A Fatal Attraction

 In Fred's Blog, Theology, Vocation

“I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting.”

I’ve spent a lot of time studying (and hearing sermons about) Paul’s teachings on the effect of the law in Romans 7. His explanation of the irony of sin is clear: A good thing seized and twisted produces unintended consequences.

However, I’ve never thought about what it meant for Paul to experience “every kind of covetousness” because it is only recently I have begun to understand the seriousness of what it means to covet.

Our culture tends to use covetousness, envy and greed interchangeably – but they are very different.

Envy involves jealousy and comparing your life to another, which never ends well. As everyone from Shakespeare and John Donne to Oscar Wilde and Flannery O’Connor has written, “Comparison is odious.”

With greed, a person is simply ruled by an insatiable desire to accumulate. The Parable of the Rich Fool is not about anyone but the fool himself.

But covetousness is different. It begins with “I desire what is yours,” but goes much further. Coveting occurs in a relationship. It is intentional and deliberate – and has the end goal in mind to diminish the other person. This is the same sin of Satan desiring what is rightfully God’s. Satan wants what belongs to God for one reason: To hurt him.

Coveting is far more serious than envy or greed. Envy rots the bones but coveting eats the soul itself.

For me, this makes Paul’s statement of experiencing “every kind of covetousness” mean far more than just a random illustration of a nominal sin popping into his mind. Paul was a man who wrestled with an insidious and soul-destroying desire for seizing and hurting.

How did he overcome something that had worked its way so completely into his life? At first reading, the answer sounds too simplistic:

“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.”

Real contentment is the antidote for covetousness, but we have taken the idea of “being content in all things” and reduced it to be far less powerful than what it can be in our lives.

When I was younger, I read a short illustration, “The Diamond,” and believed that contentment meant learning to live on a little or eliminating as much as possible from your life:

The traveler had reached the

outskirts of the village and settled

down under a tree for the night

when a villager came running up

to him and said, “The stone! The

stone! Give me the precious stone.”

“What stone?” asked the traveler.

“Last night the Lord Shiva appeared

to me in a dream,” said the villager,

“and told me that if I went to the

outskirts of the village at dusk

I should find a traveler who would

give me a precious stone that would

make me rich forever.”

The traveler rummaged in his bag and

pulled out a stone. “He probably

meant this one,” he said, as he handed

the stone over to the villager. “I found

it on a forest path some days ago. You

can certainly have it.”

The man gazed at the stone in wonder.

It was a diamond, probably the largest

diamond in the whole world, for it was

as large as a person’s head.

He took the diamond and walked away.

All night he tossed about in bed,

unable to sleep. Next day at the

crack of dawn he woke the traveler

and said, “Give me the wealth that

makes it possible for you to give

this diamond away so easily.”

The last sentence sounds as if this should be the path to true contentment, but it’s not.

Contentment is not the elimination of desire, nor is it the never-ending attempt to quash your ambition or convince yourself you have enough. It is not measuring your life by how much you subtract. This always leads to a life of discontentment.

Real contentment comes first from believing that God has good work for you to do – and then knowing that God has given you what you need to accomplish this work. It focuses less on having the “right amount” and more on accomplishing (and enjoying) the purpose he has set out for you.

As Paul wrote, this kind of ambition to live a “quiet, productive life” doesn’t leave a lot of time to ruminate over what you do or don’t have – or plot to take things from others.

I suspect you struggle with envy and greed – but probably not genuine covetousness as did Paul. However, Paul’s answer works for it all. What we have been given – much or little – is to be used to accomplish God’s purposes with our lives. That is true contentment.

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  • Avatar
    Tim Winn

    A couple of years ago during a Bible study, it occurred to me that “contentment” is not what I had always thought it to be: that it was settling for something (as in, “Oh, well, I guess I will just be content with what I have, rather than get what I really want.”) It occurred to me that to be content is the very highest state in which I can be. To be content is to be surrendered to what He has provided. I am content.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Tim. As usual, you get to the heart of things. I believe many, many people see contentment as merely resigning themselves to their “lot” in life. It’s passive. That’s not true, is it? Contentment is the only way to truly live.

  • Avatar
    Russell Brown

    Thanks Fred. I think your blog today is one of the more meaningful that you have shared. I hope to perfect “contentment” in my life in the days ahead and model it for my grandkids.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Russell. The normal definition of contentment is hard to overcome but gratitude is the way to go.

  • Avatar
    mark neuenschwander

    Paul saying he has “learned the SECRET of being content.” suggests that contentment is not something that is intrinsically known how to achieve.

    Paul says, “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” then shares the secret: “I can do all (these) things through Christ who gives me strength”

    I find it tragic when this text (Philippians 4:13) is gerrymandered out of its context and slathered in decoupage to vote in one’s favor. As one of the best known verses in the Bible, it, perhaps more than any other, has been made to say the exact opposite of what the author and Author intended.

    Its hardly a mantra for achieving and acquiring anything one desires. The secret is finding strength from acquiescing to the will of Christ whether the S&P 500 is up or down.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Mark, I agree this has been one of those verses that has been taken out of context as much or more than any verse I know. Maybe the second would be “greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.” We want to make the odds in our favor.

  • Avatar
    Dave Stravers

    in your definition of contentment, you have also defined joy. “Joy is not the fulfillment of desire.” -Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina

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