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contentment...what's that?

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I see a nice house on the beach and I think: I wish I had one of those. I see someone eating a cookie and I think: I want a bite of that. I read about someone publishing a book and I think: I wish I had a book on These kind of thoughts are normal, right? Nothing wrong with them. Or is there? Yesterday in our faith community, I talked about coveting and stealing (numbers 8 and 10 in the Decalogue, if you are keeping track). First, a few clarifications.

Jealousy, though usually used in a negative sense in our society, is actually a good thing in its pure form. When prohibiting idolatry at the beginning of Exodus 20, God calls himself a jealous God (YHWH Qanna). Jealousy is vigilance in maintaining or guarding something which is rightfully yours. It is protecting that which is precious to you.

Envy is discontent and resentment in response to someones possessions, qualities, privileged situation in life, or good fortune. Envy, it is obvious, is not a happy state of mind. Coveting is closely related to envy; it is desiring something which is not yours and you have no right to. Hence, in Exodus 20, all the prohibited objects of covetous desire are those which rightfully belong to a neighbour.

These inward emotions/desires can lead to outward action: stealing. Stealing is taking something which belongs to someone else without permission or legal right. It can also be keeping for yourself that which you have promised to someone else (withholding fees, taxes, payment, labour, tithes, etc.)  

So why is coveting a problem? It directly opposes generosity; it seeks to grab instead of give. It also erodes our trust in God, sabotages a healthy community (a coveting person soon becomes an untrustworthy person if they are always looking longingly at their neighbour's stuff), and decreases our ability to give and receive freely from God and from each other. Coveting is basically idolatry because it turns us away from God as the supreme object of our desire. And its by-product, stealing, feeds the idea that taking advantage of others is okay. When we seek to gain something at the expense of others, we are hurting them. If you have ever had something stolen from you, you know the sense of violation which accompanies that crime. And when we take things without permission, thinking that others won't miss it, or they have plenty, we are acting as moral judge and jury which we have no right to do.

Perhaps the most costly thing about coveting is that it puts us in a constant state of discontent. We believe that we never have enough, and that we are always in a state of lack. It reveals that we do not really believe that we have a good and generous God who loves us and is our provider. "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these." (1 Timothy 6).

The Decalogue, given to a nation who had just come out of living in poverty as slaves, was meant to lead the Israelites into a life characterized by freedom and flourishing. Because they had been wronged and stolen from, they had to learn to be grateful and generous, despite years of being taken advantage of. They had to learn how to break the cycle of "never enough" and step into God's realm of "more than enough."

The two attitudes are on display in this modern parable:

A young lady was waiting for her flight in a boarding room of a big airport. As she should need to wait many hours, she decided to buy a book to spend her time. She also bought a pack of cookies. She sat down in an armchair, in the VIP room of the airport, to rest and read in peace. Beside the armchair where the packet of cookies lay, a man sat down in the next seat, opened his magazine and started reading. When she took out the first cookie, the man took one also. She felt irritated but said nothing. She just thought, "What the nerve! If I was in the mood, I would punch him for daring!"

For each cookie she took, the man took one too. This was infuriating her but she didn't want to cause a scene. When only one cookie remained, she thought: "Ah... what is this abusive man doing now?" Then, the man taking the last cookie, divided it into half, giving her one half. "Ah! That's too much!" she thought. She was much too angry now! In a huff, she took her book, her things and stormed to the boarding place. When she sat down in her seat inside the plane, she looked into her purse to take out her eyeglasses, and to her surprise, her packet of cookies was there, untouched... unopened.

She felt so ashamed! She realized that she was wrong... she had forgotten that her cookies were in her purse. The man had divided his cookies with her, without feeling angered or bitter, while she had been very angry, thinking that she was dividing her cookies with him.

In the end, these things in life are not really ours anyway, and the sooner we realise this, the less attached to them we will become. Coveting and stealing keep us from living in contentment and gratitude. Let us be free to give, free to receive, free to live with much or with little, able to flourish in good times and in not so good times, because God is the source of our life, our joy, our contentment. He is more than enough.

"Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out. ...
Everything comes from him;
Everything happens through him;
Everything ends up in him.
Always glory! Always praise!
Yes. Yes. Yes."  (Romans 11, The Message)


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