Wrong Desires

Wrong Desires

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 79-81)
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by Bob Burridge ©2011

In Question 79, the Westminster Shorter Catechism introduces the 10th Commandment by quoting Exodus 20:17, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

The Catechism explains the commandment in questions 80-81.

Question 80. What is required in the tenth commandment?
Answer. The tenth commandment requireth full contentment with our own condition, with a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor, and all that is his.

Question 81. What is forbidden in the tenth commandment?
Answer. The tenth commandment forbiddeth all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions or affections to any thing that is his.

If you look carefully, you can see that this commandment does not forbid coveting. It tells us not to covet things God has given to someone else. The original Hebrew word translated “covet” here is khamad (חמד). This is a common word that means “to desire, or to take pleasure in something.” That can be a good thing.

The Bible itself often uses this same word in a good way. Psalm 19:10 tells us to covet God’s judgments and righteous. In those places it uses this same word, khamad (חמד). Psalm 68:16 uses this same word to describe God’s own desire toward his dwelling place. These desires are obviously a good things. If we are commanded to covet good things, and God covets his dwelling place, the 10th Commandment cannot be forbidding us to have a strong desire for things.

In the New Testament the Greek word that translates this commandment is epithumeo (επιθυμεω). It is also used in a very positive way at times. In Luke 17:22 we are told to covet or to long for the return of Jesus Christ. In 1 Timothy 3:1 men are told that desiring the church office of Elder is a good thing. 1 Peter 1:2 says that the angels covet or desire to see the work of the gospel in God’s people.

We have to be careful if we simply shorten this commandment to say, “Thou shalt not covet … .” It is never wrong to have a strong desire for good things, or to strive hard to advance ourselves in ways pleasing to God.

God’s people are passionate about doing all they can for God’s glory. They want to be managers and enjoyers of all they rightly get and own. There is no excuse here for laziness, apathy, or indifference about the things God calls them to be doing.

This commandment warns us not to covet things
God has assigned to the care of others.

Exodus 20:17 lists some of the common causes of discontent in the time of Moses. It says that it is wrong to covet someone else’s spouse. The 7th Commandment makes it clear that it is immoral to be unfaithful to the person you marry. It is important to desire a good husband or wife while you are single. Once you are married, you need to be content with the one with whom you are joined.

To look for physical gratification outside of marriage is a tragic offense against God. Jesus said in Matthew 5:27-28 that even the desire for a different partner is in itself sin, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The commandment forbids coveting someone else’s servants, both male and female. In our culture most of us do not have the same kinds of servants they had then. In our economic system, this principle still applies as it applies to coveting another person’s hired helpers. Jealousy over someone else’s business deals or staff is morally evil.

It says that it is wrong to covet another person’s ox or donkey. I have never owned an ox or donkey. Few of us have today. Few of us want them. They were the tools for transportation, for clearing land, for construction, or for growing crops. Today you violate this moral principle when you covet your neighbors car, truck, lawnmower, cellphone, or computer. You should appreciate what they have, even work to be able to get one like it, but not to where you become upset that God gave it to them and not to you. You should be satisfied for the moment with what God gave you to use, and rejoice with your neighbor over his good blessings and without jealousy.

Then, to show how general this principle is, God adds that you should not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. Each person’s only concern is what God entrusts to his own care. What God gives to someone else should not be jealously coveted.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained
the moral principles behind God’s Commandments.

It is nothing less than rebellion to want things to be other than the way God wisely decrees them to be. Wrong desires are immoral.

The 10 Commandments are not ten separate laws made up at Sinai. They are summaries of larger moral principles God built into Creation. Taken together they show how the created world was designed to be so that it honors it’s Creator. It is how God’s eternal nature shows itself in the world he made.

Those who covet a different God, one who can be seen by our eyes, or treated more casually, violate the first 3 Commandments. They are discontent with what God truly is.

Those who covet the time God sets aside for the Sabbath break the 4th Commandment. When creation was completed the Creator set aside one day in seven to remember his making of all that is. This was given before sin entered the world, before nations arose out of the seed of Adam. He represented us all when God consecrated that 24 hour period out of every week. Though many temporary Sabbaths were later set up for Israel to teach about redemption from sin’s bondage, this Creation Sabbath is the Lord’s Day. He is Lord of the Sabbath. To make that day your own day, or to neglect honoring him on that day, is coveting and theft of time that is not yours.

Children who covet their parent’s authority, or adults who rebel against rightful authority, want things their own way. If we rebel against the order God established for our homes, our work, our church, or state, we violate the 5th commandment. It begins with wrong desires.

Violence and murder begins with discontent with someone else. Coveting their death or harm in ways contrary to God’s law violates the 6th Commandment.

We have already shown that the 7th Commandment is violated by any lusting outside of marriage.

The 8th Commandment against stealing begins with the desire to take what is not yours. It is wrong to covet things or money which God has given to someone else.

Even the 9th Commandment which forbids bearing false testimony begins in the heart with coveting. It starts with wanting things to be true which are not, and replacing them with a lie.

Coveting things contrary to God’s word and providence shows discontent with God himself. Coveting also shows a lack of love and appreciation for other people’s blessings.

Coveting rejects God’s order of things, shows a low respect for God’s blessing on others, and foolishly imagines that its own way would be better than God’s ways. It is wrong to covet against God’s provisions and moral principles. James 3:16, “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”

Since discontent is such a common weakness
we need to know how to deal with it.

There will be wrong desires that well up inside us. We need to know how God tells us to overcome them. There are three character traits connected with overcoming the sin of the 10th Commandment. God enables these traits in us by his gracious provision in Christ.

The first of these traits is honesty. Part of that is honestly admitting our guilt. That is what the word confession means as it is used in the Bible. Whenever you realize you are not satisfied with God’s blessings, admit it immediately. Admit it to yourself with no excuses. Admit it to God in sincere and humble prayer.

You can pray the prayer of the Psalmist in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.”

When a person is prone to be discontent with the way things are in God’s plan, when he makes excuses for his coveting, or wants to stay blissfully blind about it, if he isn’t concerned to repent sincerely of it, and come to the Savior to have his wrong desires forgiven and removed, then there is little confidence that he has been transformed by God’s grace.

Some say that desires alone are innocent, as long as you don’t act on them. God’s word tells us otherwise. Jesus corrected that excuse used by the Pharisees in his Sermon on the mount. The Pharisees allowed hatred in the heart, as long as it did not result in actual murder (Matthew 5:21). They allowed lust for another person’s wife, as long as it did not result in actual adultery (Matthew 5:27). In both cases, Jesus condemned the heart sin as being just as evil.

The heart and hand work together. We are whole persons not disconnected pieces. The hand is moved by the desires of the heart. The heart craves for a hand to do its bidding. This 10th Commandment condemns the wrong desire itself as being morally wrong.

Virtual sins, ones that are only in our minds, are still sins. This includes private fantasies, the use of pornography, computer or game simulations where sinful things are done by a person’s avatar, evil imaginations, unspoken jealousies, envy, and greed.

Those who truly love Christ should honestly admit how offensive discontent is toward God. Repentance is not simply regretting the consequences of your sins. It is about recognizing the depth of inward rebellion against God’s will.

Some excuse wrong secret inward desires because they do not do any real harm to anybody. However, harming someone is not what makes something a sin. God is offended. That is always morally unhealthy, and causes great harm to the offender, even if no other human ever finds out about it.

If you look to sinful thoughts for mental entertainment, then according to God’s word you’ve broken this 10th Commandment.

The Bible lists coveting among the most offensive sins against God. This is how it is treated in 1 Corinthians 6:10, Ephesians 5:5 and in other places.

Realizing the seriousness of inward discontent is God’s wake up call to the drowsy soul. In Romans 7:7 Paul said, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ ”

It was coveting that helped convince the Apostle Paul that he was a sinner in need of forgiveness.

Repentance is that deep sorrow and grief that comes when we know we have offended God. It is when we sincerely determine to stop doing what’s wrong.

The next character trait for overcoming discontent is trust. Faith is that faculty of trust implanted by God into his children when he regenerates them. The redeemed person comes to Jesus Christ humbly by sincere faith. He understands that Jesus Christ paid for even the most wicked of sins for his people.

When you covet, you should come to the Savior trusting in his forgiveness. Rely upon God’s promise that by faith in the work of the Savior who died in your place, you will be restored and transformed so that you can overcome your coveting.

When restored to fellowship with God by the mercies of Christ, you have the power to get so busy counting the blessings, that you stop being taken in by thoughts of greed, envy, and jealousy.

That brings us to the third character trait in overcoming our discontent: gratitude. You should appreciate what God gives you, rather than being jealous about what he gives to others.

