Purchase the CD of this sermon.
The Off Color series provides valuable insight to help us master our emotions and not allow emotions to master us. Pastor Philip calls believers to engage their emotions properly and to enjoy God’s goodness in all circumstances of life.
More From This Series
Take your Bible and turn to Exodus 20:17. We’re in a series called Off Color: Dealing with Unwelcome Emotions. For some weeks now, we’ve been looking at certain emotions that, if they master us, will lead us in a bad direction. Emotions color life, and emotions are a wonderful part of life, but sometimes they color our lives in bad ways. We’ve got to master our emotions, not allow our emotions to master us. We can’t allow emotions like depression and fear and anger and insecurity or indecision to master us. We’ve got to master them. We’re coming to look at one more this morning and actually next Sunday morning; this is going to be a two-part sermon.
We have looked at blue with depression, black with guilt, red with anger, white with fear, gray with indecision, and this morning we’re going to look at green with envy. We’re going to look at the issue of covetousness and envy and jealousy, and we’re going to base our remarks on Exodus 20:17. But why don’t we read the opening verses of chapter 20 of Exodus.
Here’s what God says:
“And God spoke all these words, saying:
“‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
“‘You shall have no other gods before me.
“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
“‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
“‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
“‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
“‘You shall not murder.
“‘You shall not commit adultery.
“‘You shall not steal.
“‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“‘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.’”
So reads God’s Word.
I want to speak this morning and next Sunday morning on the subject “Got to Have It.” That is, you’ve got to have contentment. We’ll get there. “Got to Have It.” Someone has said that the world can be put into three categories, or there are three kinds of people. There are the haves, the have-nots, and the have-not-paid-for-what-they-haves. All right? But I’m going to add a fourth, okay? You’ve got the haves, the have-nots, the have-not-paid-for-what-they-haves, and then you have the have-to-have-what-the-haves-have. That’s going to take us to the issue of covetousness—wanting what others have, wanting more than you have, even wanting others not to have what they have if you can’t have it.
And that kind of thinking is a serious temptation and a serious trap for each of us, myself included. The reason I say it’s a serious temptation is because apart from a work of gospel grace, apart from submitting our hearts to the lordship of Jesus Christ . . . As Martin Luther says, our hearts are concaved. They are driven by self-interest, self-focus, they are turned in on themselves, concaved. Apart from grace, our heart puts our wants, our desires, and our pleasures ahead of everyone else’s, including God’s.
What does our culture say? What did Woody Allen say? “The heart wants what the heart wants.” That’s a serious temptation, and it’s a serious trap, because you and I live in the richest nation in the world. And it’s marked by an inextinguishable discontent. Consumption is the Western way. Having it all is the American dream.
So, no matter how much you have, no matter what you enjoy, Wall Street and Madison Avenue will tell you it’s not enough. You’ve got to have more. Has there ever been a more covetous nation than the United States? Not likely. Because we live in a culture that feeds us the salt of discontentment, which in turn creates a covetous thirst for things. Listen to Gary Inrig: “We have been trained by the hidden persuaders in our society that we need to acquire, consume, upgrade, and enlarge. In such a context, the concept of ‘enough’ is rare. No one is advertising the virtues of contentment.”
So, given that our hearts are concaved, given that you and I live in the richest nation on earth that’s constantly telling you, “You don’t have enough,” we need to come in here and look at Exodus 20:17: “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.”
We’re working our way through unwelcome emotions. We have looked, as I’ve said, at several: blue with the depression, black with guilt, red with anger, white with fear, gray within decision. And now we’re going to focus on green with envy. Covetousness, envy, jealousy.
At its base, covetousness is the longing for something that is not rightfully yours. Covetousness is a bad case of the wants. It’s when you inordinately want what others have, desperately want more than you have, and unhappily want other than what you have. And you want it so bad that you think bad things about the people that have what you want. The Bible wants to confront that.
Now, let me say right out the gate, I’m going to use the words “covet” and “envy” in an interchangeable fashion. I know there is a distinction. Covetousness is wanting something that someone else has, and that is a desire that dominates you and takes you to bad places. It robs you of your joy. It makes you discontent. It makes you unhappy with what God has given you. You even begin to question God’s goodness, justice, and love. That’s what covetousness is.
Envy is when you become bitter about it. Not only do you want what your neighbor has, but you want to harm them to get it. Or, if you can’t get it, you wish them harm. If you can’t be happy without it, you don’t want them to be happy with it. And so, one is the child of the other. That’s why I’m going to use them interchangeably. They belong to the same ugly family. Covetousness births the child of envy. And so, just bear that in mind.
