The Heart of Coveting
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s. Exodus 20:17NKJV
Question 148 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?” It gives the answer, “The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbor, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.” Last time we looked at the good thoughts and desires required of us in the tenth commandment. Today we consider the evil ones forbidden to us.
As we noticed previously, the prohibition against coveting is the only commandment with an entirely inward purview of the heart and mind of man. The word covet simply means desire. Sinful coveting refers to those desires that transgress the law of God. Discontentment is the first sinful desire mentioned by today’s Catechism question. Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are to ask God for what He has apportioned for us and when He has given it, we are to be satisfied. We should be content with whatever God apportions for us since God is perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, and so He only does to us what is best for us. Consequently, whenever we are discontent with what God has allotted to us, we are in actuality discontent with God. When Israel repeatedly complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, God recognized that their complaints were actually against Him, “the LORD hears your complaints which you make against Him. For who are we? Your complaints are not against us but against the LORD,” (Exod. 16:8; see also: Exod. 16:7; Num. 14:2, 27). It is a great sin to be discontent with the most generous, good, and loving being that could ever be.
Discontentment with our own estate often goes hand in hand with envying at what we perceive to be the greater or better estates of our neighbors. When God’s people became discontent with the system of judges He had given them and coveted the monarchies of the surrounding nations, the Lord explained to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them,” (1 Sam. 8:7). They wanted to be like all the other nations, sinfully believing that the godless nations around them had better systems of government than the one which the God of all mercies and comfort had given to them. We can only do this by doubting God’s love to us, or by disbelieving that He is willing or able to do what is best for us.
Envy, however, rarely stops at simply the desire to have the good things of our neighbors. No, its true wretchedness appears in that we often actually become grieved over someone else’s being blessed. We do this often without even thinking about it. When I was young, the Pitt–Penn State rivalry was at its height. I remember people saying things like, “My favorite team is Penn State and whoever is playing Pitt this week,” and vice versa for the Pitt fans. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a favorite team or some other kind of organization, group, or even an individual for whom you desire some great accomplishment, victory, and success, but why in the world would we ever root against someone? Why would we long for, hope, or desire someone to fail? And why would we do so to the point, where if they do succeed against our wishes, it actually brings us grief and sorrow? If some person or some team overcomes the competition and wins the prize, should we not be happy for them? Should we not praise them for what they have done? It seems to me that loving our neighbors as we love ourselves requires us to hope the best for others.
This brings us to the final prohibition against all inordinate motions and affections to anything belonging to our neighbors. Inordinate means excessive, that which is beyond what is appropriate. I can like my neighbor’s house, car, or dog, and even aspire and strive to obtain ones similar, but not to the point where they are all I can think about, or where I begin to neglect my other duties. In all things we need to guard our hearts and not allow the things of this world to become more important to us than they should. May God give us hearts of contentment in Him and real love for our neighbor’s good!