You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17)
I remember, as an adolescent, struggling with this commandment. The other nine focus on actions – things we should or shouldn’t do – but the tenth commandment targets our thoughts and desires. I thought this was surely unreasonable. After all, sometimes random thoughts and desires just seem to come unbidden to the mind and, as long as I didn’t act on anything unsavoury or unkind, what was the big deal?
As for coveting, well, it seemed a rather antiquated and somewhat old-fashioned notion and, believe me, ‘antiquated and old-fashioned’ don’t cut it for most teenagers! The fact is, the things we hold in our hearts and minds have a very powerful effect on our lives – both for good and for bad, and the Bible warns us to exercise great discipline in this area. ‘Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.’ (Proverbs 4:23)
The full text of the tenth commandment includes not coveting your neighbour’s house, his wife, his servants, his livestock or anything else that belongs to him. In other words, we’re not to covet or envy anything that belongs to someone else; not just possessions but also personal relationships and status.
So what does it actually mean to covet or envy?
To covet: to yearn to possess something (especially something belonging to another) based on Latin cupiditas from which is derived the English word ‘cupidity’ : greed for money or possessions.
Envy – noun: a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.
Envy – verb: the desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable thing belonging to someone else.
Middle English (also in the sense ‘hostility, enmity’): from Old French envie (noun), from Latin invidere to regard maliciously, to grudge.
As you can see, they’re both thoroughly undesirable qualities and the problem lies in the fact they are, more often than not, the precursor to many types of sin. Jesus said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ (Mark 7:20-22)
Rather than abolishing the law, Jesus taught its spiritual intent and application. The Ten Commandments address so much more than regulating certain public behaviour; they also cover issues of the heart’s desires, and probably none more so than this tenth commandment. ‘But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.’ (James 1:14-15 ESV)
We may falsely imagine that covetousness is a hidden sin but we need to remember that nothing is hidden from God. ‘You have searched me, Lord, and You know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; You are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue You, Lord, know it completely.’ (Psalm 139:1-4)
I find this Psalm both comforting and intimidating. There’s nowhere that God can’t find me (comforting) and He’s fully aware of my every thought, desire and act – thoroughly intimidating!
We have no excuse for covetousness or envy because God has promised to provide for all our needs. ‘And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.’ (Luke 12:29-31)
‘For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour. No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in You!’ (Psalm 84:11-12)
It’s worth noting that He promises to provide for our needs which are not necessarily the same thing as our desires. When we covet other people’s lives, relationships, possessions, talents or status we insult God because this demonstrates that we don’t believe His promise to provide for our needs or, worse still, we’re dissatisfied with His provision.
Covetousness or envy is every bit as bad for our physical health as it is for our spiritual health. ‘A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.’ (Proverbs 14:30)
There are many reasons why we musn’t envy or covet and not the least of these reasons is that it amounts to idolatry. ‘Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.’ (Colossians 3:5)
It’s interesting to note that, with this reference to covetousness being a form of idolatry, the tenth commandment reflects back to the first; You shall have no other God’s before me. In this way, the Ten Commandments make a complete circuit that always ends up with God.
• Combatting covetousness and envy
The Bible has plenty of advice for combatting our sinful desire to covet. ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.’ (Romans 12:2)
‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.’ (Colossians 3:2)
Paul tells us that he learned to be content in all circumstances. ‘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 all this through Him who gives me strength.’ (Philippians 4:11-13)
I find it very encouraging that contentment can be a learned skill and that God Himself will provide strength I so badly lack.
The tenth commandment : Don’t covet
If, just one time, we covet or envy any single thing that belongs to someone else, whether it be wealth or material possessions, relationships, talent, status or any other thing, we’re in breach of this commandment.
Guilty as charged.