3 Covetousness: Roots, Nature and Cure
It is not only in the medical world that diagnosis precedes treatment. When we read the biographies of the saints, we are struck by the similarity between their conversion experiences and the New Testament pattern of conversion discussed in the previous chapter. ‘For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was Legion.’, writes C. S. Lewis’ in Surprised by Joy, commenting on the experience that drove him to his knees as ‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England’. (1955:181-182) I have chosen Lewis for his eloquence, but his testimony is by no means rare. Thousands upon thousands have experienced the overwhelming effects of their own depravity, leading them to call on the name of Christ.
If this Spirit induced self-diagnosis stands so central in the process of true conversion, and if it is so pivotal a distinction between the Pharisee and the Christian, then we dare not treat the subject lightly. The question that addresses itself to us is this: If so powerful a force, if so inherent to all lost souls, if so alien to true righteousness, if so intrinsic to Pharisaism, then what exactly is covetousness?
Covetousness as Compensation for Deprivation
The answer is not as complicated as we might think. It is because of dispossession that we seek to possess. Coveting is the fingerprint of the deprived person. It is compensating for loss. Coveting is taking revenge on a world that has robbed you. It is the fallen creature’s effort to fill the proverbial God-sized vacuum in his soul. As such coveting invariably leads to idolatry, to the breaking of the first commandment, with an idol being nothing but the covetous person’s object of desire – that which he believes can fill the vacuum on the inside; a false or counterfeit god, in other words. This is also how it is defined by Paul in Col. 3:5, where he calls covetousness ‘idolatry’.
The act of coveting is therefore based on a lie, namely that fulfillment is to be found in something other than God himself. As C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity: ‘What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could…invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.’ (Lewis 1952:50).
Contentment in Christ
In the light of the above, it becomes clear that for salvation to be truly salvation, the problem of covetousness must be resolved. If covetousness is the natural response of the person without God, then it should follow naturally that where God is found covetousness disappears. Put in another way: If the tenth commandment was designed by God to drive the sinner and the legalist to Christ, then the sinner and the legalist, once driven to Christ, should have the ability to keep the tenth commandment.
The question, therefore, is whether the man in Romans 8 can fare better in practice than the one in Romans 7. Is there any truth to the old Keswick maxim that we ought to ‘get out’ of chapter 7 and ‘into’ chapter 8, and so escape from the life of defeat? The answer is yes, and it has to do with the nature of the command broken in Romans 7, namely covetousness. As discussed, the morally ‘faultless’ man in Phil 3:4-6 became the spiritually defeated man in Romans 7. Yet, after his conversion and his new life described from verse 7 in Phil. 3, we read that contentment replaces covetousness: ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ (4:12).
As pointed out, it is often thought that the belief that Romans 8 presents us with a life free from the defeat of Romans 7, is a pietistic and unrealistic one, tantamount to believing in sinner’s perfection. This, of course, is not the case. To understand this we need to understand that the command not to covet is one never kept by willpower or effort, the way we keep the first nine commandments. If it were, Paul and every sincere Pharisee would have been able to keep it. We can explain it by way of an analogy: Covetousness is an appetite. Like hunger, it cannot be stilled by choice or will. It requires a filling, and once this has happened the pains of emptiness disappears. If we are commanded not to hunger, then implicitly we are commanded to eat, and once we have done so we no longer are hungry, even if we try.
In the same way, contentment is what happens when the filling of God’s Holy Spirit does that which no other idol can do, so much so that covetousness is no longer given further thought. Augustine’s famous sentence captures the essence of this great truth: ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’, and so do the words of David in Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’
Such a filling changes the way a person looks at the world. Commenting on his conversion, Leo Tolstoy said: ‘I ceased to desire what I had previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. What had previously seemed to me good seemed evil, and what had seemed evil seemed good. It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and on the way suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places…’ (Baillie1955:Day 38).
With contentment comes a radical change in desires and motives, therefore, and a careful perusal of Romans 7 and Phil. 3 reveals, indeed, a striking contrast between the motives of Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Christian. In Rom. 7:18 the driving motive is: ‘I have the desire to do what is good…’, and in Phil. 3:10 it is: ‘I want to know Christ…’ The difference between these two wishes exemplifies to us the difference between the Pharisee and the Christian, and should be noted.
Contentment and Agape
It has been pointed out that the tenth commandment is a negative summary of the Old Testament law, intended firstly as an indicator of personal spiritual incapacity, and secondly as a pointer to Christ who does what is impossible for the law and the flesh. As a non-coveting person, therefore, the mark or fingerprint of the saved person becomes contentedness. If we were given a New Testament equivalent summary of the law, stated positively, we would therefore expect it to be: ‘You shall be content’, and we shall now see that it is exactly this, and more.
If covetousness is the desire to possess, then the opposite thereof, namely non-covetousness or contentedness, should not only be the desire not to possess, but a desire to give. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the previously discussed Matt. 19, where a man under the law is charged to overcome his covetousness by giving all his possessions to the poor. If covetousness is the mark of the unsaved man, then an unconditional giving from a position of utter contentment is the mark of the saved person, and we shall now see how the great commandments of love for God and love for neighbour, contained in and revealed by the Greek term Agape, fulfills this function.
Agape is a concept so foreign to the depraved man that God arranged his whole plan of salvation around a grand display thereof so as to reveal to us what is meant by it. Being the God of utter contentment – the non-covetous God who has no need of anything – he gave from his contentment solely for the sake of the other: Not to possess, not to fulfill unmet desires, not because of any ulterior motives, but gratis and free. And then, after this magnificent display of Agape, he charged us: Go and do likewise.
It is because of contentedness that Christians can love, the reason being that theirs is a love that requires nothing, for it has already gained all things. The love of this world is the love of Eros: A love fueled by desire. It is willing to give because it expects to receive. It is driven by a goal, by a destination, and it can only be kept alive as long as the dream remains. Christian love is different. It dreams of nothing, and that is why it is eternal and unconditional. It cannot be disappointed, for it expects nothing, and it expects nothing because it has all things.
A person who still covets is a person who cannot love as God has loved, for God loves from a position of contentment, not of need. His is a love that is free, not one of compulsion, and he expects us to love in the same manner. True love, therefore, is only to be found on the other side of the cross. Like faith and hope, love is exalted above every single occurrence in this world. It is free, the fruit of choice and not of need. Like faith and hope, love cannot be touched by torture, pain or death. It is free, and like faith and hope it will remain when all other things disappear. The reason for this is simple: Like faith and hope, love is the fruit of contentedness. It reaches down, not up. Like faith and hope, it is an expression of rest, for the work is finished.
Eros as Lack of Contentment
The Eros of Plato’s teaching is the very antithesis of this love. In Barth’s words: ‘Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible.’ (1963:197). About Agape he says: ‘In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.’ (1963:201).
As such, contentedness expressed in Agape becomes the distinguishing mark of the true Christian. It is this, more than anything else, that separates the believer from the unbeliever, the Christian from the Pharisee. It is the sign that all worldly striving has ceased, and that the chasm between the ninth and tenth commandment has been bridged successfully. It is the only gain promised by the Bible (1 Tim. 6:6), and it is perfectly accessible to all, because it has to do with wanting less, not with having more.
Implicit in the two greatest commandments, therefore, is the command not to covet. Quoting Matt. 22:37 and 39, Francis Schaeffer writes in True Spirituality: ‘Coveting is the negative side of the positive commands…We must see that to love God with all the heart, mind and soul is not to covet against God; and to love man, to love our neighbour as ourselves, is not to covet against man.’ (1982:204).
It requires mere simple mathematics to draw the above insights to their logical conclusion. The covetous religious man in Romans 7, the Pharisee, is someone who cannot fulfill the great commandment of Agape. Of course one can only imagine the kind of protest that such a statement would draw from non-Christian religious quarters, and especially from the Jewish fraternity. After all, they had Lev. 19:18 long before the concept of Christian love was birthed, and as a command it occupied an important position in their faith. It should be noted, however, that Jesus’ strange words in John 13:34 ‘A new command I give you: Love one another.’, does not appear so strange when read with the qualifying ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ Put another way: The love of Christ is so vastly different and infinitely richer than the love commanded in Lev. 19:18, that it is called a ‘new’, and so a totally different command. This also explains the towering presence in the New Testament of an obscure Greek word that was hardly ever used before then, and devoid of meaning until Christ came and gave content to it. Agape replaced Eros in the New Covenant, and the two are worlds apart. As Barth put it: ‘Agape is related to Eros, as Mozart to Beethoven. How can they possibly be confused?’ (1963:201).
