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2 Reasons Why Coveting Is a Serious Sin

This sponsored post is adapted from The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them by Kevin DeYoung.

Taking Sin Seriously

What makes coveting such a serious sin? First, we covet when we want for ourselves what belongs to someone else. Coveting is more than thinking, “It’d be great to have a nice house,” or “I’d like to have a better job.” Coveting longs for someone else’s stuff to be your stuff. Coveting says, “I want their house. I want his job. If only I could have what they have, then I’d be happy.” One way of looking at things is to see the tenth commandment as the internalization of the eighth commandment. Just as adultery of the heart is lust, and murder of the heart is hatred, so theft is the heart of covetousness. When Achan stole some of the devoted things from Ai, he first “coveted them” and then “took them” (Josh. 7:21). Likewise, James says, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:3). Those two sentences stand in parallel. Coveting is desiring something or someone that is not yours to have. Sex may be a good thing. Possessions may have their place.

But they’re both bad when the thoughts are illicit when you want what does not belong to you. Coveting is a violation of the second great commandment. Remember how Jesus summarized the two tables of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–40). Coveting fails to love your neighbor as yourself. When we’re covetous, we think only (or, at least, supremely) of what is good for us: what we would like, what would make us happy, and what could make our lives better, regardless of how others are affected. It’s easy for us to see how selfish children can be. They are happy with their Christmas presents until they see a sibling or friend get something bigger and better. Suddenly their Super Awesome Barbie Action Playhouse isn’t so super awesome anymore. And you know what happens next? You’ll hear those immortal words: “It’s not fair!” This prompts one of the much-beloved mom or dad lectures about starving kids living in a crater on the moon. But as easily as we can see the selfishness of children, we can be blind to our own self-regard. We notice the camper down the street or the new addition with all the righteous indignation of kids on Christmas morning. Coveting is not just saying, “I would like something.” That can be fine. We all have wish lists. Coveting goes further and says, “Why did you get that? I wanted it! I am angry because you are happy, and I’d be happier if we could trade places.” Coveting wants what other people have.

What Our Coveting Reveals

Second, we covet when our desire leads to or is an expression of, discontentment. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “The tenth commandment forbiddeth all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.”1 If the first point looked at coveting as a violation of the second table of the law, then the second point stresses how it also violates the first table of the law. When we covet, we don’t believe that God is big enough to help us or good enough to care. Our discontentment is an expression of how much more we think God owes us. There’s a reason that “do not covet” is the last of the ten commandments. It comes at the end because it is such a fitting summary of everything that has come before. It’s impossible to covet and love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. It can seem strange that the Ten Commandments starts with such lofty ideals—“I am the Lord your God… . You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2)—and then ends with a prosaic whimper: “Stop looking at that donkey.” But do you see how the two are connected? God is saying, “I’m the only God you need. Don’t turn to Baal. Don’t turn to statues. And don’t turn to animals or friends or abilities either. Let nothing else capture your gaze and affections ahead of me!”

Coveting is idolatry (Col. 3:5). It says I can’t live without that person, place, or possession. It makes a god out of our desires. The tenth commandment is not an anticlimactic afterthought. “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. And try to be happy with what you have.” The command not to covet is actually the practical summation and heart-level culmination of the other nine commandments. Even though we understand from Jesus that the commandments all have an internal dimension, it would be easy to focus on mere external obedience if we didn’t have the tenth commandment. When you look at the first nine commandments, they almost seem possible, at least in a perfunctory sort of way. “Don’t kill people.” I can do that. “Don’t sleep around.” I’m good. “Don’t lie under oath.” Got it. But just when we might be tempted to check off one commandment after another, we land on the tenth commandment and realize that we can’t possibly keep this moral code to perfection. We can conceive of making it through life without a golden calf to worship, but no honest person can think of living out their days free from coveting.

There are parallels to many of the commandments in the ancient world. Other nations and people had commandments against murder. Other legal codes tried to protect marriage, truth-telling, and private property. But we’ve yet to find another law code from the ancient world that enshrines a prohibition against inordinate desires of the heart. The tenth commandment makes explicit what the other commandments imply: obedience is a matter of the heart.

Notes:

  1. Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 81, in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications Committee, 2007).

In his new book, The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them, pastor Kevin DeYoung highlights the timelessness and goodness of God’s commands as he makes clear what they are, why we should know them, and how to apply them.


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