If you knew nothing about the Bible and tried to guess what God’s Ten Commandments are, you probably would not guess the Tenth Commandment. Even the apostle Paul would not have guessed it (Romans 7:7).
But this commandment, together with the rest of the Bible and especially the New Testament, lets us know that God, who knows our every thought, is judging our hearts, thoughts and motives as well as our behavior. He expects godliness in our deeds and our desires, in our actions and our attitudes (see Isaiah 55:8-9; 2 Corinthians 10:5). Personal character is a matter of our hearts as well as our hands.
Coveting also robs us of contentment, gratitude and peace of mind. And evil thoughts often lead to evil actions (James 1:13-16; James 4:1-4; Mark 7:21-23).
Coveting can lead to murder, adultery, stealing and lying.
The Bible gives us many strong warnings about covetousness and the related sins of avarice, greed, envy, jealousy and materialism (Luke 12:15; Romans 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:10-11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). People covet not only physical stuff but all kinds of things.
Long ago, the English word “covet” simply meant desire. Two verses, 1 Corinthians 12:31 and 1 Corinthians 14:39, are about a positive desire for spiritual gifts, but the King James Version translates the Greek word for desire, zēloō, as “covet.” But in modern English, covet usually refers to one of the worst kinds of lust. It is not lust for what is obtainable in an ethical way such as earning or purchasing it. It is lust for what belongs to someone else—one’s “neighbor”—when he is not willing to sell it or give it to you. If everyone would “love his neighbor as himself,” he would thank God for the blessings his neighbor has instead of craving to take away what belongs to his neighbor!
Covetous versus contented versus satisfied
The opposite of covetousness is contentment. Quite often the word “satisfied” is used as a synonym for “contented,” but not in this article. It is not wrong to be dissatisfied with your present condition or situation when you have the opportunity to improve them in an ethical manner. For example, if there is no important reason for you to live in a dangerous neighborhood, you don’t have to be satisfied with that location when you are able to move to a safer neighborhood. God wants us to have godly goals, the right kind of ambition and godly methods of striving for those goals. But God wants you to have a contented state of mind no matter where you are. God certainly doesn’t want us to ever be satisfied with our present level of godliness. We can call that being self-satisfied, apathetic, lethargic and lukewarm. God wants us to fervently flee temptations and spiritually grow!
Paul regularly demonstrated that with the help of God, one can be content in even the most miserable circumstances. He gave us the best biblical explanation of contentment in Philippians 4:4-14, and the following quotes are from the New International Version. Paul had had an incredible amount of suffering and “troubles” in his life (Philippians 4:14). In fact, he wrote this epistle while in prison. Nevertheless, he wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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” (Philippians 4:11-12, emphasis added throughout).
Notice the virtues that promote and accompany contentment: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). “Prayer” (vs. 6). “Thanksgiving” (vs. 6). “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding…” (Philippians 4:7). Think about pure and noble things (Philippians 4:8). Contentment focuses gratefully on what one has rather than pitying one’s self for what one does not have.
Needs versus wants
Psalm 23:1 (KJV), says: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The popular meaning of “want” has changed since 1611 when the KJV was published. The New Living Translation makes the meaning clear: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.”
However, most people still don’t believe Psalm 23:1. Adam and Eve didn’t believe it. In our materialistic and affluent society, we are dazzled by a seemingly endless variety of products and we convince ourselves that we need lots of them. We are heavily influenced by advertising to believe that accessories are really necessities. We unwisely “compare ourselves” and envy (2 Corinthians 10:12), and we arrogantly think we “deserve” better.
Regarding this subject, chapter 6 of 1 Timothy is jam-packed with important lessons (again using the NIV). Some people “think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (verse 5). For example, having an appearance of being religious is often good for business around holidays like Christmas and Easter to enhance their money-making power. But, truly, “godliness with contentment is great gain!” (1 Timothy 6:6).
Paul regularly demonstrated that with the help of God, one can be content in even the most miserable circumstances.
“But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). In affluent societies, it is hard to take this literally. But when ministers and members visit our church brethren in other areas of the world, where they may only have the bare necessities of life, they are often inspired by their contentment. They are often less distracted by materialism—focusing more on the glorious, joyful prophecies and promises of the Kingdom of God!
“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money [covetousness!] is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). Being wealthy is not evil or a cause of evil, and God has often helped people to become wealthy. However, being infatuated with money or lusting for riches leads to all kinds of evil. Compare with Ecclesiastes 5:10, NIV—“Whoever loves money never has enough.” (One theme of the book of Ecclesiastes is covetousness versus contentment.)
Advertising fuels the fires of desires and covetousness. And many politicians gain popularity by promising “free” stuff that is paid for with taxpayer money (largely the taxes paid by future generations).
Sadly, those who spend all their income on themselves are not tithing and donating to their church, they are not putting money into savings, and they are not giving to others who have serious needs. It is important to learn the way of give versus the way of get (Acts 20:35).
Covetousness is idolatry
Idolatry is any violation of the First Commandment. In two scriptures, Paul equates covetousness with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5). When one is obsessed with possessing something, that person is idolizing it. These scriptures help us to better understand the meaning of “covet” and how serious it is when we break the Tenth Commandment.
We can think of the Ten Commandments as making up a perfect circle. For one thing, this visual makes every commandment seem equally important since no one commandment is higher or lower on a list. More clearly, this puts the Tenth Commandment right next to the First Commandment. Breaking the Tenth Commandment is one way of breaking the First Commandment. God commands us to look to Him as our primary Provider (Matthew 7:7; James 1:17; 1 Timothy 6:17).
Please read and reflect on the sixth chapter of Matthew. Quoting from the NIV: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26).
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).
And if we remain faithful to God, He will resurrect us and grant us everlasting life in the Kingdom of God!
Let’s conclude with one final inspiring scripture: “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).