“Who is it that is truly rich?” Benjamin Franklin once asked. “He who is content.” And who is that? Franklin asked. “No one.”
Discontent—the desire for something more or different—isn’t always wrong. Dissatisfaction with the status quo has been the impetus for some of the greatest discoveries and inventions in history, from the discovery of America to the invention of the microchip.
But the lack of satisfaction with what we have can also be the motivation for violating just about every other commandment we have been looking at in our series—which is why it is the subject of the final commandment, “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” (Exodus 20:17). The tenth commandment reminds us that the greatest enemy to our happiness in life is being discontent with our circumstances.
One of the interesting aspects of this commandment is that it was given to people who didn’t yet possess the entire inventory listed in the commandment. They didn’t possess houses or servants, but they would when they entered the promised land. The Lord was preparing them with a preemptive warning to be on their guard because “the human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). Well, the Lord does—that’s why He gave the commandment even before the Israelites knew they needed it.
Something else that’s interesting is that, in many ways, the first and tenth commandments are similar and serve as bookends to the entire list. The first commandment reminds us of the greatest commandment—to love God with our whole being (Deuteronomy 6:5). The tenth commandment reminds us of the second greatest commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). Both the first and the tenth commandments address attitudes of the heart, while the other eight commandments address actions that spring from the heart.
As Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe said, “Covetous people will break all of God’s commandments in order to satisfy their desires because at the heart of sin is the sin in the heart.”
1. What Does It Mean to “Covet?”
Covetousness is not the same as desire. In their proper place and used for their proper purpose, desires can be good and godly—shelter when you need protection, food when you need sustenance, clothing when you need warmth, intimacy when you need companionship, and mercy when you need forgiveness.
Covetousness is desire gone awry. It’s an excessive or obsessive desire for what doesn’t belong to you. It’s a form of envy and greed that wants what it can’t have because it belongs to another person.
I think there’s a reason that this sin is the climax of the Ten Commandments. When you think about it, it’s that desire for what someone else has that’s the foundation for adultery and, many times, for murder, lying, and theft. As the commandment itself states, we can covet another person’s spouse, another person’s possessions, another person’s means of provision, or anything another person owns. Though coveting begins in the mind, it often works itself out through the hands—and violates the other commandments.
- Adam and Eve coveted the divinity and immortality of God, so they ate the forbidden fruit and then blamed others for their sin, violating the first and ninth commandments (Genesis 3:1–6, 12–13).
- Achan coveted the wealth of Jericho, so he stole it, violating the eighth commandment (Joshua 7:10–26).
- Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, so he falsely accused him, had him executed, and took his vineyard, violating the ninth, sixth, and eighth commandments (1 Kings 21:1–16).
- Ananias and Sapphira coveted the glory and honor Barnabas received, so they lied about their gift to the church, violating the ninth commandment (Acts 5:1–10).
In the Bible, David is a perfect example of this. He took Bathsheba, who wasn’t his wife (breaking the eighth commandment against theft), slept with her (breaking the seventh commandment against adultery), and then, to cover up her pregnancy so he could take her as his own, arranged to have her husband, Uriah, killed (breaking the sixth commandment against murder)—all because he coveted his neighbor’s wife (breaking the tenth commandment).
As you can see, coveting is a serious sin and is forbidden throughout Scripture. In fact, covetousness is so serious the Lord pronounces woe—divine damnation—on those who do not control their lust for other people’s possessions.
2. The Origin of Covetousness (Isaiah 14:13-14)
It’s been said, “All sin is contempt for God.” The first sin in the universe certainly was rooted in this idea. The cause of Satan’s demotion from heaven was a mixture of pride and covetousness. Lucifer (Satan’s name before he was tossed out of heaven), in all his majesty and beauty as an angel, coveted the Lord’s majesty and beauty. Lucifer grew discontented and conceived in his heart evil thoughts.
His reward for his pride and covetousness—his contempt for God—was to be cast out of heaven. “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, you who have weakened the nations!” (v. 12). Contempt for God is a serious sin. But such contempt has a way of compounding itself, whereby contempt for God leads to contempt for others. The outworking of contempt, as we’ve already seen, is in covetousness.
3. The Catalysts For Covetousness
Fire needs fuel to burn. Without fuel, a warm, inviting fire in the fireplace or a campfire will eventually extinguish itself. However, with too much fuel, a fire can become uncontrollable. If left unchecked, it can consume a home, a prairie, or an entire forest.
The sin of covetousness is very much like a fire. The spark that ignites it, as James pointed out, is our own sinful desires we inherited from Adam—our uncontrollable lusts (James 1:14–15). But like a fire, covetousness needs fuel to keep it ablaze. Let’s look at three sources of fuel covetousness feeds on.
4. The Cure For Covetousness
What is the cure for covetousness? In a word, contentment. As the lack of oxygen starves a fire, no matter how much fuel is available, so contentment starves covetousness. Contentment is a curious word. According to one scholar, “It speaks of an inward self-sufficiency as opposed to the lack or the desire of outward things.” The Stoic philosophers loved this word because it expressed the central theme of their philosophy—that men and women are independent of outward circumstances, whether for good or for ill and only dependent on themselves, on their inner circumstances, to find happiness in life. In Latin, the word is contentum and expresses the idea of being self-contained.
When we look at how Paul used the term in Philippians 4:11–13, we discover he turned the meaning on its head. Instead of contentment being self-sufficiency, Paul said that contentment for the believer is Christ-sufficiency.
As convenient as it would be for contentment to be built into our DNA, it just isn’t. Paul said it’s something we have to learn. “Not that I speak from want,” he told the Christians at Philippi, “for 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” (vv. 11–12).
The ultimate secret to contentment is being Christ-sufficient, as Paul pointed out in verse 13, learning to trust Christ and lean on His sovereignty in every circumstance.
Paul’s Three Secrets for Contentment
- A Life That Is Ministry-Focused (Philippians 1:12-14)
- A Gratitude That Is Regularly Expressed (Philippians 4:4)
- A Faith That Is Based on the Sovereignty of God (Philippians 1:19)
Do you trust in God’s plan for your life? Do you believe—really believe—God’s promise in Psalm 84:11 that he will withhold no good thing from the righteous? Do you believe that your mate, your children, your job, and your circumstances are all a part of God’s plan for your life—a plan that, as God says in Jeremiah 29:11, is for your welfare and not a calamity? A plan to give you a future and a hope.”
Such a belief is foundational to contentment which is the cure for covetousness.
Full Passage: Exodus 20:17