If Only...

Original Date: 
Sunday, November 20, 2016

Exodus 20:17 The Ten Commandments: If Only…

King George and the Ducky
I remember when I discovered VeggieTales. It was a revelation.

I was in my first year as a pastor. I was a grown man, a fully-formed adult. We didn’t have any kids yet. But we had these VHS tapes (yes, this was before DVD players) in our church library with talking vegetables that told Bible stories. So I thought I should watch one. And I was hooked!

The combination of fun animation, slapstick humor, and catchy tunes all had me laughing throughout each show. I loved the Silly Songs, especially the Water Buffalo Song (“Everybody’s got a water buffalo/where they come from I don’t know/yours is fast and mine is slow/ everybody’s got a water buffalo”).

But what I really appreciated was the way they told Bible stories in a way that kids could relate. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego become the story of Rack, Shack and Benny and an egotistical chocolate factory owner. The story of Jericho was told with angry French Peas and slushies thrown from a big wall. David and Goliath became Dave and the Giant Pickle. I remember we had some friends from Chicago come stay for a night and we spent the whole evening watching VeggieTales and roaring with laughter (again, four adults with no kids.)

But when I heard that VeggieTales had come out with their version of David and Bathsheba, I had my doubts. After all, David and Bathsheba is the Bible’s version of a daytime soap opera, complete with an adulterous affair, a conspiracy to commit murder, and a Watergate-level cover-up. How were they going to tell that story at a level kids could understand?

Well, they made it a story about coveting. They called it King George and the Ducky. Larry the Cucumber played a king who loved nothing more than taking baths with his rubber ducky. And he had the most extensive rubber ducky collection anybody had ever seen. But one day, as he gazed down from his palace rooftop, he saw Jr. Asparagus bathing with his own rubber ducky.
Suddenly, none of the duckies the king had were good enough, the only ducky that mattered was Jr.’s ducky. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t be happy, until he had Jr.’s ducky for his own. So he arranged for Jr. to go off to the Great Pie War, and he instructed his general to put Jr. at the front of the line and then fall back. Jr. got “creamed.” When he came back from the war he was suffering such severe post-traumatic stress disorder that he didn’t even notice that the king had stolen his rubber ducky.

I won’t tell you how it ends (I don’t want to spoil it for you!), but I have to say that it really is a brilliant retelling of the Biblical story. Because when you think about it, the story of David and Bathsheba with all its broken commandments—there is killing, there is adultery, there is stealing, there is lying—actually begins with a violation of the 10th commandment—David covets. Everything that follows springs from David’s desire to have what he should not have.

The Overlooked Commandment
Today we come to the end of our series on the 10 Commandments. We’ve been looking at how the commandments outline what it means for us to be in relationship with God—how they capture God’s will for us to love Him and to love others. We’ve seen how the law functions as an owner’s manual that tells us how to get the most out of this life, as a mirror which reflects back to us our need for a savior, and as a Valentine that shows us how to express our love to God by doing what He commands.

And today we come to the command about coveting. Exodus 20:17:

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

We might call this the overlooked commandment. The other commandments are big and splashy, for the most part it’s easy to tell when somebody breaks one of the other commandments. Taking the Lord’s name in vain? We can hear that. Working on the Sabbath? Pretty obvious. Killing somebody? You know it has happened because the other guy has stopped breathing.

But coveting is more internal. It’s more a condition of the heart and mind than an actual action. You can’t really tell when I’m coveting something of yours. I can’t tell when you are coveting something of mine.

And so it’s pretty easy for us to say: “I don’t steal. I try to tell the truth. I’m faithful to my spouse.” But we get to coveting and we sort of shrug our shoulders and say: “Well, doesn’t everybody do that?”

I’m afraid we do.

The Hebrew word rendered “covet” in v.17 is “hamad.” It comes from a root word meaning to delight in something, to desire something greatly. It is not necessarily a bad thing. There are certain desires that it is appropriate and good for us to have. If we didn’t desire food, we’d starve to death. If we didn’t desire to take care of our families, we wouldn’t go to work. If we didn’t desire God, we’d never come to church.

What makes coveting a problem is when we desire something that isn’t ours to have. When we crave, yearn for or hanker after something that belongs to someone else, that’s when we’re breaking this commandment. Coveting is the sin of greedily grasping after things within your heart that you know you should not have.

John Mackay calls coveting “a consuming desire to possess in a wrong way something belonging to another.” Philip Ryken says: “We often want the wrong thing, in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reason, and this is what the tenth commandment rules out.” (Exodus, p. 666, the Mackay quote is found here as well) My friend Matt says to covet is “to nurture a passion to posses something that you should not have.”

