A few years ago I was at a local park with some friends. It is a wonderful park, full of swings, sandboxes, slides, and monkey bars. One of my favorite features is a fence that surrounds the playground and keeps young children safely inside. However, on this day the older children came to us, requesting to play outside the fence in an open field just beside a road. The mothers decided as a group that it would be best for everyone if all the children stayed inside the fence. The older children went away with faces of dismay.
When I looked up a few minutes later, each child was standing at the fence, staring with longing into the open field. Rather than enjoy the playground that was specifically designed for their enjoyment, they chose to focus on what was denied. As they focused on what they desired rather than what was available to them, they found themselves increasingly miserable. I realized at that moment how often I, like them, miss all that has been granted in my own life by spending my time craving and longing after what is denied. The question of how each of us deals with our desires is one of primary importance as we consider our contentment and joy in the Lord.
Since the beginning of time, man has struggled with his desires. At times we desire the wrong things (a culpable desire), and at other times we desire the right things in a wrong way (an inordinate desire). In the Bible, we refer to these culpable or inordinate desires as covetousness. While coveting may seem to be the least offensive of the Ten Commandments, in truth it is often the sin struggle that gives birth to all the others and robs us of the contentment and joy we long for in life. James warns, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:14-15).
As we examine coveting, it is helpful to consider some general truths about our covetous tendencies. Often we believe that coveting is rooted in our circumstances, but in reality coveting is a sin pattern that works in our hearts. Coveting is never solved by attainment. We may experience temporary satisfaction by gaining an object of our desire, but eventually the covetous pattern will begin anew. Coveting is a heart problem, not a circumstantial problem. Our inordinate desires are not limited to money or possessions. We covet relationships, giftedness, stages of life, accolades, respect, beauty, family, authority, comfort—in truth, we can covet anything we long for in life.
The goal of this article is to consider the hidden danger of coveting and awaken our hearts to the destructive nature of this sin pattern in our inner life. To do so, we will consider how to distinguish between a covetous desire and a right longing, the pattern coveting usually takes, and how to battle our covetous desires by putting on a new pattern of belief. Our hope is to experience greater joy and contentment by looking more to Christ and the riches found in Him and turning our eyes from temporal longings that ultimately fail to satisfy. Desiring God as our ultimate joy leads to abundant life.
Distinguishing Between Desires
As we sort through desires, it is important to note that desiring deeply is not necessarily wrong, nor is it in opposition to contentment. Jesus Himself earnestly desired to share the Last Supper with His disciples (Luke 22:15). In a similar way, some days we may long appropriately, entrusting our hopes to the Lord. Other days, our longings are characterized more by impatience, bitterness, despair, and distrust of God’s goodness to us. It is beneficial to consider four heart checks to help us determine when our desires have soured from right longings to covetous desires.
First of all, we can know we are coveting when the object of our desire is wrong. If we desire something clearly contrary to God’s Word, then our desire is covetous. In the garden, Eve’s longing for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a covetous desire because God prohibited her to eat from it. If we are setting our affections on an object or a person clearly outside of God’s will, then we need to repent of that desire, even if we have not acted to obtain the object of it.
Secondly, if we are willing to use incorrect means to gain what we want, then our desire has become inordinate. While we may desire a good end, our willingness to use any means necessary to obtain it exposes the covetous nature of the desire. In Genesis, Sarah knew that God promised a child to Abraham. She had a correct longing for a child. However, her willingness to use Hagar to produce a child exposed that her desire had become inordinate. Her longing had grown impatient and full of unbelief in God’s ability to give Abraham a son through her womb. If we are willing to use our energies, resources, and talents incorrectly, it is a sign that our desires have grown covetous.
Thirdly, if our longings are sparked by comparison with other people, it is often evidence of covetousness. If we find that desires begin when we walk through a friend’s new home, hear of a wonderful vacation, or witness a kindness shown by a spouse or friend, then we need to reflect upon what is truly at the heart of our desires. Truthfully, when we compare our lives with someone else’s, we usually begin to believe that the Lord has failed to be good to us. The Israelites’ response to Samuel at the end of his life illustrates this principle. They wanted a king to rule them, not because it was God’s will or His timing, but because all the other nations had a king (1 Samuel 8:5).
The final heart check on our longings examines the attitude we have as we wait for God to bring about what we desire. If we wait with an attitude of grumbling, complaining, bitterness, anger, or ingratitude, then coveting is often at the heart of our struggle. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Our covetous desires choke out our heartfelt joy and thanksgiving in the Lord. The Israelites demonstrated this attitude just two months after a miraculous exodus from slavery. They complained bitterly to Moses and could remember only the pots of meat they ate in Egypt. Their forgetfulness of their redemption overflowed in their attitude. Coveting blinds us to the riches that accompany salvation and belittles what Christ accomplished for us on the cross.
The Pattern of Coveting: See, Covet, Take, and Hide
Time and again a particular pattern presents itself as biblical characters succumb to their covetous tendencies. Eve, Achan, Korah, David, and Judas all followed the same pattern of unbelief that led to disastrous consequences in their own lives, their families, their communities, and most importantly for God’s glory. For simplicity’s sake, we will return to Eden and observe the pattern set by our first mother, Eve.
Even in the perfection of Eden, covetous desires formed in Eve’s heart and led to all the consequences that would follow. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat the fruit from only one tree in the garden. Satan tempted Eve, and Scripture gives us the following insight into her internal struggle and how it led to disobedience:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:6-8, emphasis added).
