ve received and wished that was you?
Are you content within? Are you able to celebrate with them? Or do you covet?
We love our neighbor well when we can put our coveting to death and get on the dance floor if you will and celebrate with them.
And in my estimation, in my own experience, this is one of toughest moves in life to make. But it’s a move that we must strive for, if we want to love God, if we want to love our neighbor, if we want to really, truly be free.
So how do we do it? Let’s now move to our third and final question.
How can we free ourselves from coveting? How do we rest in what is better? How do we find real and lasting contentment?
Let’s turn our attention to the Apostle Paul. Briefly looking at his words from Philippians ch.4.
Here’s what Paul says, 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
It’s a bit of a strange thing Paul is doing here … he’s telling us he’s found this secret of being content in any and every situation, he’s got us on the edge of our seats, we’re waiting for an answer, but where’s the answer? Did I miss something? It feels like Paul is content in keeping this secret a secret all to himself.
Yet, in reality, the secret sauce is right there in verse 13, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” In other words, Paul is saying, “I can endure, I can handle any of life’s circumstances through Christ who gives me strength.” I am able to be content in all circumstances, I am able to be content when things are going great and when things are not, because of Christ who gives me strength.”
In her book on the 10 Commandments, Jen Wilkin shows us that this passage reminds us that contentment is learned.
Did you notice that from Paul? I learned the secret of being content. Which I think is really good news because it reminds us that contentment is not something that you’re born with or predisposed to. Rather, it can be learned.
And I think one of the ways that contentment can be cultivated within us is by being relentless and persistent in trying to find things to be grateful for.
I once heard of a woman who put 5 pennies in her left pant pocket and it was her goal each day to move those five pennies to her right pocket, moving one penny for different things she was grateful for and could thank God for. “God, thank you for my co-workers, they’re such encouraging teammates.” “God, thank you for the abundant moisture this year, so little smoke in the sky” “God, thank you for little ones who cry in church, it’s a sign of new life in our midst” or “God, thank you for the food on our table.”
This past week, I stopped by the food bank, wanting to learn more about what they do. I asked one of the volunteers working there, are you in need of more volunteers? They are. Do they ever turn anyone away? They don’t. And I asked her how many people they serve each week. They said they served 50 last year, but now upwards of 100 this year. I asked, “What do you attribute that spike in numbers to?” The answer was so obvious that it hit me right in the face. Rising food prices. Inflation. Friends, if you’ve got food on your table, that’s reason to be grateful. If you can purchase your own groceries these days, that’s reason to be grateful.
Be relentless, be persistent in finding things to be grateful for. It’s your anti-coveting protection plan.
Finally, and this is where we’ll end for today. We must believe and know deep down in our very core that what Christ has given us and what Christ has called us to is enough for us.
I recently read a book called Pastoring Small Towns, it’s a book that I’ll soon be reading with other pastors in our town as well as others in our Presbytery, and in the book author Donnie Griggs, writes this about pastors finding contentment in midst of small town ministry.
Saying, “Let’s get real, friends. I don’t think many of us will have biographies written about us. I think we will give our lives to ministering in a relatively small place to relatively few people. No one will make long treks to visit our graves. Publishers won’t be clamoring to get their hands on our sermons.”
And he finishes by saying, “Will that be enough for us? It must be.”
Friends, this is the very question that pervades our minds, cuts straight to our hearts, and touches our very souls. Will that be enough for you? Will Jesus be enough for you?
When you’re living in want while everyone else has plenty, will Jesus be enough for you?
When you don’t get everything you want right when you want it, will Jesus be enough for you?
When life hits the fan and nothing is going your way, will Jesus be enough for you?
When you’re called to a life of quiet faithfulness, will Jesus be enough for you?
He must be. Friends, he must be.
Like Paul, may we too find ourselves saying, “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It’s the only way to a life free from coveting. It’s the only way to a life of real contentment. It’s the only way for us to be truly free.
Will Jesus be enough for you? He must be.