The machine that produces an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) was a “breakthrough” device. It allowed doctors to examine any part of the body (including the heart, brain and other organs) in a short period of time and without surgery being involved. Nowadays the list of problems it helps physicians detect just keeps getting lengthier. The Holy Word of God operates a lot like a spiritual MRI machine in that it penetrates beneath our flesh and reveals what’s inside us. “…No creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:13). In other words, there’s no such thing as a “right to privacy” when it comes to what God can see. He knows the motive behind our every thought. Thus He’s aware of our every desire, too. That’s why the tenth commandment is the most sobering of all. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). Commandment #8 made it clear God won’t tolerate us stealing anything that doesn’t belong to us. But in this law He’s saying it’s a sin to even think about it. The first nine deal with observable behavior while this one’s exclusively about what our heart yearns for. Jesus intimated that “trust your heart to lead you” isn’t always real good advice. He taught, “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride and folly. All these evils come from within and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). Centuries earlier one prophet wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In my humble opinion the second sentence in that poignant verse is the understatement to beat all understatements!
I can talk myself into believing I’ve never intentionally broken any of the Ten Commandments (I’d be lying to myself, though), but as regards law #10 John Calvin was right when he said it “provides God with a sharper lancet for not only sounding the bottom of our heart, but all our thoughts and imaginations. Everything within us becomes exposed and brought to consciousness.” We often find the Apostle Paul wrestling with his inner desires all through his letters, battling to keep them from taking precedence over his fidelity to God and encouraging his readers to do likewise. Sadly, we all covet. The Oxford English Dictionary defines covetousness as “the inordinate and culpable desire of possessing that which belongs to another or to which one has no right.” Now, to desire something isn’t necessarily bad. God says it’s fine for me to desire my wife’s affections or to desire having wholesome fun with my children, family members and my brothers/sisters in Christ. Desiring one’s relationship with the Lord become more intimate and desiring to more outwardly display the character of Jesus 24/7 are legitimate longings, as well. God placed the “desire gene” in us for a reason – so we’d instinctively seek Him. However, we all know a desire can go rancid and turn into covetousness in a flash. If I start to love my offspring more than I love God they become idols. If I start to adore my wife more than God she’ll become my primary object of worship. The same thing can happen to any of us when it comes to sexual lust, power, position, prestige or the amount of money in our bank account. The only thing God wants us to covet is Him and His unconditional love for us. Is that because He’s got a gargantuan ego and demands veneration? Not at all. It’s because He knows all the people or things of this earth put together can never fulfill our expectations or satisfy us the way that only He can.
It’s in the 10th commandment we come face to face with whether or not we’re truly satisfied and content with what God has provided. We can say a lot about modern society but we certainly can’t say contentment is a prominent aspect of most people’s lives. Alistair Begg wrote of once playing a round of golf with some very successful businessmen. During one of their conversations Begg asked them how many of their numerous clients would say they were content. They couldn’t think of a single one. This shouldn’t come as a shock but the truth is that coveting isn’t considered a negative thing any longer. Ambition is one of the most admired traits a man or woman can cultivate. Our entire economic system relies on covetousness to keep the cash flowing. Every ad is designed to create in your heart an ache for something you don’t have. Furthermore, they’re also intended to convince you you’re entitled to possess what they’re selling. You need it. Therefore you deserve to own it because all the “cool folks” have one already. Do whatever you must to obtain it immediately or you’ll be labeled one of the “have nots” and what could possibly be more humiliating? In the secular world the only things worth having are those that boost our popularity, social standing, wealth, looks, style, taste, sophistication or our level of luxury and comfort. It’s a profit-driven mindset founded solely on materialism and we’re inundated and bombarded by its beckoning finger every day.