He goes on to say:

It is a craving either for something that belongs properly to someone else (as is clear from the word “neighbor” in v.17) or a craving for something that should not belong to you, yet. Coveting is a “grasping discontentedness.” It’s an overwhelming, internal desire to have something excessively, illegitimately, exploitatively, exclusively. (Matt Mitchell, Grasping Discontentedness, Sept. 10, 2000, unpublished sermon)

I’ll put it like this: Coveting is a sinful desire for that which God has not given to us. Coveting is being displeased with what we do have, and longing for that which we do not have. It is always wishing we had something else.

And God says that we should not do it.

Crossing the Line
I’m going to organize today’s sermon around three big questions. I’m going to ask: “When does it become coveting?” “Why is it a big deal?” And, “How can I escape it?” I’ll have several answers to each question.

So, first: When does it become coveting? Everybody wants, and wanting is not necessarily a bad thing. Like I said, there are some very legitimate desires. I also think it is a good thing to set goals and have dreams. God wants us to have a plan, to be intentional, and that is hard to do without some sort of idea of where we want to go. So the question is: when have we crossed the line? When have we moved from “It would be nice to have” to “I have sinful coveting in my heart”?

Let me suggest 5 litmus tests for coveting.

First, when it is something I’ll never own, and something I should never own. When God has said: “That’s not for you, you should not have that” but my heart keeps pining after it, that’s coveting.

The way the commandment is phrased gets right at this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” I might build a house similar to my neighbor’s or buy a donkey similar to his, but I can’t have his.

This is especially true of my neighbor’s spouse. God says: “That’s off limits.” When we are harboring feelings for someone else’s spouse, that’s coveting. It’s crossed the line. The Bible says: “Stop it.”

Second, when I can no longer rejoice with the person who does posses the thing, I’ve crossed the line into coveting. Somebody has something nice. Something good has happened to them. They’ve experienced blessing in some way. But instead of being happy for them, I wish I had what they have. I’m embittered and resentful. That green-eyed monster—jealousy—has taken up residence in my heart, and I am coveting.

A good illustration of this comes from the Biblical story of Leah and Rachel. Now, this is another Biblical soap opera, and the circumstances in which both of these sisters end up married to the same man are more than a little questionable. But Genesis 30 tells us that when Leah began having children, and Rachel didn’t, Rachel became jealous. Instead of being happy for her sister Rachel could only covet what she had, and it only led to more family drama and sin.

If we find ourselves having a hard time being happy when others get something we want—or even find ourselves becoming angry at their joy—we are breaking the 10th commandment.

Third, when the things I do have no longer matter compared to what I do not have, I am coveting. This one might cut a little close to home, because we are coming up on a day—Black Friday--that is built around the idea of getting more, getting new, getting better.

This is that feeling of standing in front of a closet packed with clothes and saying: “I have nothing to wear.” This is the feeling that says the car I have—the one that always starts and always gets me where I want to go—is a piece of junk compared to the car I really want. This is the feeling that says as soon as a new version of that cell phone comes out the old one is no longer worth owning.

Mark Buchanen calls it the “Cult of the Next Thing”. He writes:

I belong to the Cult of the Next Thing. It's dangerously easy to get enlisted. It happens by default—not by choosing the cult, but by failing to resist it. The Cult of the Next Thing is consumerism cast in religious terms…The Cult of the Next Thing's central message proclaims, "Crave and spend, for the Kingdom of Stuff is here”… Those caught up in the Cult of the Next Thing live endlessly, relentlessly for, well, the Next Thing—the next weekend, the next vacation, the next purchase, the next experience. For us, the impulse to seek the Next Thing is an instinct bred into us so young it seems genetic. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1999/september6/9ta062.html?start=1)

When we are constantly looking for more, when we find it impossible to be satisfied with what we have, we have ventured into the land of coveting. The story is told of a reporter who once asked the billionaire Nelson Rockefeller how much money it takes to be happy, his answer was: “Just a little bit more.”

Fourth, when I can no longer be happy without the thing, I am guilty of coveting.

Coveting says, “If I don’t have it, I won’t be happy.” We don’t say it out loud. That might tip our hand that we are greedy people. But our heart says it to us. It whispers it to us as we lay in bed at night. As we pass by it in the aisle at Wal-Mart. As we day-dream at work. “I must have it. I won’t rest until it is mine. And if I can’t get it legally…”

My friend Matt again:

Coveting is an internal grasping of discontentedness. Instead of saying, “I can do without this thing or person.” Or “I can be happy with or without this thing or person.” Coveting says, “This thing or person is essential to my well-being. If only...If only...then I will be happy.” That’s coveting. It’s easy to slip into, it’s easy to tell yourself in your heart of hearts that some thing or some one will make you content. But God forbids that kind of heart-attitude.

