17 – You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
I like to read just about any kind of book….but sometimes I prefer what I call a “no brainer book.” By that I mean those novels that require little or no mental effort to understand where the plot is familiar and the characters are not complex. For me, this type of book provides a great way to escape from the stressful things of life. They are easy to “get in to.” Before I’ve finished even one page I forget my burdens and am somewhere else far, far away! Star Trek novels fall into this category. I’ve happily “toured” the outer reaches of our galaxy through their predictable plots. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote books of this nature. His standard characters have escorted my mind across the plains of Mars and even through the jungles of Africa. But, one of my favorite brands of “no brainer” book are the western novels of Louis L’amour. Like most “no-brainer” books, Mr. L’amour’s plots are almost always the same: bad guys, good guys, a damsel in distress, and an incredibly talented cowboy who comes to her rescue. Now…this is not to say that L’amour was a bad writer-in fact to the contrary-He was very skilled with the use of words. I remember reading his account of a cowboy crossing the Mojave desert on foot with no water and with the turn of each page I became more and more thirsty. In fact, by the time I finished I was almost certain that I had a pretty substantial sunburn!
Louis L’amour also had a talent for using his stories to reveal the inner workings of the human psyche. One of his short stories that fits into this category is about a gold miner who has found a rich vein of gold ore. It is so pure that he can almost pull the malleable metal out of the rock with his bare hands. But the problem is…the vein is at the base of a huge tower of stone. You’ve seen pictures of them: columns of rock jutting up out of the desert. Well, since the vein is at the base of this tower, the more gold he removes the more unstable the tower becomes. Thanks to all the groaning and cracking sounds above him, which increase as he removes more and more gold ore, the miner knows that it is only a matter of time before the tower falls and when that happens he will be buried alive under tons of rock. Each night he tells himself that he has more than enough gold and that he should not go back to the mine. He is already richer than his wildest dreams. He has more money than he could possibly spend in his lifetime. But the next morning he always returns for more. And each day the groans and cracking sounds become louder and more frequent but he can’t control himself; he comes back each day wanting more gold. In this story L’amour did a great job of illustrating just how powerful WANTING or COVETING can become. If we’re not careful we become like this greedy gold miner — our WANTS consume us. Coveting can be compelling enough to make us ignore the common sense God gave us. It can get us to the point where we no longer make good judgements. We forget the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. No wonder our loving Heavenly Father gave us this 10th commandment to protect us from the dangers of coveting. This law should serve as a warning sign to all of us lest we become buried beneath unbridled wanting.
Now, a better word for “covet” might be “desire,” for to “covet” something means to intensely desire something that you do not have. Synonyms would include “greed,” or “materialism.” But, as this seventeenth verse of Exodus 20 states, “covet” can also refer to an intense desire to have something which belongs to someone else. So, being envious or jealous….entertaining a severe craving for the possessions or life circumstances of other people is coveting. Now, don’t get me wrong…wanting is not necessarily bad. With this commandment God is not telling us to stop desiring all together. God gave us our desires and filled the world with desirable things. In fact in Scripture we are taught that there are some thing that we should covet. For example, I Corinthians 12:31 says that we are to “EAGERLY desire the greater [spiritual] gifts.” In Matthew 5:6 Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst [or desire] righteousness..” Philippians says we should want to fill our lives with things that are, “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy.” So there are some things that are perfectly legitimate for us to covet. It is not wrong to desire to have peace of mind; nor is it wrong to want to be happy. It is not wrong for a person to desire to obtain an education.
A husband should desire his wife and a wife her husband. Wanting is not necessarily bad. In fact, the impulse to want is a very necessary part of being human. Without this drive people would be inert, inactive, unmotivated, and ultimately, not useful. Without WANTING something better, mankind would never have conquered the wilderness, or saved children from starving in distant lands or committed vast amounts of time and money in research for a cure for communicable diseases. So, coveting can be good for, like a carrot dangling on a stick in front of a horse, it often is what keeps us going forward, hoping for better things.
It is only when our wants get out of control that we have a problem. This reminds me of something Martin Luther said: “It is acceptable for a bird to land on your head, but you don’t have to let it build a nest.” Well, when does wanting become sinful? When does our coveting get out of balance? Nancy Beech of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago puts it this way, “Everything above admiration is really crossing the line into the sin of covetousness.” And, Francis Shaeffer said, “I think there are two practical tests as to when we are coveting against God or men: first, I am to love God enough to be contented; second, I am to love men enough not to envy.” Another way to look at it is this: we begin to covet when it is easier for us to “weep with those who weep” than it is to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” There were once two shopkeepers who were bitter rivals. Their stores were directly across the street from each other, and they would spend each day keeping track of each other’s business. If one got a customer, he would smile in triumph at his rival. Well, one night an angel appeared to one of the shopkeepers in a dream and said, “I will give you anything you ask, but whatever you receive, your competitor will receive twice as much. Would you be rich? You can be very rich, but he will be twice as wealthy. Do you wish to live a long and healthy life? You can, but his life will be longer and healthier. What is your desire?” The man frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, “Here is my request: Strike me blind in one eye!” This man had definitely crossed the line into sinful coveting for as I John 2:9 says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.” This is why James 3:16 warns, “….where you have envy and selfish ambition [COVETING], there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Sadly enough, these days our society encourages coveting. In the United States alone the advertising industry spends over six billion dollars a day. According to an article in the Educational Forum published in 1996, “the typical U.S. consumer is the recipient of 3,000 advertisements daily.” I think most of them end up in my mailbox! The general message in all this merchandising is that all of our problems can be solved immediately by the consumption of the proper product. Buying this will take care of everything from a bad budget to baldness! All these TV, Radio, computer, and mass media ads we receive cause far too many of us to live in a perpetual state of longing, wanting more and more and more. I remember reading a “Dennis the Menace” cartoon strip which showed Dennis looking through a Christmas Toy catalogue saying, “This catalog’s got a lot of toys I didn’t even know I wanted.”
Now,most of us won’t commit the “biggie” sins like murder or adultery…but all of us-young and old — rich and poor — will covet. In fact, if coveting were an illness, the whole world would be a hospital. I remember that great Christian comedian of yesteryear, Grady Nutt, telling that he went to a small Christian College in Texas located five miles from any known sin.
He said that the school had three rules: 1. Don’t smoke 2. Don’t drink 3. Don’t want to. And he was kicked out for wanting to. Well, if we went to a college where wanting was illegal, all of us would be kicked out as well because all of us covet.
Looking back over the other nine commandments and comparing them to this final command causes me to think that God has saved the hardest command to keep for the last.
I say this because the first nine commandments are primarily about deeds. This one of course deals with desire. The first nine for the most part have to do with visible actions. This last of the 10 Commandments refers to invisible attitudes. This command describes a secret sin and to control one’s actions is one thing but to control one’s hidden thoughts and feelings is another thing all together. Bridling that inner part of us that always wants more is tough, yet this is what this final law deals with. Now, since we began this study months ago, we have said that these ten commandments are REALLY tenDER commandments. That is, they are motivated by God’s tender love for us. Like any good parent, in these commandments, God is saying, “I know things that you don’t know. I have given these laws for your own good. They both provide My best for you and protect you from harm.” Well, what about this final commandment? What does our Heavenly Father know about coveting that we don’t? Well, one thing God knows is this…
1. Uncontrolled wanting or coveting can lead us to commit other sins.
Every sin begins with a thought and many times those thoughts have to do with our wanting thing that do not belong to us. The Bible is full of examples of coveting leading to other sins… I Kings 21 tells that King Ahab wanted the land that adjoined his property but it belonged to his neighbor, Naboth. Ahab offered to buy it for a reasonable price but Naboth did not want to sell because the land had been in the family for a long time. Ahab was depressed over the matter until his wicked wife, Jezebel assured him that she would take care of everything. She had the neighbor falsely accused of blasphemy and treason and put to death. And then King Ahab was able to confiscate the land. So, the king’s coveting gave birth to lying, murder, and theft. His uncontrolled wanting led him to break commandments six, eight, and nine. A hundred years earlier King David stood on the balcony of his palace and saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheeba taking a bath below. He coveted her body and had sex with her in spite of the fact that he knew she was married. She became pregnant with his child and he eventually had her husband Uriah moved to the front lines of battle where he died so he could marry Bathsheeba and make the pregnancy look legitimate. King David’s coveting led to adultery, and murder. Because of his unbridled desires he broke commandments six and seven. King Saul’s attempt to murder David years before he was king stemmed from his envy over David’s growing popularity with the people. Miriam’s jealousy of her brother Moses’ special relationship with God (Numbers 12 ) led to her gossiping. The book of Acts records that in the days of the early church Ananias and Sapphira sold some land and bragged that they gave the entire proceeds to the church. But Acts 5:3 says that they lied to the Lord….instead of giving it all to God they had kept some of the money for themselves. This all began with their coveting the popularity that Barnabas had gained due to his selling his property and giving all the proceeds to the church.
A more current example of this was found right here in Washington, D. C. at the end of the Civil War. John Wilkes Boothe, the man who killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater was the brother of one of America’s most famous actors, Edwin Booth. John Wilkes Booth was consumed with jealousy. He bitterly coveted the popularity of his brother. Now, he knew there was a growing dislike for Abraham Lincoln in certain areas of the United States. So he killed the President, thinking to become a national hero. The assassination of this beloved man started with one covetous thought.
