By William M. Cwirla
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife (or husband), his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey (or Porsche 911), or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Can you sin without even doing or saying anything? You bet you can! You do it all the time, and you probably don’t even give it a second thought. I can do it while at the dinner table with my family or even while standing in the pulpit, and no one would even have the slightest notion I was breaking not one but two of God’s commandments. In fact, I could look perfectly innocent, pious, and holy while doing it and you’d be completely unaware of it.
I’m talking about coveting–the desire to have what you don’t and can’t have. It’s a sin that goes on entirely in the heart without so much as an external twitch. It may not seem like much of a sin. Who gets hurt? What’s the harm? Why make so much of a fuss over what appears to be a victimless sin?
Coveting Is the Root Cause of All Kinds of Trouble
“You desire and do not have, so you kill. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war” (James 4:2). The externals always begin internally, with the heart. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Coveting someone else’s spouse can lead to adultery. Coveting someone else’s donkey or Porsche can lead to theft or fraud.
Every external sin begins with the sinful heart–the heart that does not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments loop back to the First Commandment. Coveting is idolatry (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5)! Our sinful hearts are restless, wanting more and more, seeking security, identity, meaning in things, especially things we don’t have. If only I were with that person, I’d be happy. If only we had a nicer house in a better neighborhood, we’d be content. But the problem with the heart unbuckled from God is that it’s like a dog chasing its own tail. There’s no end to it. We’re never at rest; we’re never content–always chasing after newer, brighter, faster, better.
We have a big problem. We can curb the externals and more or less keep ourselves in line with a little “just say no” self-discipline and a few threats and punishments. You can choose not to “follow your heart,” and therefore not steal or commit adultery. But those desires of that restless heart of yours are not going to go away with teeth-gritting self-discipline any more than a strict diet will make you stop wanting that chocolate shake.
How Do You Deal with Sins of the Heart?
How can you discipline yourself not to desire? It’s a bit like saying, “I’m going to try very hard not to yawn while reading this article.” I’ll bet you’re starting to yawn already! The apostle Paul said he wouldn’t have even thought of coveting until the Law said, “Do not covet.” You know what happened next? It was like a gallon of commandment gasoline was poured on a little covetous spark. Sin grabbed hold of the commandment and Paul began coveting like crazy. It wasn’t the Law that did this, but sin, inflamed and magnified by the Law, that turned Paul’s sin-filled heart into a coveting machine. “O wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24)
There’s only one solution. We need new hearts. You can’t fix a sinful heart. It’s beyond repair. God needs to do a heart transplant and give us new hearts that beat to His will in the fear, love, and trust in God above all things. That’s what God does for you by your Baptism into Christ. You get a new heart. Oh, the old one is still there. This is more like a “piggyback” heart transplant where the old and new are simultaneously present until the old one dies. That’s Luther’s famous “simul justus et peccator” (the Christian is at one and the same time righteous and sinful). Old Adam’s covetous, idolatrous heart still beats on to its death. But you also have a new heart in Christ: a heart turned to God in fear, love, and trust; a heart that is content with what God gives and desires what God wills; a heart that beats forever to the rhythm of God’s love for you in Jesus.
The Gift of Contentment
The great church father St. Augustine once prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In Christ, the emptiness of our coveting is filled with the gift of contentment. Our hearts are at rest and at peace, faithful hearts fearing, loving, trusting in God above all things. From of all places prison, the apostle Paul said, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in Him (Christ) who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13). Even in prison, the heart is content in Jesus.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, CA. He is also a president emeritus of Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the summer 2016 issue of Higher Things Magazine.