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What Does it Mean to Covet and Why Is It a Sin?

What Does it Mean to Covet and Why Is It a Sin?

What is coveting and what does the Bible say about it? We were created to desire. Some desires stem from our needs, like our craving for food and rest. Other desires originate from our wants, like our longing for trends and excess. While we can distinguish between wants and needs, both categories lead us to conclude that we are not self-sustained or self-satisfied. We require outside provisioning and when that provisioning arrives, we take pleasure in it.

Our good Creator designed us to have needs and wants so that we might know him and delight in him as our Provider and our Sustainer. 

He did not create us as robots that lack feeling or gratitude. Instead, he gave us the ability to crave and savor. Consider how lackluster life would be without the satisfaction of desires fulfilled. This part of us is sacred because it precedes our worship. When needs and wants are met, we worship the source. Trust is then garnered and we return to that source as desires continue to arise.  

Sin corrupts our God-given yearnings and makes us believe that our desires can be satisfied apart from the Lord. As a result, we run after worldly goods that, like a sleeve of cookies, gratify us for a moment, but end up leaving us sick and malnourished.  

When we forage for fulfillment apart from the Lord, severing the relationship between Provider and provision, we covet.

This broad definition of the sin of covetousness may surprise us. We are far more inclined to assign coveting to a specific desire for a specific thing, like ogling a neighbor’s lawnmower or a friend’s house. We might even vocalize these thoughts in jest. Though these pointed desires can be a form of coveting, we do the word a disservice if we so limit this far reaching sin.

The Bible Explains the Sin of Coveting

In Scripture, coveting is explicitly addressed and labeled as a sin in the Ten Commandments. The commandment against coveting is found in two Old Testament passages:

  1. 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."

  2. Deuteronomy 5:21 - This verse echoes the commandment in Exodus, stating again not to covet a neighbor's wife, house, field, servant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The commandment against coveting is distinctive because it addresses the inner thoughts and desires of an individual, rather than just their outward actions. Coveting is seen as the root of many other sins and harmful behaviors because it can lead to envy, theft, adultery, and other acts that harm community relations and personal integrity.

In the New Testament, the concept of coveting is also addressed and is seen as contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. For example, in Romans 7:7, Paul reflects on the law and sin, acknowledging that coveting is indeed a sin according to the law, "What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'"

Thus, both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible regard coveting as a sin because it is an unhealthy desire for what others have, which can lead to further wrongdoing and is contrary to a life of contentment, gratitude, and trust in God.

Consider these three questions to help us deepen our understanding of what it means to covet.

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1. Why is the Sin of Coveting So Dangerous?

The Ten Commandments tell us not to covet (Exodus 20:17). We need to know that when the Lord issues a commandment, he is protecting us from something harmful, not restraining us from something good. God’s call to forsake covetousness hems us in, dissuading us from running after things that, on their own, disappoint, distract, or even destroy. He instead calls us to what is truly good, worthy, and satisfying: himself.

We must understand that coveting is far more fundamental than a simple struggle with materialism. 

Coveting, a sin inextricably tied to our want, is a corruption of what was created in us to be the mechanism that draws us to the Lord.  Our want is the door through which we enter into satisfaction in God. Coveting turns our attention from our good Provider and fixates it on anything of lesser value. It leads us to believe that we can be satisfied in creation apart from the Creator.

It then plants seeds of distrust. We begin asking questions of the Lord. Is he really good if he hasn’t given me all I want? Does he really know what’s best for me? 

In all of this, we are questioning truths fundamental to our salvation: In Christ we are made complete, lacking nothing (Colossians 2:10). He is our Provider and will never leave us in need (Matthew 6:32-33). In his presence is the “fullness of joy” and at his right hand are “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Our Father wants us to know these truths and rely upon them.

Now we begin to see the treachery of covetousness. Not only is it dangerous for us, it is offensive to a God in whom all goodness and provision is found. Simply put, covetousness is a foolish endeavor that takes a Christ-follower and sends her grasping for satisfaction in all the wrong places.

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2. How Does Coveting Affect Our Relationship with Others?

2. How Does Coveting Affect Our Relationship with Others?

Paul tells us that all commandments, including the commandment prohibiting coveting, can be summed up in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9). How is it that he can make the connection between coveting and loving our neighbor? Why does one inhibit the other?

We tend to believe that coveting is an isolated problem, affecting no one but ourselves. Yet, coveting, like all sins, disrupts our relationships and our ability to hold people within proper view. We are called to celebrate with one another (Romans 12:15), respect the position to which the Lord has called each of us (1 Corinthians 7:17), and acknowledge that we are merely stewards of resources that belong to the Lord (Matthew 25:21, 1 Corinthians 4:1-2).

When we covet, our attention turns from people’s divine purpose to their possessions or position.

We become distracted with their allotment in life – their talents, their opportunities, and their stuff. We cannot be so foolish as to believe our thoughts don’t affect our actions and words. If our thoughts are consumed in jealousy or idolatry, our actions and words will be affected. This is why Solomon tells us to guard our hearts, for the heart drives all we do (Proverbs 4:23).

Much like pride, covetousness deceives our minds into thinking that we are personally responsible for our own provisioning. It gives authority to our desires, making us believe that our desires are the best indicator of what we need or should have. In this way, coveting becomes the origin point for other sins. Before we steal, we covet what we want to take. Before we commit adultery, we covet another’s spouse.

Covetousness may begin inwardly, but it will manifest itself outwardly.

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3. How Do We Prevent Coveting From Taking Root in Our Lives?

Every sin is a manipulation of what began as good. Many of the things we covet may be of great worth. We may desire a talent, experience, home, family, or relationship. Each of these things may be used unto the glory of the Lord. They are not sinful in and of themselves. Our Father intended all good things to stir our affections for him in recognizing that they came from his hand (James 1:17). As we enjoy what he has given, we enjoy the Giver himself.

The problem becomes when we terminate our gratitude and adoration upon the thing itself, and not upon the Lord who gave it. Instead, our enjoyment of good things should draw our hearts to worship the Source.

Yet, Scripture also makes clear that our worship is not dependent upon our possessions or circumstances. We are to be a people with an eternal mindset, storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). We are to recognize that this world is passing away and only that which is found in the Lord will last (1 John 2:17).

In all of this, we need to be evaluating our desires because they are prone to perversion. They are not to be trusted or pursued without first being filtered through Scripture (Philippians 1:10).

When we find ourselves coveting, we need to assess the object of our desire. Do we long for it for the sake of our own pleasure? If so, we need to be wary. Our prayers may well go unanswered if we are asking simply at the behest of our earthly passions (James 4:3).

We are made for more than this world offers. Our greatest purpose is to walk in his likeness (1 John 2:6) and make him known (Matthew 5:15-16). In his word we are equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17).  

For what is truly important and lasting, we have everything we need. 

Our daily desires draw us to find contentment in the Lord’s presence and be renewed in his presence again and again. We either act as good stewards of our desires and allow them to fuel our worship, or we abandon our responsibility to filter our emotions and allow them to lead us into coveting. Let us learn to pray with the psalmist, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

Satisfaction and contentment do not speak to our own glory. They celebrate the One in whom all needs are met – the One who is to be enjoyed for all eternity. When we forsake covetousness, we proclaim the goodness of the Lord to ourselves and all who surround us.

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With a heart for teaching, Madison Hetzler is passionate about edifying fellow believers to be strong, confident, and knowledgeable in the Word of God. Madison graduated from Liberty University's School of Divinity and now instructs Bible courses for Grace Christian University. She cherishes any opportunity to build community around cups of coffee and platters of homemade food.