So, let’s come, and we’re going to use Exodus 20:17 as a jumping-off point, because here covetousness leading to envy is clearly forbidden. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, not his wife, not his servants, not his stuff. If you look at those categories, we’re dealing with property, people, possessions. It’s all under the umbrella of this command. These are things that produce security, that offer love, leisure, wealth, status, if you look at all of those categories. And you and I are forbidden to want that for ourselves from them.
We are forbidden to grieve over our neighbor’s progress and prosperity. We are forbidden to stoke discontentment in our own lives. We are forbidden to define our life by material wealth. Not that material things are evil in and of themselves, but the inordinate love of them becomes evil because it ultimately becomes an act of idolatry—which we’ll get to before we are done. But we’re not to covet.
In fact, Jesus says in Luke 12:15, “Beware of covetousness . . .” Guard your heart against covetousness, materialism, a bad case of the wants. Guard your heart against that. Because remember, in guarding your heart, you are guarding the true issues of life.
By the way, while something’s forbidden here in verse 17, something’s also promoted. Because when God tells us not to do something, we need to remind ourselves it’s because He’s not only keeping us from something but also keeping us for something, right? The implication here is that we are prohibited from coveting, and we are encouraged to pursue contentment, which is the opposite of coveting. That’s why you’ve got Hebrews 13:5. Don’t covet, but “be content with such things as you have.”
Listen to Leslie Flynn here. He says this: “However, the eight commandments stated negatively can be rewritten positively—with a ‘do’ or a ‘shall.’” For instance, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” could be rendered, “Thou shall hallow the name of the Lord your God.” And, Flynn goes on to say, “‘You shall not murder’ can be rephrased, ‘You shall honor the sanctity of human life.’ Likewise, the two commandments worded positively include the prohibition of contrary behavior. For example, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ can be restated, ‘You shall not disobey your parents.’”
You get his point? You can turn the negative into a positive and the positive into a negative, and one is implied by the other. And so, when we’re told here not to covet, we’re being told, “Be content”—and we’ll get to that next week.
Fences are both negative and positive, just like the commands of God. They’re negative in that they keep some things out, but they’re positive in that they keep some things in. If you’ve got a fence around your garden and your child is playing inside of it, well, negatively, it’s keeping dogs and animals that could hurt your child out, and it’s keeping your child in with a sense of safety. You see the good and the bad playing with each other and in harmony with each other.
It’s a bit like my mother when I asked her for something to eat about four o’clock in the afternoon. She refused, because she said, “Philip, it’s going to spoil your appetite.” So, she said “no,” but when she was saying “no,” she was saying “yes” to a good dinner that I would thoroughly enjoy.
We’ve got to see in this prohibition a call to pursue the opposite of that prohibition, namely contentment.
Now, there’s three things here I want us to see: the character of envy, the consequences of envy, the cure of envy.
The character of envy. Did you know that Spurgeon said that across his long ministry he doesn’t recall a time when anybody confessed a sin of covetousness? Nobody came and said, “You know what, Mr. Spurgeon, I am an envious person. I am a covetous person.” That’s amazing given the fact that we’ve all been covetous, we’ve all envied, and envy is the thing that makes the world go round.
In Ecclesiastes 4:4, Solomon says, “And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another” (NIV). Solomon was talking about the rat race before we talked about the rat race. He’s basically saying, “You know what? Keeping up with the Joneses is what gets people up.” It’s been well said that it’s hard to save money when your neighbor keeps buying stuff. Right? Because you see, we’ve got covetous hearts. We want what they have, even if God doesn’t want that for us. That’s trouble.
This is a prevalent sin, one that we ignore—no one confessed it to Spurgeon—and one that our culture applauds. See, it feeds us the salt of discontentment, creating a thirst for things, which brings us into conflict with Exodus 20:17 and Jesus warning, “Don’t be covetous; your life is not defined by what you possess.”
So, let’s remind ourselves of the character of this sin, given that we often ignore it, downplay it and that our culture applauds it and seeks to create it in us. Number one: It’s inordinate in nature. If you’re taking notes, covetousness is inordinate in nature. I use that word to help us distinguish between natural longing and desire—which is part of life and the Christian life—and this inordinate longing. That’s where covetousness comes in.
