Coveting and Longing: Keeping our Desires Within God’s Boundaries

We often think of coveting as just wanting what someone else has, but that’s not quite it. The Westminster Catechism1 would tell us that it also involves a lack of contentment about our own situation, and unpleasant attitudes to those we’re envious of.

Famous coveters in the Bible are Eve, Achan and David. Each one wanted what was not theirs to have – something that was expressly outside God’s mandate for them. Eve could have any fruit from any tree… but not that one. Achan expressly defied orders not to take any enemy booty for himself and took a ton of stuff anyway. And King David had plenty of women freely available to him, but decided that he had to have sex with someone else’s wife, despite God’s clear prohibition about that sort of carry on. Prohibited, as they would later discover, for very good reason indeed.

Were these people in need? No. They just wanted something that God had said “No” to. That was out of bounds for them. This is the definition of envy, as I understand it. Not being satisfied with God’s boundaries and portion for us, and choosing to defiantly cross those boundaries and take what God is NOT giving.

When wanting something is OK

Sometimes people confuse desiring something – or wanting that thing really badly – with coveting, but I would say this is a mistake, and here’s why. There are four Hebrew (root) words that can be translated as “covet”:

חמד – This word is about finding something delightful, to want it
אוה – This word is about great desire, craving
קנא – This word concerns jealousy
בצע – This word concerns chasing after (unjust) gain

And here’s the kicker: God does all of these things, except chase after unjust gain. He finds Jerusalem delightful (נחמד – Ps 68:17, the same word as Eve found the fruit desirable), passionately longs after his bride, his people and his city (אוה – Ps 45:11, Ps 132:13-14), and describes himself as a jealous God (אל קנא) when giving the ten commandments. There is nothing wrong with wanting something, delighting in something, or even yearning with tremendous longing… even if someone else has it (a great job, grandchildren, a lovely home, a qualification) just so long as it is within the limits of what God might rightly allow you to have.

This is the key difference between jealousy and envy: Jealousy is zeal for what is rightfully yours, and envy is wanting something that is not rightfully yours. God is jealous for us and our love, because we rightfully belong to him – our love should go to him, and not elsewhere.
Similarly, Gentiles are exhorted to “Make the Jews jealous” by enjoying relationship with God of Israel and his Word which rightly belongs to Israel, and was given to Israel first. Jealousy can be a very good thing. But envy is wanting something that is not yours, and that God has not permitted you to have.

Some say that the best defence against coveting is to not wish for a different state than the one you’re already in. Now it’s true that there is a spiritual secret to finding contentment, but not all discontent is wrong.

Holding out for what God has promised

What if God has encouraged you to wish for a different state to the one you are currently in? What if he has stirred up longing and desire through his promises of good to come? I’m thinking of the Israelites, trudging round and round in the desert, knowing full well that their destination is this Promised Land of milk and honey. Should they not wish for anything other than endless desertscapes? Kill all hope or dreams of life in a country of their own? If they were not supposed to wish for the new state, why on earth would God have told them (tantalised them!) about it in such luxurious detail?

For Adonai your God is bringing you into a good land—a land of wadis with water, of springs and fountains flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey, a land where you will eat bread with no poverty, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. So you will eat and be full, and you will bless Adonai your God for the good land He has given you. (Deut 8:7-10)

MAYBE, just maybe, they are supposed to wish for that state.
And maybe, just maybe, we are in a similar predicament.

Randy Alcorn in his book, “Heaven” starts off by saying that many Christians dismiss thoughts of heaven, saying we cannot imagine it, and that we are not supposed to. But, he asks, is that really true? Alcorn posits the thought that perhaps God gave us so much information about the glory to come, much like he described the Promised Land to the Israelites, precisely because he does invite us to imagine, to dream, and to wish for this state.
All of creation groans, yearns, longs for redemption, and we are part of that creation. We are supposed to know that life can be much better than this. Alcorn suggests that God has left the door to heaven open a crack so that we can peek in, and get a taste of what awaits us. Hope of the great good to come gives us courage to overcome the challenges of this life, which can seem monotonous, hard and painful many times. We can know that it will not always be like this. We are supposed to be excited, and to know that we have something absolutely wonderful to look forward to!

Waiting well for God’s gifts rather than grasping for them prematurely

Which brings me onto my next point: How SHOULD the Israelites have behaved in the desert, caught between the reality of life in the wilderness and awaiting the Promised Land? We know that their constant complaints, doubt and rebellion was displeasing to God, and led them headlong into idolatry.  At least we know what to avoid! Complaining is off limits. But life was hard for them. How should they have dealt with hardship, lack, and the sheer monotony of the daily grind? The Israelites would have been well advised to have rejoiced in the miracles that they did have.
Manna might have been boring, but hey – free food! From the sky! Every single day! They might have been wandering for decades, but their shoes and clothes never wore out – another bonafide miracle. They actually saw and experienced God’s presence with them – every day. They were protected from all who wanted to annihilate them. It wasn’t easy in the desert, and forty years isn’t a short amount of time either, but in comparison with the many generations who were able to live in and enjoy the Promised Land, it was indeed short. God was faithful to his promise, and they eventually arrived in Israel, which was just as advertised.

What things has God put in your life to help you trek through the challenging territory of this life before reaching our glorious destination? Are you focusing on those things, or on the things you lack? There’s nothing wrong with wanting the good things that God can provide, both here and in eternity – we are always welcome to present our needs and desires to God. But the ability to be grateful and rejoice, even in the desert as we walk towards the good to come, is the secret of contentment. 
Be satisfied with what you have, and wait to see what the Lord will give to you! 

  1. “The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontent with our own estate; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbour, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his”.  (Westminster Catechism)
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