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My neighbor has nice things and I want nice things too--is that coveting?
By Keith Rawlinson
Volunteer Budget Counselor

Thou shalt not covet.

I think that just about every adult American has heard of the ten commandments found in the book of Exodus in the Holy Bible.  Exodus 20:17 says that we shall not covet.  From time to time, I deal with people in counseling who misunderstand this verse.  Many people seem to think that this commandment means that it is wrong to want things that people around you have.  Well, its not necessarily true.  It is all right to want things that people around you have--it is not all right to covet.  That takes us to the core of the issue: what does it mean to covet?  Please keep in mind that this discussion is my own opinion on the matter, but scripture and life in general seem to support me.

What coveting does not mean.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives us two definitions for the word covet:

1 : to wish for earnestly.
2 : to desire what belongs to another inordinately or culpably.

The first definition, to wish for earnestly, is where most people get off track.  Earnestly means: strongly or with great emotion.  Thus, many people think that if you see something that belongs to your neighbor, or anyone else for that matter, and you want the same for yourself very, very badly, you are then coveting.  Can this really be what God had in mind?  If you see a couple with a strong, loving marriage and you want that with your spouse, is that coveting?  If you know someone who has worked hard and become successful, and you want to do the same, is that coveting?  Here's a good one:  if an unsaved person sees a Christian who has peace in his life from a close relationship with Christ, is it coveting if the unsaved person wants the same for himself?  Of course not!  All of the situations I just presented are good things; therefore, that first definition of covet can't be what God had in mind.

What coveting does mean.

God's position on the issue of coveting falls within the second definition of the word covet: to desire what belongs to another inordinately or culpably.  The word "inordinately" means more than what is usual, normal or acceptable.  Culpably, means in a manner worthy of blame or condemnation.  The meanings of these two words are what bring this second definition into alignment with God's intent.

If you want something inordinately, then you want it too much.  That is, after all, what inordinately means.  If you want something too much, then in some way, it will detract from you life.  It may damage relationships, it may cause you to act with greed, it may cause you to make bad decisions,  it may even harm your relationship with God.  If you want something culpably, that means you can be blamed or condemned for wanting it.  Therein lies the answer to the question of what coveting actually is.

The coveting test.

Put simply, the way to decide whether or not you are coveting is to ask yourself one question: do I want something like what the other person has, or do I want what the other person has?  In other words, do you want something similar to what they have, or do you want the very one they have?

If someone owns a nice car or a nice house, and I want to save up money so that I can afford to have a nice car or nice house too, then I am not coveting.  I don't want their car or their house--I just want one like it.  That is to say, I have no desire to take theirs away from them so I can have it.  But, if I try to destroy someone financially so that they will lose their house thus giving me the opportunity to buy it, then I am most definitely coveting.  If I try to get someone fired so that I can get their job, then I am coveting.  If I want to destroy someone's marriage so that I can have their spouse, then I am coveting.  That's the crux of the matter--if I'm not wanting to take something away from someone, then I am not coveting.  Be warned, though, that there is a second part to the coveting test.

The second part of the coveting test is to determine whether or not what you want is beneficial to your life and/or your relationship with God.  If you want something so inordinately that it is adversely affecting your life or your relationship with God, then it may very well be coveting.  But don't get coveting mixed up with greed.  Greed is wanting something too much, or wanting too much of it.  Greed means that you want something so badly, that you are willing to damage your life, or do things contrary to Christ's teachings, in order to get it.  Greed simply means that you want something so badly that you are letting it become way more important in your life than it should be.  It is possible to want something too much, and still not be coveting.  Greed and coveting often do go together, but they can also be two different things.

So, if your neighbor has nice things and that makes you want to have nice things too, and if it is pursued in a healthy, Christ-centered way, then that is not coveting.

If you want to take something away from someone else so that you can have it instead--that is coveting.

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