Have You Ever Coveted?

One of the most dangerous sins known to man (actually unknown to most of us in a real sense) is covetousness. However, before you answer the question of whether you have coveted, you might want to read 1 Corinthians 12:31, which says, "Covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet I shew unto you a more excellent way" (KJV). It may help to realize that there are three different Old Testament words and three different New Testament words that are translated by "covet" or its cognates. It may also help to realize that only the context can determine the exact meaning of this word, and there may be situations where it is not immediately evident whether the meaning is good or bad.

For example, Micah 2:2 says, "And they covet fields, and take them by violence." We might assume that the word "covet" is therefore a bad word. It is not necessarily so. It is the word "chamad" which is the word used in Daniel 10:11,19, where Daniel is called "greatly beloved." When a person sees a field of a neighbor that is "greatly beloved" and he loves it so much that he takes it by violence, and oppresses the man and his house (Micah 2:2), then he sins, but not simply because he thinks of something that someone else has that is "greatly beloved."

When God said in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:17) not to covet the neighbor's wife, or anything that is his, "chamad" is the word he used. It is very similar in meaning to the word used in Deuteronomy 5:21, "Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, etc." Although this word in Hebrew is "avah," not "chamad," the Septuagint uses the same word as in Exodus 20:17. In the Greek it is "epithumeo" which is the word Paul used in Romans 13:9 when he quotes from the Ten Commandments. However, it is interesting to note that it is also the word used in 1 Timothy 3:1, "This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth (epithumei) a good work."

Without making an exhaustive and exhausting study of all of the occurrences of the Hebrew and Greek words that are sometimes translated "covet" or its cognates, it may be more appropriate simply to summarize this aspect of the study by saying that the words are translated by other words, such as "greatly beloved," "desire," "lust," "precious thing," "long for," "get," "be jealous over," "zealous" and many other such words. We realize as we read various passages that a person can long for many things that are appropriate. In Luke 22:15, Jesus said, "With desire (epithumia) I have desired (epithumesa) to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." Paul said in Philippians 1:23, "I am in a strait betwixt the two, having a desire (epithumian) to depart and be with the Lord--." In 1 Thessalonians 2:17, he says that he endeavored to see their face "with great desire (epithumia)." We could belabor the point with multiplied references.

It should be evident that one of the problems with the sin of covetousness is that even the words that are used to describe it are the same words that are used to describe the same earnest desire for things that are good and proper. It should be evident, therefore, that the desire that is wrong must fall in one or more of the following categories. First, it may be a desire that is for something that is wrong of itself. If you desire your neighbor's wife for your own, it is wrong. If you desire your neighbor's field as your own, without due compensation for it, it is wrong. However, if you desire your neighbor's field, and are willing to pay him just compensation for it, the desire is not necessarily wrong. We say, "not necessarily," for even then it may be wrong for another reason. This is one reason why it is such an insidious and dangerous sin.

Second, we may have an inordinate or unhealthy or improper desire for it, even though it is not wrong to have it. We may be willing to pay for it, but may want it so badly that we would steal to get the money to pay for it. Or it may be that we would lie or pervert the truth. Or it may be that the longing for it just takes up so much of our attention and time that we worry about it or grieve for it, as did Ahab in 1 Kings 21:4 when he grieved and sulked because he did not have a vineyard he wanted. He was willing to pay for it if he had to, but his covetousness consisted in wanting it too much. This is a part of our problem in trying to define our covetousness. How do we know when we want something too much? We may not want our neighbor to die that we might get it at the auction. We may not be plotting to kill him so we may get it. We may not want it badly enough to lie or steal to get it. Nevertheless, we may still want it more than we should, and be covetous.

It is not an easy matter to determine if we want a thing more than we should, but there are a few clues that will help us to determine if we do. First, if we have a feeling of envy or jealousy when we find some other person who has what we want. Second, if we are fretful, anxious or unhappy because we do not have it, even if it does not relate to how we feel about some other person having it. When Paul said, "I have learned in whatever state I am, therewith to be content" (Phil. 4:11), he gave us a clue that will help us to discover if we are covetous. Third, if you would give up anything God wants you to do or be in order to get something, you want it too much, and are covetous.

So the first things we need to do in our self-examination with regard to this very deceptive sin are: 1. Ask ourselves if the thing we want is scriptural and right for us to have. 2. Try to discover if we want it with an inordinate or improper desire.

However, when we have done that, there is still the problem of how to overcome covetousness. You may want to try to work on this even if you are not sure that you are covetous, which is probably the case. First, be honest with God and prayerful as Paul in Ephesians 1:18, "that the eyes of your understanding be opened" that you may be able to see if and when you are coveting the wrong things, or in the wrong way.

Second, consciously and deliberately make a commitment to God that if He finds you developing a covetous disposition that He will bring upon you in His gracious providence, such chastisement or adverse circumstance that you will be aware of your problem.

Third, remember and practice the principle Jesus taught in Matthew 5:41 which I call the principle of "and then some." When there is a cause you need to support, or a task which is expected of you, do what you are expected to do, and then some. Go the second mile. Give what you had planned to do, and if the Devil tempts you to do less, double what you had previously planned, and the chances are he will not tempt you very much the next time.

Fourth, since covetousness is so closely related to envy and jealousy, practice the art of rejoicing with and for others who receive commendations for something, or who have good fortune in some fashion. If you do not get as much commendation for preaching or teaching a class as another person seems to get, and you feel disturbed by it, the chances are you could be covetous, and it will show up in other areas. So you need to deliberately practice rejoicing and commending the good fortune of others.

No doubt there are other rules that could be used, but perhaps these comments will help us to see more clearly the complex nature of this sin which is more difficult to detect than any other, and probably more dangerous than most of us realize for many other reasons. One reason for its danger is that it is the root of every kind of evil known to man. When Paul says, "The love of money is the root of all evils" (1 Tim. 6:10), he is simply talking about one kind of covetousness.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive