“Thou Shalt Not Covet”


The tenth commandment teaches that anything we permit to come between us and the Lord—possessions, power, pleasure, or people—is a spiritual stumbling block.

“Thou Shalt Not Covet”

In the early years of our marriage, my wife and I would travel as often as possible from our small northern Arizona community to the temple in Mesa. These temple trips always provided us a spiritual uplift through the opportunity to serve, but they also provided needed diversion at times—an opportunity to forget about the difficulties of living in our tiny, cramped home on my meager income with three children.

Occasionally after attending our temple sessions, we would entertain ourselves by going on what we jokingly called “coveting expeditions,” driving around in some of the posh neighborhoods of Phoenix and Scottsdale. We were fascinated by the luxurious homes and would try to imagine what it would be like to live in that kind of opulence, all the while knowing we would never be able to afford such extravagance.

This window shopping, though it started out as enjoyable fantasy, sometimes left us with a vague feeling of frustration and restlessness because we did not have what others had. At the time, we didn’t think we were coveting, since we were not so consumed with desire for one of these homes that we would steal or commit a major sin to get it. Yet we discovered that we were vulnerable to the spirit of covetousness. While we thought that what we were doing was really quite innocuous, we were uncomfortable with what we were feeling. The words of the Lord from Mt. Sinai seemed to echo in our minds: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s” (Ex. 20:17; emphasis added).

It may be that this commandment has even greater relevance in today’s materialistic world than it did in Moses’ day. In our modern society that seems to urge people to satisfy their every desire, obedience to the tenth commandment affords us spiritual and temporal protection from the effects of a host of other evils. For example, when we faithfully abstain from covetousness, we will not fall into the traps of adultery or theft, for we will be free of the unrighteous desires that precede those sins. Thus, the commandment “Thou shalt not covet” is intrinsically related to all of the other commandments.

To understand the meaning of the word covet as it is used in the tenth commandment, we must focus on what and why we covet. The word itself is used in both negative and positive senses in the Bible, and its application depends on the root word from which the English is translated. The Hebrew word translated as covet in Ex. 20:17 is lo takhmodh, which denotes an inordinate, consuming, selfish desire, arising from improper or evil motives. In the New Testament, however, the word appears in a very positive sense as Paul admonishes the Corinthians to “covet earnestly the best gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). Covet here is taken from the Greek word zeloo, which comes from the same root as our English word zealous and connotes a passionate desire to acquire something.

Covetousness as Idolatry

It is clear that God’s commandment from the mountain temple of Sinai refers to something that is negative. Nephi’s review of the Savior’s commandments to the Nephites, in which the word covet does not appear, gives us added insight:

“And again, the Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder; that they should not lie; that they should not steal; that they should not take the name of the Lord their God in vain; that they should not envy; that they should not have malice; that they should not contend one with another; that they should not commit whoredoms; and that they should do none of these things; for whoso doeth them shall perish” (2 Ne. 26:32; emphasis added).

It is significant to note Nephi’s use of the word envy in the place of covet. While covet can be used in a positive sense, envy is always a negative trait. To desire with envy or jealousy is to partake of pride, creating a spirit of enmity and competition that can drive out the Spirit of the Lord.

Moreover, in envying, we are judging something to be more important and dear to us than God or obedience to his counsel. The Lord’s condemnation of the negative side of covetousness is thus closely related to the commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).

As a sin, covetousness is a form of idolatry, Paul declared (see Col. 3:5). It may not involve pagan worship or graven images in the religious sense, but it certainly includes having our “hearts … set so much upon the things of this world” and “the honors of men” (D&C 121:35) that we are in danger of forgetting about eternal, celestial objectives. Unrighteous covetousness creates divided loyalties that prevent complete consecration and total devotion to God and his kingdom.

Obviously, covetousness can be more than looking greedily upon the material possessions of others and desiring to have them for ourselves. It also may be an inordinate desire for things that will satisfy our egos: physical attractiveness, power and influence, even the reputation for wisdom and goodness. It may also be too firm an attachment to things that are already ours. The Lord commanded Martin Harris, “Thou shalt not covet thine own property” (D&C 19:25–26). Instead, he was to “impart it freely” to further the work of the Lord, who had blessed him with it.

With his eternal perspective, the Savior taught:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19–20). He went on to add: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). When we wish to be among the Savior’s own, yet cling covetously to the things of the world, we let those worldly things become our masters and soon become blinded to their impact on our lives.

An Appetite That Grows

As with all of God’s commandments, “Thou shalt not covet” is evidence of the Lord’s love and mercy and his desire to protect us from the painful con-sequences of sin. Even though it may seem comparatively innocent at first and free from the obvious dangers associated with other types of wickedness, coveting can become a monumental problem. President Ezra Taft Benson characterized materialism—one version of covetousness—as “one of the real plagues of our generation” (Ensign, May 1988, p. 53). This plague slowly robs us of spiritual strength by distracting us from the only things that will bring fulfillment and peace to our lives. “Obsession with riches … cankers and destroys,” President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, declared (Ensign, Mar. 1990, p. 5). Often the cankering of the soul and the destruction of our spiritual powers that stems from materialism, greed, jealousy, and envy are so slow that we may not even recognize it in ourselves until other, more serious problems appear.

