Tenth Word: Contentment – Deuteronomy 5:21

FbEarlier this year a newspaper had this headline: “Facebook causes envy ‘on an unprecedented scale’ “. The article referred to a recent study which showed that ‘Checking Facebook and discovering how well your friends are doing can make you feel jealous, miserable and socially isolated’.[1] People checking instagram, facebook or other social media, often leave feeling more miserable after seeing how good looking their friends are, or seeing their friends families or relationships, or great holiday or latest acquisition. The headline says, facebook causes this, but the Bible shows us the problem is deeper and more widespread. Coveting is not a word we use every day, but it is an issue we face every day. Whether we use social media or not, we can easily covet what others have, which can leave us feeling, miserable, and discontent.

RareJewelThere’s a famous book by Jeremiah Burroughs called the Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. That title captures something – contentment is a rare jewel. It’s something many would like, but few seem to have. In Australia in 2013, we have access to more advanced education, better nutrition, better healthcare, a greater variety of entertainment and more advanced technology than most people who have ever lived on our planet, yet it’s rare to meet someone who is truly content.

It’s fair to say that coveting and contentment are opposites. As we think about the tenth commandment today, and consider how we can move from coveting towards contentment, let’s ask three questions:

1. What is coveting?

We get some idea of what coveting is when we compare the 10th commandment in Exodus with the 10th commandment in Deuteronomy. Have a look as we read these two, and see what’s the same between them, and what’s different:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17)

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Deuteronomy 5:21)

What are some things that are the same? Both refer to the same things we shouldn’t covet, though the order of the first two things is reversed: both refer to house (though Deuteronomy adds or land’), both refer to wife, both refer to, manservant, maidservant, ox, donkey, or ‘anything that belongs to your neighbour’. It’s meant to be a very wide commandment, that covers – anything that belongs to your neighbour.

What’s different? Both start with ‘you shall not covet’, but Deuteronomy uses a slightly different word the second time. In the NIV it says ‘You shall not set your desire on’. Coveting is setting your desire on something. Buddhism teaches that you need to renounce all desires, but Christianity is different. In Christianity, not all desire is necessarily wrong, but it is wrong to covet.

When I moved to Maitland just over a year ago, I asked Rog for a suggestion of where to get a haircut. He recommended the place he goes to. On my first visit there I was talking with the barber or hairdressers, and asked if they knew Rog. They didn’t seem to remember names, but they remember hair types. One of them said, yeah I think I know him, he’s the short guy with the boofy hair right? I hadn’t really noticed that Rog’s hair gets kind of boofy before he gets it cut, but if you’re a hairdresser you notice that sort of thing. It’s quite a compliment to have boofy hair, particularly if you’re from Roger’s generation, other people Roger’s age who don’t have much hair might covet his boofy hair!  Coveting can be a fairly personal temptation. You may notice certain things, and covet things, that other people might not notice or covet. For some of you that might be physical features, for others it might be things. I’m less likely to covet a car, because I don’t really know enough about cars to appreciate them, I just get in and drive them, then call the mechanic when there’s a problem. On the other hand, I’ve never owned a house so for me that is something that I could be more tempted to covet.  I’m sharing a personal example because I want you to think personally. Is there something you would like to have, but don’t have? Whatever it is, how do we know when we’ve moved from merely wanting something to coveting, where we wrongly set our desire on something?

a) Wanting what belongs to someone else. It’s not necessarily wrong to want a house or a spouse or a car, or boofy hair – but it is wrong to want someone else’s house or spouse, or car – that’s coveting. You see this sometimes in very young children  – you give two children a toy, but one of them wants not just any old toy – they want that toy which the other child has. We begin to covet from a young age, when we’re not satisfied with what God has given us and we want what God has given to someone else.

b) Desire that leads to ungodly discontentment. In 1 Kings 21 we see  Ahab coveting Naboth’s vineyard, which Naboth refuses to give it to him. v4 So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth … had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

If you want something, and you’re not getting it, and you see yourself responding like this, sullen, angry, sulking, refusing to eat – or the opposite, consoling yourself by overeating, ask yourself – am I coveting? If you jump off facebook or instagram feeling miserable because you didn’t get as many ‘likes’ for your post as others got, or because of the seemingly good things others seem to have, ask yourself – am I coveting? If your desire for something, even if it’s good is becoming a consuming desire, ask yourself – am I coveting?

2. What’s wrong with coveting?

a) Harms us – Asaph, in Psalm 73 says: But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:2-3). When he looked around and saw godless people who seemed so much wealthier and healthier than he was, he envied them, he coveted what they had. He says the result was, he almost lost his foothold spiritually. Coveting can eat us up inside, it can make us bitter and resentful.

In a book called:  The Year of Living Biblically, AJ Jacobs, an agnostic, decides he’s going to try to study the Bible for a year and live by it as literally as possible. The commandment he finds hardest of all to follow is this commandment – You shall not covet. He’s a secular agnostic, yet he gives this amazing admission: The Bible is right, jealousy (coveting) is a useless, time-wasting emotion that is eating me alive…[2] He lists all the things he covets in one day. He covets the hand-held electronic devices others have that he doesn’t, he covets the large yard his friend has that he doesn’t, he covets the level of fame others have that allow them to do things that he can’t. He’s constantly comparing himself to others, to people at work, to friends or family members, he compares his achievements to theirs, he compares his earnings to theirs. He’s not a Christian, yet he recognises coveting is a big issue for modern people. In his words it eats us up inside.