Contentment as an Antidote for Loving the World
If we do not understand the above, we can never understand what is meant by passages such as 1 John 2:15-17: ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives for ever.’ Neither would we understand a number of Jesus’ statements: ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. ‘ (Luk. 12:15); ‘…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:34); ‘…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ (Luk. 14:33).
These commands are not intended as the rigorist rules of the monastery, nor as bargaining tools for negotiating salvation, but rather describe the natural outflow of the soul who has found contentment in God, who needs nothing else, and who gives even what he has. The Christian story is that of a hungry man who has been to a great banquet, and, who being thankful and no longer blinded by hunger, desires to invite others to the meal. As such these ‘commands’ of the New Testament are descriptions of the nourished man, rather than road signs pointing to a diner. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is a starving man who is too proud to acknowledge the fact, who imitates the nourished man in a desperate effort to hide his starvation, but who is attracted to every garbage can in the process – driven by the burning emptiness on his stomach. The great pretense of the Pharisee is his pretense of not being starved.
In understanding the above, we also understand what is meant by the statement ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom. 10:4). The law, of course, was not just given to bring the universal problem of covetousness to our attention, but also to temporary curb the devastating effects of covetousness, namely stealing, murder, adultery, and so on, or, to use our analogy: to protect the starving from poisonous scraps. In this sense we were ‘held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.’ (Gal. 3:23). It is obvious then that the law, being designed for the starving man, no longer applies in the same way to the nourished man. He keeps the law all by himself, for reasons already mentioned, and so the law is fulfilled in his life.
Contentment and Motivation
Is Christian Contentment the Opiate of the Church?
A common accusation that is often leveled at Christianity is that of it being a ‘pie in the sky’ religion. Christians’ heavenly mindedness leads to no earthly good, we often hear, and Marx, following Feuerbach, has been more frequently quoted for his ‘opiate of the people’ line than anything else he had said.
The philosophy behind such statements is clear to see: Contentment, when taken too far, becomes dangerous. Where a person is robbed of an earthly goal, a certain fatalism and passivity sets in, replacing former motivation. In a sense it is this philosophy that underlies the argument taken up by Paul in Rom 6:1: ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?’ In other words, once we are no longer motivated by the prospect of earning God’s favour through the doing of good deeds, why should we do good deeds? It is an important question, and relevant to us as it represents the typical question asked by the Jewish religious person and Pharisee, trying to come to terms with the implications of the covenant of grace, and fearing the implications of letting go of the control of the law.
The question is also relevant as the worldview set out in the previous pages are rejected by many as too idealistic to be practical. Once we turn around like Leo Tolstoy, where do we go, what do we do, and why do we do it? Can a world without Eros survive? If Christianity strips us from ambition, then what remains? Are we doomed to a monastic life? Do we then fit Marx’s description of a drug addict experiencing another world whilst oblivious to this one?
These questions are not addressed often enough, and certainly not always answered as they should be, especially in the culture we live in. As they don’t fall in the main scope of these articles, they cannot be discussed in great depth. Yet a few comments are necessary as they do represent an important difference between the motives of the Pharisee and the motives of the Christian.
Four Post-resurrection Motivators for the Christian
In the first place: Paul’s answer to the question in Romans 6:1 provides us with a startling insight. He points to the cross and our co-death with Christ, and to the power of the new resurrection life in Christ. We are given a new raison d’etre through these events, brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever we now do, whether in word or in deed, we ‘do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ (Gal. 3:17), ‘as working for the Lord, not for men…’ (v. 23), and ‘struggling with all his energy, he so powerfully works in us’ (Col. 1:29).
Secondly, thanksgiving is mentioned above as a component of the new life, and, as a motivation, is found and commanded throughout the New Testament (Eph. 5:20, Phil. 4:6, Col. 3:15, 1 Thess. 5:18, etc.), and even prescribed as an antidote to covetousness (Eph. 5:3,4). The reason is clear to see: One does not give thanks except as a response to something received. As the obvious fruit of contentedness, we need not say anything more about thanksgiving.
