“Thou shalt not covet”
“But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.”1 Corinthians 12:31
If months were appointed certain sins, then covetousness would have to be the December crime. Covetousness is the mischievous mistletoe that hangs conspicuously over our heads at every storefront, on every bank statement, over every mouse click of an online shopping cart. Covetousness fuels the discontent that commercializes the American way of ‘celebrating’ Christmas.
But coveting is far from over when the calendar flips to a new year. Nearly every ‘holiday’ is an excuse to buy, and if not to buy- then at least to WANT something new.
The definition of “covet” is twofold in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.
- Definition 1. ‘To earnestly desire to obtain or possess, or to desire or wish for with eagerness, in a good sense.’
- Definition 2. ‘To desire inordinately; to desire that which it is unlawful to obtain or possess; in a bad sense.’
The Ten Commandments contain the first use of the word “covet” in the Bible, and that ‘sets the tone’ for the word. Covetousness is a vice, not a virtue. Man’s desires commonly lead him away from his Maker, as shown when Eve saw “a tree to be desired” (Genesis 3:6). Even before the Fall, the urge to be, to have, and to do pushes man AWAY FROM God, and exposes him to influences that man is powerless to discern (the Devil) let alone resist.
Coveting- the sinful desire.
Desire. Natural desire lusts for what man ought not to have. ‘Forbidden fruit’ is always the most appealing. When God etched this tenth of Ten Commandments, he had all of humanity’s good and protection in mind. If Eve had not desired the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she could not have been tempted to disobey God.
Sinful coveting wants the wrong object.
Deuteronomy 5:21 rehearses the Ten Commandments, and phrases #10 this way: “Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour’s wife…” There are things we should desire and things we should not. There are things we should covet, and things we should not.
An appropriate desire is found in 1 Corinthians 14:39,
“Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.”
Paul is clear in Colossians 3:5 that there are some things that are inappropriate to desire:
“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Inordinate simply means: not ordered. You should never expect inordinate desires to be served up, because they were never on the menu! Exodus 20 makes it clear that you should not covet “any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” Wrong object.
Sinful coveting has to do with the wrong pursuit of an object.
You can absolutely want the right thing so badly that you sin in order to obtain it. David wanted the Ark of the Covenant brought to him so hastily that he let Uzzah tote it on an ox cart instead of properly having it carried on the shoulders of the priests. Paul wanted to preach Christ to the Jews so earnestly that he ignored the warnings of many prophets AND the leading of the Holy Ghost to get to Jerusalem. In both cases, their coveting of a good thing cost somebody their life!
This is also the kind of coveting God warned of in the Ten Commandments. You want your neighbour’s ox? Go buy it. Acquire it the right way, or not at all. If you can’t afford it; forget it. It’s that simple. Right object, wrong pursuit.
Sinful coveting has to do with disobeying a direct “NO” from the Lord.
You can love the right thing, and be willing to obtain it the right way, but if God says, “no,” then the discussion is over. “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22)
If what you want is just not the will of God for YOU, you have only option: say, “Yes, Lord” and move on! Some people have gotten all hung up on someone they wanted to marry, or a job they wanted to keep, or a friend they had for so long in their life. When God’s will took a sharp turn, they couldn’t let go of that good thing and fell off into the ditch. Some people I know have been over 20 years stuck down there. Why? God said no to them, and they couldn’t accept that.
[And God will say yes to other people, and you’ll see it, but to you God says, “Thou shalt not covet!”]
Perhaps the strongest example of this is Peter. At the end of John’s gospel, Peter is told how he would die. No one else was given such a heavy prophecy. Peter asks about John, to which the Lord replies: “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.” (John 21:22) The Lord told Peter it was none of his business how he treated his other disciples- his job was to follow Him.
Was it wrong to desire a peaceful death, or to look for comfort or company in trials? Normally, no. But the Lord Jesus had already told Peter, “another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.” (John 21:18b-19) Second thoughts toward God’s will, and desiring a different path than God’s choice becomes a sin. Right object, right pursuit, but God said, “no.”