So,you could say that coveting is the “mother of all sins” for it is an inward sin that gives birth all manner of outward evil acts. This is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 12:34-35 when He said, “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks…the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up IN HIM.” Coveting is that catalyst that leads us to break the other nine commandments so God has placed the most important commandment exactly where it ought to be in the list: last. And then, another reason God has given us this prohibition against wanton wanting is because He knows that…
2. coveting blinds us to what is really important in life…
When our wanting gets out of hand it robs us of the joy of living. You may remember that in the movie Chariots of Fire one runner coveted winning above everything else. That’s all he thought about, all he lived for. But the other runner, Eric Liddel, simply enjoyed the gift of the wind against his face and the feeling of his feet flying over the ground. For him, winning was not the point; the point was appreciating the experience. When we covet someone else’s life, we make it impossible for us to enjoy our own lives. Gordon MacDonald wrote, “the soul cannot be healthy when one compares himself or herself to others. The soul dies a bit every time it’s involved in a lifestyle that competes.” These days too many people live by Vince Lombardi’s philosophy which says that, “Winning isn’t everything; it is the ONLY thing.” Well winning isn’t the only thing. It’s just what happens at the end of the game. There is much more to life than that and we miss it if we focus on wanting what is not ours. This is why Jesus warned us, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”(Luke 12:15 ) I remember watching the MAD ABOUT YOU episode in which their baby was born. Apparently the hospital labor and delivery ward had one room that all expectant mothers wanted. It had rich wood paneling, a large screen TV, a great stereo system, beautiful furniture and expensive art work on the walls. It was known as “the GOOD room.” When they arrived at the hospital another couple were having a baby and they raced to see who would get the “good” delivery room. In spite of some pretty tricky wheel chair driving, Paul Reiser and his TV wife lost and ended up in a “normal” delivery room. But the moment his little baby girl popped into the room a few hours later he said, “Guess which room just became the ‘GOOD’ room.” If we are not careful, coveting can make us care more about furniture and things than what is truly important like those special, precious unrepeatable moments of life. God gave us this commandment because He knows that WANTING can keep us from LIVING!
3. And then, a third thing that He knows about coveting is that it can blind us to the needs of others.
When we covet we tend to focus so much on our needs that we forget that other people have needs as well. Ron Mehl tells of a time when he was speaking at a conference many thousands of miles from his home. He woke up on the morning he was to return home and prayed, “Lord, You know how much I want to get home to my wife and sons. As a personal favor to me, please don’t let there be any delays or cancellations at the airport.” But when he arrived at the gate, the lady behind the counter said that there were some difficulties and that the flight would have to be delayed for an hour and twenty-wife minutes. He writes, “I was SOOOOO disappointed. I didn’t want to sit for an hour and a half in a crummy airport! Hadn’t the Lord heard me that morning? Was I tuned in to the wrong wavelength or something? As I walked away from the counter, I remember thinking, Why does this always have to happen to me? I love my family so much. I miss them so much. I’ll bet nobody in this airport loves their family like I do.” But what happened next jarred him from his bout of self-pity. A young man came running down the concourse, struggling with his bags, his face as white as a sheet. He ran right up to the gate where Mehl was waiting, looked up at the time posted for departure, and said, “Thank God!” And then he told the ticket agent, “I need to get home, and this is the last flight of the day. My little boy was struck by a car. He’s in the hospital in serious condition. My wife’s alone with him there.” Mehl said that as he sat there he thanked God for NOT answering his selfish prayer. At that moment, perhaps he remembered I John 3:17 where it says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
4. And then, a fourth thing that God knows about coveting is that it is very deceptive.
It promises us something that it does not deliver. Coveting is built on the idea that if we get what we do not have, if we get what we desire, we’ll be happy. But this is a delusion. True-when we get something that we have wanted for a long time there is a brief thrill, but the thrill never lasts.
Like a tire with a hole in it, it quickly loses its ability to bring us happiness. But we never seem to learn this lesson. When the thrill fades we just covet another THING, hoping that it WILL bring us lasting happiness and the process begins all over again. One example of this vicious cycle is seen every Christmas when we’re presented with those “must” items that we simply have to buy for our kids. And every year the “Big Thing” to find under the tree is something new. A few years ago the gift of choice was a Tickle Me Elmo. People stampeded through stores to get one. Remember? In past years there have also been Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Beanie Babies, Furbies, and GameBoys to name a few. When our kids get these things they enjoy them for a few days but then those things that they wanted so bad, those toys that they absolutely had to have to be happy….lose their appeal. And then the next year the BIG THING to have is something else.