It’s not admiring your neighbor’s house; it’s wanting it. It’s not saying to yourself, “It’d be nice to live in a house like that, wouldn’t it?” I think that all the time when I walk Balboa Island. “That one right there, right on the corner.” Nothing wrong with that as long as that’s just a passing thought. But I don’t go home and get all upset that I don’t have that and someone else has that, and I don’t want to spend the next 10 years of my life inordinately getting off track spiritually because I want that. That’s why we use the word “inordinate.” It’s a dominating desire.
In fact, when you read text in Scripture about covetousness, they’re often accompanied by strong verbs. Think about Achan in Joshua 7:21. He sees the Babylonian garment. They were told not to take any of the spoil of war. He sees it, and it says he took it and then he hid it. James 4:1–2, listen to the language here. Again, I just want you to get a sense that this isn’t just normal desire. This is dominating desire. This is disorderly desire. James 4: “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” This isn’t you saying, “That’s a nice house.” This is you going to war to get the house. This is what we’re talking about here. “You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (James 4:2).
That’s why it’s inordinate in nature. It’s a consuming preoccupation with things. You want to know if you’re coveting? If you’re preoccupied by things, if you’re starting to find your value and your joy in things, you’re in the world of covetousness. Because Jesus told us, “Beware of covetousness, and don’t allow your life to be defined by the things that you possess.”
If you go over to 1 Timothy 6, Paul’s addressing the issue of money. And, by the way, he’s not saying, “Money is the root of all evil.” The Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible’s got plenty of rich people in it who God used for His glory. Money, wealth is not evil. It’s the love of money. It’s how you pursue it. It’s how you possess it. It’s how you guard it. It’s what value you put on it. It’s about whether you’re generous with it. Those are the issues. Heart issues.
Now, listen to what he says in 1 Timothy 6. Again, we’re dealing with desire and the inordinate nature of covetousness. It’s one thing to desire something appropriately; it’s another thing to desire it inappropriately, in a disorderly, dominating fashion. “Now godliness with contentment is great gain. 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” (1 Timothy 6:6–8). Here’s a warning: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into much foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition” (6:9).
That’s not you going, “I’d like a little bit more.” This is someone whose desire it is to be rich at all costs. And it will come at a cost. They will destroy their marriage over it. They will ignore their kids over it. They will make a god of their belly. They will work more than six days. They won’t rest until they get what they get. But in getting what they want, they pierce themselves through with sorrows, according to verse 10.
By the way, verse 17 is important here: “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.” So, it’s not wrong to want something more, and it’s not wrong to achieve that in life if it’s done righteously and within biblical boundaries—because God gives us all things to enjoy. But to desire that in an inordinate fashion is something that should scare us. Covetousness is a desire inflamed and running a fever. It’s a form of natural aspiration that is overheating. I like that last phrase. It’s a form of natural aspiration that’s overheating.
Because I don’t want you to read from Exodus 20:17 or from the idea of covetousness and wanting that the Bible is against wanting, that the Bible is against aspiration, that the Bible is against desire. It’s important to point out that not all desire is wrong. God made us creatures of desire, and aspiring to have something more or to be something more is not unbiblical.
What about Deuteronomy 8:18, which says that God gives power to get rich? There are cases in which God will allow you to get rich. He’ll give you the opportunity and the circumstances and the ability. You don’t need to be embarrassed by that if your motives are pure, your actions are righteous, and it results in generosity to others in God’s kingdom and you maintaining your contentedness and your sufficiency in Christ.
What about 1 Timothy 3:1? “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.” There is desire. In fact, the Old Kings James will put, “If a man covets after the office of a bishop, he desireth [covets] a good work.” “Covet” means desire, but covetousness is dominating desire, disorderly desire. What about 1 Corinthians 12:31? “[D]esire the best gifts.”
Listen to what Kevin DeYoung says in his excellent book on the Ten Commandments: “The Bible often commands desire in its proper place. From Sarah and Hannah we see that the desire for children is a good desire. In the Song of Solomon we see that the desire for sexual intimacy is a good desire. The book of Proverbs encourages us to plan and to work hard so that we might improve our lot in life; so desiring some kind of domestic or financial advancement is not automatically wrong. Likewise, it’s certainly not wrong to long for more of God or desire the outpouring of his Spirit. Those themes are present throughout the Psalms. Even Paul desired . . . that he might die and go to be with Christ.” Remember he said that? If I had my way, my desire would be to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). DeYoung continues, “Clearly, the tenth commandment does not mean to make us unfeeling creatures without hopes or dreams or appropriate ambition. That sort of thinking is more Buddhist than Christian.”
