by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
CGG Weekly, July 30, 2021
"A human being has a natural desire to have more of a good thing than he needs."
Watching toddlers play together in a room full of toys can be instructive. For a short while, the children check out the toys strewn about the room, noting the bright colors, touching them, putting them in their mouths, and perhaps even playing with them for a few moments. However, what usually happens is that, before long, all the kids gravitate toward a particular toy that one of them has claimed as his own. The dozens of other toys in the room fade to gray blobs while the toddlers whine and cry and fight over their newly minted Holy Grail of toys.
Sadly, the scenario is not much different among adults. Like babies, we want to own what we think is popular or rare or unattainable. This urge to possess things we value never shuts off. Some learn to play by the rules of private property, gaining the things they desire through ethical and legal means. Others flout the rules and take by any means what their hearts desire.
Wanting to possess things is not wrong; God built that feature into us. Despite owning everything, God Himself wants something He does not have: children like Him. It is what His whole plan is ultimately all about! He has an earnest desire to give us peace, joy, prosperity, equitable governance, and many other good things. We can have similar desires for ourselves and our families. In its most basic form, desire is not sinful.
The problem with desire is that, under the influence of human nature inspired by both the selfishness of the flesh and the anti-God hostility of Satan's world, it soon morphs into lust or inordinate desire. This common tendency among human beings provokes God's ban in the tenth commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21).
God uses the Hebrew word chāmad (Strong's #2530) to express this very human act. Chāmad means "to desire earnestly" or "to long after," which is in essence what the English word covet means: "to desire what belongs to another inordinately or culpably." In this commandment, God forbids setting our desire on something that another person already owns or something we cannot legally acquire. In the commandment itself, He prohibits lusting after another's spouse (one already legally and morally committed to another) or personal belongings. Its final phrase extends His prohibition out to all possessions of others.
Like the ninth commandment, the tenth deliberately invokes community by mentioning "your neighbor's" things three times: his spouse, house, and everything he owns. As in the previous commandment, the wording implies that breaking it undermines and eventually destroys harmony among family, neighbors, and ultimately an entire nation's citizens. Like widespread lying, pervasive coveting breeds distrust and division.
Because He has already prohibited stealing in the eighth commandment, God intends us to understand His command against coveting focuses on the internal attitude—the intense desire to possess a forbidden thing—rather than the physical act of taking it for oneself. It is the unseen, inner wickedness in us that first sows the seed of societal breakdown. This internality of sin finds an echo in what Jesus teaches in Mark 7:21-22:
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.
The final commandment, then, confirms that God has not just forbidden external acts but that His aim all along has been to curtail the sinful attitudes that spawn the damaging words and actions that divide and destroy marriages, families, communities, and whole nations. In effect, God ends His commandments with the causal element that breaks them all: improper desire.
For this reason, the apostle Paul can write that "covetousness . . . is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5). When we obsessively desire or lust for a particular thing, we have set it up as an idol. We have placed that object or person higher than our relationship with the true God, breaking the first commandment. Our wrong desire to choose a god of our own making breaks the second. We violate the third commandment when we desire to bear God's name our way instead of the way He instructs us in His Word. We defile the Sabbath day when we want to use God's time as our own. We can make the same case with each of the remaining commandments, circling back to God's injunction against covetousness, the internal sin that underlies them all.
For instance, back in the mid-90s, we kept the Feast of Tabernacles in San Antonio, Texas, and one afternoon, we watched the IMAX film about the Alamo. My daughter, who had just started school, made an incisive comment that surprised us. The film showed the Mexican Army attacking the small band of Texans defending the Alamo, and she pointed out that the Mexicans were breaking God's commandments. We thought she would say they broke the sixth commandment against killing, but she said instead that they were killing the Texans because they coveted the Alamo! Her young mind grasped that their covetousness was the cause of the more visible sin of war.
Two of Jesus' beatitudes present effective foils for covetousness. The first, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled" (Matthew 5:6), provides a righteous, legitimate desire to replace the evil desires the human heart usually pursues. If we spend our time both desiring and seeking the right ways of living before God in this world, we will displace the inordinate desires that steer us off the path toward the Kingdom of God. We need to have a similar zeal in yearning for godly things that we once had in coveting the things belonging to others. And as He promises, these godly desires will fill our needs abundantly.
The second of these beatitudes, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8), provides the goal we must shoot for. Our covetous hearts, green with envy and black with lust, must be purified—cleansed and polished to reflect the pure nature of God. He justifies us and forgives our past sins, but we have a part to play in our purification, as the apostle John relates in I John 3:3: "And everyone who has this hope in Him [to see Christ as He is in the first resurrection] purifies himself, just as He is pure" (emphasis ours). In the sanctification process, God works with us to purify our hearts (Philippians 2:12-13) to prepare us for living eternally as He does. Not only will we literally see God at its culmination, but we will truly understand God—comprehend Him—as our hearts mirror His own.
As He closes the commandments, God gets to the heart of the matter: Sin starts inside, in the mind, the heart, with iniquitous desires, and that is where we must begin to change our natures into the image of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:23-24; Colossians 3:10).