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Ten For Our Time: When Desire Turns Deadly

Matthew 5:14-20
Nearly a year ago now, I set myself to the task of preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. I will tell you that while it has not been an easy task, nevertheless it has been a great blessing to me to search out the truths contained in this portion of God’s word. I will tell you that while you may not have agreed with everything I have been led to say in these sermons, nevertheless your response has been tremendously encouraging to me. So many of you have written, called or spoken words of thanks for wrestling with the tough issues contained in what I have chosen to call the “Ten for Our Time.” Now I decided right from the very beginning that I would not take the Commandments in order, and I would not preach the sermons on consecutive Sundays. Instead, I decided to approach them as either inclination or circumstance dictated—and that is exactly what I have done. However, I knew before I began that the tenth Commandment—“Thou shalt not covet”—would have to be the one which I would consider last. If the first Commandment has the authority which goes with priority, then the tenth Commandment has the authority which goes with finality. The first nine of the Commandments ask us to be careful about what we do. The tenth Commandment asks us to be careful about what goes on in our hearts. In fact, it is this last Commandment which, I believe, sums up the meaning of the nine which precede it. Check them off with me …

The first Commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other Gods”—covetousness is the temptation to give possessions rather than God the top priority in our lives. The second says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”—covetousness tempts us to pursue impurity rather than purity. The third says, “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain”—covetousness tempts us to dishonor God’s name by being discontented with what He gives us. The fourth says, “Remember the Sabbath day.”—covetousness tempts us to gain an extra day’s advantage on the competition by working on the Sabbath. The fifth says, “Honor thy father and thy mother”—covetousness keeps us from doing all we can to care for those who are older. The sixth says, “Thou shalt not kill”—covetousness or the desire to gain more of something, is the root cause for most killing. The seventh says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”—covetousness tempts us with an improper desire for other relationships. The eighth says, “Thou shalt not steal”—that is covetousness put into action. The ninth says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”—covetousness tempts us to lie in order to gain something we desire. So the authority of the tenth Commandment rests in the fact that it condemns that inner attitude of heart, that motive, that desire which prompts all of the evils of which the other Commandments speak.

So now I wish to examine this tenth Commandment by posing and answering three questions: What is the definition for covetousness? What is the indication of covetousness? What is the correction to covetousness? One question at a time, please.

First question: What is the definition for covetousness?

We often refer to sins by alluding to different parts of the body. When we talk about lying, we think of the tongue. When we talk about envy, we think of the eye. When we talk about gluttony, we think of the mouth—in fact, the Latin word for throat is “gluttes.” When we talk about anger, we think of blood boiling. When we talk about pride, we think of a puffed-up chest. In the same manner, covetousness is usually portrayed by the hands—the covetous spirit is a greedy or grasping spirit.

Covetousness, quite simply, is the inordinate desire to possess something or someone. The key word is “inordinate.” It is not wrong to have simple desire. What is wrong is inordinate or improper desire. We must be clear at this point. Francis Xavier once said that he had heard thousands of confessions in his priestly career, but he had never heard one person confess the sin of covetousness. Well, what about you? You may have prayed a thousand prayers, but have you ever prayed earnestly about the sin of covetousness in your own life? Perhaps that is because there is confusion about what covetousness means. You see, we are all human beings. We have desires, motivations, impulses—these things are built into us by God. The Bible, for example, says that we have been given the desire to excel, to exceed, to gain, to advance—and the Bible says that we are to desire those things which are of worth and value. So there is nothing wrong with desire in and of itself, rather it is inordinate desire that is so deadly. Notice please, that the Commandment says, “Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.” If you want to have a roof over your head and share it with another—that is a healthy desire. If you want to work hard and develop a business and employ others in that business—that is a healthy desire. If you wish to cooperate with nature and produce that which is nourishing and good and which blesses the planet and the people of this planet, that is a healthy desire. On the other hand, when you want that which is evil, when you want that which belongs to someone else, when you want something so badly that you’re willing to do anything to get it, when you want what is wrong with such a passion that it eats away your soul, that is a desire which has turned deadly. That is covetousness. When we think of covetousness in these terms, surely we have to recognize that it is one of the truly besetting sins of our age.

Second question: What is the indication of covetousness?

I think covetousness manifests itself in a number of ways in our time, but surely the most obvious is in what I would term “conspicuous consumption”—an insatiable desire for things and possessions. Dear friends, we are blessed to live in the most affluent nation in all of the history of the world, and yet too often, that blessing has proven to be a curse. We are pressured at every turn to accumulate things. We are told repeatedly that acquisition is the secret to happiness. We tend to lose ourselves in a firestorm of spending, buying, getting, and holding. That’s our desire—yet we fail to realize that with this compulsive consumerism, we actually enslave ourselves. You see, things destroy freedom. We think we own things, but they actually own us. Oh, at first when we get them, we rejoice in the fact that we possess them, but rather soon, our possessions actually begin to possess us. Rather soon, they are delivering commands to us like “press me,” or “polish me,” or “patch me,” or “paint me,” or “prune me,” or “plaster me.” In order to keep and maintain the things we have, we soon find ourselves working for them. Eventually, we get tired of that, we set those things aside, and then we begin to covet something else. The whole cycle starts all over again. The desire becomes more and more insatiable.

