“Thou Shalt Not Covet”

By Brent L. Top

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    The 10th commandment teaches that anything we permit to come between us and God—possessions, power, pleasure, or people—blocks our spiritual progress.

    In the early years of our marriage, my wife and I traveled as often as possible from our small northern Arizona community to the temple in Mesa. These temple trips always uplifted us spiritually and provided a needed diversion—an opportunity to forget about the difficulties of living on my meager income in our tiny, cramped home with three children.

    Occasionally after attending temple sessions, we entertained ourselves by going on what we jokingly called “coveting expeditions,” driving around in wealthy neighborhoods, fascinated by the large, beautiful homes. We imagined what it would be like to live in that kind of luxury, knowing we would never be able to afford such extravagance.

    Although they began as enjoyable fantasies, these trips sometimes left us with a vague feeling of frustration and restlessness. At the time, we didn’t think we were coveting, since we were not so consumed with desire for one of these homes that we would steal or commit a major sin to get it. Yet we discovered that we were vulnerable to the spirit of covetousness. Although what we were doing was really quite harmless, what we were feeling was rather uncomfortable. The words of the Lord from Mount Sinai came to mind: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s” (Ex. 20:17; emphasis added).

    Obviously, covetousness can be more than looking greedily upon the material possessions of others and desiring to have them for ourselves. It also may be an excessive desire for things that will satisfy our egos: physical attractiveness, power and influence, even the reputation for wisdom and goodness. It may also be too firm an attachment to things that are already ours. The Lord commanded Martin Harris, “Thou shalt not covet thine own property.” Instead, he was to “impart it freely” to further the work of the Lord, who had blessed him with it (D&C 19:26).

    It may be that this commandment has even greater relevance in today’s materialistic world than it did in Moses’ day or even in the early years of the Restoration. In our modern society, which urges people to satisfy their every desire, obedience to the 10th commandment affords us spiritual and temporal protection from the effects of a host of other evils. For example, when we faithfully abstain from covetousness, we will not fall into the traps of adultery or theft, for we will be free of the unrighteous desires that precede those sins. Thus, the commandment “Thou shalt not covet” is intrinsically related to many other commandments.

    Covetousness as Idolatry

    The Lord’s condemnation of covetousness is perhaps most closely related to the commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). In coveting, we are judging something to be more important and dear to us than God or obedience to his counsel. In this sense, covetousness is a form of idolatry (see Col. 3:5). It may not involve pagan worship or graven images in the religious sense, but it certainly includes having our “hearts … set so much upon the things of this world” and “the honors of men” (D&C 121:35) that we are in danger of forgetting about eternal, celestial objectives. Unrighteous covetousness creates divided loyalties that prevent complete consecration and total devotion to God and his kingdom.

    With his eternal perspective, the Savior taught:

    “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

    “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19–20).

    He added, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). When we wish to be among the Savior’s own, yet cling covetously to the things of the world, we let those worldly things become our masters and we soon become blinded to their impact on our lives.

    An Appetite That Grows

    As with all of God’s commandments, “Thou shalt not covet” is evidence of the Lord’s love and mercy and his desire to protect us from the painful consequences of sin. Even though it may seem comparatively innocent at first and free from the obvious dangers associated with other types of wickedness, coveting can become a monumental problem. President Ezra Taft Benson said materialism—one version of covetousness—is “one of the real plagues of our generation” (“To the Single Adult Brethren of the Church,” Ensign, May 1988, 53).

    This plague distracts us from that which alone brings fulfillment and peace—obtaining and keeping in our lives the influence of the Holy Ghost. “Obsession with riches … cankers and destroys,” President Gordon B. Hinckley declared (“Thou Shalt Not Covet,” Tambuli, February 1991, 6). Often the cankering of the soul and the destruction of our spiritual powers that stem from materialism, greed, jealousy, and envy are so slow that we may not even recognize them in ourselves until other, more serious problems appear.

    Furthermore, obtaining whatever worldly thing we covet never brings an end to our desires. The spirit of coveting always drives us to want more. Covetousness, envy, jealousy, and greed always escalate into a vicious spiral, as we seek greater and greater gratification but find less and less contentment.

