As people living in a fallen world, we know what it is to have desires. We experience physical pain, witness injustice, suffer under various trials, and ache with loneliness and grief. Even when all is going relatively well, our minds imagine how wonderful it would be if we had just a tad more.
We rightly long for the restoration of Eden, but regularly live outside of our hopes and dreams. Most of the people I know desire good things: a job, a spouse, healing, children, friends, ministry, and rest. The question we face on a daily basis is not whether or not we have desires, but how to discern when they drift from hopeful longings to become covetousness and entitled attitudes.
Gaining insight into the health of our desires is a bit like discerning whether or not the milk in the fridge has soured. Upon first glance, two cartons of milk may both appear fresh. However, as the milk is poured, one carton is proven fresh by its sweet smell and smooth pour. The other is shown to be sour by its rancid odor and clumpy flow. In a similar way, the following four questions can help us discern if our desires have soured into the sin of covetousness.
1. Is the object of my desire something that God has clearly denied?
In the garden, Eve’s longing for the forbidden fruit was a covetous desire because God prohibited eating from that particular tree. If we set our affections on an object or a person clearly outside of God’s will as revealed in the Bible, then we need to repent of the desire itself, even if we haven’t acted to obtain the object of our desire. Longing for a husband is a good desire. Longing for someone else’s husband is a covetous desire. A lustful desire is sinful in and of itself, not just the act of adultery (Matt. 5:28). By faith, we turn from our sinful desires and ask the Lord to change in us.
2. Am I willing to use any means to attain my desire?
While we may desire a good end, the method we use to gain what we want exposes the nature of our desire. In Genesis, Sarah knew that God had promised a child to Abraham. She had a right longing for a child. However, her willingness to use Hagar to produce a child exposed that her desire had become inordinate. Her longing grew impatient, and she failed to believe in God’s ability to give Abraham a son through her womb. If we’re willing to use our energies, resources, and talents in sinful ways to procure what we want, it is a sign that our desires have grown covetous in nature.
3. Why do I want what I want?
If we find that desires begin when we walk through a friend’s new home, hear of a wonderful vacation, or a witness a kindness shown by a spouse or friend, usually these are signs of envy. These desires typically come about because we compare our lives with someone else’s and incorrectly believe that the Lord has failed to be good to us. The Israelites’ response to Samuel at the end of his life illustrates this principle. They wanted a king to rule them, not because it was God’s will or his timing, but because all the other nations had a king (1 Sam. 8:5). Eventually, Samuel warned them that they would cry out for relief from the king they chose rather than trusting the Lord’s provision. If we seek to gain something simply because we’ve played the comparison game, then most likely we’re coveting.
4. What is my attitude as I wait?
If our attitude while we wait is full of grumbling, complaining, bitterness, anger, or ingratitude then coveting is at the heart of our struggle. Paul exhorts, “Be joyful always, pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Our covetous desires choke out our heartfelt joy and thanksgiving in the Lord. The Israelites demonstrated this attitude as they complained to Moses, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to stave this entire assembly to death” (Ex. 16:3). They quickly forgot the Lord’s provision just two months after their miraculous exodus from Egypt. If we’re impatient, unloving, or ungrateful as we wait, coveting in some area is usually at the heart of our problem.
What do I do with a sour desire?
When milk is sour we pour it down the sink and wash it away. What do we do with our soured desires? We confess them. We pour out our hearts to Christ, lean on his mercy, trust in his righteousness, and beg him to change our hearts. He can take a heart of stone and turn it into a heart of flesh. Surely, he can wash away our soured desires and replace them with fresh and life-giving longings. Our goal is not to stop desiring; our hope is to crave a much better feast.