The Tenth Commandment: True Righteousness Comes From the Heart
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17).
The last of the Ten Commandments—against coveting—is aimed directly at the heart and mind of every human being. In prohibiting coveting, it defines not so much what we must do but how we should think. It asks us to look deep within ourselves to see what we are on the inside.
As with each of the previous nine commandments, it is directed toward our relationships. It specifically deals with the thoughts that threaten those relationships and can potentially hurt ourselves and our neighbors.
Our motives define and govern the way we respond to everyone we come in contact with. Our transgressions of God's law of love begin in the heart, as Jesus confirmed. "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness," Christ said. "All these evil things come from within and defile a man" (Mark 7:21-23).
Therefore, it is fitting that the formal listing of these 10 foundational commands, which define the love of God, should end by focusing on our hearts as the wellspring of our relationship problems. From within come the desires that tempt us and lead us astray.
What is covetousness?
Covet means to crave or desire, especially in excessive or improper ways. The Tenth Commandment does not tell us that all of our desires are immoral. It tells us that some desires are wrong.
Coveting is an immoral longing for something that is not rightfully ours. That is usually because the object of our desire already belongs to someone else. But coveting can also include our wanting far more than we would legitimately deserve or that would be our rightful share. The focus of the Tenth Commandment is that we are not to illicitly desire anything that already belongs to others.
The opposite of coveting is a positive desire to help others preserve and protect their blessings from God. We should rejoice when other people are blessed. Our desire should be to contribute to the well-being of others, to make our presence in their lives a blessing to them.
Humans' nature is selfish
Our natural inclination is always to think of ourselves first. We are far more interested in what we can get rather than what we can give. That is the essence of what God is denouncing in the Tenth Commandment. He tells us to stop thinking only of ourselves, to quit seeking only our interests. Coveting is the selfish approach to life, and selfishness is the root of our transgressions of God's laws.
". . . Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed," as James explains. "Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). James notes how dangerous out-of-control desires can be. "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask" (James 4:1-2).
As James points out, coveting can be a root cause of many sins, including murder and warfare. If not controlled, what begins as a thought becomes an obsession that leads to an act. All of us have "conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind" (Ephesians 2:3). We have all let our desires rule our behavior. Accordingly, we have all sinned (Romans 3:10, 23).
A universal plague
The apostle Paul's description of covetous people in the last days is instructive. "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:1-5). This is a vividly accurate description of our world.
Our society is not unique in history. Covetousness has always cursed humanity. Speaking of one of the last kings of ancient Judah, God said, "Yet your eyes and your heart are for nothing but your covetousness, for shedding innocent blood, and practicing oppression and violence" (Jeremiah 22:17). The problem was not limited to the kings, "because from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even to the priest, everyone deals falsely" (Jeremiah 6:13).
God expressed His abhorrence of Israel's covetousness and warned of its ultimate outcome: "They covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance. Therefore thus says the LORD: 'Behold, against this family I am devising disaster, from which you cannot remove your necks . . .'" (Micah 2:2-3).
One glaring example of the almost universal acceptance of covetousness is the burgeoning popularity of government-run lotteries. Millions of people surrender part of their paychecks each week hoping to win a fantasy life of ease and luxury. Likewise, the gambling meccas of the world are hugely popular vacation resorts, specializing in entertainment appealing to our baser instincts.
Promoting covetousness is big business. Advertising agencies and research firms make a science out of manipulating the selfish appetites of consumers. Like ancient Israel, we are a covetous society, from the least to the greatest.
A form of idolatry
Covetousness is much more serious than just a social malady. When we put greed, lust and self above God, coveting becomes idolatry.
Paul warns us, "Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience" (Colossians 3:5-6).
Paul elsewhere links the sins of coveting with idolatry, pointing out that these and other sins can prevent us from entering God's Kingdom. "For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God" (Ephesians 5:5).
Jesus commanded His disciples to "beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" (Luke 12:15). Likewise, Paul tells us, "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4).
God's way, the way of love, is to practice this kind of concern for others. "For the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'You shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:9-10).
To combat covetousness, we must have faith that God will provide a way for us to satisfy our legitimate needs. We have good reason to have such confidence. The Scriptures promise that He will never abandon us if we obey and trust Him. "Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you'" (Hebrews 13:5).
Paul expresses the same principles in other words. "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Timothy 6:7-10).
Covetousness cannot be defeated without help from God. The negative pulls of human nature are simply too powerful for us to overcome by ourselves.
To receive the help we need, we must ask for it—especially requesting that God will give us the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). Then we must allow God's Spirit to work in us to change the way we think. "Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh," Paul writes. "For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Galatians 5:16-17). Acts 2:38 explains how we can receive the Holy Spirit. (Be sure to request our free booklet The Road to Eternal Life.)
Directing our desires
We need to orient our desires in the right direction. Jesus explained that we should "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). He also instructed us: ". . . Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:20-21).
Proper and profitable relationships, spiritual understanding and wisdom are examples of the lasting treasures that God wants us to desire. "Yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God" (Proverbs 2:3-5).
God says that "wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things one may desire cannot be compared with her" (Proverbs 8:11). His Word describes some of wisdom's rewards: "My fruit is better than gold . . . I traverse the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of justice, that I may cause those who love me to inherit wealth, that I may fill their treasuries" (verses 19-21). It pays to seek wisdom with righteousness.
Wanting to excel in our life's pursuits can be an appropriate ambition. If being useful to others is our objective, God approves of our gaining the necessary skills and knowledge that bring favor and advancement in this life. As a wise servant of God wrote: "Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before unknown men" (Proverbs 22:29).
God wants concern for others to be the motivation for our desires. Sometimes our service to them will result in wonderful rewards for us. But only if our hearts are focused on giving rather than getting will our desires be channeled in the right direction. We must replace coveting with service and love for other people.
The book of Hebrews reminds us not to forget "to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13:16). We should look to the example of the apostle Paul, who said, "I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel . . . I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:33-35).
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