The Myth of More

Exodus 20:17

August 26, 2012 | Brian Bill

Society is trying to sell us stuff all the time…and it’s not all that difficult to do because we’re so unsatisfied with what we have.  Would you agree that discontentment is our default setting? 

Capitalizing on our inherent dissatisfaction, the worldwide marketing machine spends around $450 billion annually to make you unhappy with who you are, with what you have, with how you look and with what you do.  At its core, most advertising is designed to make us ungrateful and to feed our greed.

I read an abstract from a study called Social Comparison, Advertising and Consumer Discontent this week: “Consumers encounter countless advertising images during the course of everyday life.  Many of these images are idealized, representing life more as it is imagined than as it actually exists…repeated exposure to idealized images raises consumers’ expectations and influences their perceptions of how their lives ought to be, particularly in terms of their material possessions. The result of both these processes, for some consumers, is discontent and an increased desire for more.”

I also came across this summary of a study called “Merchants of Discontent” in which the author writes this: “In this paper, I attempt to draw parallels between the psychology of commercial advertising and marketing and the psychology of addiction.  Both appear to be characterized by denial, escapism, narcissism, isolation, insatiability, impatience, and diminished sensitivity. Advertising appeals to these impulses and addiction is marked by them.”  Or we could say that advertising simply capitalizes on our coveting hearts.

In a post called, “How to Motivate Your Prospects,” we gain some inside information into what ads are trying to get us to do: “As an advertiser, it is your job to create discontentment inside the psyche of your prospects, and make them desire the change that you`re offering.”

A commentator from Tel Aviv, Israel offers this insight: “Because producers covet consumers’ money, they need to get consumers to covet their goods.  Social historians note a change in American advertising after World War I, from conveying product information to manufacturing desire.  The public, business people feared, was too frugal.  To rev up the economy, products were associated with images, glamour, [and] personal identity.  Marketing moved from fulfilling needs to creating them.  Thirty years later, the post-World War II boom gave us planned obsolescence, whose most recent incarnation is the need for continual upgrading of our electronic gadgets.”  Ouch.

That reminds me of something I heard some time ago: We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.

In contrast to our culture’s clamor for coveting, the tenth commandment dispels the myth of more.  Let’s read it together.  Exodus 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.”  


Let’s begin with some observations.  I wrote down ten.

  • This command hits close to home.  The word “neighbor” is used three times to remind us that we are related to others in community.  Coveting involves the things that others have that we want.  In this verse that’s property (neighbor’s house), people (wife and servants) and possessions (ox and donkey and everything else).  We seldom covet those things far from us but it’s those things we see every day that are so enticing.
  • The command is forceful.  We’re told to not covet two times in the verse.  This double negation is found only in the 10th Commandment.
  • Unique.  As far as I can tell, there is nothing like this command in other codes from other civilizations.
  • Coveting is an invisible sin.  In this last command we move from actions to the realm of attitude.  In that sense, this sin is hard to spot in others or even in ourselves because it deals with the internal, not external.  It’s not so much directed at what we do but at what we want to do.
  • This command is a book-end with the first one.  To have no other gods underlies all the commands and to not covet explains all the commands in retrospect.  
  • This command is more detailed than the last four we looked at.  These categories represent all that a neighbor could have…and all that we might want.
  • The prohibition against coveting is probably the most often broken commandment.  Check out what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 7:7-8: “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’  But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”
  • Most of us don’t take coveting all that seriously.  We could call it, “The Sin that Nobody Will Admit.”
  • It’s the root of all other sins.  When one breaks the other nine, undoubtedly coveting is at the root.  At the bottom of every sin is the belief that God has somehow not given us everything that we think we need.  
  • Coveting is a warning sign.  When you sense coveting rising within, watch out.  James 4:2: “You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”  Sinful deeds start with sinful desires.

Before we go much further, let’s take a stab at defining coveting because it’s not a very common word in our culture.  The Hebrew is used both positively and negatively.  To say it positively, it simply means a “strong desire” or “to delight.”  But it’s also used negatively as in, “An excessively strong desire to have something that belongs to someone else.”  It also means to “grasp for more; an inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire.”  One dictionary defines it this way, “to desire wrongfully…or without due regard for the rights of others.”  My favorite is this: “An overt dissatisfaction and discontent with what God has provided and a longing desire for what He has forbidden to us.”

Whether a desire is good or not has to do with the object of the desire.  For example, in Genesis 2:9, the trees in Eden are described as delightful or “pleasant to the sight.”  But then in Genesis 3:6 we see that Eve found the tree “desirable” [same word that is used in the command] and coveted what she was not supposed to have.

A helpful word picture is that of the sluggard in Proverbs 21:25-26: “The desire of the sluggard kills him…all day long he craves and craves.”  Another example is Achan in Joshua 7:21 who coveted what he wasn’t supposed to have and when he got it, he hid it from others: “When I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them.  And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”  Sadly, because he coveted, he was killed.

One famous story about Abraham Lincoln involved a time he was walking with two of his boys who were both crying.  Someone asked the President what was wrong and he said, “Exactly what’s wrong with the whole world.  I have three walnuts and each boy wants two.”  At its core coveting is bad because it makes us think that things can make us happy.

Jesus was once asked by a man to tell the man’s brother to divide up their inheritance. He saw what was really going on and so he called him out for coveting in Luke 12:15.  Listen to this verse in the English Standard Version: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  Here Jesus strongly contradicts the values of our coveting culture.  If you have a covetous character, then no matter what you have, it will never be enough.  Your stuff will never satisfy.  Your relationships will never be good enough.  You will always want something that you don’t have.

One pastor writes: “We in America have had more materially and have had more wealth than all the rest of the world and yet it has not made us more contented, but only more covetous.”

Diagnosing Discontent

If you’re not satisfied with what you have now, you won’t be satisfied should you get what you’re wishing you had

If you find yourself saying (or thinking) these words: “If only I had…” you may have a problem with discontentment.  You may think that if you had a better job, a better family, a better phone, a better church, a better car, a husband (or a better one), a wife (or a better one), more kids, less kids or a better sports team to cheer for, then you’d be happy.  Guess what?  That’s not true.  If you’re not satisfied with what you have now, you won’t be satisfied should you get what you’re wishing you had.

Here are some other ways you can know if you have a coveting character.

  1. When you do a lot of grumbling and complaining (1 Corinthians 10:10).  
  2. When you become jealous and envious of what others have (2 Corinthians 12:20).
  3. When you’re filled with anxiety and fear (Philippians 4:6-7).
  4. When you have a preoccupation with your possessions (Luke 12:16-21).
  5. When you become stingy with what God has given you (Proverbs 28:22).
  6. When God is getting your leftovers (Malachi 1:6-14).
  7. When we love things and use people rather than using things and loving people (Romans 13:8-10).

Alan Carr tells a story about a man who was tired of his friends owning nicer homes than his so he went to see a realtor to put his home on the market and began to search for a new one.  One day as he was reading the paper, he came across a listing for a home that seemed to be just what he was looking for.  He called the realtor and said that he wanted to schedule a walk-through.  The realtor replied, “Sir, about that…you already own that home!”

The Cure for Coveting

God is really tough on coveting.  In fact, He says that we must kill it in Colossians 3:5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” He equates coveting with idol worship and won’t tolerate it.

I want to suggest that the cure for coveting is to learn the secret of contentment as found in Philippians 4:10-13: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.  Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.  I am not saying this because I am in need, for 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.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” 

Even the Apostle Paul had to be taught how to be content.  The word “secret” means to be initiated.  Once you learn the secret you’ll join a small club called contentment.   In light of school starting for many this past week, let’s take a look at four classes in Paul’s Contentment Curriculum.  

1. Contentment 101: Being Confident that God is in Control. 

Remember that Paul is in prison, chained to guards, and once again he can’t help but break out into rejoicing.  Look at the first part of verse 10: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord.” I like how the Puritan writer Jeremiah Burroughs defined contentment: “Christian contentment is that sweet inward quiet, that gracious frame of spirit which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”  Another author adds, “An inner sense of rest or peace that comes from being right with God and knowing that He is in control of all that happens to us.

