Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments: 12. Be Contented
Ex 20:17 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 that belongs to your neighbor.”
The counter-balance to this last of the Ten Commandments, let’s say from the outset could be, I believe, “Be contented with all you have.” Strictly speaking, we might say that coveting is wanting something that someone else has and a dictionary definition says, “to want ardently (esp., something that another person has); long for with envy,” but that envy element means that we could say covetousness is, “desiring something with evil motivation.”
Now it is interesting that when Moses repeats the Ten Commandments on the plain before the people enter the Promised Land, forty years after the original commandments were given, he very slightly changes the wording to make it more understandable: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Deut 5:21) Do you see that second sentence- “You shall not set your desire on….” It isn’t just wanting something but it is setting or establishing or fixing your desire on something and once you do that you start getting frustrated that you can’t have it, and simple desire turns into something more, envy and coveting schemes, planning how you may get the thing.
The classic example of this in Scripture is of King Ahab wanting an adjacent vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth: “Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.” (1 Kings 21:1,2) Now up until that point there is nothing wrong with Ahab’s request and we might suggest Naboth was rather foolish, especially when the king had offered him a bigger and better vineyard and adequate payment. Even more foolish was Naboth ignoring the dubious character of this king. If he had thought what might follow prudence might have suggested he give it a second thought, but he didn’t (which was his prerogative) and so we read, “So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” (1 Kings 21:4) Ahab reacts badly and when his wife comes across him she plots for Naboth to be killed. Bad attitudes all round.
So this is coveting: desiring what others have – with bad attitude. Yes, it is probably linked with envy and jealousy and maybe worse and it inevitably leads to unrighteous behaviour. The apostle James, in his very practical letter, wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (Jas 4:1-3) The struggles of life, one person against another (or even one nation against another) come from this thing, this desire to have what they have. You want their possession, can’t get it and so resort to violence of some kind. We hope that indeed that description does not apply to Christians today. It is wrong.
Now we probably say, “Oh, I would never try and take from someone else what is theirs.” No, that is probably true today because the only things that are unique are plots of land or buildings and valuable works of art. Virtually everything else is freely available (at a cost) because we live in a day of such abundant provision in this consumer society, that if we have the money we can get the item. Nevertheless the “keeping-up-with-the-Jones” mentality is still alive and well, and indeed modern advertising and selling is based on that – he has a bigger car, I want a bigger car. They are moving into a bigger house, we ought to think about a bigger house. They have new furniture; we ought to think about a makeover. It is at the heart of capitalism and a country is said to be doing well if its citizens are able to consume more and more goods.
Our use of our money probably goes beyond this study but a wise Christian certainly thinks about their spending habits and seeks the Lord over the wise use of their money, both how to make it go round and what to do with the excess.
At the end of the day, lack of contentment is a sign of a sense of inadequacy as well as unbelief. We think we can only be somebody if we have more and more. If we constantly want more and more it means we are dissatisfied with God’s present provision for us. Having a lot isn’t in itself wrong (Solomon proves that) but it is the attitude that goes with it.
The apostle Paul instructed, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5) Greed (which is a cousin of covetousness) is there linked with and described as an expression of idolatry. An idol is something we worship, something we put before God. Being constantly discontented and constantly wanting more and more is greed and that desire for more is something that eats away at us and becomes the central focus of life, and that is idolatry. It replaces God as the central focus of our lives.
All of these things comes as warnings to the Christian in this especially materialistic age of super abundance in which we live. Don’t be put off or feel bad about material things – God gave them to us – but be careful about your attitudes towards them.