Coveting - the Hidden Sin
The law that forbids coveting is perhaps the least understood of the Ten Commandments. Most of us accept that the word ‘covet’ means an inordinate desire for something that is not ours. Indeed this meaning is correct but falls woefully short in revealing the full impact of this sin that has invaded the lives of so many.
The word ‘inordinate’ implies that it is something out of the ordinary that we may associate with extreme, unreasonable, or disproportionate behaviours usually in others who are ambitious, obsessive or greedy. It is easy to deny that we have these traits ourselves and we tend to minimise the importance of this commandment not realising the subtle effect that covetousness does have in our lives, nor how it has affected the society in which we live.
Covetousness is another word for greed. It is manifested as a desire for possessions, power, wealth, fame or status usually gained at the expense of others. The English word ‘covet’ is translated from a number of Hebrew and Greek words in the Old and New Testaments. There are also other words in both languages that have similar meanings and are translated in the Bible as ‘desire’, ‘lust’ and ‘envy’. These are all words that describe the way covetousness is expressed.
It is a sin, “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.” (Exodus 20:17). It is abhorrent to God, “For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth,” (Psalm 10:3). And no covetous person will inherit His Kingdom, “Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Corinthians 6:10).
The Bible is replete with examples of covetous behaviours right from Adam and Eve who desired, or coveted what had been forbidden to them (Genesis 3:2-6). Cain coveted the praise given to his brother Abel and killed him (Genesis 4:3-8). Ahab and Jezebel coveted Naboth’s vineyard and had him killed (I Kings 21:1-19). Balaam coveted money and Korah coveted power, “Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core.” (Jude 1:11, Numbers 16:1-32). King Saul envied David and tried to kill him (I Samuel 18:8-11). Even David himself was not exempt from temptation when he coveted another man’s wife and orchestrated his death (II Samuel 11:1-27).
We must remember that covetousness in some form is at the core of every sin we commit, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” (Mark 7:21-23). All of these sins have their origin in some form of desire, lust, envy or greed that has led to the action, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28).
When God created man He put a ‘spirit in man’ that gives mankind the ability to think, assess and make decisions, “…there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” (Job 32:8). God created the ‘spirit in man’, which we more commonly know as human nature, and it was good until it was corrupted when Satan tempted Adam and Eve to covet, or desire something that God had forbidden. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Genesis 3:6). As a result human nature became a mixture of good and evil (Genesis 3:5). All humanity having descended from Adam and Eve has inherited the same nature that Satan corrupted with evil.
On one hand we have God’s way that is established in love which is an outgoing concern for others, “God is love” (I John 4:8). And on the other hand Satan’s way is an inward love of self. Sin emanates from the evil within us. It originates within the mind and is expressed through greed, lust, envy and desire for things that are wrong, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” (Mark 7:21-23).
It is through our wrong desires that we are tempted into actions that contravene God’s law, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” (James 1:14-15). Do we really understand the significance of what James said? We are tempted by our own lusts! It is the covetousness that is inherent in us that tempts us to sin. There are no exceptions, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” (Romans 3:23).
Devastating Effects of Covetousness
Covetousness is an insidious sin that has had a devastating effect on human society. We can legislate against extreme actions such as murder, theft, adultery and bearing false witness, but it is almost impossible to legislate against the covetousness that falls short of these extreme actions but still has a damaging affect on others.
It is easy to disguise the greed, lust envy and desire that drives people to be ruthless, or ambitious in business, the work place, politics, or even in the ministry. We may deceive ourselves and others into thinking our motivations are right and moral, but He who knows our very thoughts is not deceived, “The LORD knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity.” (Psalm 94:11).
The Bible has many examples for us to learn from, “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” (I Corinthians 10:11).
Many boast of their desire for wealth, power and status as if it is something to be admired. But their gain often comes through exploiting the poor who suffer as a result, “The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor; let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined. For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth. The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts. His ways are always grievous;” (Psalm 10:2-5).
When the desire for wealth leads to corruption justice is perverted, “And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel… …And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.” (I Samuel 8:1-3).
As well as judges, covetous religious leaders have corrupted truth and perverted morality for gain, “Hear this, I pray you, ye heads of the house of Jacob, and princes of the house of Israel, that abhor judgment, and pervert all equity. They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say, Is not the LORD among us? none evil can come upon us.” (Micah 3:9-11).
