“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.”–Exodus 20:17
A few years ago, David Duchovny starred in a film called The Joneses about a team of stealth marketers who move into a wealthy neighborhood to “push” certain projects. If they had appeared as ad execs or worn company shirts, the neighbors would’ve been onto them, so instead, they played the role of a regular American family, and convinced their neighbors that various up-and-coming models and products were necessary for a happy life.
That gives “keeping up with the Joneses” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?
Somehow, our own sense of “need” versus “want” seems even more ingrained in our lives than that. When advising companies in how to market themselves, Lehman Brothers’ banker Paul Mazur said, “We must shift America from a needs to desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desire must overshadow his needs.” The physical emphasis drove stores to move their wares from the back storerooms to the displays we see everywhere when we shop today. No longer do we go to the store firm list in hand with only what we need highlighted, now we go and browse, and “window shop,” until our real money runs out.
That desire for more has been fighting in our souls since the dawn of humankind! But that desire, that covetousness, that impulse for more, more, more, has driven us to poverty and worse.
Is it possible that coveting something, that greed, is actually a “gateway drug”?
It is in Genesis 4, where Abel’s sacrifice is deemed acceptable and Cain’s is not. Cain is thought to have held back from giving his best to God, but when Abel’s sacrifice is pleasing, Cain is jealous… and kills Abel. We’ve graduated from greed to coveting to murder!
When David sees Bathsheba in II Samuel 11, he lusts, and his lust causes him to covet, to want what is not his, so he commits adultery, and to cover it up, he commits murder!
Over and over again, there’s someone who wants something that they either shouldn’t have or don’t need and it leads them to sin, over and over again.
In neither case is the desire a problem: Cain should want God to be pleased with him, David should want to be married to a woman who fulfilled him.
But the problem is that the object of their desire was someone else’s.
That happens with us today. We want something, and someone else gets it first. We see someone else have something, and we assume, like the neighbors to the Joneses, that we need to have it, too. We see it, we covet it, and we begin to resent the one who has what we don’t.
CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something. Only out of having more if than the next man”; Ellsworth Kalas, a Methodist pastor, wrote that “[Covetousness] makes us blind to our own wealth, prevents us from enjoying the beauty that is already ours.”
And just like everything else, if it can happen out “there,” it can happen in the church.
Acts 6: 1-4 tells us that as the early church formed, “the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—’Hellenists’—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines. So the Twelve called a meeting of the disciples. They said, ‘It wouldn’t be right for us to abandon our responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, friends, choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we’ll assign them this task. Meanwhile, we’ll stick to our assigned tasks of prayer and speaking God’s Word.'”
The Acts church was divided over who had what, and who had more. It doesn’t matter if the one group was actually receiving less or not, or in what order, it’s that even in the midst of the church having everything in common, the disciples were playing the “I need more” game.
It’s an age-old problem, and one that can’t be fixed easily. We long for bigger televisions, bigger churches, bigger cars. We live in a country with 6% of the world’s population and 25% of its oil usage, and wonder if global envy could lead to terrorism. We buy into our Protestant work ethic that hard work equals more money equals buying more to the point where we can’t experience satisfaction. We play the lottery, and hear that ninety percent of the winners play again… even while telling us that they wish they had never won.
In James, the author wrote a blistering message about greed and wanting more than we have: “Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.”
So what are we going to do about it? I think we must ask ourselves some pointed questions.
What do you covet? What do you wish you had that you didn’t? What would you sacrifice to get it? What things suffer when you want for something that isn’t yours to have?
What do we buy cheaper that leads to suffering of others?
What do we buy bigger that we don’t really need, when there’s someone else who could use what we have?
Does social media lead to a kind of “Facebook envy”? Does our constant ability to compare ourselves to others help or hurt us? Do we think we don’t have enough because we can’t take of our basic needs or because we compare what we have to someone else?
What could change our minds?
In his book Ten, Sean Gladding tells the story about a recently released con who moves into a halfway house. After dinner, she finds her roommate going through her own stuff, organizing it into two piles. The roommate turns to the recently released ex-con and gave her one who pile. “Why are you doing that?” “I’ve been going to a church ever since I got out. And the pastor preached on the fact that if we had two things, and someone else had none, we should give them one. So, here.”
Kyle Idleman wrote that “we live in a constant state of consumption, but there is a difference between being full and being fulfilled.” Nice wordplay, right? But isn’t it true? We’ve bought into the Lehman lie; we’ve perpetuated the belief that if it’s in the showroom, any showroom, that we need it. And yet, when we have it, it doesn’t matter. We don’t actually feel any better. We haven’t achieved any deeper happiness.
Somehow, when we give it away, when we recognize that we have enough and something more, then we feel better.
Do you believe you have enough? This week, find someone who needs more— and give. This week, give away what you’ve “stolen.” This week, recognize that God has given you enough.
This week, recognize the “and more” and give it away.
I encourage you this week to find someone who has less than you. If you can’t find them by Wednesday, let me know. Figure out how you can help them out of what you’ve got in abundance. Figure out a way to sacrifice what you have more of until they have enough– then figure out if there’s something extra you can do to bless them.
Chesterton also said that “there are two ways to get enough, or to be content with what we have. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” I don’t know that the “more” I’ve ever accumulated has made me feel content. I do know that the looking at what I have, in family, in friends, in relationships, in health and happiness, that has lead to being content.
Being content means recognizing that God has promised to love us, protect us, walk with us, save us, and give to us what we need. And that God’s promises have been proven true over and over again.
This week, rest in where you are. Recognize you are blessed. Then use that blessing to lift someone else a little bit higher.