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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/20/1997
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
The story is told of a boy who was asked to take his seat at the table for supper. He was doing something else and didn't want to come. Finally, the Board of Education had to be applied to the Seat of Learning. "I may be sitting on the outside," he said defiantly after his parents had finally corralled him, "but I'm standing up on the inside!" He illustrates well the distinction between inward and outward obedience. Human law of the highest authority can only require conformity to an external code. It has neither the competence to judge nor the ability to enforce anything else. But God commands the conscience to be clean, He demands that our motives be unmixed, and he aims his Law at the attitudes and intentions of the heart. As the Creator of both the physical and the spiritual, the external and the internal worlds, He has the authority to command this, the competence to judge it, and the ability to enforce it. For Man looketh upon the outward appearance, but God sees the heart. Therefore, we have the Tenth Commandment: "Thou shalt not covet."
Adam Clarke defines the verb "to covet" as to have "an earnest and strong desire after a matter, on which all the affections are concentrated and fixed." The English verb translates the Greek EPITHUMEO (from the LXX translation of Exodus 20), a strong word for desiring or yearning, that is often used with neutral or positive connotations. It is used, for example, in 1 Tim. 3:1--if any man "desire" or "aspire to" the office of Overseer, it's a fine thing, so let him have the following qualifications. We use it in that neutral sense when we say, "I covet your prayers." So while the use of the word in this Commandment has given it mostly negative connotations, we must remember that coveting as such, desire as such, is neither good nor evil. The problem in Exodus 20:17 is not the presence of desire, or even the strength of desire, but the list of things on which that desire had been fixed. We transgress this commandment when we desire a wrong thing, or when we desire a permissible thing wrongly. We don't have to actually take that thing to be sinning. God requires that our inner desires and attitudes toward things be rightly ordered as well as our outward conduct.
This inner focus of the last Commandment sheds its light then back over the whole list, so that the Tenth Commandment becomes a kind of recapitulation of the whole Law. It is at the end of the list not as the least important but as needing the first Nine to set the stage, to define what it is that we may or may not desire properly. When we read the last Commandment we are then reminded of what has been true of the others all along. It is not enough to refrain from bowing to an idol; we must worship God alone and worship Him truly in our hearts. It is not enough merely to refrain from outward labor on the Sabbath; we must dedicate the day to the worship of God from our hearts, without begrudging the loss of that time for worldly pursuits. It is not enough not to steal; we must not covet what belongs to another. It is not enough to refrain from committing adultery; we must not lust after the woman in our heart. It is not enough to refrain from violence; we must love our enemies. It is not enough to tithe our money; the Lord loveth a cheerful giver. Etc. The requirement of inward heart obedience, made plain in the Tenth Commandment, reflects back on all the other Nine.
Seen in this light, the Sermon on the Mount was not really new and radical teaching on our Lord's part at all. It is simply a forceful exposition of what was clear in the Text of the Law all along, but had been forgotten and submerged by the Pharisees and lost to First-Century Judaism. So the Lord's sermon not only reminds us of that fact, it also highlights its profoundest implication: Nowhere does the Law's role as "Schoolmaster to bring us to Christ" appear more plainly than here. You see, without the Tenth Commandment it would be easy for many of us to look at ourselves as righteous. We could say, "I don't worship a false god--I go to a Bible-believing church! I don't worship the true God by means of false images--my doctrine is impeccable! I've never stolen anything, killed anyone,or committed adultery; I don't lie." Mmmhmmm. But is your heart pure? The effect of the Tenth Commandment is that after each Commandment we hear ringing clearly and unmistakably in our ears the inescapable echo of Rom. 3:20: "By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified!" After each of the Commandments, but especially after number Ten, we must realize the absolute desperation of our need for a Savior, and one of no less power and majesty than the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
O.K., then, we are forbidden to harbor wrong desires in our hearts. So how do we recognize wrong desire? Let me try to give you three principles that will allow you to do so.
