By Charles Rush
July 1, 2001
Exodus 20: 1-3, 17
uff cannot make you happy. If you are unhappy, more stuff, more things, will not make you happy. Elvis had three jets, two Cadillacs, a Rolls, a Lincoln Continental, two station wagons, a Jeep, a custom touring bus, and three motorcycles. His favorite car was his 1960 Caddy limo. The top was covered with pearl-white Naugahyde (from all those dead Naughas) and the body was sprayed with 40 coats of special paint that included crushed diamonds. Nearly all the metal trim was plated in 18-karat gold. There were two gold-flake phones, as well as a gold vanity case with gold electric razor and gold hair clippers, an electric shoe buffer. The limo also had a gold-plated TV, a record player (kids, ask your parents what that was), an amplifier, an air conditioner, its own electrical system, and a refrigerator that could make ice in precisely two minutes. But, as you know, Elvis died a lonely and deeply unhappy man.
It’s not just a male thing, of course. When Diet Coke was available only in the U.S., Christina Onassis would
monthly dispatch a jet to the U.S. at the cost of $30,000 round trip to pick up
fresh cases of “the real thing.” Friends who were too busy to spend all their time with her were paid
$20,000 to $30,000 per month to be her pals. Yet, Christina Onassis died an unfulfilled and profoundly unhappy woman.
This is not news to us, that the super-rich can be extremely unhappy
people, because money and things are not what makes you happy. That doesn’t stop us from wanting them,
though, from coveting their money and their lives. Elvis and Onassis are old news, but it helps to see the sweep of
their lives to the very end. Similar
stories might soon be told about Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Michael Dell,
Craig MacCaw, and until recently so many beneficiaries of the IPO’s of internet
The 1st and the 10th commandments are the
bookends of the most important body of law in Western Civilization. They both deal with the intangible: the
first, with our relationship with God; the last, with our relationship with our
own souls. Of the ten, these two are the most spiritual commandments. Both involve matters which are nearly
impossible for any law to define. After
all, who can say when we are putting some other god ahead of Yahweh? And who can judge the difference between
proper wholesome desire, and coveting? Who, that is, but God—and … our own souls. Our own souls will collect their dues on coveting. Coveting is a secret sin, sometimes so
secret that we seem to hide it even from our own consciousness. But sooner or later, our souls will reveal
it to those closest to us usually just before we reveal it to ourselves.
A good definition of the word “covet” is “to desire inordinately or
without due regard for the rights of others.” Understand from the outset that coveting is something different from
desire. Of itself, desire is a good
thing. Desire moves us from ignorance
to knowledge, from poverty to abundance, from sickness to health. As Aristotle
would say, without desire, the world would die of inertia. But desire becomes evil when what we desire
is wrong, or when our desire violates the rights of another. When my desire for even a good thing makes
me covet what you have, my desire becomes a destructive force. Barbara Brown Taylor renders the 10th
command as Don’t fondle other people’s
things in your mind as if they were your own.
Coveting appears to be a primordial facet of the human soul. The Greeks told a story about a coveting
man. Zeus, the head of the Greek gods, came to this man and offered him
anything in the world, absolutely anything. There was just one catch, Zeus told him: his neighbor would receive
twice as much from Zeus. The man
thought a long time about the offer, and couldn’t stand the thought of his
neighbor having more than he had. Zeus’s offer of riches was eventually
consumed by the man’s jealously that his neighbor would have more. Finally, it came to him, and he made a
strange request. He said to Zeus: Okay,make me blind in just one of my eyes.
Some Eastern religions seek a goal of
non-desire as the spiritual pre-condition for Enlightenment. For them, perfect peace is synonymous with
wanting nothing—and there is much we can learn in this. Buddhism, for example, teaches that desire
is at the root of all suffering, so it seeks to put an end to desire
itself. Judaism and Christianity,
though, take a very different position. We believe that God has provided us with a universe full of good things,
and that God intended us to enjoy and to benefit from these gifts of the
Earth. As a result, we are constantly
required to make decisions. It might be
easier to rule out all desires than to regulate them but regulation is really
the key spiritual challenge in Christianity and Judaism. The way we handle our desire makes for a
lifetime of moral and spiritual education.
And we need a lifetime of education with our desires. As any parent
knows, almost all children manifest quite an ugly selfishness by the tender age
of two, before they have been socialized to greed. It runs deep. A teacher in a
laboratory school in England tried an experiment. She gave each of ten children in a classroom a different toy,
left them alone, and video-taped their behavior for the next 15 minutes from a
hidden observation point. Within 60
seconds, two of the children were pulling at others’ toys, while a third child
greedily collected the toys those two had laid aside. At the end of 15 minutes, three children were in possession of
two toys each; three had none; two had different toys from the ones with which
they had begun; two were huddled in corners, clutching the toys they had been
given and warily eyeing the other children.
It is at moments like these that parents renounce any romantic notions
of the innocence of children. Even children covet one another’s possessions.
Despite the fact this inordinate self-concern is nearly hard wired in our
systems, God has the audacity to say, Don’t
covet. What hope do any of us have
keeping such a commandment? It’s a
particular peril for us partly because possessions are (in one measure or
another) within reach of almost everyone in the Western world. Coveting is a useless enterprise in many
parts of the world, because most material possessions are unattainable. But here in the West, coveting is endorsed
by rational hope; here a person may well get what her neighbor has—and more,
too. And commercials encourage us to make inordinate desire part of our living.
It is ironic that the very fact of our abundance has given new power to
coveting. You might think that we would
stop coveting once we’re able to have so much, but it doesn’t work out that
way. Coveting isn’t cured by getting. It has virtually nothing to do with what we
have or what we need.
