“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Command number ten. I have heard this command for so long that it feels like old hat to simply recite it. This morning, I grew curious about the word covet and what other connotations it carries. The concordance tells me that the word is תַחְמֹד which is a form of חָמַד (chamad) and that its root word can mean “to desire, covet, take pleasure in, delight in.” So coveting is just one of several possible meanings.
This begs the question of whether or not I am allowed to want things at all. The answer is: Yes. Wanting things is perfectly fine. There is a distinction that needs to be drawn and that I must keep in mind when considering this command. Wanting is not coveting. Wanting what belongs to someone else is coveting. If my friend has an awesome sound system installed in his car, there is a difference between wanting a system like it and wanting that system.To want that precise sound system is coveting whereas wanting one like it is just wanting a sound system of similar type and quality.
Some of the specifics seem woefully out of date, like servants and oxen and donkeys. Let me bring those into a more modern context. Let us translate servants to “direct reports” and ox to “tools” and donkey to “transportation.” The servant-to-direct report modernization is a bit rough, but the others are fair equivalent. Oxen were used for the heavy farming labor like plowing and donkeys were often used for transportation of people and goods (reference the fact that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey).
Some of specifics that God calls out seem rather timely. The prohibition against desiring your neighbor’s house is timely in a rough housing market. It is difficult to find a home when “investors” buy all the affordable properties and drive up housing prices and it is easy to see the homes that others have and wish they were yours. Living in a place where there are many beautiful homes (from the outside) lends itself to this particular temptation. What is more, I do not know the flaws in the house. It may leak when it rains or the insulation may be so bad that the heating and cooling bills are triple what they might otherwise be.
Delighting in your neighbor’s wife is a short road to adultery, so it is unsurprising that God includes this specific prohibition. But I want to take it a step further in my own personal application, I should not desire the traits of my neighbor’s wife. My wife has many wonderful attributes and it is too easy a thing to lose sight of those if I focus on the desirable attributes that someone else’s wife possesses. Suppose my wife were prone to random outbursts of tears (she is not) while my friend’s wife were completely even keel. It would be a simple thing for me to focus on the evenness of temper of my friend’s wife and lose sight of the fact that she is also uncommunicative (for example). I married my wife for reasons and I need to keep those in mind, not look at the things that might be desirable in the moment. For all I know, those things are only desirable because of a flaw in me that God is working on removing.
And that leads me to a hidden truth in this command. Wanting what someone else has is shortsighted. I see what that person has and want it because it looks good and pleasing from the outside. What I do not see are the trials and challenges that come with it. The house may have flaws that I cannot know unless I own it and live in it. Another person’s spouse has flaws that only reveal themselves on intimate knowledge created by spending extensive amounts of time in the same dwelling. Those people are still people and they look just as good before close quarters as one’s current spouse did. They will look just as flawed after time spent in close quarters. Everything that another person has brought with it certain faults and flaws and challenges and trials. I do not see those because I am looking from the outside in. The view is different from the inside out.
There is one exception to this rule of things looking different from the outside: God. He is Who He is no matter which way I look at Him and I can want as much of Him as I can handle and more besides. Even there, I can find myself wanting the gifts that God has given to another believer or the relationship they have with God. These desires distract and take my focus away from the reality that God will give me as much of Himself as I am willing to receive.
Let me not focus on what I do not have, but on what I do and on how much more my God is ready, willing, and able to pour out on me and into me. My wife is a wonderful, Godly lady. She is not perfect, but I am certain that a perfect wife would piss me right off. My children are happy, loving little people. They are also not perfect or even as well behaved as I would like, but (to borrow from Mary Poppins) still there’s time; there’s time. I do not possess all the things I would like — a house, etc. — but I also do not have to keep one up or maintain the yard and garden which is somewhat beneficial for the place in which my family life currently is (a thing I had not appreciated until just this moment). What God withholds from me is sometimes as much a blessing as what He gives, if I only have eyes to see, ears to hear, and an understanding heart.
Father, thank You both for what You have given and what You have withheld. Teach me to focus on the good things You have provided and not the things You have withheld. Teach me to trust in Your love for me and Your desire to give me every good thing — every thing that will do me good and be profitable for Your kingdom.