“Thou shalt not covet.”
One of the most dangerous viruses threatening our spiritual health is “affluenza,” the desire to acquire more wealth and possessions. This virus is perennial, not seasonal; it is universal, not regional. The symptoms and signs are a feverish desire and restless spirit associated with a gnawing hunger and insatiable thirst for more things. Covetousness consumes inordinate amounts of mental and physical energy, resulting in a severe drain on one’s spiritual life. It is commonly regarded as being only a minor illness but, if left unchecked and untreated, it can destroy any usefulness we might have for God.
Covetousness comes last in the ten commandments. However, it should not be regarded as a mere afterthought following the list of grosser sins such as murder and adultery. This would be to misunderstand the significance of covetousness. While it is a sin in itself, it is also the root of the sins preceding it, the underlying attitude that results in the actions of the rest. The Lord Jesus Christ warned that covetousness comes from the heart of man and defiles him (Mar 7:22); we are to “beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luk 12:15). It was the first sin in the garden, the first sin in the land, and the first sin in the church.
The apostle Paul grouped it with other sins and called it idolatry: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5; cf. Rom 1:29; Eph 5:3). It affects property, persons, and possessions – “thy neighbor’s house … wife … ox … nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s” (Exo 20:17). It worships things.
King David’s sin began with an illicit desire to have another man’s wife. It led to theft, adultery, lying and murder. David had become careless and lazy. Instead of braving the foes of Israel and leading his army into battle, as other kings had done, he had delegated the responsibility to Joab. He remained behind in Jerusalem where life was leisurely, and he became self-indulgent. One evening, from the rooftop of his quarters, he saw a woman bathing in a house nearby. She was beautiful and he desired her for himself. And so, he set in motion a headlong descent into a dark valley of sin.
When we fall into the trap of covetousness, we are permanently dissatisfied. We imply that God has stinted us by not giving us enough to meet our needs, whereas He has favored others who have more than they need. The desire to “keep up with the Joneses” soon develops into a quest to outdo and better the Joneses. It is a senseless and perverted waste of time. Any momentary elation is soon replaced by discontentment and depression, because there will always be a competitor who appears to have more. When a reporter asked the billionaire, Nelson Rockefeller, “How much money does it take to be happy?” he replied, “Just a little more.”
The love of money is the root of all evil, and it was that love which ruined Judas. He had enjoyed a privileged position as one of the twelve disciples who journeyed with the Lord Jesus Christ for over three years. They all heard His words of truth, witnessed His acts of grace, and received personal tokens of His love. And yet, underneath the pious exterior, Judas had a deceitful and greedy heart (Joh 12:6). This led him to betray the Lord and sell his soul for a handful of silver. He never did get to enjoy it, but took his own life in misery and shame.
Covetousness does not necessarily correlate with personal wealth. There are those whom the Lord has enriched but who hold it lightly and dispense it generously for His glory. There may be those who have much less, but are mean about sharing what they have. And yet, time and again, poor but godly people have set the standard to which we should aspire. The poor widow’s offering was only two mites, but she gave everything she had. Her selfless act brought more pleasure to the Lord than the ostentatious display of the rich men (Mar 12:41-44). A young boy gladly donated his pack lunch of a few loaves and fishes. In the Master’s hand, it was used to feed thousands (Joh 6:9-11).
The Macedonian believers were poor and suffering, but they were generous and joyful. The apostle Paul used them as an example to challenge the richer but less willing Corinthians. The latter had been quick to make promises to send famine relief but were slow to put their hands in their pockets and follow through. Unsurprisingly, the kindness of the Macedonians moved Paul to think of God’s unspeakable gift, that of the Lord Jesus freely given to be our Savior (2Co 9:15).
The servant of the Lord should be free from covetousness. In a world motivated by greed, the “prosperity gospel” appeals to those who hope that God will make them healthy and wealthy, in record time if possible. The constant appeals for money and the conspicuous luxury of some church leaders is an insult to heaven. Peter warned of false teachers who treated religion as a business venture (2Pe 2:3).
By contrast, the apostle Paul would at times waive his right to receive financial support from other believers so that no accusation could be made against him of profiting. He reminded the Thessalonians that his ministry did not consist of flattering them under “a cloke of covetousness” (1Th 2:5). He had learned to be content, no matter what state he found himself in (Php 4:11). Toward the end of his life, he reminded Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1Ti 6:6).
Godly contentment is the only sure antidote to covetousness. We have the assurance that the Lord will always be with us: “Let your conversation [manner of life] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb 13:5). We are to seek first the kingdom of God, and the Lord guarantees to meet our needs (Mat 6:33). It was one of the martyrs of Ecuador, Jim Elliot, who prayed that he might be delivered from “the tension of the grasping hand.” It would be a worthy prayer for us all.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.