Furthermore, whatever worldly thing it is that we may covet—zealously striving to obtain and then retain—never seems to bring an end to our desires. Covetousness, envy, jealousy, and greed always escalate into a vicious spiral, as we seek greater and greater gratification but find less and less contentment.

My wife and I learned a valuable lesson about this several years ago when we had the opportunity finally to build a new home. During the months of planning and building, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Even though we were blessed to have a nicer home with more comforts than we had ever had before, rather than being content, we began looking for ways to acquire more. We had to have new furniture for the upstairs family room so that we could put the old furniture downstairs. But the old entertainment center, a large piece of furniture that held our stereo and TV equipment, didn’t go well with the new furniture, so we had to have a new one. And instead of our antiquated stereo system, we now needed a new CD player with the latest technology. Then we had to accumulate a whole new library of expensive CDs to go with it. Whether it was the desire for new furniture, draperies, or landscaping for the house, we easily rationalized our covetousness by saying they were legitimate needs or “just wants.”

Finally, we came to a stark realization about two things that we previously felt would never be a source of temptation for us: first, Satan can help us rationalize any desire for worldly gain so that it appears justifiable, even noble; and second, striving to acquire the things of the world not only does not bring lasting happiness and peace, but it drives us to seek more. When “all we’ve ever wanted” is grounded in the temporal trappings of this world, it is never enough!

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin has cautioned us:

“Satan knows our weaknesses. He puts attractive snares on our paths at just those moments when we are most vulnerable. … Sin may result from activities that begin innocently or that are perfectly legitimate in moderation, but in excess, they can cause us to veer from the straight and narrow path to our destruction. …

“[One] temptation [that may] detour us is placing improper emphasis on the obtaining of material possessions. For example, we may build a beautiful, spacious home that is far larger than we need. We may spend far too much to decorate, furnish, and landscape it. And even if we are blessed enough to afford such luxury, we may be misdirecting resources that could be better used to build the kingdom of God or to feed and clothe our needy brothers and sisters” (Ensign, Nov. 1990, p. 65; emphasis added).

Strength in Charity

In addition to protecting us from sin, obedience to the tenth commandment can offer us the blessings that come from increasing our charity, making our service more productive, and developing greater compassion. These things—all antithetical to covetousness—can blossom in our lives when we do as the Lord has commanded in this dispensation: “See that ye love one another; cease to be covetous; learn to impart one to another as the gospel requires” (D&C 88:123; emphasis added). This command to lay aside our desire for things of the world directs us into the path of true discipleship. A heart filled with covetous desires has no room for the all-consuming love of God that is required for exaltation. An episode in the life of the Master demonstrates this principle. When a young man asked the Savior what he might do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded by briefly reviewing all of the commandments, and the young man replied that he had kept those from his youth.

“Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

“And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:21–22).

This rich young man, despite his obedience to the other commandments, was so attached to his temporal assets that they became a stumbling block on his path to discipleship. It was not his riches that precluded him from the blessings and rewards of following the Savior but the honor and stature with which he regarded the things of the world. Jesus commented to his disciples: “How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24). His disciples asked, “who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). Jesus then further declared: “With men that trust in riches, it [meaning salvation] is impossible; but not impossible with men who trust in God and leave all for my sake, for with such all these things are possible” (JST, Mark 10:26).

Seeking First the Kingdom

The scriptures speak of a righteous striving that can be as intense as any unrighteous ardor to obtain the things we covet. This righteous effort occurs when we in wisdom and balance zealously seek the things of God that lead to eternal life. “Do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy,” the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob admonished. “Come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness” (2 Ne. 9:51; see also Isa. 55:1–3).

After evil covetousness is rooted out of our lives, we can replace the old longings for earthly satisfactions with dedicated strivings for the things of heaven. Jacob characterized this as seeking first the kingdom of God; at the same time, he taught the best use of the worldly riches that so many people seek:

“Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.

“But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.

“And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 2:17–19).

In our world today, there is a great need to supplement God’s ancient command from Sinai—“Thou shalt not covet”—with the commandment given to Latter-day Saints: “Keep my commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion;

“Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich” (D&C 6:6–7).

Purging from our hearts the covetousness of the world and replacing worldly desires with a strong, fully motivating love of God (see Deut. 6:5) can prepare us to receive the blessings promised by the Lord when he gave the Ten Commandments to Moses:

“Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:

“And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:5–6).

Let’s Talk about It

This article could furnish a number of topics for a family home evening lesson or individual consideration. For example:

  1. 1.

    Are there things that prevent us, as a family and as individuals, from placing God and his teachings absolutely first in our lives?

  2. 2.

    Why is covetousness an extremely insidious sin to our spiritual well-being?

  3. 3.

    What can we do to overcome unrighteous covetousness?

[illustration] Upper left: The Ten Commandments, by Ted Henninger

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Brent L. Top is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.