But just as you get to the end of the list, as you rattle off the Sunday School lesson from the unconscious memory storage of your brain, something unexpected happens. “Don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t covet”.
Wait, what? Don’t covet?
You’re telling me that in the divine laws revealed by God He used one of his ten commandments to tell us not to covet? Alongside the abolition of murder and theft he saw it necessary to stop us coveting?
Now, for those of you playing along at home who aren’t aware, to covet is essentially to desire. But the commandment is not to just rid oneself of desire in a Buddhist aim to reach Nirvana, it is a command against desiring in a specific way. The commandment is that you shouldn’t covet someone else’s stuff. You are not to desire his wife or house or land “or anything that belongs to your neighbour”.
When you boil it down, this is almost a command against being dissatisfied.
Already this is revolutionary, and it got me thinking about our desires. What is the danger in longing for someone else’s things? And to what extent do any of us regulate our desires? If God considered it worth commanding alongside the other nine, should we not pay more attention to it?
And the more I considered coveting the more I realised its prevalence in our society. Even within our church circles our desires go relatively unchecked. A lot of our discipleship as Christians is to consider our actions (and rightly so), but God calls us to enquire within ourselves and to restrain our desires before they give birth to our behaviours. And while we would give ascent to the other nine, I wonder if we are even conscious that this tenth commandment exists. Like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, once awoken to this fact I began to see it everywhere - the secret sin right under our noses.
Our discontentment with our own lives, bodies, jobs; our yearning for someone else’s life, body, job. It is the ‘absolutely acceptable’ voice of pervasive dissatisfaction that colours so much of our conversations and lives. I thought about how many of my friends want more than they have, or find little contentment in their lives. How many people I know “need to get away” or are chasing an escape to another country and another life. It’s this sleepless pursuit, a waking dream of ‘want’, a restlessness, unsettledness, it is our unchecked desires for more than we have. It is covetousness.
And it isn’t a recent development either, this isn’t the consequence of the social media parade; a spectrum of wealth is not a development of recent history. There has always been someone who owns more, makes more, is more than you. Since the command was given, even long before it, all the way up until today the battle ground has been the same and so has the command. God gave us good laws to live by and among them is this chain for the insatiable beast of our hearts. Covetousness is never replete, and if unchecked it will turn and consume us.
As I weighed all this up it felt like a light had been shone on a previously unexamined part of our lives. Covetousness is all around us. Our daydreaming and online shopping bills; the blogs we read and images we feed on; the things that we don’t have, the cravings of our eyes; the pursuit of the great trip, the great life – all potentially innocent in itself, but if we’re honest, the majority of it is drenched in dissatisfaction and desire.
And the sobering question is; do we treat this the same way we treat murder? Are we adamant that we will never do it? Are we horrified when we hear it has happened? Are we willing to call it out as wrong and evil in our lives and the lives of our friends? Or has this law become a forgotten command?
Because as Christopher Wright concludes on this issue: “It is not surprising that a whole culture that systematically denies the transcendent by excluding the reality of the living God from the public domain, as western societies have been doing for generations, also ends up turning covetous self-interest into a socioeconomic ideology, rationalised, euphemised, and idolised.
Knowing full well that you cannot serve god and mammon, we have deliberately chosen mammon and declared that a person’s life does consist in the abundance of things possessed. And when a society has so profoundly and deliberately abandoned the first and tenth commandments, the moral vacuum that results from the loss of all those commandments in between soon follows’”
Sam Manchester is currently a theology student with an inescapable sociology degree behind him. In an attempt to reconcile the two, he reflects and writes about their coalescence in everyday life.
Sam's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-manchester.html