From my Book Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God (2012).
OVERCOMING COVETOUSNESS: THROUGH REDEEMED DESIRES
How do we overcome covetousness? The Christian answer to this question is not simply a negative path of prohibition as could be implied by the Tenth Command itself. Some of the passages we cited above give us clues to how we can do this. Essentially it is all about having the right desires.
Christians Redeem Desire. The different religious systems have different approaches to the question of desire. Some say we must deny desires. In the Buddhist system a people reach the highest state of advancement or salvation (Nirvana), when they lose all desire, even the desire to continue living. Christianity however has a doctrine of creation which says that desire itself and many things in this world are good because God created them, and therefore they don’t need to be denied. So the new heaven and new earth are described using very earthly categories as a place where human desires are fully satisfied.
Some hedonists say that all desire must be indulged not denied. A popular radio station in Sri Lanka is using as their main advertising slogan these days: “Be a slave to your feelings.” The so-called Playboy Philosophy proclaims, “Don’t give temptation a second thought; give in at the first!”
A lady whose husband came to Christ from a lifestyle that involved a lot of reveling, partying and drinking was greatly relieved that he stopped his bad habits and temper tantrums after becoming a Christian. However, she told us that she will not give herself fully to the Christian way because she wanted to pursue pleasure. I thought about this a lot and then realized that I too am committed to pursuing pleasure. The only difference is that I have found as my source of pleasure the One who created our capacity for pleasure. And he fulfills me completely. You cannot revolt against your humanness and expect to be truly satisfied. Fortunately this lady realized this and subsequently yielded to the claims of Christ.
The Christian approach to desire is to let Christ redeem it. Then we use the things of this world—things that people lust after and end up sinning—as means of bringing glory to God. We too are people burning with desire—a desire for the pleasures of enjoying God and bringing glory to him in all we do. And that includes having fun. In that sense we too are hedonists. I was surprised when John Piper gave to his influential book Desiring God the sub-title: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Shortly after the book was published I asked him why he chose I title that could so easily be misunderstood. He told me that he felt there was a need to see this theme brought back to the forefront considering how people are moving away from God in the pursuit of pleasure. Over the years I have come to agree with him. We have a pleasure that satisfies our deepest desires in a way that nothing else on earth can. We pursue that pleasure.
In the late nineties I supervised our evangelistic outreach to English-speaking (mostly affluent) youth for two years. The first program we had under my leadership was entitled, “The fun-filled fulfilled life.” I told how Christians are committed to having fun because God created our capacity to have fun. Many youth were very surprised by this emphasis. They had associated religion with duty not with fun!
There is an excitement to a life that is consumed by a passion. And we too are filled with a passion for the things that matter most in life. Let’s look at some of the verses we quoted to see what the passions of Christians are.
Desiring God. Paul tells Timothy to advise the rich, “…not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). When God becomes our passion, the power of other passions diminishes. We may not have some things we like to have, but we have God and he is enough. So though we may be deprived, according to some standards, we are not really deprived, because we have Jesus and he more than satisfies us. That is a key to contentment. So Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5).
The pioneer missionary and explorer David Livingstone (1813-1873) suffered much as he went to unexplored lands in the interior of Africa. His hope was to open routes for missionaries to come with the gospel and for legitimate traders to enter so that the terrible trade of humans as slaves would stop. “Largely due to his reports, it was not long before slavery was made illegal throughout the civilized world.” His arm was bitten and maimed by a lion; his wife died while he was on the field; he often suffered from dysentery and fever; the one house he built was burned down during a war; and most of the time he worked alone.
Someone once told Livingstone, “Dr. Livingstone, you have sacrificed a lot for the gospel.” The comment angered Livingstone who replied, “Sacrifice? The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God.” When he was asked what kept him going amidst all these problems, he replied that, even when delirious with fever, the words of Christ, “Lo I am with you always; even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), kept ringing in his ears. He once said, “Without Christ not one step; with him anywhere!”
In our discussion of 2:7 we quoted another heroic missionary John Stam who with his wife was martyred in China at the age of 29 years. He said, “Take away everything I have, but do not take away the sweetness of walking and talking with the King of glory.” St. Francis of Assisi said, “To him who tastes God, all the sweetness of the world will be but bitterness.” All three men quoted above were severely deprived in terms of earthly possessions. But they were content; for their greatest treasure in life was something that was not affected by the presence or absence of earthly possessions.
There is an old hymn by Johann Franck (1618-77) that I sing regularly during my personal devotions, partly because of its beautiful tune and harmony but mainly because of its powerful words. The first verse goes like this:
Jesu, priceless treasure, Source of purest pleasure,
Truest friend to me.
Ah, how long I’ve panted, and my heart hath fainted,
Thirsting, Lord, for Thee.
Thine I am, oh spotless Lamb!
I will suffer naught to hide Thee, Naught I ask beside Thee.
That is the type of contentment we have in Christ.
God knows what we need. And when he comes into our lives he will make sure that we have that. Paul wrote from prison: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11-12). As he was in prison Paul had many needs from an earthly way of looking at things. But a few verses later Paul said, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). God knows what we really need, and he will give us that.
God’s path may take us through tough experiences just as it took Paul to prison. Yet, as Paul said, we can be content with life in whatever our circumstance may be, for the God who knows our every need is with us. Though written from prison Philippians is a book filled with the theme of joy. The words “joy” and “rejoice” appear thirteen times in this Epistle in my ESV Bible. Paul had learned to “rejoice in the Lord.” So twice he gives this as a command to the Philippians (Phil. 3:1; 4:4). Philippians 4:4 is particularly significant. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This is to be done not sometimes, but always. Some might object to this saying, “How can we rejoice when things are going really badly?” Perhaps anticipating this, Paul continues saying, “…again I will say, Rejoice.”
Desiring Godliness. When doing a personal study of the themes emphasized by Paul in his Epistles, I was surprised to find that 1400 of the 2005 verses in Paul’s Epistles touched on the theme of godliness, that is, over seventy percent of the verses. Clearly it was a key theme in his teaching to the young churches. Paul’s autobiographical statements show that he was consumed by a passion for holiness. Listen to some of his classic passages,
- Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philip. 3:12-14).
- Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
But this pursuit of holiness is not simply a duty to perform only because it is the correct way to live. It is the path to contentment. Paul said, “…there is great gain in godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). Godliness is the path to contentment. Holiness and happiness are tied. When we live unholy lives we violate our humanness. We fall short of what we are made to be and therefore we cannot be fulfilled. In our study of 2:24-25 we quoted the words of the American Methodist preacher Henry Clay Morrison (1857-1942) who said, “God never fixed me up so that I could not sin. He fixed me us so that I could not sin and enjoy it.”
The desire for possessions, for success and other things is subsumed under the desire for holiness. So when we lose something which we like or desire, we do not fret and lose our joy. Instead we give ourselves a little slap on the cheek and say, “Thanks, Lord, I needed that!” As Hebrews 13:3-11 teaches us, these are disciplines which the Lord allows to help us to become godlier people. We often forget that in many of the passages that talk of goodness resulting from trouble, the goodness that does result is godliness (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:28-29; Jas. 1:2-4).
When our desire to be holy is primary in our lives, there is a moderating affect on our other desires. If we fear that we are desiring something too much we will drop it for fear of losing our godliness. When we are not given a promotions that we desire, we do not rant and rave and do all we can to show that the company made a wrong decision. We simply accept the decision and concentrate on doing our job well and having Christ-like attitudes at work. If we are not sure whether a desire is within God’s will or not we are willing to drop it altogether because, when it comes to holiness, we think it is better to be safe than sorry. It is safer to drop the thing we desire altogether than pursue a grey area and end up sinning.
Desiring to Give. Paul also advised that the rich, “are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19). This can be another way avoid covetousness. Without focusing our attention on how much we can get for ourselves we focus our attention on how much we can help people. This is a case of following Paul’s advice: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). The desire to help people and to do good takes away the force of unhealthy desires to acquire things for ourselves.
Actually the pleasure that comes from giving can exceed the pleasure that comes from acquiring things for oneself. When you abandon your claim to something, it gives a freedom that can be exhilarating. This may be caused by the joy of having love go through us to others. It could also come from the sense of freedom of knowing that we are not bound by the heavy weight of materialism. The Christian then is one with an ambition to serve others; an ambition which brings with it some rich rewards. Paul explained: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
Desiring Heaven. Another way to overcome covetousness is having a desire for heaven. Earlier we cited Hebrews 13:13-14: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Though we may look deprived in the world, it is not a major issue because we are looking forward to the riches we will inherit in heaven. After saying that the rich are “to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18) Paul described, a motivation for such generosity saying: “…thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:19). Jesus spoke of how laying up treasures in heaven changes our perspective to life: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
All three texts quoted above present the desire for heaven as something which purifies our lives. It helps us look at earthly desires from a proper perspective. These are things that won’t last, so we do not need to fret about them. I had an aunt who was going to get a family heirloom that had been kept at my parents’ home. It was a half cupboard with a marble top. I was asked to transport it to her home in the van I use. I got someone who had come to do some work in my parents’ home to help me to put it in the van. As we were carrying it, it slipped out of his hand and went crashing to the ground.
The marble top which gave value to the cupboard had broken. I took the cupboard to my aunt’s home and told her what had happened. She smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it; we can’t take these things with us to heaven!” A few weeks later this aunt died at the relatively young age of fifty. But she was ready to go!
My main point has been that we overcome unhealthy desires and ambitions for people, property and possessions by adopting alternate desires and ambitions. This makes holiness into something pleasant. By striving for holiness we are not just performing a duty in order to live a good life, we are also achieving one of our ambitions in life.
 John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Third Edition (Sisters OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003). Originally published in 1986.
 J. W. Meiklejohn, “David Livingstone,” NIDCH
 From Sherwood Eliot Wirt and Kersten Beckstrom, Living Quotations for Christians (Yew York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974), p. 266.
 From More Precious than Gold: Psalm 19 (Herts, UK: Lion Publishing, 1985), p. 32.