So, ambition’s not wrong. I like the story of the Irishman who was in England at a point and heard a English politician rant and rave in a long speech: “I was born an Englishman. I’ve lived as an Englishman. I hope to die as an Englishman.” To which the Irishman turned to his neighbor and said, “Has the man no ambition at all?”
Well, it’s okay to have ambition. It’s okay to set goals. It’s okay, in a true biblical sense, to covet certain things for yourself. It’s okay to covet a wife—not someone else’s wife. It’s okay to covet things that make life enjoyable within the providence of God—so long as you retain your holiness and your contentment in Christ and God’s got His proper place. What we’re talking about here is inordinate desires, desires that possess you, desires that define your life outside of God’s glory.
Here’s another thing about covetousness. We’re looking at its character. It’s inward in nature. One of the striking things about this tenth commandment is that it focuses on the inside, not the outside.
Some of the commandments up to this point focus on the outside, right? With your mouth, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. We don’t want you behaving like that. That’s an action. Remember to clock out on that sixth day and enjoy a day of rest to let your soul catch up with your body. Worship the God who gives you the strength to work. Honor your mother and father. Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t use your tongue to lie.
But then we get here: You shall not covet. We go inside. We go to the matters of the heart—because the heart of the matter is always the matter of the heart. The focus is on attitudes, state of mind—not action, not behavior. This verse is not concerned with what you do but with what you want to do. You want your neighbor’s house strongly? You’re conspiring to sleep with your neighbor’s wife? You see, this text understands that internal desire governs external behavior. It’s a reminder that life is an inside-outside thing. And that would remind us that man is defiled from the inside out.
Remember what Jesus said in Mark 7:20, as He deals with the Pharisees and those who put a lot of emphasis on externals and looking right and behaving right? Jesus says, “No, I want you to be wanting right.” He says this: “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders . . . covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness . . . blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within” (Mark 7:20–23). Jesus doesn’t blame externals: parents, environment, government programs that have failed. He blames the man who committed the offense—because a man is defiled by what comes from within him, not from without.
That’s why I like what Adrian Roger says: “A man is not an adulterer because he commits adultery; he commits adultery because he’s an adulterer. A man is not a thief because he steals; he steals because he’s a thief. A man is not a liar because he tells lies; he tells lies because he’s a liar.” These things come out of the heart. Every sin was once a thought, and the tenth commandment reminds us of that as it moves inside. It reminds us of our need of a savior, by the way.
Paul talks about this in Roman 7, where he thought he was a pretty good guy until the law showed him that he was a coveter, that he was a covetous man, that he wasn’t as good as he thought, and that he had fallen short of God’s glory. His righteousness couldn’t come by keeping the law since he couldn’t keep the law, so he needed a savior.
See, that’s one of the purposes of the law. There’s a threefold purpose to the law if you read Reformed theology. One is to act as a mirror, showing us the character of God and our lack of character in the face of God’s character—showing us our need of a savior. It’s our skill master bringing us to Christ. Then, it’s a social restraint against evil. It punishes evildoers when it’s applied, which restrains evil, which is good for society. And, finally, we’re not saved by keeping the law—and apart from the help of the Holy Spirit, we could not keep the law—but once we’re saved and in union with Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit within, we begin to keep the law from the inside out. The law shows us a life that pleases God.
Now, that was a lot, but I’m back to the point. The law is a mirror showing us the holiness of God and the fact that we have fallen short of it and that we need a savior who kept the law and died to bear the curse of the law in our place.
And thirdly, God requires inside-outside obedience. God requires truth in the inward parts. It’s not enough just to be externally compliant with God’s law. This tenth commandment reminds us that it is also an issue of the heart. God requires inside obedience as well as outside obedience. Psalm 51:6 says, “Behold, You [God] desire truth in the inward parts.” Motives are important. Desires are important. There’s got to be this marriage between what we do with what we want to do. And we do it because we want to do it to honor God.
Jesus goes on the inside, doesn’t He? It says that external compliance is not enough; there’s got to be internal obedience. Think about the issue in Matthew 5:21–22. He says, “Okay, I’ve heard it said that you shall not commit murder. That’s great. I’m glad you haven’t committed murder. I’m glad that you’ve kept that part of the law. But I’ve got an extra question. What about anger inside your heart? Well, you may not have expressed it in words or in actions, but you know what? Inside you’ve thought about, ‘I’d like to strangle him. I’d like to strangle her.’” And Jesus said, “That’s a form of murder.”
