Fighting Covetousness by Looking at Others

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This is overflow from a pastoral staff discussion on how to be free from covetousness. Fred Johnson had drawn our attention to Achan’s stealing and lying in Joshua 7:11. Jericho had fallen before Israel. The riches of the city were not to be taken. But Achan took garments and silver and gold. He hid them and tried to deceive the leaders.

Why did he do this? When he was caught, Achan gives the answer: “I coveted them and took them” (Joshua 7:21). Covetousness. He desired the silver, gold, and garments more than he desired fellowship with God.

There is no difference between the Hebrew word for desire and the Hebrew word for covet. Coveting means desiring something too much. And too much is measured by how that desiring compares to desiring God. If desiring leads you away from God rather than closer to God, it is covetousness. It is sin.

I suspect that the reason the Ten Commandments begin with the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) and ends with the commandment “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17) is that they are essentially the same commandment. They bracket the other eight and reveal their source.

Not coveting means not desiring anything in a way that diminishes God as your supreme treasure. And not having any gods before God means the same thing: Don’t treasure anything or anyone in a way that competes with God’s supreme place in your life. Idolatry is what we call disobedience to the first commandment. And idolatry is what Paul calls disobedience to the tenth commandment (Colossians 3:5).

So the reason Achan stole and lied is because God was not his supreme treasure. He was not satisfied in all that God promised to be for him. That is probably why Joshua said to Achan, when he was found out, “My son, give glory to the Lord God” (Joshua 7:19). It demeans the glory of God when we prefer anything above him. That was Achan’s chief sin. Desiring gold more than God equals covetousness—which equals idolatry.

So the pastoral staff pressed in on this and discussed how we can keep our lives free from this dreadful condition—desiring other things more than God, coveting, being idolaters. We talked about the importance of the word of God. “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalms 119:11). Yes. Amen. We all agreed with that.

One other main suggestion emerged from Philippians. Paul describes the condition we all want to be in. He says, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7–8). That is exactly the opposite of covetousness. That is the opposite of idolatry. That is supreme satisfaction in Christ. That is freedom.

But how, Paul? Do you have a practical suggestion that we can use to fight for this satisfaction in Christ? Here is what we saw in Philippians 3:17, and it is striking: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).

Here is amazingly practical help for us: Pick out some people whose lives show that they treasure Christ above other things. Then “keep your eyes on them.” Watch them. That, Paul says, is a good way to conquer covetousness.

There are some folks at Bethlehem whose maturity and wisdom and spiritual fruitfulness in their marriages, for example, is so admirable that I look at them and think about them a lot. When I am struggling with what I should feel and do in my marriage, I think about what they would do. I think Paul means something like that.

I would only add that it is good to have some dead saints to “keep your eyes on” as well. That’s what biographies are for.

So we as pastors would exhort you all to flee covetousness. Topple all your idols. “Count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.” Be in the word every day. But also find those who live this way and “keep your eyes on them.” What you will see, if you look carefully, is the power and the beauty of Christ. This sight will satisfy your soul. And your satisfied soul will keep you from stealing and lying. And your life will make God look supremely valuable.

Looking at you and Paul and Christ with joy,

Pastor John