While browsing through the Sunday paper yesterday, an article entitled “Money Lessons for Every High-School Graduate“ in The Wall Street Journal Sunday caught my attention. The author, a young man graduating from the University of Massachusetts, shares a refreshing perspective on debt, materialism, wealth and perceptions of wealth. His five observations are worth considering whether one graduated from high school yesterday or twenty-five years ago: Debt is slavery; College debt takes its toll; Rich friends may be broke; Materialism is misery; TV makes you feel poor.
Perhaps I noticed this article because I had been contemplating similar ideas one day last week, not from within the context of college debt or family finances, but after bumping into the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy on my way through the Bible. I am in the habit of reading through the Bible once a year, which is very helpful in many ways (a subject for another day.) On that particular day I came to Deuteronomy chapter 5, one of two places in the Bible in which the Ten Commandments are recorded.
The Ten Commandments are familiar in a vague sort of way, but when is the last time you actually read them? As I read through them that day, I found myself pondering the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet…”
We don’t use the word “covet” much anymore, but it means an inordinate desire for stuff, particularly someone else’s stuff. Recent economic troubles have educated us all by exposing the rotten results of greed. Interestingly, God did not explicitly prohibit greed in the ten commandments. Instead, he said we should not “set our desires on ” our neighbor’s stuff. Maybe covetousness is at the root of greed.
Maybe covetousness deserves some attention. Somehow, we’ve been culturally conditioned to embrace covetousness. We take it for granted. Advertisers unapologetically encourage it. The American Dream presupposes it. Our economy and way of life is at least to some degree dependent on it.
For example, when I get emails with tags that say, “Sent from my iPhone,” I suddenly feel like my plain old cell phone isn’t good enough anymore. If all my friends have smart phones, well then I need one too. My reaction to that strategically placed phrase is not one of greed; it’s covetousness. I want one too. For the record, I have learned to check that thought, for I stubbornly refuse to be manipulated into getting a smart phone until I actually need one.
The upside of our covetous culture is that entire industries employing countless people and generating real wealth have been created because we all want the computers or iPods or video games or fashionable clothes or nice cars that we observe in our neighbors’ houses and all over print and television advertising. Creativity and economic energy are profitable and good outcomes of our economic system as are the products and services made available for our benefit and enjoyment. There’s nothing inherently sinful about prosperity. However, it is foolish to overextend oneself to buy a bigger house to keep up with the proverbial Jones. It is wrong to cheat or steal to finance new toys that we can’t afford. We dishonor God if excessive desire for more stuff causes us to be discontent with the blessings he has already provided for us. It is sinful to allow inordinate desires for material things to replace healthy desires for a good and God-honoring life.
Covetousness…greed…excess…debt…economic decline are some dots we’d be wise to connect.