God condemned religious, political and business leaders for their covetous practices because of its effect on society. It caused many to suffer, “Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.” (Ezekiel 22:27). Oppression, violence and death are often the consequences, “But thine eyes and thine heart are not but for thy covetousness, and for to shed innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it.” (Jeremiah 22:17).
God set up laws in Israel to prevent families from permanently losing their land (see Lev 25:23-28, Num 27:8-11, Deut 27:17). But obviously the laws were ignored by those driven by greed, “Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.” (Micah 2:1-2).
What many today might regard as astute business acumen was nothing more than covetous greed. Especially on the part of those who accumulated large land holdings, “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!” (Isaiah 5:8). Many families suffered the loss of their homes as a consequence, “The women of my people have ye cast out from their pleasant houses; from their children have ye taken away my glory for ever.” (Micah 2:9). The loss of these family lands added to the growing number who had been forced into a life of servitude working for others.
Many in the business community were motivated by greed, “Are there yet the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is abominable? Shall I count them pure with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights? For the rich men thereof are full of violence, and the inhabitants thereof have spoken lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.” (Micah 6:10-12). Not that it was wrong to run a business. It was the covetous business methods that many employed that God abhorred.
These covetous practices existed at all levels of society, “The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net. That they may do evil with both hands earnestly, the prince asketh, and the judge asketh for a reward; and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desire: so they wrap it up.” (Micah 7:2-3).
Even religious leaders like the Pharisees coveted wealth, status and power, “And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15). They may have been held in high esteem by those over whom they ruled but they did not fool God.
The corrupt leaders that perverted justice and allowed covetous business practices were a major cause of social disintegration in Israel and Judah. It was an abomination to God.
Our modern society is product of six thousand years of covetous behaviours. Throughout the history of this world multiple millions of people have been dispossessed from their lands by cruel empire builders and brutal colonizers. They have invaded, killed, plundered and stolen from others because of their covetousness, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” (James 4:1-3).
In This Age
We live in times where covetousness abounds, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,” (II Timothy 3:1-2). Many walk after their own lusts, “Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts,” (II Peter 3:3).
The accumulation of large land holdings continues unabated. The same practice has also been extended whereby small family businesses have been taken over to form powerful multi-national conglomerates that monopolise major sectors of commerce. Under the guise of efficiency they amalgamate to cut costs by reducing staff, with a view to squeezing out competition and increasing profit margins. All this comes at a cost to the customer. Huge amounts are spent on advertising campaigns designed to prey upon the covetous nature of their customers. They offer credit and mortgages to help borrowers attain the homes, vehicles, appliances or travel they covet before they have the money to pay for them which ties them into a spiral of debt.
Credit card debt is a major cause of anxiety that can lead to a host of health issues such as high blood pressure, decreased immunity and depression, which affects individual performance and increases absenteeism at work. It also results in increased bankruptcy, marriage breakups, drug dependence and suicide, which puts a strain on already struggling healthcare systems.
Extreme poverty is a growing problem. The rich have amassed great business and property holdings to gain obscenely large fortunes at the expense of the poor. More than half the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population and a very disproportionate number of people live in extreme poverty as a consequence of covetous practices and behaviours. Many have taken advantage of the poor by forcing them into slavery. According to a number of sources it is estimated that between 45 and 47 million people in this world are currently working for little or no pay and are controlled by threats, debt or violence.
The World Bank data shows that one in eight people in this world live on less than $1.90 a day and thousands die every day from poverty-related causes. Many politicians state that poverty is the biggest problem that faces society today but they will not acknowledge the cause which is greed, or covetousness. Nor will they do anything about it because of the powerful business interests that control the political scene.
The powerfully rich and the multi-national companies are able to manipulate governments to create and maintain low wage economies that give them a business advantage. These policies have been designed to deliberately keep workers and families close to the poverty line and in debt. Even today our women are being forced out of the home to help provide for the family because the value of family income has been diminished for a vast majority, “Now therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways. Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:6). Many who find themselves on the poverty line turn to gambling or crime in desperation to survive creating even more social problems.
Multi-national drug companies have been guilty of maintaining profits by offering incentives for the doctors to overprescribe the drugs they manufacture. Banks around the world are harvesting ever-increasing profits especially with their control over digital currency and the excessive and unaccountable powers this now gives them. Many of these companies reap enormous profits and accept absolutely no social responsibility.
