The Sin No One Will Admit
August 16, 1992
We begin the final message in this series with the text of the Tenth Commandment: “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 key word “covet” is repeated, emphasizing its importance.
That leads us to a definition. The Hebrew word is used in both positive and negative senses. In its positive sense, the word simply means “a strong desire.” It can also mean “delight, dear, precious and desirable.” Used in the negative sense, the word means “a strong desire for something I have no right to have.”
—The Tenth Commandment is not forbidding strong desire in general.
—It’s the object of the strong desire which crosses the line into coveting.
—That’s why specific objects are named in the verse:
—I have no right to possess my neighbor’s wife.
—Or his house
—Or his servants
—Or his animals
Genesis 2-3 provide useful examples of the good and bad uses of the same Hebrew word:
—In Genesis 2:9 the trees in Eden are described as delightful or pleasant.
—In Genesis 3:6 the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “desirable” to the woman even though God had put it off limits. She coveted (or “strongly desired”) that which God had put off limits to her.
The application of the Tenth Commandment is clear: “I must not set my sights on that which I have no right to possess.”
Are You Happy?
All of which leads me to a simple question: Are you happy? Really happy? Are you satisfied with your life? Here is the startling truth: We have paradise and we are still unhappy. If things could make us happy, we’d be in paradise every day. We think “more is better.” Is it? It seems the more we have, the less we like it.
If having more would make us happy, we would never need the Tenth Commandment. It is written for unhappy people!
Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the king who fell into a serious depression. Nothing could lift his spirits. His servants tried everything—music, dancing, court jesters, lavish banquets, beautiful flowers—nothing seemed to help him. Finally an old and wise man came to the king with an unusual piece of advice. “O King, if you can obtain the shirt off the back of a truly happy man, you yourself will be happy.” Upon hearing those words, the king ordered his men to search the four corners of the earth and bring him the shirt off the back of a truly happy man. Weeks passed, then months. Finally his soldiers returned. “O King, after many days and much searching, we found a truly happy man. But your majesty, the man was not wearing a shirt.”
“If Only I Had …”
How fitting, how true to life. We think to ourselves, “If only I had … “ and then we fill in the blank with our latest dream. A new house, a new wife, a new set of children, a new job, a new school, a new career, a new church, a new portfolio, a new start in life.
Oh how happy we’d be … . If only!
—No wonder we’re unhappy
—No wonder we’re discontented
—No wonder we’re miserable
—No wonder we dream so much
Coveting has done its evil work within. It has bored its way into our soul, eating away our happiness, leaving us empty, frustrated and angry.
I confess that I find this Commandment personally challenging. If the truth were known, I play the “if only” game as much as anyone else. There are times when I truly believe I would be happy if only we lived in a bigger house. Sometimes I think, “If only I drove a Lincoln Town Car, I would be a much better pastor.” Or I think, “If only I had a vacation cottage down on Big Bear Creek in Alabama, I’d be the happiest, most contented man in all the world.”
I really do think those things!
But that raises a question. At what point does legitimate desire become coveting? Coveting occurs either when I desire something I have no right to have (e.g. my neighbor’s wife) or when the desire becomes the controlling passion of my life so that I begin to believe that my happiness depends on the acquisition of the item itself.
—A new house may be nice, but my happiness does not depend on a new house. If it does, then I am coveting.
—A new car may help my image, but it can’t be the source of my happiness. If it is, then I am coveting.
The moment I trick myself into thinking, “This (item or goal) is necessary for my happiness in life,” then I have crossed the line into coveting.
Let me say it again. If having more would make us happy, we would never need the Tenth Commandment. It is written for unhappy people.
I. Five Facts About Coveting
A. This is an Invisible Sin.
Most of the other sins are easy to spot. You either murder someone or you don’t. You steal or you don’t. You lie or you don’t. You commit adultery or you don’t. At least on the outward level, most of the others sins have some kind of visible manifestation.
Coveting is invisible. A person may be quite wealthy and not covet at all. You may drive a BMW and have a Rolex watch on your wrist and not have a covetous bone in your body. The Bible does not teach that wealth is evil or that all wealthy people are covetous. Not at all!
