I appreciate the sentiment of Emily Dickinson: ”Consider the lilies- is the only commandment I ever obeyed,” she once quipped (as quoted in the intro to Rachel Held-Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood).
Because while I used to think that keeping the Ten Commandments would be simple, a few more years of life have taught me that the only commandment I’m not really in danger of ever actually breaking is the whole “do-not-murder” thing. (But check back with me on this one, will you?)
If the benefits of a week’s vacation in San Francisco and Napa Valley were palpable, so was the temptation to break the tenth commandment on a regular basis. For those of you who don’t know the Ten Commandments by heart- and apparently the statistics show there are a whole lot of us- the tenth commandment reads like this: ”You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17).”
Coveting. Wickipedia defines it as desiring the unjust acquisition of your neighbor’s possessions. By this definition, few of us actually qualify as tenth-commandment breakers, barring maybe O.J. Simpson and his breaking and entering habits.
But, we’re not off the hook yet, because coveting, more broadly understood, is also a kind of lusting after what others have. And, I must confess that while in northern California, I found myself doing this a bit too regularly.
My uncle, who took up the extended family’s profession of law and now lives comfortably in a big, beautiful house just outside San Francisco, and my uncle’s wife, who, thanks to a full-time, live-in nanny, doesn’t have to cook or do the grocery shopping or clean her house ever again, were, in addition to showing kind hospitality, perfect moving targets for my coveting propensities. I imagined how my life might look different if, instead of having to cook, clean, fold laundry, grocery shop and drive my children everywhere, I might spend my time in scenic northern California, traveling more and writing a few more books while enjoying my children in leisure without all of the other pressures. I wished for a different job, wondered why I hadn’t applied to law schools, lamented to my husband at how hard our constant juggling act had become, and longed for a second vacation home with an oceanfront view.
Coveting. Can you identify? If so, you, like me, may be looking for an antidote. Here are five ways that we might begin to nip our coveting in the bud:
1. Make a list of all the things you have that you are grateful for. You’ll be surprised at how long your list is. (The great twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, believed “gratitude” is what defines Christians. I think Barth is right.) Whenever you can, express your gratitude to God for the things you have been given. If you forget, return to your list to remind yourself. Whenever you think of something else to be thankful for, you can add it to your list.
2. Consider how all the things you have and your life circumstances, including the times you went astray from God’s purposes, have made you into the person you are today.
3. When you meet others who seem to “have it all,” remind yourself that appearances are never the whole picture. You may have some things that your “neighbor” does not have.
4. If you find yourself in a hard place, ask yourself, “what is the silver lining here?,” and “how is God using these circumstances for good” (Genesis 50:20). Consider how God might be using these things to further form you for God’s mission.
5. If you can’t find ways to express gratitude for life circumstances or the things you’ve been given, “rejoice in the Lord,” as the apostle Paul recommends (Philippians 4:4). There is plenty of good news to be had in the realization that, regardless of how dark or disappointing our lives have become, God in Jesus loves us, is intimately involved in our lives, and ultimately promises new, abundant life.
The other day I spoke with a woman whose multiple myeloma had returned with a vengeance. This time the cancer was in stage IV. At age 52, this woman was facing an untimely death with honesty about her hopes and fears and griefs, but she was also bubbling over with gratitude to God. For her family. For God’s provision of her every need. For how God was helping her use even her cancer to encourage others in their dark places.
This woman was grateful, when she could be coveting a longer life or better health. She had put her coveting to rest.
Maybe we can, too.