In my last post I took a cursory look at the Tenth Commandment’s admonition against coveting, and I specifically explored the warning against coveting another person’s spouse. While I did not intend to imply that single people do not struggle with this temptation, it was largely absent from my experience as a single woman, which is why I haven’t given this temptation much thought until recently.
I am also convinced, however, that my lack of consideration resulted from a lack of discussion among friends. From the pulpit we are warned about adultery and avoiding compromising situations, but the conversation doesn’t seem to go much farther than that. It’s an uncomfortable topic that is often fraught with shame, so many Christians keep those struggles to themselves.
Bearing that silence in mind, I want to bring this topic to the table for discussion. In particular, I want to spend this blog looking at some of the underlying issues involved. Before the temptation even arises, it’s important to have a working knowledge of its dynamics and how to respond. In a way, the tenth commandment is our first line of defense, a fail-safe that keeps our hearts in check before we’re in so deep that our hearts become calloused. What follows are some thoughts on how best to fight this sin before it takes root.
A helpful starting point is the basic structure of the Ten Commandments. The first five are explicitly God-oriented, whereas the last five are explicitly man-oriented. In other words, the Ten Commandments are kind of like a detailed version of Jesus’ “Greatest Commandment” to love God and love others.
But what is particularly interesting about the tenth commandment is that it is the only man-oriented commandment that resides in the mind. The other four denounce visible actions, but the last one does not. The sin of coveting seems to manifest in a very different way, mentally.
I’ve spent the last couple of days reflecting on this difference and talking to Ike about it. Yesterday in the car I asked him, “Why do you think the first four, man-oriented commandments are about action, whereas the last one is about desire?” To that he responded, “Maybe coveting isn’t simply about desire. Maybe it is also an action.”
I think that is the key to understanding this verse. The context of the last 5 commandments is that of loving your neighbor, which means coveting is inherently tied to love. Actually, it is antithetical to love. It is an action that places a wedge between you and someone you are called to love. It is a divider of unity that begins invisibly but is very much real. And it is only a matter of time before that invisible disunion becomes visible.
Looking at my own life, the acting divisiveness of coveting is easy to see. Whenever I am jealous of another, I essentially see them as standing between me and the thing I want–whether it is success, money, or the perfect marriage. From a heart perspective, that person becomes less of a neighbor and more of an adversary.
And soon the symptoms of that perspective shine through. I take every opportunity to poke holes in their marriage or nitpick their lifestyle choices or malign their character. Not overtly, of course, but in the subtle, devious tone of concern and pious self-righteousness.
That is why coveting is so contrary to love. It is difficult to love someone who stands in the way of you and happiness. We may not think of jealousy in quite such extreme terms, but that is what jealousy boils down to. We would be happier if we either had what they have, or if neither of us had it at all. Either way, the other’s having detracts from our own contentment.
On the ground level, what does this mean when we’re alone in our thoughts, feeling covetous of another woman’s marriage or life? Rather than indulge those thoughts, believing they are inconsequential as long as no one hears them, the tenth commandment reminds us that coveting does violence to our unity with others and it eats away at the fabric of the church. It is no small thing. If I covet another woman’s husband, I am not loving her and I am actively disobeying God.
As a final note, it is also helpful to remember the illusion created by jealousy. The idea that our joy and contentment can be found in any person, object or career is a fantasy. This world is good but it is also broken, so as long as we seek our ultimate satisfaction in people or possessions we are bound to be disappointed. That perfect joy comes from Christ alone. From that angle, the tenth commandment is not only about loving your neighbor but it is also about loving God. When God is the primary object of your desire, there is nothing that can stand between you and loving your neighbor.