First, THE DESIRE FOR ANYTHING GOD HAS FORBIDDEN BECOMES SIN WHEN IT IS MENTALLY INDULGED. It is not a sin to be tempted, as long as one is resisting. As Milton says, it is not the lie--or the desire--that "passes through the mind," but the one that is welcomed by the mind and "settleth in it," or dwells there, that we have to be concerned about. The kind of desire that is coveting is no just to be attracted to something but to set your heart on it. Therefore, covet earnestly the Good, but reject the bad which appeals to you. It is not wrong to be tempted by something. That is just going to happen. But to daydream about it, to wish you could, to dwell on it, is sin.
Second, THE DESIRE FOR SOMETHING INNOCENT can also become sin WHEN IT DISTRACTS US FROM WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT. There is nothing wrong with material things in themselves. But if you pursue them to the point that you neglect your family, your devotions, or your church, then you are covetous even if you have set your heart on nothing that is wrong in itself, even if you do not steal or cut corners to get it.
Third, THE DESIRE FOR SOMETHING INNOCENT BECOMES SIN IF IT BECOMES SO STRONG THAT YOU ARE TEMPTED TO BREAK OTHER COMMANDMENTS TO OBTAIN IT. Money is not evil--it is a tool that can do much good, though the desire for it is a root of many evils. So if your love of money becomes so strong that you are actually tempted to consider cheating on your taxes or cutting corners or skimping on your tithes, then you are covetous even if you do not do these things. A good wife or husband is a great and precious gift from the Lord, which of course we all want. But if your desire for a mate becomes so overwhelming that you are actually tempted to consider dating a non-believer or lowering your moral standards, then you are covetous. It is a sign that your inner life is out of whack, your priorities out of line with God's will, and your trust in Him not terribly robust. When you become aware of such a situation, it is time to take action. If you do not, then you are guilty of breaking the Tenth Commandment.
What then do we do when we recognize these signs of a wrongly covetous heart? Let me make three suggestions that I think you will find helpful.
First, MAKE YOUR THOUGHT LIFE A PRIORITY. Thoughts are the first step to action. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. A wrongfully covetous thought life dims the image of God in us, even if it never comes to outward action, by destroying the single-mindedness of devotion that we owe to Him. So do not just accept your current inner condition as inevitable. We can't choose what thoughts come into our heads, but we do have the power to choose what thoughts we will attend to, focus on, and dwell on. We can choose what stimuli we habitually feed into our minds. In this age, that means that we must take a disciplined approach to electronic media. I do not advocate a complete withdrawal, because we need to be aware of the world we inhabit and are called to reach. But if you want to have a healthy inner life, you exposure to TV, movies, and computer games needs to be not only selective but also limited. It's not just that much of it is evil. Too much even of that which is good in these things promotes passivity and a short attention span, both of which are traits which will severely handicap you in fighting this battle, not to mention being able to think constructively about the issues that face us on every hand.
Second, GIVE YOUR MIND SOMETHING TO DO. Even more than the proverbial idle hands, an idle mind is the Devil's workshop. The mind is always busy anyway, even when we are asleep--that's why we have dreams. Now, I do not mean that we should always be involved in mental work. There is a place for restful thoughts, for wholesome mental recreation. But let it be purposeful. Do not, in other words, just put your mind in neutral and take your hands off. Somebody will start driving the car if you do that, and not to places that are good for you to go.
Third, CULTIVATE A TASTE FOR THE GOOD--FOR SPIRITUAL THINGS. For sinners, goodness is to a certain extent an acquired taste. Let's be about the business of acquiring it! You're going to be thinking about something, so let it be something good. You see, you can't not think about evil. It is self defeating. If you say, "I'm NOT going to think about X," what are you thinking about? X, of course. So a negative approach simply doesn't work. But you CAN positively choose to think about something else instead, some good thing other than the thing that tempts you to wrongful coveting. Scripture memory is an important discipline here, for it gives us a supply of good thoughts to call upon in addition to stocking our minds with the truths themselves. Memorizing good poetry is also a healthy exercise. So don't just resist evil thoughts, actively pursue good ones. Set your heart on a closer walk with the Lord, a deeper understanding of Scripture, the fruit of the Spirit, a more effective ministry in exercising your spiritual gifts (or discerning them if you have not yet even done that), the salvation of a particular friend or loved one. Daydream about those things; let those thoughts be the first step to action. Against such things there is no law.
Let us begin by setting our hearts on a closer fellowship with the Lord as we draw near to Him even now in the Lord's Supper.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams