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Being Content

By Charles Rush

July 1, 2001

Exodus 20: 1-3, 17


S t
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.[1][1]

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 start ups.

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.[2][2]

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.[3][3]

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 attention?

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.[4][4] 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?[5][5]

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 had lost.

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.

  • First, 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 eternally.
  • 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.

Amen.



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