Thirdly, we are driven and motivated by love, as discussed earlier. The motive of the Christian is love, and every deed done by the Christian is, and should be, done because of love, as pointed out in the classic opening verses of 1 Cor. 13, where we read that all the great religious deeds are done in vain if not because of love.
In the fourth place, we are motivated by the hope of the resurrection and future reward in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21, Rom. 8:17-25, Jas. 1:12, 1 Pet. 1:3-5, etc.). As this is a motivation that appears to be suggestively close to covetousness, and also one that is found in other religions like Islam, questions may be asked about its legitimacy as a spiritual and post-Eros motivation. Also, its apparent lack of spirituality is further enhanced by the fairly general knowledge that humans have a strong psychological need of a future goal; an ‘axial point’ as Karl Jaspers called it, and referred to by Victor Frankl as follows: ‘It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence’ (l959:115).
Indeed we are promised reward, and indeed we deal here with an issue that seems to challenge the main thesis of these articles, namely that the contrast between Pharisaism and authentic Christianity is the very contrast between covetousness and contentment, between Eros and Agape, between narcissism and selflessness, between gaining and giving, between being served and serving. Indeed it would appear that here we find evidence that Christianity is just another form of wish fulfillment, an ‘illusion invented to meet personal needs’ as Freud believed, and as such on the same par as all the idols and philosophies of this world.
The problem seems insurmountable when we consider how the gospel is often preached nowadays. Armed with the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46) we incite the masses to swop earthly reward for heavenly treasure, believing that we are guiding them from carnality to spirituality, when in fact we are not. We still appeal to the old covetous nature, preaching godliness as gain, and creating more Pharisees than true believers.
The question we need to ask is this: What exactly is this treasure, if not the ability to become moral, if not the resurrection and ensuing eternal life, if not streets of gold and a mansion in heaven, if not happiness and peace? The answer is not as difficult as it seems. The treasure is Christ. He, and he alone, is the goal of salvation. He is the treasure in the field, he is the pearl of great price. Oftentimes, like foolish children, we ask ‘What will heaven be like, and what will be our reward?’, stubbornly forgetting that he is our reward. To think in terms of a celestial copy of this world is to misunderstand both heaven and the gospel. If we can manage to look past the streets of gold and the mansions, we will see the overriding metaphor employed by God to reveal to us the secret of heaven, is that of a marriage. It is the ultimate union between God and man, with all the romances of history being nothing but prophetic dreams. And, like all true romances, the confession that accompanies it is ‘I don’t care where we live, as long as we can be together.’
Needless to say, the bride who is excited by the marriage prospect because of the fringe benefits thereof, should not be called a bride but a prostitute. The prostitute is often contrasted with the true bride in Scripture, for instance in Rev. 17 and 19, and the difference between them is not hard to figure out: The prostitute is the one who engages in an act of intimacy for the sake of selfish gain, and the true bride is the one who loves because of the lover.
So then, the driving force between the fourth motivator, behind our hope of heaven, is also Agape. It is nothing but the desire to consummate the relationship between us and Christ, and so strong a desire it is that it overrides all human ambition. As a matter of fact, without it we cannot understand the apparent paradox between the words of Christ in Matt. 11:30, where he refers to his yoke as easy and his burden as light, and that of Matt. 7:14, where he calls the road that leads to life narrow, with only a few finding it. The problem is resolved by Agape, which makes the greatest burden seem like nothing. Perhaps nothing describes it quite like the well known confession of love: ‘I will climb the highest mountain, I will swim the deepest river, with a song on my lips and a rose between my teeth…’
Our one and only motivation, then, can be summarised as that of Agape – Agape towards God, flowing over into Agape for our neighbour, and manifesting itself as a powerful driving force from within, an overwhelming sense of contentedness and thanksgiving, and a powerful vision of eternal union with our loved one.
In conclusion, let it be stated that if these motivations appear precariously weak as the driving forces behind both our Christianity and our lives in this world, and also poor as a substitute for the ambitions of this world, then it is only because we are unaccustomed to the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the power of love, the joy of contentedness, and the reality of the coming age and our union with him.