The Christian Life

Principles are Better than Laws Part 14, Do Not Covet

Exodus 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

We are considering some of the most important biblical laws as principles by which to live. Once again, and for the last time, since this ends the series, the fact that God has given us these commandments is plenty enough reason to obey them. But because I am realizing that our good Father gives us no arbitrary laws that don’t also produce abundant life when we live by them, I am looking at them as principles. They are principles, and I truly believe that God wants you to have a better existence, even on this fallen planet in this age, by following him and keeping his ways. It brings him glory and pleasure to see his children walking in light.

The prohibition against coveting falls into the same category as many of the others. We have learned that God loves life. We have learned that God wants us to live and not die. This was the choice set before Adam, the Israelites, and now it is the choice set before us. As Christians, we know we are saved, not by our good choices, but by Jesus’ choice to give himself for us and for our sins. But, in general, the quality of our life on earth will be largely based on our individual choices. Apart from the things that are outside our control, there are a million choices we make through the course of a lifetime that are in our control.

Each man or woman has a right to this choice. They have a right to their life. That is why it is such a horrible thing to murder someone. That’s obvious. Slightly less obvious is that the same principle applies to theft, and even to bearing false witness. It applies to theft, because a person’s possessions are considered part of what is making their life possible. To steward something for God by ownership is to take responsibility for it, and the purpose is the furthering of one’s life. To take one of my things is to take from my life. To be sure, I should learn to hold my stuff with an open hand, remembering that it all belongs to God, but none of it belongs to anyone else but me. That is why God protects private property.

Coveting taps into the same sinful tendency as the desire to take someone’s life, or at least to take from someone’s life. It also tells God that you don’t like your own life, that God should have given you what the other man has, instead of giving it to him. To covet is to not trust God. It is also to prioritize things in your own life that should not be a priority. James says,

1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God (Ja 4:1-4)?

Coveting and murder are in the same category here, because the above statement shows that they both take from someone else’s life. This is why it is considered by James to be a root cause of “wars” and “battles.”

So, on principle, do not allow yourself to covet another man’s (or woman’s) possession of anything. It’s a trap of Satan and an invitation for demonic torture.

It tricks you into looking away from the facts of your own life, which is where your attention needs to be.

What is happening with you; why do you not already have this thing that you think is so important? How can you use the facts of your life to see where you are, where you could be, and how to get there? To keep this principle is to trust God. To go a step further, practice thankfulness for what you have, awareness of what you could have and where you can grow, and focus on doing those things that will move you toward a greater faithfulness in your stewardship.

Do not covet…anything that is your neighbor’s.

The Christian Life

Principles are Better than Laws Pt 13 Don’t Bear False Witness or Lie at All

I was watching a short clip on YouTube by Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christiansen on religion and capitalism in America. He was recounting a conversation with a graduate student from China who had come to America to study capitalism. When Christiansen asked him what was the most surprising thing he’d learned from his time studying in America, the man said something to the effect that he had not previously understood the role that religion played in the success of capitalism in America. What he went on to say was that it was remarkable that Americans are more or less honest. They pay their taxes usually without the police coming to beat them up. He (rightly) attributed this to an inherent fear of God baked into the culture. He said (rightly) that the attempt to impose capitalism and democracy on other countries has failed because of a lack of similar foundations. 

This series of posts is about the idea that we should not only reverently obey the laws of God, but we should also see them as principles, following which will lead to the best possible life we could be living on earth and beyond. Having now arrived at the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness,” I must distinguish briefly between bearing false witness, that is, perjury, and plain old lying. Both are wrong, but the first is worse. 

Lying is bad. It warps reality, and warping reality is a kind of chaos that leads to destruction. But bearing false witness is worse, because it means that you are deliberately lying about a person in order to do them harm. This puts it up there with murder, because it is an assault on the person’s LIFE. And life is sacred.

As a straightforward command, this works pretty well. To see this as a principle, we can go deeper into the “why” behind the prohibition against false witness. The problem with perjury is that it is injustice. Someone goes to jail, because someone lied under oath. The wrong man paid for the crime. The fabric of society depends on justice.

To bear false witness or to lie in any way is to give in to unreality. If you live according to anything except truth, your life will become disintegrated. You will come apart little by little. Everyone knows that to pull off a lie requires more than just that lie. You have to lie about lying. You have to lie about lying about lying. You have to remember who you lied to and remember what the lie was and to keep the lie going. You have to lie to yourself that you are not a worthless person, at least in practice. You may have worth as an image-bearer of God, but you add nothing to that by being a purveyor of unreality, making the world a worse place because of your existence and your lies. This is the opposite of what we are called to do as humans, and especially as God-fearing humans.

One way to look at this is to be ruthless on yourself to represent your opponents accurately. Why? Because the truth matters, even when it hurts your cause. There is no true conflict of your interests if you are telling the truth. Don’t shortcut the argument of who is right and who is wrong in a dispute by misrepresentation of the other side. A basic example would be a the common practice of making a straw man out of your opponent. If you cannot beat them with an accurate representation, you are not having a fight worth winning. Your win will be a lie, and the ends don’t justify the means.

Be a person who loves the truth on principle, even if it wrecks your world. If your world can be wrecked by the truth, then you are living the wrong kind of existence. It may be brutal and painful to clean up a life of contradictions, lies, evasions, and false witnessing about the other side, but if you have the heart for it, keeping this command along with all the commands against lying, will change your life. You will become a whole person; stronger, more confident, with more self-esteem and yet humility at the same time. Submission to truth is submission to God, and submission to God and his laws is humble.