When we start telling ourselves “If only…” If only I had a new house. If only I had a new spouse. If only I had a different job or a new school or better kids or a new start in life or whatever, then I’d be happy…we have slipped into coveting.

Then, fifth, when I care only about me—not the well-being of others or the glory of God—then I am coveting. Whenever we want something, we need to ask ourselves: “Why do I want it?” Will possessing it help me to love God and love others? Or is it something I want only for my selfish pleasure?

The illustration of this comes in the story Jesus told of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. Jesus says: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (and many translations have the word “covetousness” there, greed and coveting here are the same thing) and then Jesus tells a story of a man who builds up huge barns and fills them to the full and then tells himself that he can eat, drink and be merry; only to have God come to him that night and demand his life. The point, Jesus says, is that when we store up things for ourselves but are not rich toward God, then we are fools. When we selfishly hoard for ourselves without an eye towards sharing with others, then we are guilty of greed. That’s sinful coveting.

So there are 5 ways you can check your heart to see if you are guilty of coveting. There are probably other signs as well. But now, let’s move on to the second question:

The Root Sin
Why is this a big deal? Why is coveting such a big deal? Why does God care if we are pining after something that belongs to someone else?

Obviously, this is a big deal. It made God’s top ten list. But that in itself is interesting. This command is not like the others in that this command is pretty much impossible to police. That is to say, most other ancient law codes are only concerned with outward behaviors. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. There are actions that reveal when those laws are being broken. But coveting is entirely inward. It’s a heart attitude. It is possible to covet without a single other person knowing we are doing it.

This is the difference between crime and sin. We police crimes. We have law codes to define which actions break society’s norms. But God is concerned about more than our outward actions; He’s concerned with the attitudes of our hearts. The fact that coveting is included in the 10 Commandments is one of the reasons Jesus can extend the law on murder to the way we think about our neighbor, or the law on adultery to include thoughts like lust. When we harbor covetous fantasies about our neighbor’s stuff we may not be committing any crime, but we are still sinning.

So the question, again, is: why is this a big deal? I have two answers.

The first is that coveting is the root of other sins. Coveting is like the gateway sin. It opens the door to all kinds of other problems. We saw this in the story of David and Bathsheba. Everything that happened—the affair, the unplanned pregnancy, the attempts to get Uriah to dishonor himself, the plot to have Uriah killed, the massive conspiracy to cover it all up—began when David spied Bathsheba from his rooftop and coveted her in his heart. Coveting opened the door to everything that followed.

James 4:1-3 puts it like this:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

This is how sinful deeds always start—with sinful desires. We see something we want. We start thinking about how much we want it. It dominates our thoughts until it becomes an obsession. Then we begin to plot and scheme how to get it. It doesn’t matter who gets hurt or how, our selfish desire to make ourselves happy drives all else away. Philip Ryken writes: “Unholy desires quickly turn into deadly desires.” (p. 668-669)

We think: it’s just a harmless daydream, nobody gets hurt. But the Bible says, all too often, those daydreams lead to something worse.

Then, the second reason coveting is a big deal is because it is idolatry. Coveting is idolatry. Colossians 3:1-6:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming
Did you catch that? Right at the end. “Evil desires and greed (read: coveting), which is idolatry.” Evil desires and greed are breaking the 1st Commandment. Putting someone or something above and before God as god. And verse 6 says, because of these things, the wrath of God is coming.

When we covet, it’s another way of saying that God cannot be trusted. We are revealing an unbelief in God’s care for us. We are revealing a lack of faith in Him.

If God has given a wife or a husband or an ox or a donkey or a car or a closet of clothes or a title or children or a bank account or athletic skill or popularity or a piece of property or anything else to someone else and not me, then I should trust God’s wisdom and forethought and discernment in keeping that from me and for them. I should trust God and be content with what God has presently given me and with what God has promised to give me in the future.

And when I can’t do that, when my thoughts are constantly running to what I don’t have and how others have gotten an unfair advantage over me and how I wish I had more or different or better and I just cannot be happy with where I am, then I am revealing a lack of trust in God. I am elevating those things to a status that God alone should have in my life. My discontent reveals a huge hole of unbelief deep in the bottom of my heart.