Because, you see, in His day, it was all externals. That’s why He said to the Jews of His day, “You know what? You draw near to Me with your lips, but your heart is far from Me.” That’s why He said in chapter 5:27–30 in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it written: you shall not commit adultery. I’m glad you haven’t committed adultery. But purity needs to go further than that. I don’t want you lusting in your mind. I don’t want you dramatizing in your mind a lustful action.” Because that in itself is sin. Sin’s not just deed; it’s thought.
That’s why Jesus has this sweeping, seething condemnation of hypocrites in His day. In Matthew 23:27–28, He said, “You know what you remind me of? You remind me of those graves I see.” And we’ve seen them on our trips to Israel, these beautiful graves on the side of the Mount of Olives—clean, shining white marble in the sun, but inside: dead man’s bones. “You remind me of that,” He says. “Externally clean but dead, dirty, corrupt, and rotting on the inside.” Example, haven’t you coveted? You haven’t taken your neighbor’s wife, but have you coveted her? You haven’t taken your neighbor’s stuff and stolen, but you’ve coveted it.
See, you and I can be like the child who was misbehaving around the dinner table and had to be cajoled into sitting down and did it reluctantly. But as the child sat down and complied outwardly, the child said to the mom, “You know what? I might be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.” And there’s a lot of people who have a veneer of religiosity who are sitting down on the outside in compliance to God’s law but are standing up on the inside. They are angry, lustful, covetous people, forgetting that God demands inside obedience as well as outside obedience.
Not only is it inordinate in nature but idolatrous in nature. We’re talking about the character of covetousness. I’ll just go explicitly to two verses—Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5—and then come back to Exodus 20:17. In Colossians 3:5, listen to these words. They couldn’t be more explicit. “Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Similar thing in Ephesians 5:5. We read, “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.”
See, it’s no mistake that the tenth commandment, the end of the Decalogue, is about coveting. Because when we covet, we fail to love God. The Bible wants us to understand that idolatry is not just bowing down to some wooden image of God. It may be shining your Mercedes or your BMW on a Sunday morning while you miss church, and all your thought is on the things that you possess. At that point, the creation has trumped the Creator. At that point, the things He has allowed you to have have gotten in the place of you enjoying Him for who He is.
We’ve got to redefine idolatry. It’s not just stone images and wooden carvings. Coveting is a form of idolatry, because it says, “I cannot live without that possession, place, or person.” It makes a god of desire. It says that God and what God gives is not enough. We need to see it that way. It’s not only inordinate and idolatrous but also insidious. It’s insidious. It’s a serious sin. We tend not to see it that way. We ignore it. Our society applauds it. Without knowing it, sometimes we even celebrate it in the American dream. And the thought—it’s Mr. Gekko—greed is good. Having more, that’s what it’s about. I get up and get at it because you got to have it. Because in having it, you’ll be happy.
Life is defined in the things that you possess. That’s insidious. It’s wrong. Jesus warned us against it in Luke 12:15, as I’ve said. This is an insidious sin because it breaks both sides of the law. We’ve got Ten Commandments, but they break up into two halves. Several of the commandments are focused on God, loving Him and worshiping Him. Then the other commandments are focused on society and your neighbor and living a productive life in connection with a community. And when you covet—when you covet a man’s wife, his car, his house, his things—you’re not loving God. You’re idolatrous because God’s not enough for you. You’ve got to have something more than Him and what He has given.
And it’s not loving your neighbor. How can you love your neighbor and want what he has? How can you love your neighbor and want to take from him what is rightfully his and is not rightfully yours? This is an insidious sin that needs to be repented of.
It was the sin that crucified Jesus, by the way, because it says that the leaders took Him to Pilate out of envy. And, if it’s the sin that crucified Jesus, it’s the sin we have got to crucify, because it’s insidious. Have you ever looked at the kind of company it keeps? We went through that list that Jesus gave in Mark 7:21–22. Another example would be Romans 1:28–32. You can tell a lot about someone or something by association. And when you see covetousness in a list of sins, it’s a list that’s pretty nasty, gross, horrible.
Romans 1:28–32: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are . . . backbiters, haters of God . . . proud, boasters, inventors of evil things . . .”
This is an insidious sin. Jesus warns us about it. It breaks both sides of the law. It’s put in the same company as gross sins in our mind, and it breeds other sins. Have you ever thought about how the breaking of this command leads you to break other commands? It leads you to break the first and second commandments, right? Because when you put things before God, when you’re willing to pursue things in disobedience to God, at that point, those things have become idolatrous, and you’ve broken the first two commands.
What about, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”? That’s the fourth commandment. But rather than working six days and resting one, you work seven days. Why? Because you’re covetous. Why do people steal? Covetousness. Why do people lie? Covetousness. Why do people commit adultery? Because they covet someone else’s wife. Break this command, and you break other commands—because it’s an insidious sin.
This was the sin that led Aaron and Miriam to rise up against Moses (Numbers 12). It was the sin that drove a wedge between Saul and David (1 Samuel 18). It was the sin that agitated the followers of John the Baptist to tell him to compete with the popularity of Jesus (John 3). It was the sin that fueled the animosity of the Jewish leaders, leading them to want Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27). It was the sin that produced self-ambition in the part of some Christian leaders in Rome, where they sought to add to Paul’s pain and imprisonment (Philippians 1). It’s a horrible sin, and it leads to other sins. It’s a gateway sin. It’s a good way to put it. Covetousness is a gateway sin. It leads you to other sins in its fulfillment.
In fact, as I thought about that, I was reminded of a story about a hungry thief I read about some years ago, I believe in Austria. He grabbed a sausage in one of those open air markets and took off like a sprinter. But what he didn’t realize was that the sausage was part of a string of sausages that followed him down the street, eventually tangled him up, causing him to fall, causing him to get nabbed and eventually arrested by the police.
In coveting, we always come away with more than we bargain for. Break the tenth commandment, and you’ll break the first and second, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, and ninth. The sin of envy is like every other sin. It will take you further than you want to go, cost you more than you want to pay, keep you longer than you want to stay. It’s an inordinate, inward, idolatrous, insidious sin in its nature.
So, that’s the character of covetousness. For a few minutes, let’s make a start on what I call the consequences of envy, or the consequences of covetousness. Remember, we’re dealing with the emotion of envy and how it can disturb us and distract us. Piggybacking off of our last thought, it’s insidious, and its consequences are ugly, and they’re worth considering. Listen to what Proverbs 27:4 says, “Wrath is cruel and anger a torrent [flood], but who is able to stand before jealousy?” It’s crueler and more destructive than anger. Covetousness, jealousy, envy.
Listen to Proverbs 14:30, “A sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones.” When you read about rottenness to the bones in the Hebrew, it’s cancer. Cancer eats away at the bones. This is Proverbs. This is observation. This is truth taken to the streets. And life has taught us that envy and people who have given themselves to envy, it’s like a cancer in their lives. It ends up destroying their body, their mind, and their spirit.
What are some of its consequences? Number one: it dishonors. That is, it dishonors God. We’ve already noted it’s a sin against God. It’s an act of idolatry. It has you breaking both sides of the law. But it dishonors God in other ways. It’s not just an act of idolatry. It leads us to question His sovereignty and His sufficiency. Doesn’t it?
By implication, if you covet something other than you have, which the providence of God hasn’t given you—either because it’s forbidden or it’s not for you at this time or maybe ever—at that point you begin to raise questions about God’s sovereignty. You chaff at His provision and what He has given you and your lot in life. You begin to compare yourself with others, and you begin to ask questions about God’s wisdom and goodness and justice.
A bit like Peter who found out in John 21, “You know what, Peter? You’re going to die. You’re going to die the way I die: crucifixion.” Peter hears this, and then he looks at the disciple, probably John, leaning on Jesus’ chest, and he said, “What about him? I’m not sure I like what I heard, so tell me something about him. Is his end as bad as mine? That’ll make me feel a little bit better. I want John to suffer if I’m going to suffer.” That kind of thing. And what does Jesus say to Peter? “Well, what’s that to you? What’s that to you? This is My will for you. This is what My assignment is for you.”
You see, when you and I get covetous, when we start comparing ourselves with others and competing with others and wanting what they have that we don’t have, we end up questioning God’s sovereignty. At the heart of covetousness is wanting something more than God wants for us at a given moment. You start to get discontent, and you start to fuss about who you are and what you have and where you are compared to other people. You get into this silly area of, “I think I deserve better.” You don’t want to get into the deserving part because you know what you and I deserve. Everything else is gravy.