Notice that Paul rejoices “in the Lord.”  Everything is under God’s sweet sovereignty and because His ways are always wise we can find delight in every condition.  If you’re struggling with discontent today, it may well be because you are not allowing God to be God.  He’s in charge and He is working all things together according to the counsel of His divine will.  If you are serious about becoming content, you must believe this.  Hold on to the truth of Psalm 23:1: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”  Because He is our shepherd he will satisfy us.  

Possessions don’t satisfy and ultimately people can’t provide what we’re looking for either.

2. Contentment 201: Developing a Proper Expectation of Others. 

Let’s look at the second half of verse 10: “…That at last you have renewed your concern for me.  Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.”  Paul had founded the Philippian church about 12 years earlier and it had been about 10 years since they were able to send any support to him.  The phrase “at last” doesn’t refer to impatience on Paul’s part, but rather that after this many years, they are now able to give again.  Responding to the money they had just sent along with Epaphroditus, Paul expresses gratefulness.  The word “renewed” was used of plants and flowers blossoming again.  

Notice how content Paul is with these Christians.  He cut them some slack, mentioning that they were always concerned but just had no opportunity to express it until now.  How could Paul do this?  It goes back to the lessons learned in Contentment 101 – he trusted that God would order the circumstances so his needs could be met.  Knowing this truth kept him from anger towards others.  It also gave him the freedom to not manipulate the masses just to get their money.  

Some of us are way too tough on other people.  We expect them to meet our needs, and when they don’t do everything we expect (because they can’t); we get upset and become more discontent.  Are you irritated with others?  Are you bitter toward someone because they let you down?

When we come to the third class in God’s contentment curriculum, we see that Paul was satisfied in every situation.

3. Contentment 301: Learning to be Satisfied in Every Situation. 

Look at verses 11-12: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for 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.”  

In other words, in plenty or in poverty, God was still in control and was weaving his ways through both of these conditions.  Paul chose to be content “in any and every situation.” This is a sweeping statement that covers every condition of life.  The phrase, “to learn” means to discover by experience, to enter into a new condition.  We could translate it this way: “I have come to learn.”  

I go back to Jeremiah Burroughs: “A gracious heart is contented by the melting of his will and desires into God’s will and desires; by this means he gets contentment; the mystery consists not in bringing anything from outside to make my condition more comfortable but in purging out something that is within.”  Here are some conditions for contentment that come to mind.

  • Be satisfied with your salary.  In Luke 3:14, John the Baptist gave some soldiers a practical way to know if they had truly repented: “Be content with your pay.” Here’s an idea: Before asking God for anything thank Him for what you already have.
  • Be thankful for the basics of life.  1 Timothy 6:8: “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” Some of us need to have our needs reduced not our possessions increased.  F.B. Meyer put it this way: “Contentment consists not in adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire.”  Let me give you a practical suggestion.  When contemplating the purchase of another possession or attending some activity, ask yourself this question: “Is this a need or a greed?”  
  • Want what you have even if you don’t have everything you want.  I first heard this statement about 20 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it.  Let me say it differently.  The key to contentment is not having everything you want but wanting everything you already have.  This is stated clearly in Hebrews 13:5: “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.’”  
  • To grow in godliness you must become content.  1 Timothy 6:6: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”  Are you ready to settle for less if it means experiencing greater spiritual growth?

Proverbs 30:8-9: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.  Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’  Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”

God has so ordered the world and your personal circumstances that no matter what situation you are in right now, you have everything you truly need to be content

How can we become satisfied in every situation?   I think we could state the secret this way.  You might want to lean forward to hear it because it’s a secret: God has so ordered the world and your personal circumstances that no matter what situation you are in right now, you have everything you truly need to be content.  It’s a myth that you always need more.  

