From the time I first learned the 10 Commandments in Sunday School I wondered why Thou shalt not covet was on the list.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.Exodus 20:17
All of the other commandments you can see someone do. If someone is bowing down to an idol you can see it. If someone makes an idol you can see it. If someone makes an oath in The Lord’s name and doesn’t keep their oath you can see it and so on. It makes sense that if someone is coveting you can see it.
A sin is predatory behavior. Bowing down to a God other than the one that brought the Israelites out of Egypt is being a predator to God. Being a thief or murderer is being a predator. Being a false witness is being a predator.
It wasn’t long ago that I still believed that coveting was a mental sin. People could not see you do it, but like lust and anger, it is a sin that God knew you did and held you accountable for. Yet the mental sins are almost impossible to not do.
I’ve come to believe that for something to be a sin, a sinner needs to have a reasonable chance to not commit the sin. I believe this is consistent with the teaching of the Bible. In the story of the first sin, it wasn’t a sin to want to eat from the Tree. God knew they would want to eat from it.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wiseGenesis 3:6
God had made the fruit desirable. It wasn’t a sin to be tempted to eat from the tree. The sin was not in the desiring or being tempted, the sin was in the doing. All sins are like that. It would be unethical of God to make it any other way.
A person can not be responsible for what they want to do. One way or another our basic human nature is God’s responsibility. Whether God created humanity perfect and then we ‘fell’, or whether God used evolution to bring us to this point, the result is the same. Our basic human drives are out of our control. Our human nature is just like all of the other challenges we face. It is like mountains and deserts and natural disasters. It is something that we need to overcome. What we do with out basic human nature is what we are responsible for.
A sin is predatory behavior. An unfair trade is predatory. Something that goes on in your own mind doesn’t harm another person. How can coveting, lust and hate be uneven trades?
There are two stories that I heard that inform my opinion on how desire becomes an uneven trade and thus a sin. The first comes from a book by the person who wrote The Horse Whisperer. That person knows horses. He says horses are a prey species. For that reason you don’t approach them quickly. You approach a horse part of the way and then let them come to you. He said to never stare at a horse. Predators stare at their prey. He said women are a prey species too and went on explain how to entice a women – you never stare and you approach part way that then wait for them. That story applies to the sin of lust. The second comes from a story on heard on Christian radio. The person had written a book about his experience in prison. He said in prison you are among predators. Be careful where you look. If someone sees you looking in the direction of their stash and their stash goes missing they will try to kill you. That story applies directly to coveting.
In both those stories, looking causes a behavior change. In the horse example, staring at a horse causes it to be afraid. In the prison example staring causes the owner of the stash to suspect you of stealing. It is not the mental act of coveting that is the sin; it is the looking covetously.
Staring at someone’s possessions signals predatory behavior. It means that you might steal it. That forces the person to take precautions. That is how it becomes an uneven trade. The recipient of you covetous behavior now needs to do work and they have received nothing in return. The sin is not what goes on in your mind. It is only when it comes out as staring that it becomes sin.
This same principle applies to all of the mental sins. All the mental sins are variations of coveting. Coveting property leads to stealing. Coveting illicit sexual encounters is lust and leads to adultery. Coveting someone’s harm is anger and leads to murder.
The root of all of them is the desire to have greater status than other people. We covet someone’s property so we will have it and they will not. We covet sexual encounters as a way of humiliating the person we have sex with and the people they are emotionally connected to. We covet harm to people because the ability to harm people shows our status. Even if we don’t cause the harm, we still feel higher status because when they go down in status our status goes up. The desire for status is very strong and leads to a lot of, and maybe all of the harm that comes to society. It is why Christianity is so hard on pride. Seeking status is the root predatory behavior.
How to teach the tenth commandment.
I believe in deliberate, conscious teaching of non-predatory behavior. This is a reaction against the over emphasis on ‘we are all sinners so we need God’s grace’ doctrine. I believe the church has been guilty making things that are not sins into sins in order to convince people that they need God’s grace. This has come at the expense of God’s reputation. The teaching of how to live a non-predatory life has been neglected. Christians need to have faith that not engaging in predatory behavior is beneficial. It is not just good for society, it is good for the practitioner as well. I believe that following Christ leads to a full life. Not always a happy life but a full life.
Before teaching followers of Christ how to not covet or how to not do any of the mental sins some ground work needs to be done. People need to be taught to genuinely want the best of other people. This is a long road. Before people can be taught to love, they need to move their center of the universe as far away from themselves as possible. Ideally they need to believe in God. This is difficult because people are naturally self-centered. Especially young people.
The next thing to do is to teach people that all of those desires that we all have in greater or lesser amounts are to be used just as our muscles and mind are to be used. Our natural desires are to be channeled in ways that are non-predatory. When children are born they can’t walk and can’t talk. They need to learn how to coordinate the muscles of their legs and tongue to do those things. Those natural desires that we have, those things that the church calls our sinful nature, are not evil of themselves. They are muscles that need to be trained.
The desire to have something better than you have now is one of those desires that needs to be channeled. It needs to be trained away from coveting and stealing into a work ethic. Working and being productive makes everyone’s life better.
It is natural and thus God given, to want higher status. That needs to be trained away from envy and hatred to an internal definition of status. Christians don’t like encouraging people to get status internally because it looks like pride and pride is a sin. Like the other mental sins, pride is only a sin when it leaks out. If I say that we should teach people to be proud of being humble I will get a lot of negative response from Christians. It looks like a contradiction. The problem is not with the concept, it is with our language. Jesus told people to rejoice when they were persecuted because the prophets were persecuted too. (Matthew 5:12) He was saying that when you are persecuted your status goes up to that of a prophet. If the word pride is unpleasant, use the word rejoice. The deep meaning is the same. It is the language that fails us.
After the foundation has been laid there are practical teachings that will move people away from coveting. Teach people to not stare at other people’s stuff, ‘not their house, not their wife, nor their manservant, nor their maidservant, nor ox, nor ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s’. Teach them to rejoice that they are so strong that such things do not bother them.
I don’t believe that feelings and thoughts are sins. As I said, making those things sins makes God unethical. It is too difficult to control one’s thoughts and feelings. That being said, thoughts and feelings leak out. It is very wise to keep one’s thoughts and feelings on a short leash. Buddhists are very good at this. If Buddhists can do it then Christians should be able to do it too. Do you see what I did there. I appealed to pride. I did the same thing Jesus did when he told the Pharisees that even sinners love those who love them back. People need to be taught how to control their own thoughts and feelings. They should be taught to rejoice when they are able to do it.