And, by the way, heaven awaits us all. In fact, there’s an old American preacher and writer, 1803 to ’63, Harvey Newcomb, who actually says that envious people lack self-respect. It’s a good old point. He says, “If we respect ourselves, we shall not desire the hollow importance arising from wealth, so much as to grieve that others have more of it than ourselves; nor shall we be willing to concede so much merit to the possession of wealth, as to suspect those who have it of esteeming us the less because we have it not.” It’s a good little point. We get our self-respect from the fact that we’re born and made in God’s image, and we are now united in Christ and are His children. We see our value in the light of God, His grace, and His goodness. And we have self-respect in that sense. We like who we are in God and in Christ.
We recognize—as I think my father lived, grew up blue collar, and taught us as a family—it’s not the clothes on a man; it’s the man in the clothes. My mom and dad couldn’t always buy us what we wanted. They tried their best—nothing wrong with that—but we were reminded to have some self-respect, that your dignity and your worth before God and in Christ is not determined by your zip code or the model of car you drive or the cut of your clothes. We are not to feel less because someone has more. We’re God’s creatures, and in Christ we’re God’s children. And that’s enough. Anything else is gravy. In that we have enough to live by and live on.
It questions God’s sufficiency because we start to believe, in covetousness, that there’s a joy and a satisfaction better than and outside of God. It’s a denial of Christian contentment.
In fact, if you get to the Greek in the issue of contentment in 1 Timothy 6:6 and in Philippines 4:10–13 and Hebrews 13:5–6, the Greek word for “contentment” means “sufficient.” So, when we are told to be content, we are told to have a sense of your sufficiency—to understand how sufficiently you are provided for in God’s love and in God’s grace and in union with His Son. Having food and clothing in Christ, be content. Think about who you are in Christ, what you have in Christ, what awaits you in Christ. Find your sufficiency there. Is God, the gift of His love, and His friendship, not enough to conclude that you are sufficiently cared for and sufficiently taken care of? That will be a bulwark against you ever wanting more than what God has given you, and God has given you Himself.
The Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs says it well: “I find a sufficiency of satisfaction in my own heart, through the grace of Christ that is in me. Though I have not outward comforts and worldly conveniences to supply my necessities, yet I have a sufficient portion between Christ and my soul abundantly to satisfy me in every condition.” I love what Asaph says in Psalm 73:25: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.”
Because, you see, if you’ve got God, you’ve got all things in one. If you’ve got God, you’ve got the God who made heaven and earth. And, while you’re on earth, is there anyone you should desire besides Him who can give you what you need at any point? Therefore, you need to submit to His love, His wisdom, and His provision at any point. It could become more, it could become less, but He remains sufficiently the same. Covetousness drills holes in that theology, and that’s what’s scary about it.
The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. I like the little girl who stood before the church to recite Psalm 23:1. She inadvertently said, “The Lord is my shepherd. He’s all I want.” Now, that wasn’t right, but it was right. Now the literal is, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” or I shall not lack anything. So, in the Lord you’ve got all you want, because as He sees fit within His providence, He’ll give you all you need to live life in godliness.
And number two: it depreciates. That’s another consequence of covetousness. It dishonors God, and it depreciates life. It cheapens life.
Life is meant to be this glorious pursuit of intimacy with the Creator of all things, this invitation to enjoy God’s friendship forever. How glorious is it to get up every morning and say, “Father in heaven, You’re glorious. And today I’m going to hallow your name in what I do. And I want to be a means of bringing Your kingdom and rule to bear upon earth. And I pray that You’ll give me my needs physically. And I pray You’ll keep me from evil spiritually.”
It’s a wonderful thing to get up every day and be able to pray that. But what covetousness does is reduce us down to a pursuit of tawdry accumulation of things that rust and corrupt and devalue over time. That’s Jesus’ whole point. Okay? Beware of covetousness, for life does not consist of, it must never be defined by, it must never be measured by what’s in your wardrobe, your zip code, or your car.
Now, if you enjoy a nice home in a nice neighborhood and you drive a nice car, give God praise and use that and share that with others. But don’t let that define your life. Don’t let that be what consumes you in the morning. Covetousness switches the price tags on life and inflates the value of things. That’s why Paul says to the rich, “Now remember not to trust in uncertain riches.” Remember, you came into the world with nothing, and when you leave, there’ll be no U-Hauls behind the hearse.