    My wife and I learned a valuable lesson about this several years ago when we had the opportunity to build a new home. During the months of planning and building, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Even though we were blessed to have a nicer home with more comforts than we had ever had before, rather than being content, we began looking for ways to acquire more. We had to have new furniture for the room in which we entertained guests so we could put the old furniture in a room they would not visit as often. But our old TV didn’t go well with the new furniture, so we had to have a new TV. Our “needs” began to escalate.

    We finally came to our senses and realized we had succumbed to temptations we had thought would never afflict us. First, we allowed Satan to help us rationalize our desire for worldly gain so that it appeared justifiable, even noble; and second, we sacrificed our happiness and peace of mind in an attempt to acquire the things of the world. We found that when “all we’ve ever wanted” is fundamentally the temporal trappings of this world, we always want more than we have.

    Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin cautioned:

    “Satan knows our weaknesses. He puts attractive snares on our paths at just those moments when we are most vulnerable. … Sin may result from activities that begin innocently or that are perfectly legitimate in moderation, but in excess, they can cause us to veer from the straight and narrow path to our destruction. …

    “[One] temptation [that may] detour us is placing improper emphasis on the obtaining of material possessions. For example, we may build a beautiful, spacious home that is far larger than we need. We may spend far too much to decorate, furnish, and landscape it. And even if we are blessed enough to afford such luxury, we may be misdirecting resources that could be better used to build the kingdom of God or to feed and clothe our needy brothers and sisters” (“The Straight and Narrow Way,” Ensign, November 1990, 65; emphasis added).

    Strength in Charity

    In addition to protecting us from sin, obedience to the 10th commandment can offer us blessings that come from increasing our charity, making our service more productive, and developing greater compassion. These traits—all opposites of covetousness—can blossom in our lives when we do as the Lord has commanded in this dispensation: “See that ye love one another; cease to be covetous; learn to impart one to another as the gospel requires” (D&C 88:123; emphasis added).

    This command to lay aside our covetous desires for worldly things directs us onto the path of true discipleship. A heart filled with covetousness has no room for the all-consuming love of God required for exaltation.

    An episode in the life of the Master demonstrates this principle. When a young man asked the Savior what he might do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded by briefly reviewing all the commandments. The young man replied that he had kept those from his youth.

    “Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

    “And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:21–22).

    This rich young man, despite his obedience to the other commandments, was so attached to his temporal assets that they blocked his path to discipleship. It was not his riches that precluded him from the blessings and rewards of following the Savior but the honor and stature with which he regarded the things of the world. Jesus commented to his disciples, “How hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24). His disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). Jesus then declared that for people who trust in riches, salvation is impossible, but it is not impossible for those who trust in God and leave all for his sake; for such people, all things are possible (see Joseph Smith Translation, Mark 10:26).

    Seeking First the Kingdom

    The scriptures speak of a righteous striving that can be as intense as any unrighteous desire to obtain the things we covet. This righteous effort occurs when we in wisdom and balance diligently seek that which leads to eternal life. “Do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy,” the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob admonished. “Come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness” (2 Ne. 9:51; see also Isa. 55:1–3).

    After covetousness is rooted out of our lives, we can replace the old longings for earthly goods and passions with dedicated strivings for the treasures of heaven. Jacob characterized this as seeking first the kingdom of God. He also taught the best use of the worldly riches so many people seek:

    “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.

    “But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.

    “And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 2:17–19).

    There is a great need today to supplement God’s ancient command from Sinai—“Thou shalt not covet”—with the commandment given to Latter-day Saints: “Keep my commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion;

    “Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich” (D&C 6:6–7).

    Purging from our hearts the covetousness of the world and replacing worldly desires with a strong, fully motivating love of God (see Deut. 6:5) can prepare us to receive the blessings promised by the Lord when he gave the Ten Commandments to Moses:

    “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:

    “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:5–6).

    Moses the Lawgiver, by Ted Henninger

    Illustrated by Cary Henrie