Coveting happens inside the heart when our desires begin to get out of control. In that sense, a poor person is just as likely (even more likely?) as a rich person to commit this sin. Perhaps the truly rich have learned the lesson that things don’t bring happiness; some poor people live miserable lives—not because of their poverty but because of their coveting spirit. They truly believe that if only they had Ross Perot’s money, they too would be happy.
John Huffman, Jr., offers this helpful analysis:
Obviously this is not a human commandment. There’s no way it could be. Why not? Because there’s no way that human beings could police this tendency. You can make a person take a day off. You can penalize the murderer. You can prosecute the thief. You can pretty quickly identify the liar. But covetousness goes beneath public conduct. It touches at the motivational level, which society cannot patrol. It takes God to probe deeply into our inner motivations in a way that roots out those attitudes which can produce outward antisocial behavior. (Liberating Limits, p. 131)
That’s the tricky part of coveting. Since it is invisible we tend not to take it seriously.
In all my years as a pastor I’ve never heard anyone confess the sin of coveting. I think I’ve heard just about every other sin confessed. I’ve heard murder confessed, and adultery, and lying, and taking God’s name in vain, and bitterness of a thousand varieties. But no one—repeat no one—has ever said, “Pastor, I have a covetous spirit. Can you help me?”
Coveting is truly the sin no one will admit.
B. It is the Root of All Other Sins.
In Romans 7 Paul recounts the moment in his own life when he realized his own sinfulness. He says it came as he began to consider his life in light of the Ten Commandments. All went well until he got to the Tenth Commandment:
I would not have known what sin was except through the law. 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. For apart from the law, sin is dead. One I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. (Romans 7:7-9)
I think it happened like this. Paul was reading through the Ten Commandments and checking them off if he had obeyed them.
“No other Gods? Check.”
“No idols? No way.”
“Don’t use God’s name lightly? Never think of it.”
“Keep the Sabbath? Always.”
“Honor my parents? You bet.”
“Don’t murder? Never dreamed of it.”
“Don’t commit adultery? Check.”
“Don’t steal? I’m no thief.”
“Don’t lie? I always tell the truth.”
“Don’t covet? Hmmmm. I wonder what that means.”
You see, Paul was doing great on the first nine Commandments because he only stayed on the surface. But you can’t do that with coveting. There is no “surface” to stay on. It’s not like murder or adultery. Coveting deals only with the heart. When Paul started dealing with his heart, he suddenly discovered he was indeed a covetous man. In fact, once he read “Do not covet,” coveting became a huge problem in his life.
Does that mean he never coveted before? No! It means he never realized what he was doing. Suddenly he found himself beset by every kind of covetous desire. The very act of saying “Don’t” awakened within him a desire to “Do.”
Saying “Don’t lust” made him want to lust.
Saying “Don’t steal” made him want to steal.
Saying “Don’t lie” made him want to lie.
Sound strange? What’s your first impulse when you see a sign that says, “Wet paint. Don’t touch?” Once you see the sign, there is an almost irresistible impulse to reach out and touch the wet paint. The desire was always there; the sign awakened it within you.
It’s like that old trick of asking children to close their eyes and to think of anything they like … except a pink elephant. What will the kids immediately think about? A pink elephant! The very act of saying “Don’t” awakened the desire to do that which was forbidden!
In his Confessions Augustine gives a classic description of this principle:
There was a pear tree near our vineyard, laden with fruit. One stormy night we rascally youths set out to rob it and carry spoils away. We took off a huge load of pears—not to feast upon ourselves, but to throw them to the pigs, though we ate just enough to have the pleasure of forbidden fruit. They were nice pears, but it was not the pears my wretched soul coveted, for I had plenty better at home. I picked them simply in order to become a thief. The only feast I got was a feast of iniquity, and that I enjoyed to the full. What was it that I loved in that theft? Was it the pleasure of acting against the law, in order that I a prisoner under rules might have a maimed counterfeit of freedom by doing that which was forbidden? … The desire to steal was awakened simply by the prohibition of stealing. The pears were desirable simply because they were forbidden. (cited in Barclay, pp. 194-195.)
Do you get the principle?: Whenever a thing is forbidden it becomes desirable. That which a man must not have becomes the very thing he now must have at all costs.
Which is why censorship doesn’t work very well. If you tell teenagers, “Don’t listen to this record,” what will they do? They’ll line up around the block to buy that record. If you say, “This movie ought to be banned,” you almost guarantee its commercial success. Saying “You must not” produces within us a perverse desire to do the thing that is forbidden—even if we know that the forbidden thing is not good for us. We want it anyway! We do it anyway!
Coveting is the root of all other sin because it causes us to want that which is forbidden.
C. It Begins Close to Home.
Did you notice that the Tenth Commandment mentions the word “neighbor” three times?
—”Your neighbor’s house”
—”Your neighbor’s wife”
—”Anything that belongs to your neighbor”
We might tend to overlook that but we shouldn’t. Coveting begins at home.
One of the most popular movies of 1991 was a horrific thriller called The Silence of the Lambs. The movie was all about a serial killer named Hannibal Lechter and his strange friendship with a young FBI Special Agent named Clarice Starling. In the beginning Hannibal Lechter is being held by the FBI in a special cell designed to prevent any possibility of escape. As Clarice Starling gets to know him, she asks for his help in capturing another serial killer. He agrees to help, and in a climactic scene set in Memphis, Tennessee, Hannibal Lechter explains to Clarice Starling where she should begin to look. In the process he gives her what amounts to a lecture in biblical theology.
“What was the original sin, Clarice?”
“What was the original sin in Eden?”
“I don’t know and I don’t have time to play games.”
“Think. What was the sin that Adam and Eve committed?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was coveting. They wanted something they couldn’t have.”
“That’s the answer, Clarice.”
“What do you mean?”
“The man you are looking for is a covetous man. He wants something he can’t have.”
Then Hannibal Lechter explains what he means in a sentence of pure spiritual truth: “We covet what we see every day.” Go back, he says, go back and find his hometown. Go back and see what he sees every day. There you will find your answer.
What an incredible insight! “We covet what we see every day.”
—Our neighbor’s wife.
—Our neighbor’s house.
—Our neighbor’s car.
—Our neighbor’s fame.
—Our neighbor’s money.
We rarely covet things far away from us. It’s the things we see everyday that bother us. We want what our neighbor has—not what some stranger has. Perhaps we see Ross Perot and think, “I wonder what I’d do if I had two billion dollars.” But that’s not coveting. We don’t even know Ross Perot and besides, we could hardly handle a measly million dollars, much less a billion. Ross Perot is so far removed from us that he really doesn’t qualify as a “neighbor” whose money we can covet.
Ah, but what about Mr. and Mrs. Jones next door. He just got a promotion … their daughter just got accepted at Yale … she’s driving a new car … and wow!, did you get a look at that game room they added on the second floor. It’s easy to envy the Jones’s, then to covet what they have, and finally to spend everything you have in order to keep up with them.
If you want to spot the covetous parts of your life, start close to home … with the things and people you see every day.
D. It Springs from an Ungrateful Heart.
Coveting is nothing more or less than an attempt to improve upon God. The covetous man moans and groans because he believes that he has been treated unfairly. When all the goodies were passed out, he got nothing but crumbs.
—When I covet my neighbor’s house, am I not really saying that God has not provided adequate shelter for me?
—When I covet my neighbor’s wife, am I not expressing my discontentment with the spouse God has given me?
—When I covet my neighbor’s children, am I not implying that God cheated me by giving me the rot-ten kids and my neighbor the good ones?
—When I covet my neighbor’s promotion, am I not doubting God’s ability to advance my career?
—When I covet my neighbor’s good health, am I not accusing God of failing to take care of my physical needs?
—When I covet my neighbor’s wealth, am I not saying that God has failed to provide for me?
The covetous man doubts
and ultimately God’s love.
Coveting is a terrible sin because it is a surreptitious attack on God himself. Those who covet are saying, “God, you haven’t taken care of me.” They are blaming God for his failure to meet their needs.
E. It Destroys Life.
Do you remember the parable of the Rich Fool? Jesus told a story about a farmer whose crops brought in a good harvest. In fact, the harvest was so good that he didn’t know how to handle it all. So he decided to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones. “And I’ll say to myself, ’You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” (Luke 12:19) But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. Then who will own the things you have prepared for yourself?”