So, make sure you’re living for the things which are eternal. And if God has given you things to enjoy, enjoy them and share them and cause them to have you reflect on God’s goodness. They mustn’t become the god; they just simply remind you of the God that gives you them. Enjoy them, and then enjoy Him for what He has given. That’s what we’re about. If we’re not careful, covetousness has us living on substitutes.
We’re the richest nation on earth, and by any matrix and index and measure, we’re some of the most unhappiest people on earth. I remember a little girl when we were in Africa some years ago in Zambia with Northrise. Some of the young people maybe remember this. We had the kids all paint T-shirts. I’ll never forget this little girl—dirt poor, no shoes on her feet. You know what she painted on her T-shirt? “Life is good.” Mud hut, dirt between her toes. But, you see, she realized in her innocence and in her infancy that happiness is an inside thing, and life doesn’t consist of the things you possess. I think she knew, as a little girl in Africa, God owned her. She was God’s child. And for that reason alone, life is good. Covetousness will have you living on substitutes. There’s nothing wrong with having things that money can buy so long as you don’t lose the things that money cannot buy.
The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy told a story of a peasant. This is a famous story. You probably have heard it; maybe you forgot it. The peasant was offered all the land that he could walk around in a single day. The man eagerly sat out early in the morning. He forwent his breakfast and his lunch and his dinner, and he hurried around the land as much as possible. But, the strain took its toll, weakened his legs, his lungs, and eventually his heart. Before his journey was done, he was dead as he made that circular route, ending up with nothing.
I think Leo Tolstoy was reminding us that this man’s desire for possessions was greater than his desire for life. And that can happen. In fact, covetousness will do that to you. It’ll have you pursuing possessions that you think make up life, but you will sacrifice life in the pursuit of the possessions.
We’ll stop there. We’ll pick this up next week. But I’ll leave you with a challenge. I’ve said this before in this pulpit: The cure for the pleasure of sin is not prohibition but a greater pleasure in Christ. And the cure for covetousness is not simply prohibition, which has its place. “Do not covet.” But the cure for coveting is greater coveting, purer coveting, deeper God-focused desire.
Write Psalm 19:10, Psalm 27:4, Psalm 73:25. When it comes to God’s Word, you know what David said? It’s to be desired more than gold. Yes, more than fine gold. It’s sweeter than honey from the honeycomb. Desire God’s Word and knowledge of God. This book is so valuable. It tells us who God is, who you are, what went wrong with the world, what God did to fix it in Jesus Christ.
Psalm 27:4, paraphrased: “This one thing I desire, I covet, I long for, is to be in Your house, to look at Your beauty, and to inquire in Your temple.”
“I want to seek first the kingdom of God,” says David. “I want to know who I am in the light of who God has made me, created me to be. And I want find out what His will is for me. Because my assumption is that a good Creator has good purposes for His creation, and I want to live it.”
And then the psalmist says in Psalm 73, “There is none upon earth that I desire besides You.” God, You’re everything. You made everything. You are everything. I want You to be my everything because You created me to know You and enjoy You forever.
Wasn’t it C. S. Lewis who challenged us? C. S. Lewis said something along the lines of: You know what our problem is? God doesn’t find our desires too strong. He finds them too weak. He looks down on His creation, and people are desiring drink and sex and things. They’re like children finding happiness in a mud puddle on a rainy day in a slum somewhere in a big city. And they have no imagination that there’s a beach and there’s an ocean and that there’s golden sand.
Now, here’s what Lewis is saying. We are far too easily pleased. Here we are in our mud puddles, with our drink and sex and things. And God has a whole ocean of blessing and joys forevermore. God doesn’t find our desires too strong. He finds them too weak. He finds that we’re focused on the wrong things, desiring the wrong things. They’re desiring good things in the wrong way.
Father, we thank You for our time in the Word this morning. Convicting, the law is a mirror that shows us how far short we’ve fallen of Your glory. We’ve taken the things that You have given us, and we’ve made them into idols. We’ve made them the pursuit of our life. We find a secondary joy in them, forgetting there’s a primary joy in You, that all these things are but the diffused rays of Your glory.
So, help us to find contentment in You, to find our joy in You, to find our respect and our sense of wellbeing in relationship to You, the God who is all things in one. We repent. We own our sin from the inside out. We thank You for the Savior. We pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to keep the law in the inward parts of our life. Help us to covet Your Word. Help us to covet a knowledge of Your will. Help us to covet a growing relationship with You through Jesus Christ who is all our desire. And these things we pray and ask in His name. Amen.