March 26, 2022 - 10th Commandment

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Today we’re going to talk about the 10th and final Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” Coveting is that constant desire for more that is so common to our human experience. Notice that coveting is the only offense on God’s top 10 that carries no penalty: neither death, nor banishment, nor fine. God treats it as a victimless crime. Coveting is basically a thought crime, not an act. It is a sin of the heart. The person who covets may not be hurting anyone but themselves. Coveting is wrapped up with envy, greed, and idolatry. Coveting only hurts our fellow human when it inspires outward acts of greed, theft, or injustice.


Coveting is our relentless compulsion to acquire, our passion to possess, the “must have” impulse within our souls. There never seems to be an end to our wants and desires: more clothes, more furniture, more electronic wizardry, more fun and entertainment. I used to have an insatiable desire for books.


Proverbs 27:20 says, “Never satisfied are the eyes of humankind.” We are always wanting more. With the Rolling Stones, we sing, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” In 1 John 2:16, the apostle John warns not only about the “lust of the flesh” (sexual desires) but also the “lust of the eyes,” our out-of-control urge to buy or acquire. Are you the kind of person who can never keep your wallet shut, a person who is always buying on impulse, whose motto is “Shop till you drop”? You may have “lust of the eyes.” It gives me such a sense of freedom to walk into a store and feel no need to buy anything!


If it is wrong for us to be consumed by this intense desire to acquire, it is also wrong to create or pander to this desire in others, to enflame their “lust of the eyes.” The aim of Madison Avenue is to create desire where there is none yet, and then to enflame that desire to where it breaks down our sales resistance. Advertisers pay top dollar to convince us that we need products that we don’t need. When we visited a famous steakhouse a few years ago, our daughter overheard the staff having a meeting before they opened. She heard them say, “Offer them desserts. Offer them our wines. Sell, sell, sell!”


The message that happiness comes through what we buy at a store is preached 24 hours per day from our TV sets. Tens of billions of dollars are spent each year to convince us that Jesus was wrong about the abundance of possessions.


Perhaps you’ve heard that the growth of our economy depends on you and me to do our patriotic duty: Go out and consume! Spend money! Buy more! Mortgage your future! It’s good for the economy. The downside is that our voracious consumerism is taking a toll on our faith and our families, as we work like slaves to pay off all the credit card debt we’ve piled up, not to mention the toll our consumption is taking on God’s creation: the natural resources we are gobbling up, and the trash we are piling in its place.


Friends, we have not always been such voracious consumers. Back when more pay for more work was first tried, instead of seizing the opportunity to earn more, most workers were more interested in working less! Until the last 200 years, most people saw no need to earn more than what they needed to meet their basic needs. It has taken 200 years to create today’s insatiable consumer monstrosity.


An unrestrained desire for profit – greed, the willingness of a person or a business to do anything for another dollar – is a form of coveting. Coveting and greed are like the colors violet and purple (2 shades of the same thing). So many businesses are not satisfied with their share of the market. They want MORE. They will not be satisfied until they have beaten the competition to a pulp. That’s not God’s way at all. Investors are often not satisfied with what they’re earning – they want a bigger and bigger return on their investment.


We see the same vicious spiral of greed in the fight between business and labor. Any time there’s a pro baseball or football strike, there’s plenty of greed to go around. Organized labor often seems to have priced itself out of a job in some cases, while some executives whose greed led them to ship our jobs overseas have found themselves priced out of a job as their jobs get outsourced to India or elsewhere.


Foreign competition is a reminder to us that others in this world are willing to live on less than we have come to expect. Do we really need more money to live on? Or are we trying to purchase more than we need or can afford? Why do we think we need so much, when the rest of the world can and does live with less?


Let’s face it, folks, we are this planet’s 1st Class passengers. I think I live like a king compared to 90% of the people in this world. Friends, we are possession junkies. We’re addicted. We think we can’t live without them. If happiness comes from how much we own or consume or store in our garages, we should be the happiest people alive, but we’re not. We’re not satisfied. The more we have, the more we want.