Coveting’s not new. It’s been around since Adam and Eve. They coveted the alluring fruit dangling from the forbidden tree because the lying devil had assured them that “…when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). They wanted what they’d become convinced they just couldn’t live without. In the 7th chapter of Joshua we read about a man called Achan whose covetousness incurred the wrath of God upon the Israelites. God had orchestrated the stunning defeat of Jericho and given strict instructions that the loot gathered up was to be put into the treasury, not into the collector’s pockets. Everybody obeyed except Achan. He kept some shiny things for himself, burying them in the ground beneath his tent. Nobody noticed but God. God told Joshua to root the thief out or there’d be hell to pay. When Joshua got around to interrogating Achan he fessed up. “It is true. I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel in this way. I saw among the goods we seized a nice robe from Babylon, two hundred silver pieces, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels. I wanted them, so I took them” (Joshua 7:20-21). His greed got the best of him. As it did later a fellow named Gehazi, the servant of Elisha. An anointed prophet of God, Elisha had healed the soldier Naaman of his leprosy. Naaman tried to reward Elisha with some nice presents but Elisha wouldn’t hear of it. Afterwards Gehazi ran back to Naaman, accepted the gifts for himself and then lied to Elisha about what he’d done. His covetous heart led him to sin against his master and, even worse, against God.
We all have the potential to turn greedy in the blink of an eye. What motivated Achan and Gehazi to steal what wasn’t theirs to take can influence even the most noble of Christians. Covetousness will blind us to what we do have and make us focus exclusively on what we don’t have. Most of us have witnessed the tragedy of heretofore loving families splitting apart and going to war with one another over the divvying up of an estate. Suddenly it’s every man and woman for themselves no matter the consequences. I’ve seen lifelong friends stop talking to each other because petty jealousy has reared its hideous head and come between them. That’s why believers should always be on the watch for any feelings of envy or “I gotta make sure I get my share” that might arise in us. Jesus taught, “Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). It’s a lesson we all learn as children but too many of us succumb to the lure of the almighty dollar and conveniently forget. Solomon wrote, “The one who loves money will never be satisfied with money, he who loves wealth will never be satisfied with his income. This also is futile. When someone’s prosperity increases, those who consume it also increase; so what does its owner gain, except that he gets to see it with his eyes? The sleep of the laborer is pleasant – whether he eats little or much – but the wealth of the rich will not allow him to sleep” (Ecclesiastes 5:10-12).
The key to living the “good life” is contentment. Many think the word connotes self-sufficiency but not the Apostle Paul. When he employs the term it refers to a contentment based on what our Heavenly Father has blessed us with. God knows our needs better than we do and, because He loves us, He graciously provides them. Derek Prime wrote, “Our contentment needs to be not in what we expect others to give, or what we may strive after, but in what God unfailingly provides for us by one means or another.” Not one of us arrived in this world with anything other than our birthday suit. To quote Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart” (Job 1:21). We can grab up tons of stuff here on earth but we don’t get to take a molecule of it with us when we die. As Don Henley sang, “You don’t see no hearses with luggage racks.” One famously wealthy man was asked, “How much money does it take to be happy?” He answered, “Just a little bit more.” Alas, for those types enough is never enough. The truth is if we’re to turn our backs on covetousness we have to be willing to embrace contentment. “Your conduct must be free from the love of money and you must be content with what you have…” (Hebrews 13:5). Too many in this world are unhappy because they’ve put their faith in things that’ll never complete them. Their expectations concerning what life “owes them” are either overwhelmingly selfish in nature or ridiculously unrealistic. In his letters to Timothy Paul told us having food in our stomach and clothes on our torso is sufficient for a follower of Christ. We need nothing more.