Then there are the organised crime cartels making huge amounts of money from the illicit drug trade, prostitution and people-smuggling without the slightest concern for their victims or the effect on society. We have not even broached the subject of the arms trade let alone tax avoidance by the whole range of business institutions that is motivated by covetous greed.
The poor find themselves in a never-ending spiral of poverty that is sucking the life blood from humanity, which is exactly what Satan wants. And the poor then become covetous, envious of all that others have and they will probably never have.
Our modern society was established on covetous practices from ancient times. That is why it is pictured in prophecy as a modern day Babylon, “…Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” (Revelation 17:1-5)
This society will continue as it is until it comes crashing down, “And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (Revelation 14:8).
In the meantime we are told to have no part in this corrupt and covetous society, “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” (Revelation 18:4).
We must also be aware of those in the Churches of God who are motivated by covetousness, “These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage. But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.” (Jude 1:16-19). They will try and make merchandise of us, “And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.” (II Peter 2:3).
Dealing with Our Own Covetousness
Having defined what covetousness is and how it affects society and even the Church, we now need to address how to deal with our own covetous nature. It is easy to deny that we are covetous, but covetousness is the internal motivator that tempts us to sin.
Before we can enter God's Kingdom we need to eliminate the covetousness that is embedded deep within our own human nature, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:” (Colossians 3:5). To help us accomplish this God has promised to replace our corrupted ‘spirit in man’ (human nature) with a new Spirit that has not been corrupted, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26). He will give us His own Spirit, “And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” (Ezekiel 36:27).
To receive this new Spirit we must submit to God and repent of our sins, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” (Acts 2:38-39). The new Spirit is the Holy Spirit which is the very essence, mind and nature of God. Our baptism is a commitment to God and symbolises the birth of a new person with a Spirit like His, “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:” (Colossians 3:10).
Although we receive God’s Spirit our own human nature still remains with us. It is still easy to succumb to covetousness without realising it. Many of us still covet status symbols such as expensive houses and the latest model of car, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” (Luke 12:15). Ambition and greed for wealth can still be a problem for us, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (I Timothy 6:10). These desires can put strain on our families, “He that is greedy of gain troubleth his own house.” (Proverbs 15:27). As well as our relationship with God, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24).
To overcome we must allow the Spirit of God to lead us, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” (Gal 5:16-17). This means putting the things of God before the things of this world, “… know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (James 4:4-5).
The things of this world are only temporary in nature, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” ( I John 2:16-17). They are not worth having if they hinder our relationship with God, “And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19).
The key to dealing with covetousness is to consider every thought and imagination and reject that which is contrary to obeying Christ, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;” (II Corinthians 10:5).
It’s all very well saying that we must bring every thought into captivity, but how do we accomplish that?
While writing this article I tried to identify the point at which my own thoughts and imaginations could lead me to sin. To do this I created an imaginary line in my mind to divide what was acceptable from what was sinful and began to examine my thoughts to determine at what point I stepped over the line. When I find myself on the wrong side of the line I immediately stopped what I was thinking and stepped back to the right side of the line.
This is not something I achieved of my own accord. I had to seek Christ’s help through heartfelt prayer and repent every time I found myself on the wrong side of the line, “…in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7). I had to trust the instruction that said, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7).
It took a while and quite a bit of prayer to get into the habit of doing this. It worked for me and that imaginary line is now a permanent fixture in my thought process. It helps me to put to death covetous thoughts and emotions that are not acceptable to God and focus on what is acceptable, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Colossians 3:2).
God’s character is established in love, “…for God is love.” (I John 4:8). And a mind established in love does not seek its own desires, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;” (I Corinthians 13:4-5).
When we overcome our own covetousness we can be content with what God has provided for us, “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” (Hebrews 13:5).
We can then begin to lay up treasures in God’s Kingdom rather than on this earth, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:” (Matthew 6:19-20). That is where our focus should to be, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34).
God has promised great things for those who can overcome their covetousness, “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” (II Peter 1:4).
Covetousness is the hidden sin of selfish desire. It affects our ability to keep God’s Commandments and to live His way. If we want to be in God’s Kingdom we must gain control of our thoughts and emotions and put to death the covetousness that leads us to sin.
If we do not put to death the covetousness that is within, it will end up being the death of us.