Covetousness Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Covetousness

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Covetousness is strong desire for what you have no right to have.

In Scripture

Coveting omniscience "God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5).

From the Ten Commandments "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Ex. 20:17).

Coveting that which is abhorrent "The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the Lord your God" (Deut. 7:25).

What we need "Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, `Who is the Lord?' or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Prov. 30:8 - 9).

Greed "Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)" (Col. 3:5).

Contentment "Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (1 Tim. 6:6 - 10).

More contentment "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, `I will never leave you or forsake you'" (Heb. 13:5).

Desire "But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:14 - 15).

Points to Ponder

Belongings The concept of covetousness depends on the concept of "belongings." The idea is that others may have things or persons that belong to them or with them — a house, a husband, a piece of land — or, as we say, a piece of "property." Others may have belongings that are properly theirs. So to want to remove what's theirs and have it for oneself counts not merely as innocent desire, but as mental theft.

Innocent desire Of course there are plenty of cases of innocent desire. Suppose someone else is honest and accomplished in restorative justice. Is it OK to "covet" these things? Absolutely. Imitation of others' virtues and goods is often natural and healthy, as when the young imitate parents, teachers, or other role models. Here the "coveter" does not hope to steal from the coveted, but just to emulate him or her.

Coveting omniscience From the beginning, what the Bible prohibits is desiring what you have no right to have. So, along with unbelief and pride, covetousness is part of the original sin in the story of Adam and Eve. The tempter promises that if they eat of the forbidden fruit they will "be like God, knowing good and evil." "Good and evil" here is what's called a "merismus" — an expression in which two major parts of something are used to denote the whole. So "heaven and earth" means the whole universe. The knowledge of "good and evil" means the knowledge of everything. So to covet the knowledge of good and evil would be to covet omniscience — a trait belonging only to God.

A gateway sin The Bible frowns on coveting in part because it is a gateway sin: Mental theft is often prelude to actual theft. Theologian Lewis Smedes has written that "to covet something is to put your finger on the trigger of your will, or to crouch like an animal poised to pounce . . . [W]hen you covet a thing you are already `putting your hooks out for it'" (Lewis Smedes, Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People, Eerdmans, 1983, p. 184). In truly serious cases, coveting may lead to adultery, as in the case of David with Bathsheba, or to murder, as in the case of Ahab and Jezebel's murder of Naboth, who merely possessed a vineyard King Ahab coveted.

Envy vs. covetousness Sinful covetousness is not the same thing as innocent emulation, as already explained. Neither is it quite the same thing as sinful envy. Envy is a nastier sin than covetousness. What an envier wants is not, first of all, what another has; what an envier wants is for another not to have it. Hence an eighteen-year-old will lobby against a liberal curfew for his sixteen-year-old brother even though the eighteen-year-old can gain nothing positive by winning his campaign. He simply resents an advantage he had once lacked. Or put matters like this: To covet is to want someone else's goods so strongly that one is tempted to steal them. To envy is to resent someone else's goods so much that one is tempted to destroy them. The coveter has empty hands and wants to fill them with someone else's goods. The envier has empty hands and therefore wants to empty the hands of the envied. Of course an envier may begin his career as a coveter. He may begin by hankering for someone else's goods. But failed covetousness is likely to curdle into envy: The envier is often a disgruntled coveter. ("If I can't have her, then I'll see to it that he can't have her either.")

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.