Coveteousness: The Universal Sin
by Rick Shrader
Covetousness surely ranks as one of the great sins of our day. Its effects are seen in Christendom, our nation as a whole, and in an alarming display of selfishness around the whole world. Riots and protests, destruction of property, anger and resentment, all manifest themselves by some in every country where “things” might be taken from them, even if insisting on keeping these things will topple the economy of the whole country or state or city.
Has a whole life-time of getting everything we want finally come back to haunt us? Have we gotten so used to demanding “things” from governments and unions and corporations, that we absolutely will not part with our “things” for any reason? Why is it that one man would resent what another man has? Why is it that anyone feels it is his right to have whatever he wants? If I find my neighbor has earned a fortune, should I envy him or rejoice in his blessing? What does that say about me?
The first nine commandments are pretty concrete. Israel could keep them or not, with a good attitude or not. But the tenth is not so easy. It goes to the heart and the desire within a person. It deals with the root of our sin. It doesn’t just keep us from stealing, it keeps us from wanting to steal. As Jesus pointed out, it doesn’t just keep us from committing adultery, it keeps us from thinking about it.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). The New Testament does not let us off any easier. Covetousness is equal to idolatry (Col. 3:5, Eph. 5:5); we are to be content with such things as we have (Heb. 13:5); Since we brought nothing into this world and can carry nothing out, we should be content with food and clothing, because godliness with contentment is the greatest gain (1 Tim. 6:6-8).
One theological dictionary defines covetousness as “Primarily inordinate desire. It has come to mean a desire for anything which is inordinate in degree, or a desire for that which rightfully belongs to another, especially in the realm of material things. In a general sense it means all inordinate desire for worldly possessions such as honors, gold, etc. In a more restricted sense, it is a desire for the increasing of one’s substance by appropriating that of others.”1 Unger reminds us that it has a sense of lawlessness, and is sinful because it is contrary to the command to be content with such things as we have, and it sets up wealth in the place of God.2
The anointed cherub in God’s presence began to covet the very things of God, “therefore,” writes the prophet, “I will cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God: and I will destroy thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire” (Ezek. 28:16). Yet immediately he tempted the man and woman into coveting things God had withheld from them. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Gen. 3:6).
No sooner had the ten commandments been given at Sinai and the Israelites crossed the Jordan and conquered Jericho, than Achan confessed, “I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them” (Josh. 7:21). No sooner had the church begun in the early chapters of the book of Acts, than we read that Ananias and his wife Sapphira let Satan fill their hearts to keep back part of the price of their land sale for themselves, stifling the life of the new movement (Acts 5:1-11).
Our word “covetousness” covers a wide range of meaning in the Scripture. The three most common in the New Testament are 1) Pleonexia, meaning “to have more.” This is the most common word and is used in places like Col. 3:5 where covetousness is called idolatry. 2) Philarguros, meaning the love of money or treasure is used in 1 Tim. 6:10 as “the love of money” and also in 1 Tim. 3:3 where a pastor is not to be covetous. 3) We commonly have Epithumia, “lust”, or “short desire.” Saul of Tarsus (later converted and called Paul) admitted that he wouldn’t have thought of himself as a sinner without the 10th commandment. “Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Interestingly, the words “lust” and “covet” in this verse both translate epithumia. Saul realized that his lust for earthly things was a direct breaking of the commandment not to covet.
There are a number of things the believer can do to combat covetousness in his/her life.
Be heavenly minded
The common canard that one can be too heavenly minded to be any earthly good is not only wrong, it is exactly backwards. Leonard Ravenhill once wrote, “Someone now warns us lest we become so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. Brother, this generation of believers is not, by and large, suffering from such a complex! The brutal, soul-shaking truth is that we are so earthly minded we are of no heavenly use.”3
Read again Luke chapter 12. God feeds the unclean ravens and clothes the helpless lilies. How much more will He do the same with us, O we of little faith? Let us not seek the things of this world, “For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Lk. 12:30-31). Place your treasures in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (vs. 34).
