I was encouraged as a child to memorize the Ten Commandments. The meaning of the rules seemed clear to me except the last one. “Thou shalt not covet.” Around that same age, I heard the word “covenant” used in a Sunday-morning sermon. Jesus had come to make a new covenant with us. It seemed strange then that God commanded us not to do something that Jesus came to give us. Years later I sorted out the difference. But even today, the meaning of the word “covet” can be fuzzy for me and many Jesus followers. How did it make it into the list of the Big Ten? Why is coveting so bad?
I eventually concluded that coveting is all about desiring things I don’t have. This understanding fed a mindset I had developed growing up that it was best to not want things so I wouldn’t be disappointed. As a result, I taught myself to live with little, letting desires die that felt beyond my reach, labeling many of them as “bad.” The reasoning was usually something like this: if I desire it, it must not be God’s will. This worked fine when I was single but didn’t fly once I got married and started a family. Those dependent on me didn’t have the same tolerance for doing without. And there was also that growing suspicion that many desires weren’t dead, just buried and still trying to come out of the grave—zombie-like. Cravings deep inside were still longing to be satisfied. And I was afraid of the temptations and disappointments I would have to face if they ever made it to the surface.
What’s the Focus of My Desire?
Here’s one English dictionary definition of the word “covet”: “to desire wrongfully, inordinately or without due regard for the rights of others.” This is helpful, but there’s more to it. The original Hebrew word “chamad” translated into English as “covet” simply means “desire.” The same Hebrew word is used in Psalm 19:10 where the writer is reflecting on the goodness of the Lord’s commandments: “More to be desired [chamad] are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” Is the Bible saying there are desires that are good and should be encouraged?
Okay. But what scares me about my desires is that they seem unlimited and can so easily get out of control. In fact, they have gotten out of control in the past, many times. Yet I read scriptures like Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” What exactly are those? And if there are desires God wants to fulfill, how do I identify them?
A breakthrough came in my life awhile back when I realized something about my desires. The ones that really matter are hidden or overshadowed. Things or circumstances I feel myself longing for are often not my actual desires but rather the objects I associate with my desires, and I get the two confused. For example: I may find myself strongly desiring a new car. But in an honest moment when I stop and ask myself what I believe getting a new car would give me beyond just reliable transportation, the answer might be something like significance. What I’m really desiring is a feeling of importance and worth, and I have become convinced that getting that car will fulfill this yearning. The car is the object of my desire, not the desire itself. But can the object provide the significance that I’m aching for?
The most powerful revelation in all this for me was that Jesus wants to fulfill the desire. He also knows it will not come through obtaining a new car (or a new job, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc). But if I take the core desire to Him (not the object of the desire), I can trust Him to give me something that will truly fulfill what my heart is longing for—and likely not what I expected. The car, if I ever get a new one, then will remain merely a transportation tool rather than a thing I adore and from which I draw my self-esteem. Bottom line: the desires of my heart are spiritual in nature and can only be satisfied by the Spirit of God.
Bowing to the Objects of My Desires
In Colossians 3:5, the Apostle Paul says covetousness is idolatry. I used to scratch my head on this one but now have a better idea of how to understand it. When I pursue the objects I’ve attached to my desires in order to fulfill my spiritual hunger, I’m in the process of worshiping something other than God. I easily bury the desires of my heart beneath the lust for material wealth and comfort, approval of those around me, or control over my significant relationships. And when I feel discomfort, dissatisfaction, or emptiness in my soul, I typically look for ways to bolster these areas where I believe my desires reside. In my search for fulfillment, I end up making idols of what I believe will give me what I want. Yet Idolatry will always lead me away from the Living God who knows me and loves me.
Covetousness is a sign of discontent in our hearts and is a doorway to other sins. The 10th Commandment is the only one that directly addresses a hidden motive of the heart. No person can actually see you coveting. But if not dealt with, covetousness (worshiping the objects of your desires) will eventually produce outward manifestations: adultery, theft, cheating, deception, hatred, etc. It opens the door to “running after other things,” a.k.a. idols.
My conclusion is that God puts limits on the objects of our desires because He wants to show us our deepest core desires. What this world offers was never meant to be our fulfillment. God seeks to whet our appetite for something beyond this present material world (Ecclesiastes. 3:11). Hungering for stuff, jobs and relationships that are not ours in order to fulfill deeper longings is how I now define what it means to covet. Desire is good, however, when it draws us to find our fulfillment in the One who made us. Jesus called His followers to deeply desire things like love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and to not be afraid to suffer as we pursue them. God gives true fulfillment (read post on spiritual hunger).
The good news is that God wants to fulfill your deepest longings! The question is, do you know what’s at the core of those places in your heart that are aching for something new? Covetousness easily takes over when we don’t take our desires (even the ones we don’t know the name for) to God and seek His offer to fulfill them His way.
“Satisfy us [Lord] in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Psalm 90:14 ESV
Desires don’t have to turn into idols. But when we trust the One who knows us best to give us what He knows we need, we can experience the deepest satisfaction.