A Fatal Attraction
“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:
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.