Follow Jesus’ example
It is true that we cannot (and for salvation need not) be all that Jesus was. Praise the Lord that He accomplished in this life what no other could ever accomplish! By faith we can be made the righteousness of God in Him. Yet He said “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord” (Matt. 10:24). When approached by a seeking man who was sure he had the wherewithal to follow Jesus, He responded, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58). The man had not bargained to pay that price.
Persecution, in any degree, comes to the believer because it came to Jesus. “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn. 15:20). He was in this world to accomplish a mission and then go back to His heavenly home. So are we (in our human way). “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). We can do the same, but not if we hang on to the things of this world too tightly.
Be glued to your faith
Paul admonished Timothy about those who “would be rich” (1 Tim. 6:9), and those “who are rich” (vs. 17). Those who desire to be rich “fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (vs. 9). But “the love of money” (vs. 10) is so strong that “while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” Why do we go on choosing to stick ourselves with those sorrows?
However, Paul’s picturesque point is that covetousness causes some to stray away from their faith, to “Err” (plana?) or wander away like a planet out of orbit or a wandering star. This was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. They coveted the very thing they had promised to God and Satan immediately filled their hearts, causing them to stray away even within their new found faith. This is why covetousness is idolatry and why a lost man has no inheritance in the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5). As Jesus warned, “Verily, they have their reward” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16). A believer in such a case is saved “so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15) or having his flesh destroyed, the spirit remains saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:5), or “scarcely saved” as Peter says (1 Pet. 4:18).
Be mission minded
To evangelize is to risk something. It may be your image among your peers, or your status or job, or perhaps your personal safety. It is safe to say that most missionaries do not surrender to the mission field out of covetousness. Perhaps some covet the praise of others for their personal surrender, but hardly for material gain in this world. Worldwide missions has been a sacrificing work for the church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation of grace. Millions upon millions of dollars have been voluntarily given by God’s people to take the gospel to the lost world.
My favorite mission song ends with this verse,
Give of thy sons, to bear the message glorious;
Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way;
Pour out thy soul for them in prayer victorious;
And all thou spendest Jesus will repay.
When Paul wrote to the great Philippian church, he thanked them for their sacrificial mission giving. For himself, he had learned “in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11). He knew how to abound and how to be abased. In either circumstance he knew, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (4:13). Because of his great example (“Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do”) the church gave sacrificially to his ministry, “an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God” (4:18).
Don’t love the world
Jesus warned that you cannot serve God and mammon (Matt. 6:24). It is a “serve” or “despise” relationship. John said it plainly, “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15). The church of the twenty-first century needs to take a long and hard look at that truth. We imitate the world, we use the world to lure people to church, we offer the world to keep people in church, and we are irritated when we’re reminded of it. Then we preach to our people not to be covetous.
Jesus asked, “For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Lk. 9:25). A man may build bigger barns to house his worldly possessions and take life easy, but if his soul is required of him in a night, then what profit will those things be? (Lk. 12:16-21). Rather, Jesus said, “sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Lk. 12:33-34). This is heavenly luggage! And it won’t get lost by the baggage handler when it’s your time to make that trip!
And So . . . .
A person refuses to accept Christ because of covetousness. After Paul had preached in Thessalonica many believed his message. “But,” the text continues, “the Jews which believed not, moved with envy . . .” (Acts 17:5). Their jealousy kept them from believing. Paul had taken away their status with their peers and they wanted it back. When a person says no to Christ he is opting for some more time in the world, some more time to have his own way before he surrenders his will to God. The covetousness of a self-centered life keeps sinners from coming to Christ.
Jesus warned, “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Lk. 12:15). Alexander Maclaren observed, “Covetousness is folly because it grasps at worldly good, under the false belief that thereby it will secure the true good of life, but when it has made its pile, it finds that it is no nearer peace of heart, rest, nobleness, or joy than before, and has probably lost much of both in the process of making it. The mad race after wealth, which is the sin of this luxurious, greedy, commercial age, is the consequence of a lie—that life does consist in the abundance of possessions”4
1. Lewis Corlett, “Covetousness,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978) 145.
2. Merrill Unger, “Covetousness,” Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966) 225.
3. Leonard Ravenhill, Why Revival Tarries (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1990) 28.
4. Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938) 340.