Simple story, good question, clear moral. Jesus told us exactly what this story means, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21)
It’s easier to note what this parable is not teaching:
—Jesus is not condemning business success.
—Nor is he condemning planning for the future.
—Nor does he condemn expanding your property.
—Nor is he saying it is wrong to enjoy life.
—He is not suggesting that rich people shouldn’t get richer.
—He is not condemning prosperity.
What, then, did this rich man do that merited being called a “fool?”
1. He acted selfishly with no concern for anyone else.
2. He acted with no regard for his long-term future.
This “rich fool” is the classic example of a covetous man. He wanted more barns to give him more space to hold his ever-increasing harvests. He truly felt that he was a self-sufficient man. He didn’t need anyone else; he did it on his own. Most importantly, he didn’t need God!
Coveting makes senses as long as you are going to live forever! But if you plan to die someday, coveting is the most foolish thing you can do.
We live in the most technologically advanced generation the world has ever known. We enjoy inventions our grandparents couldn’t even imagine. We have tools at our fingertips that enable us to pick up the phone and send messages around the world … instantly. We have phones in our cars and beepers on our belts. We are tuned in and wired up.
—No generation has ever had what we have.
—No generation has been so advanced.
—No generation has enjoyed our privileges.
If having more could make you happy, we ought to be the happiest people in the world.
But we’re not.
We’re miserable, neurotic, unhappy, confused and dissatisfied. We’re hung up, up tight, frustrated and extremely materialistic. Our marriages fail, our homes break up, our children struggle, our lives don’t hold together.
We’ve got it all! And it’s still not enough!
We ought to be happy … but we’re not!
Elvis at the End
My family just returned from a 17-day vacation through the South. We began our trip by spending a few days with my brother in Tupelo, Mississippi. Do you know who was born in Tupelo? (If you need a hint, he died in Memphis 15 years ago this week.)
All true rock music fans know that Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Everywhere we went we saw pictures of Elvis. In one restaurant we saw a table roped off by itself. On the table was a sign—”Reserved for Mr. E. Presley.” In another restaurant—a small barbecue joint—the walls were covered with pictures of the young Elvis. While we were driving through the downtown section, my brother pointed to a hardware store and said, “That’s where Elvis purchased his first guitar.” I didn’t know whether to take off my shoes or bow my head and say a prayer.
Elvis is big business in Tupelo!
At one point I asked my brother—who is a plastic surgeon—”What do the people around here think? Is Elvis dead or alive?” (Who knows? Maybe he really is working at a Burger King in Michigan. If anyone would know the truth, it would be the people from his hometown.)
Alan told me an interesting story. He said that when he was in residency in the early 80s his chief resident was the doctor who was in the emergency room the night they brought Elvis in. So I asked my brother—”What’s the story? Was it really Elvis and was he really dead?”
The answer was fascinating. Yes, he really was dead. No question there. But Alan said the chief resident told him that at first he didn’t recognize him. In fact, after declaring the man dead, the doctor had walked out of the room and started filling out some paperwork. Someone said to him, “Hey, do you know who that is? That’s Elvis Presley.” The doctor went back inside to have a closer look, and sure enough, it really was Elvis.
The Bloated Soul
What had happened? Elvis was so bloated from his drug use that he didn’t even look like himself. In the end, his features were so distorted from years of careless living that he was only a bloated image of what he had once been.
And yet this week, on the 15th anniversary of his death, the record industry honored him as the best-selling singer of all time. He had more silver and gold and platinum hits—110 in all—than anyone else in history and nearly twice as many as the Beatles.
Elvis had it all. Money, fame, wealth, power, success. All the things that people spend their lives seeking. What we covet, he had. What we yearn for, he attained.
Yet it wasn’t enough. In the end, he turned to drugs to satisfy the aching emptiness.
Let me repeat it again. If having more things could make us happy, we would be the happiest people on earth!
—But we have so much.
—And we still aren’t happy.
That’s what coveting does to the soul. It promises happiness but leaves us miserable. What happened to Elvis on the outside happens to us on the inside. The soul is distorted, then bloated, then destroyed.
II. Practical Steps Toward Contentment
What is the answer for the curse of covetousness? Is there a way out? I believe there is. It’s called contentment. You can’t be content and covet at the same time. You can be contented … or you can covet … but you can’t do both.
Let me suggest three simple steps you can take.
A. Guard Your Heart.
This means pay attention to your desires. Every act was once a thought; every purchase was once a desire; every foolish word was once an idea. How carefully we must guard the heart lest some evil or illicit desire should spring up. This touches such practical areas as:
—Comparing cars and clothes and houses
—Impulsive desires to spend more money
—Cheap comments about other people
—Unfair judgments on those who have more than we do
—Desires that subtly slide over into lust
—Rationalizing our lust
—Excusing our greed
—Laughing at our excess
—Justifying our foolish purchases
—Lying to ourselves about what we “really” need
—Using credit carelessly
In this economy all of us want to save money. No one can afford to throw it away foolishly. Everyone says, “Live within your means.” But how many of us do it? It reminds me of the man who said, “I’m going to live within my means even if I have to borrow money to do it!”
Guard your heart!
Do not allow yourself to be swept away by foolish desire!
Learn how to say “No”!
B. Become a Great Giver.
Please don’t miss this point. How do you overcome a covetous spirit? You give your way out of it. That’s right. You start giving things away. Why? Because you can’t be a “giver” and a “taker” at the same time. Nothing cures greed like a truly generous heart.
If something becomes too important to you … try giving it away!
—Like your clothes? Sure.
—Like your car? Why not?
—Like your house? Absolutely.
Nothing breaks the stranglehold of uncontrolled desire like giving things away. In his excellent book Celebra-tion of Discipline, Richard Foster offers a simple—and very understandable—illustration of this principle. This quote comes from the chapter called “The Discipline of Simplicity.” At this point he is offering “ten controlling principles for the outward expression of simplicity.”
Third, develop a habit of giving things away. If you find that you are becoming attached to some possession, consider giving it to someone who needs it. I still remember the Christmas I decided that rather than buying or even making an item for a particular individual I would give him something that meant a lot to me. My motive was selfish: I wanted to know the liberation that comes from even this simple act of voluntary poverty. The gift was a ten-speed bike. As I drove to his home to deliver the gift, I remember singing with new meaning the worship chorus, “Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give.” Yesterday my six-year old son heard of a classmate who needs a lunch pail and asked me if he could give him his own lunch pail. Hallelujah! (p. 79)
Would you like to experience freedom from the cancer of coveting? It’s not that difficult. Start by giving some-thing away. Then do it again. And again. And again. Coveting can’t stay inside a generous heart!
—You’ll either stop giving.
—Or you’ll stop coveting.
C. Ask God to Give You a Grateful Heart.
This one is so simple that we miss it. Why aren’t we more grateful? There are many answers to that question, but this one is central: We aren’t grateful because we’ve never asked God to give us a grateful heart. By nature we are covetous, greedy, grasping and unhappy. Left to ourselves, we will be just like that rich fool. Generos-ity isn’t our natural impulse. We aren’t born giving; we’re born getting. Gratitude is not the inborn language of the heart.
Epicurus said, “If you want to make a man happy, add not to his possessions, but take away from his desires.” Far too many of us work hard at the first half—we’re professionals at adding to our own possessions. But how many of us even think about taking away from our desires? Yet that’s where contentment comes from.
This week I ran across the “Contentment Prayer” by George Herbert. In a very few words, it sums up what I am trying to say:
You have given so much to me.
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
If you don’t know where else to begin, start with this simple prayer. Pray it every day this week. Pray it as you drive to work. Pray it as you come home in the evening. Pray it at the start and end of every day.
Try it for seven days and see if God doesn’t begin to change your own heart.
One more word and I am finished. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God … and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) Healing begins when you refocus your life on Jesus Christ. Nothing human can cure covetousness; only an infusion of the supernatural power of Christ can make a lasting difference. One famous preacher called it “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Nothing will expel a coveting spirit except the power of a brand-new affection—a new love for Jesus Christ.
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Take a new look at Jesus, focus your eyes on him, fall in love with him all over again … and it will happen just as the song says … “The things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”