And that’s a big deal. Because God is passionately committed to being seen as trustworthy in the lives of His people. He wants us to treasure Him above all other things. He doesn’t want us turning to other things or other people to find our happiness, He wants us to find our joy in Him.

So He opposes coveting.

The Secret of being Content
So, now, final question: How do I escape it? How do I escape the grasping clutches of coveting?

If our hearts are hardwired to want what others have, if our culture is designed to have us always dreaming of the next thing, if it seems we are programmed to never be satisfied, then what can we do? Are we destined to always be held in the grips of this particular sin?

Like all sin, this one is hard to overcome. The goal is that we would find contentedness. That’s the opposite of coveting. Contentedness. And I believe there are three things we need to learn to say more often in order to learn to be more content.

First, we need to learn to say “thank you.” We can escape coveting if we learn to be thankful.

I will admit that when I planned this series on the Ten Commandments it never really occurred to me that we would have the sermon on coveting the Sunday before Thanksgiving. My goal was to finish this series in time for the beginning of Advent, which is next week. But I guess it is a happy coincidence that it worked out this way.

Because this week—at least, up until the shopping rush of Friday—is all about being grateful for what you have. One of the best ways to fight the temptation of always wishing you had things differently is to take stock and count the blessings you already possess.

This week I ran across the “Contentment Prayer” by George Herbert. In very few words it points us in the right direction. It says:

Lord Jesus,

You have given so much to me.

Give one thing more, a grateful heart.

Amen.

This is a simple prayer that we should all make a habit of praying. Pray it as you drive to work. Pray it as you come home in the evening. Pray it at the start and end of every day.

Try it for seven days and see if God doesn’t begin to change your own heart.

Second, we need to learn to say: “Enough.”

We tend to operate from a mindset of scarcity. From the very Garden of Eden, when the serpent convinced Adam and Eve that God was holding out on them, we have a tendency to think that there is never enough.

Mark Buchanan shares an Indian parable that illustrates this kind of thinking:

A guru had a disciple and was so pleased with the man's spiritual progress that he left him on his own. The man lived in a little mud hut. He lived simply, begging for his food. Each morning, after his devotions, the disciple washed his loincloth and hung it out to dry. One day, he came back to discover the loincloth torn and eaten by rats. He begged the villagers for another, and they gave it to him. But the rats ate that one, too. So he got himself a cat. That took care of the rats, but now when he begged for his food he had to beg for milk for his cat as well. "This won't do," he thought. "I'll get a cow." So he got a cow and found he had to beg now for fodder. So he decided to till and plant the ground around his hut. But soon he found no time for contemplation, so he hired servants to tend his farm. But overseeing the labors became a chore, so he married to have a wife to help him. After time, the disciple became the wealthiest man in the village.
The guru was traveling by there and stopped in. He was shocked to see that where once stood a simple mud hut there now loomed a palace surrounded by a vast estate, worked by many servants. "What is the meaning of this?" he asked his disciple.

"You won't believe this, sir," the man replied. "But there was no other way I could keep my loincloth."

Buchanan goes on to say:

We live in a culture of excess. A culture of more. A culture where we need to accumulate endlessly just to keep the loincloth. And the only way to break it is deliberately to lay hold of another way of seeing and living: we need an attitude of enough. G. K. Chesterton said, "There are two ways to get enough. One is to accumulate more and more. The other is to need less." The attitude of enough—actually, it's a spiritual orientation— is marked by trust, contentment, and thankfulness. It is the decision, with- out rationalization, to say, "This is enough. My home is big enough. My car is new enough. My possessions are plenty enough. I've eaten enough. I've taken enough. Enough is enough."

And when we begin to live out the spirituality of enough, there comes a point when we see that maybe we have more than enough. (“The Cult of the Next Thing”)

And then, finally, we need to learn to say: “Just Give Me Jesus.” When we can be satisfied in what Jesus does and is for us, then we can be content. When we can say: “I’ve got Jesus, I’ve got a good deal” then we can escape the clutches of coveting.

Philippians 4:10-13:

10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Paul is in a situation where he has just received a gift of money from the Philippians. He is rejoicing at their concern. But he wants them to know that it is not a coveting heart that makes him glad to receive the money. Indeed, he is able to be content in whatever circumstances he finds himself. Whether he is in jail or out, flush with cash or flat broke, well fed or hungry. He can be content because his happiness is not dependent on his situation or possessions.

What, then, is his secret to being content? “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In other words: “Just give me Jesus, and I’ll be all right.”

We can beat covetousness by being content in Jesus. Jesus is enough.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
and the things of the world will grow strangely dim
in the light of His glory and grace.