Coveting gets uglier when someone else stands in the way of our desires, when we say, “I want what that stinker has,” when our desire becomes envy. While coveting wants to obtain our neighbor’s possessions, envy is anger at our neighbor for assets such as beauty, talent, and other advantages that we cannot take for ourselves (all we can do is destroy what they have). Coveting devalues one’s neighbor. If we covet our neighbor’s job or prosperity or spouse or talent, our neighbor who has it becomes the target of our resentment.


It’s funny how often we humans are happy with what we have, until we find out what the other person has. Poor people in the Third World often do not know they are poor, so they have no reason to be unhappy about it, as long as they are not sick or starving. But when people east of the Iron Curtain found out how prosperous life was in the West, or when people in North Africa got satellite TV and saw how much people had in Europe, people were no longer content with what they had. Those who wish to overthrow our society try to make the masses envious of those evil 1% who have so much more than they do, so we’ll want to take it away from them.


How capable are we of honestly rejoicing in our neighbor’s good fortune? The person who covets, dreams of taking. The contented person dreams of sharing. The person who covets thinks, “God has not given me enough.” The contented person is overwhelmed with gratitude; he/she can rejoice in another person’s good fortune. The contented person holds their blessings with open hands; they are able to let go if necessary. The person who covets clutches what they have with clenched fist, and lives in bondage to the fear that they might lose it.


Why should we get so bent out of shape over material goods? Why do we fix our minds on what will rust, rot, and depreciate? We’ve got more important goals to pursue: treasures that will last forever. Why do we waste our time on material concerns? Why do we allow money to control what we will do with our lives?


Coveting not only captivates our minds, it also sabotages our convictions. It causes us to sacrifice higher values for the sake of gain. One character in the movie Wall Street says, “Money makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Proverbs 28:21 says, “For a piece of bread, a person will do wrong.” Economics brings out the ethical weakness in all of us. We say, “I can’t afford to tithe. I can’t afford not to work on Sunday. I can’t afford to have this baby. We can’t afford to get married. I can’t afford to tell the truth.” It’s amazing how much we can be persuaded to do wrong for the price of a piece of bread.


Money can and does sabotage our convictions. The insatiable drive to make more money is not just a disease of today. It was alive and well in ancient Ephesus, the city of solid marble where Timothy lived. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have fallen away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.” There are so many stories of folks who once owned a farm or a successful business free and clear, but whose desire for more led to tragic results.


Borrowing money to finance our desire for more is the #1 cause of our personal financial woes. I’m not talking about borrowing to start a business or career (you’ve got to live somehow). I’m not talking about borrowing to buy a basic home (you’ve got to sleep somewhere). The sad fact is that people borrow all the time for what they do not need. They borrow to pursue a lifestyle they could not otherwise afford. Is it worth it?


The late Larry Burkett, the most respected Christian financial advisor on the market, offered some good advice on borrowing money: 1. Don’t borrow when you have the cash to pay. 2. Pay off outstanding debts before making more major purchases. 3. If you can, don’t take out a loan for more than your collateral is worth. (This was back when it was rare that lenders would let you do that. This was long before “underwater loans” became an epidemic.) Burkett warned, Don’t borrow more than you can afford to lose. 4. Avoid long-term debt, unless you want to pay double or triple what your purchase is worth. Dave Ramsey gives basically the same advice in his popular seminar “Financial Peace University.”


I cannot calculate how many thousands of dollars my family has saved by paying cash for everything we buy. We have never bought anything we didn’t have the money for. If we didn’t have the money to spend, we did without it. We lived without a TV set for our first 2 years of marriage. For the next 5 years, we had one with a 5-inch screen. Today we choose to do without cable TV and smart phones because we don’t need them.


It makes me uncomfortable to preach about borrowing because I’ve never been there. We have never been in a situation where borrowing would have been a necessity. I’ve never braved the risk. The closest I’ve come to debt was in my last year of seminary. Our local church gave us $2,000 with strings attached. If I served 5 years as a pastor, the debt was paid in full. If not, it became a loan to be repaid at 12% interest. (I served far more than 5 years!) But I realize that we are all 1 disaster or 1 medical catastrophe away from being wiped out, no matter how much we have in the bank. From that perspective, we are all totally in the hands of God.