Covetousness destroys wretched men so secretly that they do not feel its fatal stab (John Calvin)[3]

Coveting is deadly. It is like a virus within us, and it is killing us when we don’t even see it. (Al Mohler)[4]

A reporter once asked John D Rockefeller, who at that time was one of America’s richest men how much money it takes to be satisfied. His famous reply was “One dollar more.” Coveting is never satisfied, it always wants more. You think you’ll be satisfied with an iPod, until your friend gets a newer version, and you want that one. You think you’ll be satisfied with a fashion item, but it soon goes out of fashion. No matter what you get, you find yourself wanting more.

b) Harms others We saw the effect coveting had on Ahab, how it left him sullen, angry, sulking. Coveting harmed him, but it also harmed others. Through Ahab’s coveting Jezebel organised for two men to lie about Naboth, then have him killed, so Ahab could take his property. Ahab’s coveting lead to at least three other commandments being broken: false testimony, murder and stealing.

King David coveted Uriah’s wife – Bathsheba. He looked out, he saw her, he desired her, his coveting lead to: adultery, murder as he tried to cover it up, then stealing as he took Bathsheba as his own wife.

You may not physically murder someone like Ahab and David did, but it’s very common to see people treat others differently, perhaps being angry or sullen towards them, because  you covet something they have. Coveting doesn’t just harm us, it harms others.

c) Idolatry / gives our heart to a false god

Put to death covetousness [greed][5] which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5). When we break the 10th commandment, we also break the first two commandments – we’re making something else greater than God, we’re making an idol.

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is …covetous [greedy] (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:5) Coveting is against God, we are giving our love or trust or hope to something other than God.

We’ve all coveted, which means we’re all idolaters, we’re all guilty of setting our hearts on God’s gifts rather than God himself. Our only hope is in Jesus, the one person who never coveted. He was able to be the perfect substitute, and in his death take the punishment our coveting deserves. This commandment like all the commandments, drives us to Jesus who offers the forgiveness we all need.

3. How can we move from coveting towards contentment?

a) Learn the secret of contentment from Jesus – Tennis star Boris Becker spoke of how he was at the top of the tennis world—yet on the brink of suicide. He said, “I had won Wimbledon twice before, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed … It’s the old song of movie stars and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything, and yet they are so unhappy. I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string.” [6] We often hear of people who have so much, yet find that having so much does not bring contentment. In contrast, Paul says: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil 4:12-13)

Paul writes these words in gaol. He had been flogged, beaten, left for dead, he knew hardship more than many of us. In Philippi he’d been imprisoned, put in painful stocks though he’d done nothing wrong, yet that night he and Silas sang to God in gaol. He knew contentment.

Notice he says, contentment is a secret, it is not something obvious that everyone knows, it’s not something Paul knew, but it is something that he learned . What is the secret that he has learned? He tells us that he is able to be content in every situation through Jesus  who strengths him. Jesus is the secret of being content. Jesus is the perfect example of contentment. He had everything, he was God, yet he surrendering himself  to become a human and to die on a cross. True contentment begins at the cross. At the cross we recognise that we’re not entitled to all we think we are, in fact God would be right to punish us. True contentment comes as we deny ourselves, and trust and follow Jesus.

b) Love of God – Earlier we saw Asaph’s struggle, when he said: But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:2-3). He envies or covets the health and wealth that the godless people around him have.

The turning point for Asaph comes in realising the long-term perspective. He realises how temporary their prosperity was, and in comparison how much he has in God. He comes to the point where he can say to God: Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. (Psalm 73:25). He realises God is worth more to him than riches or health. God is more trustworthy, more secure, more powerful, more satisfying, more gracious, more worthy of his love than anything else.

Paul tells us: If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his only Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with him graciously give us all things?(Romans 8:31-32).  Through the cross we can know that nothing can separate us from God’s love. God didn’t even spare his own Son. Contentment comes, when we stop looking for love or significance or acceptance in other things, and find in God a love far greater than we deserve. We move from coveting to contentment, as a love takes hold of our heart that overpowers our love for anything else.

c) Use your treasure to train your heart – Jesus says: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). Our heart, follows our treasure. Train yourself to be content, by using all you have for God’s glory. Think of everything you have as belonging to Jesus. If God’s given you a house, think of how you can use that house, not just as your own personal castle, but  for God’s glory. If God’s given you a car, think of how you can use that car for his glory. Ask God how you can best use the money he’s given you the ability to earn, for his glory.

d) God’s presence – As Paul speaks of contentment he says: I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13) Contentment is possible through the powerful presence of Jesus.

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5). Your possessions can leave you, will leave you, but God will not. He promises us, and shows us he will never leave us, which gives us great power for contentment.

LatimerHugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were being chained to a stake for refusing to submit to the Roman Catholic church’s doctrine. The executioner put bags of gunpowder around their necks, and lit a bundle of sticks at their feet. Latimer turned to Ridley and said, ‘Be of good courage master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out’. As the wood catches fire, Ridley prays, ‘Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit!’ Latimer prays, ‘O Father of heaven, receive my soul’. Being burned at the stake would have to rate as one of life’s more stressful situations. Yet here are two men with so much to live for yet at peace, content to face the situation God has placed them in.

Whatever situation we are in today, we can learn contentment through Jesus, as we find satisfaction in his love for us, and power in his presence with us.

(Edited transcript of sermon preached at MEC 30 June 2013. You can listen to or download the sermon  here )


[2] AJ Jacobs, The year of living Biblically, 28.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion.

[4] Al Mohler, Words from the Fire, chapter 10.

[5] Colossians 3:5 πλεονεξία (greed, covetousness), Ephesians 5:5-  πλεονέκτης .

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One response to “Tenth Word: Contentment – Deuteronomy 5:21

  1. Pingback: Ten Words of Grace Series | Grace Transforms

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