Inside and Out
Posted by Ros Clarke, 19 Mar 2018
Ros Clarke concludes the second section of this year's Lent blogposts with a discussion of the tenth commandment. Catch up with all the posts here.
The tenth commandment
“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
Imagine you were an Israelite standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, listening to the Ten Commandments. At what point would you start to worry that this was a list of laws you could not keep? I guess it would depend how well you know yourself and how fully you understood what these laws required from you. But perhaps you might have thought that it was possible to manage the first three commandments: how could anything take the place of the God who saved you and why would you ever want to misuse his name or worship him wrongly? And as the list went on: you’ve always loved and honoured your parents, you think a day of rest sounds wonderful, and you’re a decent person: murder, theft, adultery, false witness all sound like things you’d never dream of doing.
But then God tells you not to covet. Suddenly that’s a whole different level of obedience. Because this is the only commandment which is specifically about our thoughts. The previous commandments do have implications for our thoughts as well as our actions, but there is no action associated with coveting. It is a state of mind, a thought. It’s internal, not external.
Keeping control of your thoughts is much, much harder than keeping control of your actions. And coveting is a particularly dangerous way of thinking.
Coveting doesn’t involve taking someone else’s stuff, but it is about wanting someone else’s stuff. Or their animals. Or their servants. Or their spouse. If we want something, we will be tempted to take it, and so coveting can lead to stealing.
But you aren’t a thief, so you don’t take it. Instead, you start to envy of the person it does belong to. Envy can lead to resentment, resentment can lead to anger and anger can lead to murder.
But you aren’t a murderer, so you keep your envy hidden. It’s hard when you see your neighbour’s wife every day. His very beautiful wife. And you start to wonder what it would be like to kiss her. To touch her. To have sex with her. Coveting your neighbour’s wife can lead to lust, and lust can lead to adultery.
But you aren’t an adulterer, so you go back inside and dismiss her from your mind. Only you know she would make you happy. She would give you everything you need to be satisfied. But only God can satisfy and we should find all our delight in him. You’ve started to think about her the way you should only be thinking about God. Covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
Coveting is a dangerous way of thinking. It’s sinful in itself and it leads to all kinds of other sins.
How is the tenth commandment a mirror?
God is not envious or covetous.* He doesn’t want anything that belongs to someone else, because the world and everything in it already belongs to him.
Our sinful nature is always making us greedily look out for things that aren’t ours so that we wish they were. Covetousness means looking at the world and everything in it… and wanting it. And so the tenth commandment shows us the heart of our sin: wanting to be God.
How is the tenth commandment a deterrent?
If the Israelites hadn’t been given this commandment, they might have thought that only their external behaviour mattered to God. They might have thought it would be enough to stop themselves from acting on their sinful thoughts.
But God requires us to be good on the inside. God’s standards are infinitely higher than anyone else’s. It doesn’t matter if other people see us doing lots of good things and think that we’re good people. God knows what we are like in our heads and our hearts.
And so the tenth commandment prompts us to change our thinking and our emotions. We don’t have to let our sinful nature take charge. We have the Spirit of God in us, transforming us, helping us to change from the inside.
How does the tenth commandment set a standard for our behaviour?
“But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.” (Matthew 15:18-20).
Don’t let your mind be taken over by covetous thoughts. As Jesus says, our actions spring out of our thoughts.
What can you do to stop thinking this way? How do we ‘take every thought captive for Christ’? (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Pray! Ask God to help you control your thoughts.
Practice! Plan and practice what you will do when you start to covet something.
Be aware! Notice when you are coveting something that isn’t yours.
Stop! Tell yourself that you don’t want to think that way.
Change! Make a conscious effort to think about something else. Perhaps memorise a Bible verse for this situation, or pray for the person whose belongings you are coveting.
It’ll be hard work at first, but it will get easier and the Holy Spirit will help you. It’s his job to make us more and more like Christ each day.
The ten commandments
“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’
Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’
The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” Exodus 20:18-21
The giving of the ten commandments was terrifying for the Israelites. They knew God as their saviour, but that did not make them complacent in his presence. Moses tells them not to be afraid, but also that the fear of God would keep them from sinning.
As Christians we too know that we do not need to be afraid of God, but that should not make us complacent in his presence. God is awesome and terrifying, he is all-powerful and all-knowing. And God cares about what we do and how we think. The fear of God should keep us from sinning.
Questions for reflection:
1. Why is it so dangerous to covet things which are not ours?
2. Is it more difficult to be obedient to God in your thoughts or your actions? Why?
3. Read through all of the ten commandments. How should Christians respond to these words of God?
Prayer: Almighty God, the world and everything in it is yours. Help us to be grateful for what we have and glad for others when they have more. Please guard our hearts and minds from covetousness, and teach us that true satisfaction and delight are found only in you.
Lord we know that we are sinners, inside and out. Thank you for sending the Lord Jesus to die for sinners, once for all, to bring us into relationship with you. May our salvation never make us complacent, but rather add grace upon grace by transforming our lives in obedience to your law. Amen.
*God is a jealous God. That is, he wants what is rightfully his. Envy is wanting what is rightfully someone else’s.
Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society
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