Contentment and Covetousness
Contentment is the proper attitude we should have to our position in life; The Shorter Catechism (Ans. 80) includes ‘full contentment with our own condition’ among the duties that are required by the Tenth Commandment – which declares: ‘Thou shalt not covet’. Matthew Poole (on Col. 3:5) explains covetousness as ‘an immoderate desire after, and cleaving to, the things of this world’. The Hebrew word translated as covet has the basic meaning of desire, but in the Tenth Commandment it clearly has a negative connotation: that of ‘an inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire’.1 Covetousness is natural to fallen human beings; yet, no doubt, the desires of everyone, even of the most wicked, are in God’s goodness restrained in some degree – otherwise the world would become an impossible place to live in. What restrains the desires of believers is a dominant principle of grace, but this is entirely absent from the souls of the unconverted.
In some cases, covetousness may lead on to violent robbery; in other cases, the discontentment may be bottled up within the person’s spirit. Even God’s children may have inordinate desires for what does not belong to them; they have not yet attained to full contentment with their own condition. But these selfish desires are not natural to their new nature, and will be gradually subdued by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, until they are made perfectly holy, even in their desires, as they enter glory.
Colossians 3:5 describes covetousness as idolatry; therefore the sin of covetousness involves worshipping the creature – what God has created – in place of the Creator. On the other hand, ‘full contentment with our own condition’ implies a recognition that God is ruling over everything and that he knows what is best for us. Thus as, by God’s grace, believers increasingly recognise these truths, they will be more and more contented and correspondingly less prone to covetousness.
The Tenth Commandment does not directly forbid outward transgressions; its focus is on heart sin, sin that no other person is able to discern readily. Yet God sees it all and will punish all covetousness – if not on the person who has sinned, then on the divine Substitute, who ‘came into the world to save sinners’.
A realistic view of ourselves and our proneness to sin – and, in particular, to covetousness – should lead us to pray. So the godly man who wrote Psalm 119 cried, ‘Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness’ (v. 36). He wanted God to put a holy restraint on his desires, so that they would be under the influence of the commandments, rather than running after what he had no right to possess. To see the way someone is leaning – whether towards God or sin – will tell us much about that person’s spiritual standing. And a person’s desires will help them to recognise which way they are leaning – towards God or sin. Clearly we can deduce that the Psalmist was a godly man, for his desires, as in this prayer, were going out towards God’s testimonies (statements in which he is bearing witness to what he infallibly judges to be right or wrong) rather than to covetousness. How much we need the Psalmist’s prayer in an age as materialistic as ours!
We all have priorities in life. Christ teaches us what they ought to be: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matt. 6:33). So we are to desire the things of that kingdom: forgiveness, for example, a new heart, spiritual desires, faith and every other grace. Indeed we are told to ‘covet earnestly the best gifts’ (1 Cor. 12:31), to desire earnestly the greatest of blessings, including those just mentioned. In particular, we ought earnestly to desire righteousness of heart and life, through the work of the Holy Spirit producing obedience to God’s testimony as to what is his will for how we should live.
Those whose hearts are inclined towards God’s testimonies have his blessing. This Psalmist sang, ‘Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart’ (Psa. 119:2). Those who keep God’s commands, albeit imperfectly, pray that their hearts would be inclined to these commands; in other words, they are seeking God. Not least, they seek his gracious influence over their souls – and they do so wholeheartedly. The Psalmist acknowledged that God has ‘commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently’ (v 4), a command he was glad to put into practice. His resolve was: ‘I will delight myself in thy statutes’ (v. 16). Yet this resolve can only be put into practice by God’s grace.
Paul recognised his proneness to wander when he confessed, ‘The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do’ (Rom. 7:19). Yet how many in the whole of history have had their hearts more inclined to God’s testimonies than Paul? Very few, if any – apart from the spotless Lamb of God, whose heart was perfectly inclined to God’s testimonies. Yet Paul acknowledged, ‘I delight in the law of God after the inward man’. While he recognised his proneness to wander, he went on to ‘thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord’. He believed that through Christ he would be restrained from wandering, have his heart more and more inclined to God’s testimonies, and be brought at last to a state of perfection.
Apart from God powerfully inclining our heart towards his testimonies, we will wander; we will covet; we will desire what is wrong, what is not for God’s glory or our own good, especially our spiritual good – in other words, what will be damaging to our souls. So we need God to work in our hearts, so that we would lean away from covetousness towards his testimonies.
His work is thus described:
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you (Ezek. 36:25-27).
Here we have the Spirit’s work of regeneration in the soul, so that the heart of stone – on which God’s testimonies make no impression – is removed, to be replaced by a heart of flesh, which is alive and leans towards these testimonies. And God goes on to promise, as the result of the Spirit coming to dwell in the soul, ‘I will . . . cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them’; in other words, the person who is regenerated will give true obedience to God’s testimonies.
Yet the work of the Spirit begun in regeneration must continue; otherwise the heart will lean back again towards covetousness; the things of the world will have too great an influence on the soul, instead of the things of God. Which was why the Psalmist asked, ‘Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness’. This must be the prayer of believers today also. And as this Psalmist asked, ‘Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity’ (v. 37), so should we, lest we become overmuch impressed with the more plentiful, or better quality, or more stylish, possessions of others – and our hearts lean towards them in covetousness, not realising that what we are seeing is vanity, or emptiness (as the word vanity might be translated).
Of course, we need food, clothing, shelter and other such necessities, but we ought to be content with what we have (see Heb. 13:5), especially if we have a right to the promise in the same verse: ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’. Certainly people may have legitimate desires for more food, for example, or for food of better quality, but we may ask, How far can our desires go and still be legitimate? Where is the dividing line between legitimate desires and covetousness? It may be very difficult to tell. Which makes it all the more necessary to seek direction from above and to pray, ‘Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness’.
- TWOT Hebrew Lexicon, on Bible Works CD, version 4.0.
Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the November 2013 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.
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