Coveting is a state of mind, not a state of the economy. What’s more, coveting is not limited to
material things. We may covet our
neighbor’s popularity. We may want her
club membership, or covet the office she holds in the church. Some people are fairly indifferent to money;
we might covet our neighbor’s social poise or his reputation. Ministers covet bigger churches with bigger
budgets. Coveting has many faces.
It’s all a matter of vision,
spiritual vision. Coveting springs from poor
spiritual vision. It begins with the
physical act of seeing: Genisis 2 records this in wonderful mythic language
when Eve eats from the fruit, the one fruit forbidden in the Garden of Eden.
She says, “ I saw, I desired, I took”. It is an ancient formula. We covet, though, when we don’t see enough.
Consider the thing itself. What’s the value of what I covet? If I covet my neighbor’s wife, is she of such value that I would trade
by my family, my sense of responsibility, my self-respect in order to gain
her? If I covet my neighbor’s position
of prominence, do I see how tiresome it may be to live a fishbowl of public
Coveting is almost always
nearsighted. It sees the destination, but
it doesn’t fairly estimate the road leading there. After a classical pianist had completed a concert, a fan said to
the performer, I’d give ten years of my
life to play like that! The
musician answered, “It cost me twenty.” Most of the things we covet—those things
that are worth having—are available if we’re willing to pay the price of time
and hard work. But coveting always
looks for a shortcut. We see all the
good things our neighbor has, ranging all the way from work success to a happy
marriage, but we can’t see the price that our neighbor has paid for them. We want our fortune with a lottery ticket.
We want to solve our personality problems with a weekend seminar, and get peace
of mind from a quick diet. It’s the
nature of coveting to be short-sighted, to look for instant pleasure.
This is irony of coveting. It
makes blind to our own wealth, prevents us from enjoying the beauty that is
already ours. So many people don’t
enjoy the home they have because their eyes are fixed on their neighbor’s
home. They don’t swim in the
friendships available to them because they covet those who live in the world of
glamor. They don’t drink in the color
and quality of their own street because they covet the mythical house on the
hill that keeps getting bigger and better appointed as we make more money and
seems to stay consistently in the distance like a mirage in the desert. No, the irony of coveting is that it robs us
of what we already have—including sound judgments about life.
You may recall the story of the Texas cheerleader’s mother several
years ago. This mother deeply desired
to see her daughter win a spot on the high school cheerleading squad. Something in this mom snapped. She ended up hiring a hit man to take out
her daughter’s rival. Coveting a
position for her daughter led to a death wish. She resented somebody else’s position so much that she destroyed
it. Now from a Texas prison she is out
of her daughter’s life completely. By
coveting more (and being willing to kill for it) she lost even what she had.
The key word in this commandment is my neighbor. Isn’t
it astonishing how the ordinary becomes extraordinary only if our
neighbor has one? A popular cartoon
shows an aerial picture of the corners of four pastures at the point where they
intersect. There is a cow in each
pasture, and each cow is reaching through the fence to eat the grass in the
next pasture. Why is it that the grass
is always greener on the other side of the fence?
The problem is that we see our neighbor as our competitor rather than our neighbor. A significant measure of friendship and Christian love is our
readiness to rejoice in our neighbor’s gain, particularly if that gain appeals
to us. A high school classmate reminded
me recently that I had won an award that he had wanted to win. For the life of me, I had forgotten
completely about the award—but I probably would have remembered it vividly if I
So how much do we love our neighbor—enough to rejoice in her good
fortune? Such is the blessing of the 10th
commandment. When I rejoice in my
neighbor’s having, I become rich. When
I covet, my life becomes small and petty, but when I rejoice with my neighbor,
my life has large boundaries. I feel
better about myself, because I’m more likeable when I’m not coveting. I feel better about God, because I can see
more of God’s goodness when I get out of my own small world. I feel better about life, because I see its
richness more clearly—I see what I have, instead of what I haven’t.
This is not
rocket science but something we have to return to regularly by way of reminder
in the world we have chosen for ourselves. Let me close with a couple of them
to help us move toward real contentment.
contentment does not reside in stuff. It is only about people, about integrity, about love. Stuff is
titillating. It is cool and it has its place. But it is what it is… stuff.
Funerals have a way of reminding us what is really real that we leave
- Secondly, watch where you look. If you know you covet cars, don’t hang
out at the dealership. I’m always
amazed at my friends that put themselves continually in social positions
that make themselves miserable.
- Thirdly, practice being content. A lot of this is opening yourself to
being loved, and, at some deep spiritual level, finding an acceptance of
yourself. It is a life long journey and you fall in and out of it many
times. But so much of what drives our inordinate desires of other people
and other people’s stuff, is that we are unhappy with who we are. We are
anxious that we are not good enough, at least not to ourselves. This
observation cuts right through class and success. People of enormous
achievement, with huge amounts of stuff, still think they are failures.
Don’t believe it. You are lying to yourself.
- Enjoy what you have— “Learn to want what you have and pretty
soon you will have what you want,” Barbara Brown Taylor once said. There
is an immediate beauty to the world around us, a wonder. Breathe it in.
- Limit your intake of advertisements. They are profoundly powerful and they
take on a life of their own. Truth be told, Madison Avenue is one of the
most dangerous streets in the world. In the words of Sargeant Phil from Hill
Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”
- Don’t covet the things you cannot have. Move on, and embrace the goodness of
your life now.
- Lastly, and ultimately, work on finding your
contentment in God. While in prison, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to his good
friends in Phillipi. He said, I have learned the great secret of
life, how to be content. Whether
it is the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, I am content because I
am in Christ Jesus. I have
strength for anything that life brings my way, because of the one who give
me the power to life.
Paul is right: in God and God alone will we discover
a way to live with sense of purpose, and with deep contentment.
© 2001 .
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