This is the last commandment – but by no means the least. Lest we should fall into the trap of believing that outward observance of all the others would suffice, it deals with our inward attitude: the attitude that puts ‘Me’ and my wants above all else. “You shall not covet…” It was this commandment that opened Paul’s eyes to his own inner depravity (Romans 7:7).
This was the essence of mankind’s first temptation: to grasp for something that God had withheld from him. (Genesis 3:5) They had been given the whole world; yet they craved the one thing that God had forbidden. What was the bait that Satan held out? To be like God. Self-fulfilment was (and still is) the goal. “What Satan put into our heads was the idea that we could ‘be like gods’ – could set up on our own as if we had created ourselves – be our own masters – invent some sort of happiness for ourselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” (C S Lewis: Mere Christianity part 2 ch 3)
The idolisation of things is the predominant religion in all cultures. Most people are motivated by ambition or greed (Ecclesiastes 4:4). This is why and how advertising works. Consequently, society runs on (and is also dictated by) acquisitiveness and competitiveness.A vicious circle is set up in which our most destructive urges are pandered to, encouraged, and cultivated. Political and economic thinking ends up being locked into the mindless pursuit of an ever-increasing (and ultimately unsustainable) standard of living – because money is addictive (Ecclesiastes 5:10). And most of the time, we do not realise what is going on.
We have seen a shift in attitude taking place in our society over just the last few decades: to be in debt, a situation that our grandparents made strenuous efforts to avoid, has become not merely ‘normal’ but something to be aspired to! Millions of people in the UK are living beyond their means, borrowing money not just for mortgages but to pay household bills and to buy ‘luxuries’ such as holidays.
Such an attitude is a big threat to the Church (James 4:1-3). It feeds our natural tendency towards greed and selfishness, leads us to commit more obvious sins (such as theft and adultery), poisons our relationships with other people, and is responsible for most of our unhappiness. And it betrays a lack of trust in the One who cares for us and provides us with everything that we need. Truly, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (I Timothy 6:9,10)
The opposite of covetousness is contentment (Philippians 4:12,13). Nothing could be more counter-cultural than Paul’s words to Timothy: “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (I Timothy 6:7) It is because unbelievers have no caring heavenly Father to trust in that they are obsessed with the things of this world. All their time and energy is therefore directed towards feeding, clothing, decorating, pampering and entertaining their bodies – what else do they have to live for? But we have a heavenly Father who looks after us and will supply all our needs (but not our every want). If we really believe this, we will live differently. “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5)
Here is an extract from The Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle:
“Our Christian obedience demands a simple lifestyle, irrespective of the needs of others. Nevertheless, the facts that 800 million people are destitute and that about 10,000 die of starvation every day make any other lifestyle indefensible.
While some of us have been called to live among the poor, and others to open our homes to the needy, all of us are determined to develop a simpler lifestyle. We intend to re-examine our income and expenditure, in order to manage on less and give away more. We lay down no rules or regulations for either ourselves or others. Yet we resolve to renounce waste and oppose extravagance in personal living, clothing and housing, travel and church building. We also accept the distinction between necessities and luxuries, creative hobbies and empty status symbols, modesty and vanity, occasional celebrations and normal routine, between service of God and slavery to fashion. Where to draw the line requires conscientious thought and decision by us, together with members of our families.” (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation, March 1980)
Everyone has some kind of ambition. Most people in the world are out for as much as they can get; if they get more honour than they deserve, so much the better! (Luke 14:7-11) But Jesus set us a totally different example: “He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” (Philippians 2:6) He came as a servant, lived as a member of the working class, and rejected Satan’s offer of “all the kingdoms of the world.” (Luke 4:5-8) Is this the typical ‘Christian’ lifestyle? “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (I Thessalonians 4:11,12)
Not all ambition is bad; indeed, some form of ambition is essential. Our lives must have some focus, some direction. So let’s make sure we are aiming for something good – something of long-lasting (even eternal) significance (Philippians 4:8). Let’s invest our time and our energy in God’s Kingdom (Luke 12:29-31). ‘Leading a quiet life’ doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from the outside world, neglecting to use the gifts that God has given us; it means leaving enough time and space for whatever form of service or mission God calls us to. It means giving personal righteousness and social justice a higher priority than accumulating money and possessions.
The world tells us to seek money, status and power. But it cannot guarantee that we shall get what we desire (Haggai 1:9).If we really put a greater value on heavenly treasure (Matthew 6:19,20) than on the empty status symbols of our contemporary culture, then we shall not pursue them. And then we shall indeed find self-fulfilment (Matthew 5:6). We need to get our priorities right.If we do God’s will and aim to promote His glory, He will look after us – and everything else will fall into its proper place. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)