When we struggle with the unlikable parts of ourselves, what do we wish we could change and how do we take this out on others?
If you’re anything like me, the rule against coveting in the Ten Commandments is easy to brush off.
“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” (Exodus 20:17, ESV).
Okay, God, sorry for wishing that I had a Lamborghini or a new house in that nice neighborhood like my cousins or six-figure job like my friend does. There, done. Ye olde mammon of the flesh, be thee gone and all that jazz. Did that feel a tad bit too easy? Well, whatever. Good as new.
Covetousness gets a shrug and a laugh most days.
In more sober moments, we might acknowledge that 80 to 90 percent of social media involves some form of coveting. ‘I want to look skinnier, sexier, wealthier, more adventurous. Is there a filter for that? Man, why don’t my photos ever look like hers/his? If only I also had the chance to do a three-month-long tour of Europe. That influencer’s posts are always so witty; I should come up with a joke to go with my photo today…something that’s a low-key brag but also slightly self-deprecating so I don’t look arrogant.’
We talk about coveting people’s stuff, but how often do we connect coveting with mimicking other people’s personalities or experiences? When are we trying to posture as someone other than who we actually are?
The Green-Eyed Monster
The catch phrase for envy, jealousy and coveting used to confuse me. Why a ‘green-eyed’ monster? Why not a green face or green hair, for that matter?
The idiom is insightful, though. Envy is pretty difficult without looking at and comparing ourselves to others. When we inspect ourselves, we need a mirror in most cases and trust that the reflection is accurate to reality (even when it may not be).
“Coveting is not just saying, ‘I would like something.’ That can be fine. We all have wish lists,” Tim Challies reflected. “Coveting goes further and says, ‘Why did you get that? I wanted it! I am angry because you are happy, and I’d be happier if we could trade places.’ Coveting wants what other people have.”
God made us as relational creatures, and coveting items or experiences is almost always a sinful substitute, at its core, for nourishing relationships with other people or with God. Sinfulness prevents us from celebrating with others, and we sense that it has created a gap between us and another person, or it may have prevented a real connection from happening in the first place. Doing the dirty work of fixing the core issue will be painful, time-consuming and filled with mistakes. Instead, we look for a quick patch.
Even acknowledging this, though, it’s curious that the biblical command against coveting comes in the same list with murder and adultery.
Does God really count stabbing someone to death with a knife or having sex with another person’s spouse as equal to me getting upset because my date wasn’t at a swanky restaurant like my friend’s night out? Really?
In his musings on covetousness, John Piper wrote, “There is no difference between the Hebrew word for desire and the Hebrew word for covet. Coveting means desiring something too much. And too much is measured by how that desiring compares to desiring God. If desiring leads you away from God rather than closer to God, it is covetousness. It is sin.
“I suspect that the reason the Ten Commandments begin with the commandment ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3) and ends with the commandment ‘You shall not covet’ (Exodus 20:17) is that they are essentially the same commandment. They bracket the other eight and reveal their source.”
If I don’t trust that God has the best plans for me — plans that will inevitably look different for me compared to other people — and I refuse to walk forward toward God, then I will inevitably try stealing the good gifts he’s already given to others; and if I can’t steal them, then I’ll resort to sabotage.
A green-eyed monster, indeed.
A Competition for Who is Greatest
Wouldn’t it be delightful to be able to say that the dank, poisonous air of envy, bitter rivalries and cut-throat competitiveness is cleared away the moment we enter Christian community?
Unfortunately, our inner monsters are more than happy to take even God’s gifts and blessings as an opening to pounce.
In a newsletter, David Wilkerson pointed out, “Some Christians can't stand being ‘outstripped’ by someone who appears to be more holy or righteous than they. They see a brother or sister being honored of God, and it enrages them.
“There is great power in godliness and great authority in holiness. Yet both are despised by Christians who will not pay the price, people who once had the touch of God, but now, because of compromise, no longer enjoy his blessing. When someone comes along who is esteemed more holy and more devoted, they become envious of what they've lost….
“God help the Christian who clings to his jealousy of a brother or sister. If that kind of spirit is in your heart, Satan will surely lure you into some kind of demonic plot.
“If you are slandering your boss or putting down a coworker, if you are involved in vicious gossip, if you take part in a conspiracy of any kind, if you blacken someone's name in any way, then you are laying a snare. God abhors it! He will remember your scheme, and he will cause you to fall into the pit you helped to dig for another.”
Sharp words, certainly, but they address the heart of a monstrous mentality. Jesus himself had no patience for this kind of one-upmanship among his followers. He swiftly dealt with his disciples’ arguments over who was the greatest.
His response to their debate was “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48, ESV).
Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re all scumbags for arguing this point. He doesn’t name a ‘top follower’ out of the group. Instead, he points to himself. “Who’s going to treat others as if they were dealing with me directly? If you honor and respect me that way, you honor and respect God. These are the only things that really matter, that make someone ‘important’ in the eternal kingdom.”
Two Steps to Freedom and Peace
Like the answers to many of our problems, this one is shockingly simple and yet so hard to follow most of the time.
I sometimes wish that I was someone else; I feel let down by the tasks it seems like God has given me, to be entirely honest. I often want other people’s gifts and blessings. How did they luck out on the easier obstacle course through life?
As soon as we start down that rabbit-trail, God often gives us a gentle shake. If we pay attention, we’ll hear him say, “Hey, look at me. I’m the only thing in life that really matters. I love you, and I want you to love me because I already know that will satisfy you like nothing else will. Then I want you to look at others the way I do. Treat them like I treat you.”
When envy and covetousness strike, there are two steps we can immediately take to refocus on the one person who matters.
Gratitude: Make a list of every good thing you can think of that God has given you or done for you. The list should rightfully be a long one.
Confess: Sins always, always causes major relationship damage and disconnection. The minute we detach from God, we’ll start seeing other people like either resources, obstacles or enemies.
An envious heart will never be satisfied, no matter what we do. A life free from coveting is a peaceful one, a little slice of heaven in our hearts.