I’ve known a number of friends through the years whose spending habits were different from ours. From what I’ve seen, they find themselves under constant pressure to earn more income, which is not always in their power to do. Often it takes 2 people working night and day just to live in a house as nice as Mom and Dad had. People find themselves sentenced to 30 years working for the mortgage company.


The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “A great fortune is a great slavery.” What that means to me (if you turn that around) is that the less we have, the less we’re enslaved by. Less vehicles in your garage means less to repair and insure. A smaller house means less to paint and clean and less interest to pay. Less land means less to mow and less taxes to pay. It may sound crazy, but if you look at it this way, less can be more.


The simple lifestyle is not only cheaper, it’s also the straightest route to sanity. Why? We live in an age where time has become more valuable than money. People will trade away serious bucks in order to buy themselves more time. Less time feeding the money monster – less time paying for our desire for more – means more time to truly live, more time to think, more time to love our families, more time to pursue God.


Jesus says that the seed that falls among thorns is about those who hear God’s word, but “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19) The pursuit of material desires will lead us to neglect our relationship with God. We will find no time or energy or resources for God; all our resources will be tied up into our passion to possess. That’s why Paul tells us in Colossians 3:5 that covetousness IS idolatry: the desire for material goods becomes a form of worship.


Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (material gain – Matthew 6:24). Both cannot be on the throne of your life. Jesus says in Luke 12:15, “Watch out, and beware of all covetousness, for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Having more stuff is not what life is all about. Whoever dies with the most toys loses the most toys.


How do we repent of covetousness? God is not asking us to give up the Good Life. God is urging us to redefine what the Good Life is. God’s antidote to coveting is found in Hebrews 13:5: “Let your life be free of all coveting, and be content with what you have.”


There is no better financial advice than: to be content with what we have. The word “contentment” used here by Paul is the exact same goal the ancient Stoic philosophers were shooting for. It’s a word that means “having need of nothing.” “Contentment” is the opposite of another NT word, pleonexia, that means “greed”, the constant desire for more.


Paul writes in Philippians 4:11-13 that he has already achieved what the Stoics were shooting for through his faith in Christ. He says, “Not that I complain of want, for I have learned in whatever state I am to be content. I know how to be abased [how to live with nothing], and I know how to abound [how to live with more than I need]. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.”


We will never be happy until we learn to squelch that compulsion to acquire, that “lust of the eyes,” our passion to possess, and until we learn to truly value what God has already blessed us with. And that kind of contentment only comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ, where (as pastor Bill Hybels puts it) we will find less and less need to “ease the pain in our souls with the temporary anesthetics money can buy.”


“Thou shalt not covet” is just one more piece of evidence of our need for Jesus Christ. Coveting sentences us to a lifetime of misery. We need to invite Jesus Christ to set us free from our bondage to covetous desire. We need to learn to be content with what we have, by letting Christ satisfy the deepest longings of our souls.


Learning to be content with what we have takes practice. One way we can conquer our desire for more is by playing a little game whenever we go to the store, when we walk down the aisles and say, “I can be happy without that.” See how many appealing purchases you can talk yourself into living without. Train yourself to say: I can be happy without that new dress – that new computer – that new smartphone – that new pickup truck – that new piece of furniture – that new book or movie or video game. Often we can use a waiting list to overcome our tendency to spend on impulse, to see if we still want what’s on that list a month from now. We want to squash that relentless urge to acquire. We have to draw the lifestyle line somewhere. We have to be able to say, “Enough!” Only then can we be free to spend our lives in more important ways.


Learning how to say “Enough” is a lot easier when we’re filling our stomachs than when it comes to filling our material desires. When it comes to money, the more we have, the more we crave. It’s an addiction, and practically all of us are hooked (including me). Our addiction to money blinds us to the fact that money can’t buy happiness. Perhaps we know that in our heads, but our hearts remain unconvinced. Deep down inside, we still believe that money can buy happiness. We can’t satisfy the hunger in our souls with what rusts, rots, and depreciates. Only Christ can fill that empty hole in our hearts. When we pursue Christ the way we’ve been pursuing our material desires, only then will we find freedom from coveting, the desire for more.


Should we pray about a word that claims to be from God, when God has already clearly spoken in his word? We’ll talk about that question next time on Biblical Words and World!