By Terry MacCabe
I like stuff. You’re probably a lot like me in that respect. What’s more, I like nice stuff. In fact, the nicer the stuff, the more I tend to like it. It often doesn’t matter if I need the stuff; if it’s desirable in any way, I just want it. But I don’t covet . . . I think.
In our day of mass marketing and advertising we’ve lost sight of what coveting is. We’re trained to covet. It’s become such a common occurrence we don’t recognize it when we see it. In fact, we don’t even know what it means. When you google “define covet,” the definition that comes up is simply, “Yearn to possess or have (something).” Talk about missing the mark! This way of defining covet equates the tenth commandment with simply wanting something.
Let’s be perfectly clear: there is nothing sinful about seeing a material object and desiring to possess it. There are many beautiful and wonderful things in this world and it’s fine for us to wish to own them. The problem comes when any of the following occur: (1) we desire something inappropriately (without regard for the rights of the person who possesses it), (2) our desire turns to obsession, or (3) we desire something it is immoral for us to obtain (such as someone else’s spouse).
In Romans 13:9, when Paul summed up all the commandments with the single phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” one of the four he referenced is “Do not covet.” It must be pretty important for him to include it with the other three (“Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal”). To be honest, we don’t consider stealing and coveting on par in any way with murder and adultery; but we come from a tradition that likens lust to adultery and hatred to murder (Matthew 5). The leader of our faith said that if our eye causes us to sin, we should gouge it out; if our hand causes us to sin we should cut it off! Maybe coveting is a little more serious than we realize.
If we struggle with any of these three aspects of coveting, there are a few basic steps we can take to modify our thinking and behavior.
Define What Is Lacking
The first thing anyone who battles covetousness should do is determine what is lacking in his life that causes him to covet. If we are seeking fulfillment through things, something is clearly lacking in our lives.
Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 6:8 that he would be content with food and clothing. Contentment! That’s what’s lacking in our lives when we begin to covet the possessions of others. We aren’t content with the things we possess so we decide we’ll find contentment in possessing different things. The sad irony is that if you take a look around any of our houses, you’ll find they’re filled with things we acquired thinking they would provide the contentment we lack. Now, however, they sit collecting dust because the luster has worn off. They provided us with pleasure for a short time, but they didn’t give us lasting contentment.
It’s been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We’ve somehow fallen into the trap of buying and buying more things thinking that we’ll find contentment in them, when the things we just bought haven’t brought contentment. Obviously something needs to change.
Change Your Thinking
If we’re going to gain control over covetous thoughts and find the contentment we lack, we’re going to have to change the way we think about things. The key to doing so is to learn that contentment doesn’t come through the acquisition and possession of things. Nothing (no thing) out there can provide the contentment so many of us lack. Paul didn’t say he would be content with food and clothing because he only wanted food and clothing. He had learned the secret to genuine contentment in spite of his situation (“whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want,” according to Philippians 4:12). In the previous verse he says he had learned to be content no matter what situation he found himself in.
What Paul had learned was that contentment is a state of mind, not a list of possessions. Contentment is a decision, not something determined by what one has.
The irony of seeking contentment in what we have or desire is that more things only bring more worry. Every new thing in our house is something to clean, service, keep up, and insure. Every new house we own has a roof that can leak. Every new car we own can get bumped, scraped, and is going to rust. When we place our hope in things to secure our contentment, we will become disappointed and frustrated. It is aggravating to have the very thing we sought contentment in provide us with irritation. These things consume our time and energy, both of which we should be using for God’s glory. Possessions rob us of the very thing we hope they will provide!
Through my life I’ve met a handful of people who have lost everything in a fire, flood, or other natural disaster. It’s been interesting to hear their replies when I’ve asked them how it has affected them. The trauma of the event is genuine, but often they’ll acknowledge that it freed them from a burden they didn’t know they had (or at least they didn’t know what was causing it). Unfortunately most of us are “made whole” by insurance when we have a fire or flood, so the burden is put right back on our shoulders.
Today there is a movement of people who have learned that things are not the secret to contentment in life. They call themselves minimalists and the hard core among this group limit their possessions to no more than 100 items! Track one down or enter one of their discussion groups online and you’ll hear them say how much pleasure and freedom there is in owning less. You’ll also hear them say that they had no idea how much time their possessions occupied. What is the one thing we say we wish we had more of? Time! If we could simply learn that every possession we have consumes valuable time, we might be less covetous.
Once we’ve recognized that it’s contentment that we seek, and have adjusted our thinking and behavior, we need to maintain a healthy perspective on things so we don’t fall back into covetousness. One way to do that is to fix in our mind that everything in this world is reserved for fire. It’s all going to burn! Second Peter 3:7 reminds us that “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” Anything we might be tempted to covet, God is one day going to burn. The only things worth holding on to and protecting are healthy relationships. They are the only things that won’t burn up when the end comes. It helps us maintain a good perspective on things when we remember that God is going to burn it all.
Finally, Hebrews 13:5 reminds us to keep our lives free from the love of money and be content with what we have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Every now and then we need to step back and reassess our lives. Ask yourself, “Am I content with what I have?” If the answer is no, go back to step one and two. Paul found contentment not in his possessions, but through what he had gained in Christ Jesus. If you have Jesus, you have everything you need to be content and satisfied in life. Who could ask for anything more?
Terry McCabe is a freelance writer in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
1. Give something up. Pick something in your home and get rid of it. You’ll probably be surprised how easily you get by without it.
2. Watch a documentary on poverty or a poor nation.
3. Visit another part of town. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or help out at an after school program for at-risk kids.
4. The next time you say or think, “There’s no food in the house,” count how many food items you actually have on hand.
5. See how your income compares to the rest of the world at the Global Rich list.
6. Buy something from the World Vision catalog. For an amount you’ll barely miss, you can make a meaningful difference in someone’s life.
7. Suspend your spending. Just for one day, vow to spend $0. Zero. You may be surprised how often (and how much) you spend without even thinking.
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