I see it so often these days. Trisha and I, on the occasion of our wedding, received, as a gift from a friend, a lovely Lalique crystal vase. Over these forty years of our marriage, that Lalique vase has become a treasured possession. It occupies a place of honor in our home. Well, we had a chance to visit once in a palatial home, and when we stepped into the foyer of that home, we were confronted by a large table in the center of the foyer and large cases around the walls of the foyer. The table and the cases held what appeared to be every different kind of crystal Lalique ever created! As I looked at that, I realized that when you have them all, no one of them has any particular value. Dear friends, here is what is true: Conspicuous consumption is an exercise in futility. Compulsive acquisition is usually an effort to cover for spiritual poverty. The fact is that money can’t buy you happiness; possessions can’t buy you love; things can’t buy you a sense of meaning in life; inordinate desire can’t get you into heaven. Actually, the opposite is true. A man came into my office on one occasion, and wanted me to call his sister and rebuke her because of the way she was acting in an inheritance case. This man was demanding more than the will provided for him. When I refused to do what he asked, he became enraged. He said, “I’ll see my sister in hell,” and he stomped out, slamming the office door behind him. Well I don’t know if he will see his sister in hell or not, but I do know that at that moment he was in hell.

Covetousness, you see, which is so prevalent in our time, dishonors God, dishonors others, and dishonors ourselves. That is why it is so deadly. That is why “the bottom line” of the Ten Commandments reads, “Thou shalt not covet.”

Third question: What is the correction to covetousness?

Let me put it to you straight. The only thing that can cure a covetous life is conversion. The only thing that can eliminate greed in the heart is regeneration. The only way to break the grip of a grasping spirit is to be born again. The only way to conquer deadly desire is to come to Jesus Christ.

We learn that from Paul. Paul had a lot of trouble with covetousness in his life. In Romans chapter 7, Paul describes covetousness as the sin which entangled him. He pictures it like some huge, coiled snake wrapped around his heart. Then he confronted this tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” and he tells us what happened. The law provoked his sin. That is, the serpent, when confronted with the law, began to twist, writhe, squeeze, and strike. You see, whenever we are confronted with something wrong, we have a tendency to think about what it would be like to do that wrong thing. Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side of the law! When we are confronted with a “thou shalt not” something inside of us says, “That’s exactly what I want to do.” That’s what happened to Paul. He says in Romans 7, “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” When Paul saw that happening in himself, he described himself as hopeless. He described himself as dead. He cried out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Then Paul goes on to say that what the law couldn’t do and what he couldn’t do, Christ could do and Christ did do. What saved Paul was not the law from Sinai but the love from Calvary. That is why he could then say from the first verse in Romans 8, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In other words, we need to be converted; to be born again into newness of life; to live by the goodness of the grace of God in caring and sharing with other people. We need to be set free from faithless fear and foolish pride that tempt us to greedy and graspy living. Facing the tenth Commandment in the context of Jesus Christ, calls us to repentance–to turn again, in trust and in surrender, to the loving, forgiving, healing, redeeming, and amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ.

The world says, “The thing to do is get, get, get,” but God says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The world says, “Push the other person down so that you can make it to the top,” but God says, “We are members one of another.” The world says, “Possessions are the mark of success. Greatness is revealed by what you have,” but God says, “Let him who is greatest among you be the servant of all.” Dear friends, when the word of God is heard and heeded; when the love of Calvary comes flowing down; when the open heart of God bleeds into the open heart of a person, then that person’s heart is filled, that person’s fists are unclenched, and that person’s spirit begins to soar in life.

So I finish the “Ten for Our Time” like this…

Lloyd Douglas, the author of The Robe, had a friend who was a violin teacher. This teacher had a one-room studio in a building full of one-room studios. Lloyd Douglas went one day to visit this friend in his studio, and when he walked in the door, he said to the violinist, “Well, what’s the good news for today?” With that the violinist put down his violin, went over to where a tuning fork was suspended from the ceiling by a silken thread. He took a little mallet and he tapped the tuning fork. He then said, “This is the good news for today. That is an “A.” It was an “A” yesterday. It is an “A” today. It will be an “A” a thousand years from now. The soprano upstairs cannot sing on pitch. The tenor across the hall flats his high notes. The piano in the room next door needs to be tuned. All about me is noise, noise, and more noise, but the good news is that this is an “A.” I can always depend upon it.”

I want to suggest to you that it is veiy steadying to the soul to recognize that God’s law and God’s love are like that “A.” They are permanent. They never change. God’s law convicts us of sin. God’s love converts us away from sin. When we open our lives to God, in Jesus Christ, then we find that He has opened His heart to us, and in His grace, we then begin to live like children of the King…

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