Take a moment to compare this pattern with that of Achan in the book of Joshua, when he confessed to taking plunder that the Lord had specifically forbidden:
Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath” (Joshua 7: 20-21, emphasis added) .
From these two accounts, we can observe a similar pattern: See, covet, take, and hide. It is this covetous pattern that blooms in our own hearts and leads us on a path of increasing discontentment.
Our coveting usually begins with our eyes. We see an object that we desire and begin to falsely believe that in some way God is failing to be fully good to us. Our seeing mixed with unbelief in God’s goodness and sovereignty leads us to covet in our inner thought life. We grow increasingly discontent, wondering why God has failed to be good to us. As coveting becomes our habit, our discontentment leads us to take from those around us. We may not actually steal from another person, but we take in a variety of ways. When we covet social standing, we may take from another’s reputation by sharing idle gossip to increase our own position. If we covet money and possessions, we may take from the Lord’s work by failing to faithfully tithe. Lust conceived in the heart gives birth to the sin of adultery and takes from a marriage. We take joy from another by failing to rejoice with them because we are embittered by our own circumstances. We fail to rightly mourn with others because our covetous tendencies have stripped away our ability to sympathize with anyone in a situation different from our own.
The reality of our inner desires is that they overflow into our outward actions. What we desire matters. When we covet, we believe that whatever we are longing for will bring us life. However, the deep irony is that what we hope will bring satisfaction actually brings great loss. Eve found herself embarrassed before her husband and attempted to cover herself with fig leaves. Rather than walk in communion with God, she hid from Him. Her actions led Adam into sin, and rather than be a helper in cultivation, she became a helper in devastation. Adam’s fall led to the fall of his posterity, and each of us suffers the brokenness that began with a covetous desire.
Likewise, Achan never enjoyed the silver, gold, and robe he stole from Jericho. He hid them under his tent. Instead, he and his entire family faced death and the loss of future blessing. In every other town, the Lord allowed the Israelites to enjoy the fruits of their conquests. Achan missed the blessing by attempting to secure it in his own strength. God wants to bless His people. However, He knows that the greatest blessings are not earthly goods or relationships, but that true riches flow from an ever-increasing love and affection for Himself. He loves us too much to allow us to spend our lives on what is not life and our labors on what will not satisfy.
Right Longing or Covetous Desire: How to Tell the Difference
• Is the object of desire contrary to God’s Word?
• Are we willing to use incorrect means to gain what we want?
• Is the longing sparked by comparison with other people?
• Do we wait with an attitude of grumbling, complaining, bitterness, or ingratitude?
A New Pattern of Belief: Seek, Desire, Give, and Confess
How then do we change from our pattern of seeing, coveting, taking, and hiding? By faith and Christ’s power at work in our hearts, we take off the old pattern and put on a new pattern of belief. Our goal is not to stop desiring; we just want to learn to crave a much better feast.
Instead of seeing, we seek the Lord. We turn our eyes from the world and ourselves and look at Christ. As we daily seek Him in His word and in prayer, we are renewed. We remember the cross and realize that if God was willing to sacrifice His only Son, then surely He will give us all things. How can any earthly desire compare to eternal life? He has given us the greater, and by daily seeking Him, we learn to trust Him with the lesser. Contentment grows not through gaining more possessions, but through abiding more in Jesus.
Instead of coveting, we learn to desire rightly. As we abide in Christ, His power within our hearts will bring new desires. We begin to desire to know the Lord in a deeper way. We desire to be a part of His community in the church. We desire to serve those around us. We desire to love as we have been loved. In contrast to coveting, these desires are life giving.
Instead of taking, we give generously. Rather than look over the fence and consider how we are coming up short, we look over the fence and consider how we can give to those around us. Giving generously with our time, relationships, financial resources, and abilities frees us from trusting in them as our security. Instead, we learn to trust in the Lord who generously gave all these blessings to us. In giving this way, we experience Him as our true security.
Lastly, instead of hiding, we confess. As we struggle with the effects of our world’s brokenness, we long for things to be different. However, when these longings become covetous, we need to confess. James exhorts us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. The prayer of a righteous person has great power … .” (James 5:16). Rather than simply pray for circumstances to change, we need to ask the Lord to bring heart change. When our feeble jars of clay shine forth joy, hope, and contentment in the midst of the difficulties we face, it is clear that these are the fruit of His all-surpassing power at work in our hearts.
Choosing to put on this new pattern of belief frees us to enjoy the blessings the Lord has given. Christians should be the most joyful people on earth—we have Christ as our portion and inheritance. Even when sorrowful, we rejoice because of our redemption. When we are poor, we make others rich. When we have nothing, we know that in truth, we possess all things. If we are lacking joy, perhaps we need to consider if we are like those children at the park, missing the blessings because we are focusing on our earthly fields rather than heavenly riches. May we turn again to Christ, praying with the psalmist:
Incline my heart to your testimonies, And not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; And give me life in your ways (Psalm 119:36-37).
Melissa Kruger serves as women’s ministry coordinator at Uptown Church in Charlotte, N.C., and is the author of The Envy of Eve: Finding Contentment in a Covetous World (Christian Focus, 2012). In addition to writing, she regularly speaks at women’s retreats and conferences. Melissa is married to Dr. Michael Kruger, president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte.