There are some wonderfully satisfying times in life. There is that wonderful sense of satisfaction as you eat your favorite meal perfectly prepared. There is the satisfaction of a great victory in an area where you have worked hard. Or how about the great feeling that comes from knowing you did what was right and you did it well. Sometimes there is a sweet satisfaction being in your favorite place with your favorite people. These are great times.
But if we are honest we would have to admit that generally we don’t live our lives with a sense of satisfaction. We spend most of our lives wanting more. I find that this is especially true in the early adult years. We want desperately to be seen as successful. We want to have all the “stuff” that other adults have. We measure “success” by the material.
- There is that “one more thing” we’d like to have
- We wish for different circumstances in our life
- We crave more influence and power
- We dream of better times.
This is the kind of dissatisfaction that the Bible addresses in the ten 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.” [Ex. 20:17]
WHAT IS COVETING?
Our first question is “What does it mean to covet?” The dictionary tells us that we covet when we have a strong desire to possess what belongs to another. We covet when we burn for something material that we don’t have.
Now is it wrong to like nice things? Absolutely not. Is it wrong to want to advance and improve in our lives? Is it wrong to want to achieve what others have achieved? Not always. Francis Schaeffer gives us some good tests.
Natural desires have become coveting against a fellow creature, when we have a mentality that would give us secret satisfaction at his misfortune. If a man has something and he loses it, do we have inward pleasure, a secret satisfaction at his loss? Do not speak too quickly and say it is never so, because you will make yourself a lair. We must all admit that even when we get on in our Christian life, even in these areas where we say we are longing for the Church of Jesus Christ to be more alive in our generation, often we have this awful secret satisfaction at the loss of other men, even at the loss of brothers in Christ. Now if this mentality is upon me, in any way, then my natural desires have become coveting. I am inwardly coveting, and I am not loving men as I should. [True Spirituality, COMPLETE WORKS chapter 1]
Richard Baxter has written and imposing but wonderful book called the CHRISTIAN DIRECTORY and in this book he lists several symptoms of a coveting heart. I have picked some of them and adapted some others. If you see some of these symptoms then you are probably coveting.
- you complain about circumstances, income, possessions, how poor you are
- you have a preoccupation with obtaining stuff
- you find you are scheming to find a way to get what you want
- when our worldly pursuits keep us from serving God
- when you passion is for the material rather than the spiritual
- when we are more concerned to provide materially for our children than we are concerned to provide spiritually
- when we are stingy to those in need
- when riches are used to pamper flesh rather then to enrich others.
- when I am prepared to borrow myself into bondage
- when God gets my leftovers, rather than my first fruits.
THE REASONS COVETING IS BAD
Coveting leads us to depend on things for what only God can provide
The first reason coveting is bad is that it leads to a belief that things can make us happy. Here’s often how it works: you begin to feel depressed so you head out to buy something. The more depressed or unhappy you are, the more you spend. Or maybe you start feeling down so you go out and drink, or you run to some pill, or you turn to other relationships. In each case we are doing exactly the same thing, we are looking to things to give us what only God can provide.
Let me give you a more practical example. I have found that there are times in my life when I want something and become almost obsessed. Here’s how it would work. Suppose it is a desire for a new computer. I will think about how much I could “use” a new computer. I’ll stop and look at (and long for) computers every chance I get. Then I will think about ways I could “afford” to buy a new computer. Before long the desire is haunting me to the point where it is easier to give in and get what I want than continue to fight it. I’ve come to see that this is coveting. I have bought into the desire that another computer will enrich my life. But things can’t make life better . . . only God can.
Paul tells us that he has “learned to be content in every circumstance” whether in plenty or in poverty. Paul found that satisfied feeling. His contentment is anchored in a simple truth, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:13) It is the Lord who brings joy to our life. Contentment comes from trusting Him.
Coveting Robs us of Joy in the Present
When we covet we keep looking for our “ship to come in”. We keep looking forward to a future day and find ourselves simply enduring the present. What the coveting heart does is steal joy from the present. We find ourselves wishing our life away.
It was spring
But it was summer I wanted,
The warm days,
And the great outdoors.
It was summer,
But it was fall I wanted,
The colorful leaves,
And the cool, dry air.
It was fall,
But it was winter I wanted,
The beautiful snow,
And the joy of the holiday season.
It was winter,
But it was spring I wanted,
And the blossoming of nature.
I was a child,
But it was adulthood I wanted.
And the respect.
I was 20,
But it was 30 I wanted,
To be mature,
I was middle-aged,
But it was 20 I wanted,
And the free spirit,
I was retired,
But it was middle age I wanted,
The presence of mind,
My life was over.
But I never got what I wanted.
[Jason Lehman, quoted in SIMPLE FAITH p. 176]
In our desire for something else we miss enjoying what “is”. How many parents have looked back and wished they had enjoyed their children more while they were home? How many people have said they never appreciated their loved ones before they died? How many have testified that they never knew what they had until they lost it? How many people do we miss getting to know because we are looking past them? How many simple things do we miss because we are looking past today to some imagined day?
You remember the great story that was in Our Daily Bread,
A rich industrialist was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat.
“Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked.
“Because I’ve caught enough fish for today.” said the fisherman.
“Why don’t you catch more fish than you need and sell the rest?” the rich man asked.
“Why would I do that?” said the fisherman.
“You could earn enough money to buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. Then with the profit you make you could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make even more money. Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be rich like I am.”
The fisherman still reclining by his boat said, “They what would I do?”
“You could sit down and enjoy life,” said the industrialist.
“What do you think I’m doing now?” the fisherman replied.
What a great attitude. How much churning and unhappiness we could save ourselves if we learned to enjoy and appreciate what we already have.
Coveting Builds Barriers between us and Those Around Us
When we covet we start seeing other people as “the competition”. We resent the achievements of others because we feel they somehow diminish our capacity for enjoyment. We hoard what we have because we feel what we have is our key to happiness. So we see everyone else as a threat to take away what we need for happiness. We see others as hurdles we have to overcome or defeat in order to get to our goal.
When we covet we find ourselves loving things and using people rather than using things and loving people. We view others in terms of the advantage they can give us rather than seeing them as valuable in their own right. When we regret that we don’t have what someone else possesses we will quickly find ourselves disliking the person himself. It’s back to the same idea again, if we would be happy that someone loses something, the next step would be to move either subtly or move openly to cause him to have this loss, either by lying about him, stealing from him, or whatever it may be. Coveting inevitably leads to fractured relationships. It turns us into opponents rather than brothers.
ANTIDOTE TO COVETING
The antidote to suffering is contentment. It is the art of being satisfied with what God has given us. I don’t know about you but I find this to be one of the most illusive qualities of life. I speak as a fellow pilgrim but here are some ideas.
1. We must recognize the worldly push to be discontent
In any battle we must understand what the enemy is doing if we want to be able to defend against it. A military leader must try to understand the strategy of the enemy before they can produce a counter-strategy. You will often see on the sidelines of football games teams studying Polaroid pictures of what the opposition is doing. If you understand what the opponent is doing, you can guard against it.
The same is true of life. You and I must realize that every commercial, every advertising campaign, every catalog is designed to create a desire within you. If you will, a good advertising campaign will make you covet a certain product. It will breed discontent and make you think you need something that this product alone can provide.
If we recognize this, we can stand against it. We need to interact with ads. We need to tell ourselves the truth over and over again. For example, “So, this commercial is telling me that if I buy this car, I will be the envy of all my friends. If I drive this car I will be popular. If I drive this car, I will have more fun than I can imagine. . . . but if I buy this car I won’t be able to afford to put gas in it. If I buy this car I’ll have to work several jobs to pay for it and then I won’t have any time to drive it. If I buy this car I’ll be afraid to drive it because it may get scratched.” We must see and respond to the enemies strategy.
2. We must distinguish between contentment and complacency
I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that a person who is content is a person who is no longer concerned about growing and developing as a person and as a child of God. That is certainly not the case. A satisfied feeling that comes from laziness is called complacency. When we are content, we do our best and we trust God to use it in whatever way He sees fit. Our contentment comes from resting in Him . . . not from doing nothing.
It is a strange thing. We seem to never reach a point of contentment in the material things of life. But we are often guilty of complacency when it comes to our spiritual life. While we pursue contentment we must battle complacency.
3. We must be deliberate about remembering where our true treasure lies
We have to remind ourselves over and over that our true treasure is not in the stuff, abilities, or even health we possess. Our true treasure is to be held in the hands of the Father.
I will give you the example of a couple of godly men, meeting together, Anthony and Didymus: Didymus was blind, and yet a man of very excellent gifts and graces; Anthony asked him if he was troubled at his want of sight. He confessed he was, ‘But’, he said, ‘should you be troubled at the want of what flies and dogs have, instead of rejoicing and being thankful that you have what angels have?’ God has given you those good things that make angels glorious; is not that enough for you, though you lack what a fly has? And so a Christian should reason the case with himself: what is it that maks us discontent? I am discontented for want of what a dog may have, what a devil may have, what a reprobate may have; shall I be discontented for not having that, when God has given me what makes angels glorious? [ Jeremiah Burroughs, THE RARE JEWEL OF CHRISTIAN CONTENTMENT, p. 208]
Have you ever thought about this? The person who has everything the world has to offer but yet does not have salvation is a person who really has nothing. Their possessions are like sand that quickly sifts through the hands. The person who has nothing but a heart filled with God’s presence is a person of enormous wealth.
Think about the late Mother Teresa. Here was a woman who owned nothing. She had a shawl and a few trinkets to her name when she died. She had no “net worth” and yet, when she died, she was treated like the world leader she was. She was honored by heads of state. . . what she left was not material things . . . she left lives that were changed by the Savior’s love. Mother Teresa knew what she wanted, “Only, all for Jesus.” She obtaind it, not by coveting what was not hers, but by delighting in what was. She gave up everything she had, but in return received more than any of us could imagine.
The words of the Psalmist are appropriate,
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. [Psalm 73:24-26]
That phrase, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” is what you and I are pursuing. This is the goal . . . to make our passion Heaven and to realize that nothing on earth will ever be able to satisfy this longing. But we need not despair . . . the promise is sure. In Christ we have the assurance that some day we will reach the goal. So we live not in despair and frustration . . . but in joyful anticipation.
Let me conclude by giving you (and me) some assignments.
- Make it a point to notice the things you do have. Don’t ask for anything in prayer until you have thanked God for the blessings you currently enjoy.
- Don’t browse catalogs and beware of malls. Use them only when you are looking for something specific.
- Use the mute button during commercials on television.
- Work at being genuinely happy for those who have more than you rather than resentful. Let them share their joy with you . . . and listen enthusiastically. Remind yourself that net worth and personal value are not related to each other.
- Avoid impulse buying. Take time to determine whether you really need something and whether or not your resources may not be able to be invested in more eternal investments.
- Don’t measure yourselves by others. Different people have different needs. What may be a necessity for someone else may be an unnecessary extravagance for you.
- Become aware of how often you say you “need” something. And every time you find yourself using the word “need” learn to ask, “Do I really ‘need’ this?”
When it all comes down to it, contentment is trusting God. It is trusting that God will provide what we need and that He knows what we need better than we do. It is resting in the confidence that our joy and our position in Christ has absolutely nothing to do with what we have or have been given. These things are incidentals. Contentment comes from relationship not from possessions. Our prayer is much like the this one from proverbs,
“Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God. [Prov. 30:7-9]
The Ten Commandments were not given us as punishment or as restrictions designed to control us. The ten commandments are given to us to set us free. They are designed to reveal true life, not restrict it. They are designed to point us to Jesus. And when we understand and follow this road map given by God on Mt. Sinai to Moses . . . we will find a satisfying feeling that will never diminish and can never be equalled..