Some have abused this commandment to justify apathy, laziness, and irresponsibility. No one should be so content that they do nothing to both use and improve what God entrusts to his care. Complacency is not the same as practicing contentment with God’s blessings. Contentment with what God gives does not mean you can be apathetic about improving your situation.

While Paul was held in Roman custody he wrote in Philippians 4:11, “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.”

The apostle did not covet the blessing of being free from prison. He did not complain that God was unfair in making him suffer while the wicked sat in palaces. He did not envy those living in their own comfortable homes back in Tarsus.

However, he did not just sit around apathetically accepting his imprisonment as an excuse to do nothing. He wrote elegant letters of inner peace and joy to encourage the churches. He knew that he should not be coveting the things God at the moment was withholding from him. His situation would not be improved by being envious and jealous of others. Instead, he made diligent use of the circumstances and blessings God had given him. He diligently prayed, he wrote letters, he testified to those in Rome about Christ.

There is a moral balance between contentment, and a desire to improve what God gives you. Some are so ambitiously driven that they hurt others to get what they want. We need to have contentment without laziness, and ambition without greed.

Overcoming covetousness includes active thankfulness for all of God’s blessings. It is important to remember that God is the source of all the good things we and others have. Never complain to him that you do not have all you want. Instead thank him for his promised comfort and presence even in times of want. Be glad for your brothers and sisters in the Lord, when your Father blesses them, even when they have things you do not have.

Thankfulness helps you develop throughout the day a more conscious awareness of God’s presence, goodness, and power.

It’s such a waste of life, when people are eaten up by covetousness. They spend their precious time regretting what they lack, being jealous, and envious of what others have. They miss out on making good use of what they do have.

Galatians 5:26, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”

Discontent is a dangerous and unhappy rebellion. The discontented person finds little joy in seeing others advance above himself, in their having things he cannot afford, or in the talents, popularity, and skills he lacks.

Never be jealous of someone else’s great hair, healthy constitution, clear complexion, or that they were born into a different economic level, a better family, or in a different era. The best satisfaction comes from knowing that God wisely orders things in his world. He blesses all with what he wants them to have, even though no one really deserves any good thing.

God’s word gives us a simple exercise to build up this spiritual virtue. He tells us to center our minds on the good things of God. In Philippians 4:8, Paul wrote these words from his imprisonment in Rome, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

The mind busy with appreciating the things of God while being thankful for every blessing, and making the best of what God has given, will have little room for wishes that things were different than what God has decreed to take place.

The steps to overcome covetousness are not complicated.

1. Be honest with yourself about your guilt. Confess it. Admit it openly to God. Be honest about how offensive discontentment is to God. Sincerely repent of it.

2. Trust the wisdom and love of God your Heavenly Father in how he gives things. Have faith in his perfect wisdom that cares deeply for you as his redeemed child. Be confident in his promises that the guilt of every believer is fully paid for in Jesus Christ.

3. Be humbly thankful for all God entrusts to your care. Be grateful for your part in the advance of his Kingdom, and for how he uses others differently, entrusting them with different responsibilities, opportunities, and possessions.

Find ways to use what you have, rather than being jealous for what you do not have. Be actively thankful for all that God gives you, and for what he gives to others. Fill your mind with thoughts about the good things that please God.

Coveting looks in the wrong place for inner peace and contentment.

Satisfaction in life does not come from what car you own, or what clothes you have in your closet. It is not found in how much people envy you, or in how much entertainment you can afford. It is found in the blessing of God upon lives lived humbly trusting in his love and grace.

Psalm 23 begins with those familiar words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When you put what you have to use in the best way you can to please God, you will be coveting only the good things our Lord promises and gives you.

God is the source of every good thing. He has determined what is best for his glory, and for you as his child. There is no rational justification for greed, discontent, envy, or jealousy. Coveting what God has given others is a deceptive infection that hurts and never helps.

Instead of vainly trying to push out greed, or to promise away jealousy by your own efforts, turn your eyes to Jesus Christ, and to the work of grace that redeemed you from your guilt. Look so hard at God’s mercy and blessings, both in yourself and in others around you, that greed and its companion sins will die from lack of attention.

This good focus for your thoughts will crowd out the wrong desires and jealousies. It leaves those discontented attitudes no soil in which to take root. It plants a fertile garden of God honoring attitudes that make for a healthier and happier family of God.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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