Don’t misconstrue the message, though. Paul wasn’t advocating poverty or saying having more than the basic necessities is sinful. The Bible always puts things in proper perspective. “The little bit that a godly man owns is better than the wealth of many evil men” (Psalm 37:16). Genuine contentment is found in our relationship with God, not in the material things we accumulate. I realize that’s easy to say as I sit comfortably in my cozy house. I’m willing to bet the farm it’d be 1,000 times harder for me to say that if I was living inside a cardboard box in a cold alleyway. I know I’ve been blessed beyond measure. As a leader in Celebrate Recovery I’ve met hundreds of people who’ve struggled through times when they didn’t have a nickel to their name. Their testimonies of faith and restoration never fail to realign my priorities and make me aware of just how great I have it. I make sure I include a big helping of gratitude every time I pray to my Father in heaven. I’d much rather have my health than an extra grand in the bank. Begg wrote, “The desire for wealth is founded in the illusion that it brings ‘security.’ Ironically, it breeds anxiety.” The fictional character Silas Marner fretted so much about burglars stealing his money he became a miserable, paranoid hermit. Money can buy drugs but not wellness, houses but not homes, companions but not friends, entertainment but not happiness, food but not nourishment and beds but not rest. Most importantly, it can’t buy anybody eternal life.
Remember, money – in and of itself – isn’t the problem. Paul wrote, “For the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). We must ask ourselves some tough questions. Do we think about “what’s in our wallet” more than we think about God every day? Are we envious of people who have more toys to play with than we do? Do we define our level of success in terms of what we have rather than what we are in Christ? Does our paycheck-provider see us more than our immediate family does? Do we pile up debt in order to keep up with the Joneses? Are we charitable or do we hoard what we have? The second half of the aforementioned verse reads, “Some people in reaching for it [money] have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.” Both Achan and Gehazi met horrible deaths. They weren’t alone. The Bible mentions others like Ananias and Sapphira, Demas and even one of Jesus’ trusted associates – Judas Iscariot – who paid dearly for their covetous acts. Folks who are never satisfied with what they have are like the seeds in Christ’s parable that “…fell among thorns, these are the ones who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the worries and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). I take that to mean they remain in a spiritually infantile state, refusing to grow up and be of use to God.
As implied earlier, contentment’s a lot easier to claim than to possess. In the world’s estimation a person who says they’re content is blatantly lying through their teeth. There’s no doubt it’s an undervalued virtue these days. And, as Christians, we must do as Paul did and train ourselves to be content no matter how dire or favorable our situation. He wrote, “I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13). Like Paul, our trust in our Lord and Savior must be undefeatable. Begg opined, “Many of us are tempted to find the key in doing, but the answer is actually found in being. It’s vital that we’re routinely humbled by the reminder that the Christian life is grounded, not in what we can do, but in what has been done for us and what we need done to us.” Dr. Sinclair Ferguson concurred, saying “…We cannot ‘do’ contentment. It’s taught by God; we are schooled in it. It’s part of the process of being transformed through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). It’s commanded of us, but paradoxically, it’s done to us, not by us. It is not the product of a series of actions but of a renewed and transformed character.”
Contentment doesn’t show up overnight. It grows in us gradually as we yield day by day to doing the will of God and showing our gratefulness for His blessings through sharing what we have with those in need. Contentment is a university we’ll never graduate from. We can never learn enough about the subject. J. I. Packer wrote, “We are all, of course, creatures of desire; God made us so, and philosophies like Stoicism and religions like Buddhism which aim at the extinction of desire are really inhuman in their thrust. But desire that is sinfully disordered needs redirecting, so we stop coveting others’ goods and long instead for their good, and God’s glory with and through it.” If we spend more time pleasing God instead of ourselves, putting Him first in all our endeavors and thereby reducing everything else to secondary concerns, we’ll be content just to take in another breath of air, alive in Christ. May we all be encouraged by Psalm 73:24-28, “You guide me by your wise advice, and then you will lead me to a position of honor. Whom do I have in heaven but you? I desire no one but you on earth. My flesh and my heart may grow weak, but God always protects my heart and gives me stability. …As for me, God’s presence is all I need. I have made the sovereign LORD my shelter, as I declare all the things you have done.” May we believers adopt the motto of Robert Murray McCheyne: “It has always been my ambition to have no plans as regards myself.” Bolstering our faith in God’s grace should supersede all other desires.