And we adults are just as bad. We covet something that we believe will bring us a thrill only to aim our desires at something else when the thrill is gone. So, Tickle Me Elmo isn’t giggling anymore; he’s on the top shelf of the closet in most homes between a Salad Shooter and a Vega-Matic. You see, coveting is deceptive…it promises happiness but it always leaves us wanting more. Andrew Carnegie was once asked, “How much money is enough?” He replied, “Just a little bit more.” Wanting, coveting, is an endless search for joy that fades. Like a dog chasing it’s tail people who covet never quite catch lasting joy. This is why Epicurus said, “If you want to make a man happy, add not to his possessions, but take away from his desires.” Billionaire Howard Hugh’s obsession in life was to have more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he went to Hollywood and became a film maker and star. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid handsome sums to indulge his every hedonistic urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed, built and piloted the fastest aircraft in the world. He wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favors so skillfully that two U. S. Presidents became his pawns. All he ever wanted was more.
And yet this man ended his life emaciated; colorless; with a sunken chest. His fingernails resembled grotesque, corkscrews that were inches long. His teeth were black and rotten, and innumerable needle marks from his drug addiction covered his body. He walked around nearly naked most of the time with his beard and hair to his waist. He lived in darkness, wore rubber gloves, and sterilized everything in his junk-filled room. He spent most of his time watching old movies and drinking soup. He was so lonely that he talked on the phone for 10 to 15 hours a day.
Howard Hughs died weighing 95 pounds still believing in the myth of more. His life shows the truth of that old Latin proverb: “He who covets is always poor.” This leads to another thing God knows about this subject.
5. He knows is that true joy in life is not found in coveting but in contentment.
I Timothy 6:6-8 says, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” The happiest people I have known in life are those who were simply content with the things God had provided. They had a genuine trust relationship with their Heavenly Father that brought them a great deal of both pleasure and peace. There’s an old rabbinic teaching that goes like this: “Who is wealthy? The one who is content with his life.” People — like the Apostle Paul — who are content to trust God to “provide their needs according to His riches in Glory” are truly wealthy. In Matthew 6:8 Jesus said that God, “….knows what you need before you ask Him.” And He has a way of seeing to it that we receive what we need at just the right time…not our time perhaps, but the right time. Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'” And when I have enough faith to trust that God will not forsake me — that He will meet my needs — it brings me a great deal of peace. I don’t have to worry about my needs…that’s God’s job! Now, understand, contentment isn’t an instant thing. In Philippians 4:11 Paul writes, “I have LEARNED to be content whatever the circumstances.”
So contentment didn’t happen to Paul overnight. In Philippians 3:7-8 he describes this process by saying, “I once thought all these things [money, power, prestige] were so very important, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage.” Once Paul found the true source of contentment, everything else tasted like flat Coke. He learned that coveting is a dead end street and that trusting God is the only way to find true joy. You know, when we covet we’re saying we aren’t content with what our Heavenly Father has provided. We’re telling Him, “What I have isn’t good enough. What You have provided is something less than I deserve.”
Have you ever wondered how that makes God feel? When I was a teen I remember a time that my Dad asked me to drive the family station wagon home from church. He let me do this in spite of the fact that he had promised one of his deacons a ride home. I think he was sort of showing off to this deacon, proudly displaying his eldest son’s skill behind the wheel. Our car was not new….it had about a million miles on it and several dents that my dad couldn’t afford to get fixed and for a long time I had coveted a “cool car,” something sporty. I was embarrassed to be seen behind the wheel of the beat up old family station wagon. Well for some silly reason that day I told my dad exactly how I felt-and I did so in front of that deacon. I still remember the painful expression on his face as his own son complained about what he had provided. And I think that is how God feels when we aren’t content with His provision…and instead covet the things of others.
So, you see, our Heavenly Father knows more about coveting than we do. He knows that it leads to other sins. He knows that it blinds us to true joy in life and to the needs of others. He knows that coveting is deceptive…it promises happiness but it doesn’t deliver. And He knows that the only way to be really happy is to be content with the things He provides.
AND, one OTHER thing God knows is that coveting can make us leave Him out of our lives. WANTING — breaking the 10th commandment — can lead us to break His first commandment. Remember it? He said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” You see what a person WANTS, he serves….and that which a person serves is his god. Martin Luther said, “Whatever thy heart clings to and relies on, that is properly thy God.” God is Lord of all or not Lord at all. Is He Lord of your life? More than anything else do you WANT, covet, a close walk with Him?
We must not make the same mistake as the Rich Young Ruler, the focus of last Sunday’s Sunday School lesson. Remember, his love of things, his coveting, kept him from following Jesus. He held onto things and as a result pushed aside a relationship with God. When you think of it he didn’t possess things. They possessed him. He gave up eternal life for a few temporary things. This shrewd businessman made a very bad business decision for as Jesus said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”