A New Wanter
We want what we want, how we want, and when we want it. Diverse desires are what makes us uniquely human; distinguishes us in our personalities.
Yet we have a tendency to want what we ought not have. We tend to lust.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians to covet the BEST gifts. We should earnestly desire Heavenly trophies, not earthly stuff. It’s hard to want what we can’t see. It’s even harder to UNwant what we DO see!
God can change your desires. Psalm 37:5 discloses the secret:
“Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.”
God is not a genie granting wishes. God discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart. He will give you RIGHT desires. He will place new wants into your heart.
What Do You Want?
Insomuch as ‘covet’ means ‘desire;’ there are Godly things worthy of our attention and pursuit. Paul commands the Corinthians to “Covet earnestly the best gifts,” according to our opening verse.
Until I read 1 Corinthians 12, I would have never considered coveting to be anything but a synonym for sin. The Bible does not green light all human desire, and it also does not red light every want either. There are some gifts of the Spirit that the Lord wishes we would want more.
Exodus 20:17, the full verse, lists items you should NOT covet: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”
1 Corinthians 12:28 contains a list of some gifts you SHOULD covet: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.”
In the following verses, Paul limits the availability of that list by a process of elimination:
- “Are all apostles?” (answer: no)
- “Are all prophets?” (answer: no)
- “Are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?” (no, and no)
- “Have all the gifts of healing?” (getting the picture yet?)
- “Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (I think you know the answer)
There are many possibilities, but there is something BETTER that you are commanded to covet. Paul is honest about the dispersion of these gifts to the church: they are sparse, and some of them have gone from rare to extinct (tongues, healing). But there is a more excellent way.
Labourers and Leaders
Significantly, the only gifts not questioned here are “helps” and “governments.” The two things churches lack mostly. Labourers and leaders have always been in short supply, though (if I may say so) anyone may apply. These are coveted positions that you should want to fill.
Charity and Prophecy
Paul turns our attention to two coveted presents in 1 Corinthians 14:1, “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.” Charity and prophecy are to be desired above all the other gifts and callings. These are two gifts that equip the laborer and leader to serve the church. Paul encourages a Christian to covet these also.
Four Biblical Contrasts
The differences of sinful and spiritual coveting from Exodus 20 to 1 Corinthians 12 point out four contrasts for determining right desires:
Getting vs. Giving
The things you ought to have help you to give. The things that make you sin are things that you get for yourself, and no one else.
Selfish vs. Service
That leads to the next obvious principle. The motive of service leads you to right desires. The motive of self solely produces sinfulness.
Physical vs. Spiritual
The gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 are qualities you can’t see. They bless the believer who receives them by faith. All the items of Exodus 20 are carnal possessions and persons; no faith required.
Withheld vs. Available
For each desire that God forbids, there is a desire that He satisfies. Get your eyes off your neighbour’s wife- desire your own! “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD.” (Proverb 18:22) Not everyone is called to pastor- but “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” (1 Timothy 3:1) For every INordinate affection, there is an ordinate one. One God withholds, the other, He places before you.
Of desire, coveting and envying and jealousy– the sinful kind– Sir Philip Sydney wrote his famous lines:
Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare, Fond fancy's scum, and dregs of scattered thought; Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care; Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought; Desire! Desire! I have too dearly bought, With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware; Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought, Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare. But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought; In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire; In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire; For virtue hath this better lesson taught,— Within myself to seek my only hire, Desiring nought but how to kill desire.
And so should we wish for the lusts that would lead us to break the tenth of the Ten great Commandments. Yet how much more should we “covet earnestly” that which the Lord Jesus Christ has set before us, to labor and to lead in charity, with the prophecy of the Old Book before our eyes.
It is time to do a double repentance.
It is time to repent of coveting the wrong things.
It is time also to repent of NOT coveting the right things.