In today’s world, social media is a constant invitation to put our lives on display and to look into others’ lives. Unfortunately, one of the temptations with social media is comparing our lives to others. Almost unconsciously we find ourselves saying, “I wish I looked like that; I wish I had that thing, that adventure, that money to travel, that boyfriend or girlfriend,” etc. Even at church, we might sigh over the spiritual gifts of others, wishing we could be more like so and so.
However, God calls this coveting and explicitly commands us not to wish for what others have:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's. (Ex. 20:17)
Coveting might seem like that not-so-serious sin, or at least it’s not as bad as murder or stealing. After all, if we don’t steal what we want, then it’s not that bad, right? Martin Luther writes,
This last commandment therefore is given not for rogues in the eyes of the world, but just for the most pious, who wish to be praised and be called honest and upright people. (Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, “The Ninth and Tenth Commandments”)
This commandment is aimed at all who think they have faithfully kept the previous nine commandments. Maybe you think you’ve never committed adultery, but have you ever wished your husband was more like your friend’s husband? Maybe you’ve never stolen anything, but have you been jealous of your colleagues’ new car, cute clothes, or your friend’s nice house? Have you wished your life looked a little more like that Instagram account you follow or that workout model whose videos you do? Coveting is a sin everyone commits, and it comes from ungrateful and discontent hearts.
Consider Israel. Israel had a chronic coveting problem. Over and over again God saved Israel and provided for her every need, and over and over again Israel wasn’t satisfied with what she had but longed after what the foreign nations had. Whether it was wealth, land, gods, or kings, they grumbled at God (Num. 11:4-6). They begged God for a human king like the surrounding nations (1 Sam. 8:4-5).
Israel’s covetousness was a rejection of God’s provision and care and therefore a rejection of God himself. After everything God had done, rescuing them from Egypt, giving them a land full of milk and honey, preserving them as a nation, they still weren’t happy with what God had given to them. If we’re honest with ourselves, too often we are like Israel.
Coveting Began in the Garden of Eden
Coveting goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The devil dangled the forbidden fruit in front of Adam and Eve, tempting them to covet the fruit, despite the fact that the garden was filled with an abundance of other foods that were equally good for food and that they could eat from freely (Gen. 3:6).
They were tempted to covet what God had, the knowledge of good and evil, and succumbed, committing treason against God. No wonder Paul calls coveting idolatry: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5. See also Col. 3:15).
James also talks about covetousness as sinful desire that can lead to other sins:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:1-3)
In this life, God won’t give you everything you want because we often want the wrong things. Desire gone awry has been the root of sin from the beginning. These desires can consume our thoughts and control our actions. It causes us to hate others, to destroy, to take, to devour without regard for anyone but ourselves.
Thankfulness Versus Coveting
When we covet we say to God that there is something other than him that we worship and desire. Worshipping anything other than God leads only to death and destruction, but worshipping God leads to life. Our identities are not in what we possess, how much money we make, what kinds of clothes we wear. Worshipping these things only leads to greediness and sin. Worshipping God leads to true life as sons and daughters of God and to an abundance of heavenly treasure (Lk. 12:22-34).
God is not a malicious God who likes to torture his people by keeping good things from them. Rather, God always knows what we need and has already given us an abundance, both on this earth and in Christ Jesus. God freely gave to Adam and Eve the whole garden to enjoy. He freed Israel from captivity and gave her a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8; Ezk. 20:6).
Ultimately, he has given us his own Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior and bring us into an eternal land flowing with milk and honey. Through his obedience, death, and resurrection he conquered sin for all who believe in him. Because of him, our sin no longer defines us or holds complete power over us. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit to be our helper, to battle our sin until the day when it will be taken away from us completely.
Our lives are more than our possessions (Lk. 12:15). Our identity can’t be found in owning certain things but in belonging to God as his beloved (Eph. 1:1-14). God doesn’t give us what we want, but he does, and has, given us everything we need and more in Christ Jesus. Because of this, our hearts should overflow not in covetous discontent but in thankful praise.