Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.
By John Thorpe
Covetousness! Again, who ever confesses that? Thousands are guilty of it, but few will own it even in private before the Lord.
Charles Spurgeon, Sermon 641 (July 23, 1865)
Each of the other nine commandments targets a very visible act, but covetousness is the most invisible of the sins precisely because it masquerades as desire so normal and natural that we overlook it. Consider the case of apple pie.
Apple pie is delicious. A well-made apple pie can make you forget about the meal you just ate and only remember the scrumptious combination of flaky, flavorful crust with steaming brown fruit, perfectly spiced and delightfully complemented by coffee or ice cream. If your mouth is watering now for some apple-spiced goodness, you may have just coveted.
But we protest. What’s wrong with apple pie? Has God prohibited pastry? If it does not hurt others, why should the desire for dessert be sinful?
Most verbs refer to an action, but the Hebrew verb for “to covet” includes not just an action but the entire psychological process that leads up to the sinful action. Consider as an illustration how the first woman chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 3:6. The process of coveting begins with some sort of external sensory stimulation: she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes.” This external stimulation creates a desire in the heart. The woman realizes the fruit is “to be desired to make one wise.” Having seen it, she wants it. Desire then leads to a plan. Coveting includes some level of premeditation on logistics, the how of the action. Finally, the plan is carried out, the deed is done, and the invisible schemes of the human heart become visible in the resultant action with its consequences. Covetousness is not merely desire: it includes the entire process of looking, desiring, planning, and taking for oneself.
But this presents us with a problem: the apple pie problem. There is nothing morally wrong with apple pie any more than there was anything wrong with the fruit in Eden. Certainly, the pie is not necessary to sustain life; dessert is, by its very nature, superfluous. But this is part of the biblical definition of covetousness: we desire something that is more than what we need. We cast our eye beyond what God has already provided and it lands upon something more, something extra. We want a little more money, one or two or three more collectibles, a little more control of our world.
The New Testament authors place “contentment” as the positive virtue opposite to the vice of covetousness (Heb. 13:5, 1 Tim. 6:8, Luke 3:14). The 10th commandment leaves us no option but to be suspicious of desire that takes us beyond contentment. There may be nothing wrong with obtaining apple pie, fruit from trees, financial prosperity, collectibles, or geo-political power: but because sin is so pervasive, we cannot afford to assume that there is nothing wrong with us when we desire those things. Any desire may lead us astray, and some absolutely will. When our eye roves beyond God’s already-gracious provision, that desire deserves to be interrogated rigorously in light of the Gospel. Not all desires or desserts will be ruled out by this process, but all must be subjected to scrutiny.
The Bible commends caution because covetousness masquerades as the same harmless desires in which we indulge every day. The same process by which a young couple purchases a new home led Ahab and Jezebel to murder Naboth (1 Kgs. 21). The same process by which a married couple enjoys date night can lead us, like King David, to transgress commandments six, seven, eight, and possibly nine (2 Sam. 11). If we indulge in apple pie, where does consumption end?
The 10th commandment stakes out limits on our consumption: our looking/desiring/planning/taking properly ends at the boundary of other people’s God-given rights. But the New Testament writers will not allow us to stop short with a simple strategy of “good fences make good neighbors.” The wrongness of coveting is not simply that it deprives our neighbor of his goods; rather, coveting interrupts our relationship with our heavenly Father.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensifies the commandments. His answer to the 10th one is that we should consider the birds and the lilies. They do not covet but simply accept the good things the Father gives them. But Jesus cautions us to look past food and clothing to locate divine provision: “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). The good things that the Father has put in our path are “not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). Contentment comes when we love our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; this unlocks for us an ability that St. Paul learned “in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11). Fellowship with God should engage our looking/desiring/planning/taking to the fullest extent.
Does this mean that God prohibits enjoyment? Are apple pie and all other good things of this world to be considered out-of-bounds, just because they are not as good as worship or prayer? Only the most severe Puritan would think so. Eden’s fruit in a flaky crust is not and never was intended primarily to be a temptation. The world’s beauty and bounty can lead to fellowship with God in thankfulness. St. Paul places food under this category: “every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4).
So the 10th commandment is not about choosing the right kinds of objects to occupy our desires. Any good thing, submitted to God and received with thankfulness, can lead us closer to him. Instead, the focus is on the hearts of God’s people and their fellowship with him. Looking, desiring, planning, and taking can lead us away from God all too easily unless they are first turned toward God himself.
But there is another way to fulfill the commandment, a still more excellent way: the paradox in which voluntary self-renunciation and suffering yield greater rewards than desires fulfilled. When we believe that the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn are truly inheritors of God’s blessing, there is no more room for covetousness. The human soul can experience a holy discontent that counts all worldly blessings as garbage “for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:8). This is the soul that denies itself, takes up its cross, and follows Christ.
Fr. John Thorpe is a graduate student at St. Louis University and a priest in the Diocese of Dallas.