You can have a quiet inward peace when you are freely and joyfully submitted to the One who’s in charge of everything.  Paul was a contented Christian.  Are you?  Our deepest satisfaction can only come from God, not from a change in our circumstances.  As C.S. Lewis once said, “God cannot give us peace and happiness apart from Himself, because it is not there.  There is no such thing.”  Contentment means wanting what God wants for us rather than what we want for us.  It’s ultimately a theological issue.  Philip Ryken adds, “If God wanted us to have more right now, we would have it.”

I talked to someone recently who told me that one of his parents is never happy.  In fact, he can never remember this parent ever being satisfied, because nothing is ever enough.  That’s a sad commentary and a poor heritage to leave children.  If you’re a parent, give the gift of contentment to your kids, letting them know that it really is OK to have less, and want less.  Often less is really more.

4. Contentment 401: Finding Strength in Christ. 

Philippians 4:13 may be one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, and maybe the most misused as well: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”  Sometimes this Scripture is used almost like a magical formula to say that we can do whatever we want to do.  This passage is not promoting positive mental attitude or a selfish “name it, claim it” theology.  In the context, the meaning is this: I can be content in whatever circumstance because of the strengthening work of Christ in my life.  

Once you see the beauty of Jesus and allow Him to be your full satisfaction, there’s nothing more that you need.  I have Christ and He owns me.  When I constantly covet what I don’t have, I’m saying that I’m not trusting God to give me what I need.  

You can have everything you think you want and if you don’t have Jesus you have nothing. If you have Jesus you have everything.  Let me say it like this: Unless Jesus is enough you’ll never have enough!  The reason many of us are discontent is that we really don’t believe Jesus is enough.  This reminds me of the title of a book by Tullian Tchividjian called, “Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything.”  

Chuck Swindoll quotes from a poem that is pretty powerful…

It was spring, but it was summer I wanted; the warm days and the great outdoors.

It was summer, but it was fall I wanted; the colorful leaves and the cool dry air.

It was fall, but it was winter I wanted; the beautiful snow and the joy of the holiday season.

It was winter, but it was spring that I wanted; the warmth and the blossoming of nature.

I was a child, but it was adulthood I wanted; the freedom and the respect.

I was 20, but it was 30 I wanted; to be mature and sophisticated.

I was middle-aged, but it was 20 I wanted; the youth and the free spirit.

I was retired, but it was middle-age I wanted; the presence of mind without limitation.

My life was over; but I never got what I wanted.

Do you find yourself wishing your life away?  Are you just enduring the present as you always look ahead to future happiness and success?  Coveting steals joy from the present.

A Good Kind of Coveting

We need to exchange our desires, not renounce them.  Jesus doesn’t want less desire from us, but more!  Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  I want to leave you with five Action Steps.

1. Guard your heart. 

Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”  Be alert and attentive.  Mute commercials if you need to.  Be happy for those whom God blesses.  

2. Admit that places, possessions or people won’t satisfy.

 Ecclesiastes 5:10: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.  This too is meaningless.”  At its heart, coveting is an attempt to improve upon God.  Find your satisfaction in God alone.

3. Give your way out of covetousness. 

Nothing cures greed like giving.  Coveting can’t live in a generous heart.  Acts 20:33-35: “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing.  You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions.  In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” 

4. Pray to become grateful. 

1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  Don’t ask God for anything more until you’ve thanked Him for what you already have.  I like this “Contentment Prayer” by George Herbert: “Lord Jesus, you have given so much to me.  Give me one thing more, a grateful heart.  Amen.”

5. Covet the right things. 

Earnestly desire Jesus Christ.  If you’re not yet a Christ-follower, what are you waiting for?  Repent and receive Jesus as the full satisfaction for all your sins.  If you are a believer, find your contentment only in Him. Pursue His glory in all you do.  Do whatever it takes to grow.  Look for a place to serve.

Asaph was really discouraged and ultimately disappointed with God because he saw ungodly people with a ton of possessions living out all their pleasures.  I encourage you to read Psalm 73 in its entirety but I want to close with how he resolved this disparity in verse 25: “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”  Can you say that today?

Don’t become a servant to every advertisement you see…surrender to Christ right now.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?