Idolatry Without Idols (3:5)
Where does one draw the line between a legitimate longing and covetousness? It’s not a razor’s edge, that’s for sure. The line is often fuzzy. The boundary between the two is not always as objectively discernible as we might wish.
The problem is that we don’t always understand our own motivation. Why do I long to possess that new car? What accounts for my desire to have more than what I currently own? Would more “stuff” serve a utilitarian purpose and aid me in the pursuit of legitimate spiritual goals? Or do I use that as a way of justifying the hoarding of goodies? Does having more simply stroke my ego or does it provide me with an opportunity to serve others for the glory of God? Would that we all might know the answer to these obviously difficult questions!
In any case, it’s vitally important that we continue to examine our souls and subject our motives to the searchlight of Scripture and the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because covetousness is a serious sin (see Rom. 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:10,11; 6:10,11; Eph. 5:3). Here in Colossians 3:5 it is the last of five in Paul’s first list of sins that we are to put to death. It breaks the sequence from a focus on sexual sins and turns our attention to the issue of greed. It even made God’s Top Ten list (see Exodus 20:17 - “You shall not covet”).
The most basic definition of covetousness is an inordinate desire for more and more, well beyond any reasonable assessment of what is needed. It is the insatiable longing to lay up stuff simply for the sake of having it. Jesus couldn’t have been clearer when he warned his disciples, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
How might one know if one’s life consists of one’s possessions? How do we gauge or measure such a phenomenon? At what point have we gone over the top in terms of what we own or desire to own? There’s certainly no mathematical formula or other means to calculate the answer. In fact, although there is often great danger in wealth there is no reason to think that if a person has a great deal of money he/she must, of necessity, be guilty of covetousness. Some of the least covetous and most generous people I know are quite wealthy.
Perhaps the key to our dilemma is found in the qualifying statement that Paul makes about covetousness. “Put to death . . . covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). Idolatry? That must mean I’m not guilty of covetousness! After all, I’ve never bowed down before wooden idols or worshiped the stars. I’m not in the least inclined to burn incense to a golden calf or swear allegiance to a false god. Needless to say, this betrays a woefully inadequate understanding of what constitutes idolatry.
Idolatry need not entail a statue of Buddha or genuflecting in a pagan temple. Idolatry is any tendency in the human heart to dethrone God for the sake of something else, whether that be money, sex, ambition, power, pride, or something as seemingly innocuous as respectability. To the extent that we give our affections to anything other than God on the assumption that it can do for our souls what he can’t, we are guilty of idolatry.
John Piper defines covetousness as “desiring something so much that you lose your contentment in God” (“Future Grace,” 221). Thus the opposite of covetousness is resting satisfied with God. Covetousness is idolatry “because the contentment that the heart should be getting from God, it starts to get from something else” (221). Covetousness, simply put, “is a heart divided between two gods” (221).
When we begin to lose our contentment in Christ, that is to say, when we say that Christ isn’t altogether adequate, we start to long for other things to satisfy our souls. We begin to say, “I must have something more or other, an experience, event, or possession that I can’t trust God to provide.” In effect we elevate something above God in our esteem. We put our confidence in the promise of “things” and “stuff” and whatever money can purchase, believing the lie that there is a depth of joy and quality of life in it/them that can’t be found in God.
Anytime our pursuit of more stuff is driven or energized by the belief that it can fulfill the longing of our souls in ways and means that God cannot, we are guilty of idolatry. Granting any object or possession such a powerful place in our hearts, or to elevate it to a position of highest value, deserving of our utmost effort and attention, is to deify it. We in effect are “bowing the knee to another master.” Our hearts are captive to a different “lord”. We have, quite simply, violated the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
I think I understand why Jesus spoke so urgently in Luke 12:15 (“take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness”). Covetousness is sneaky. It’s hard to detect. Worst of all, it often looks so much like the legitimate desire simply to enjoy the good gifts of God and celebrate life in all its beauty and lavish provisions.
So, no, I don’t know where to draw the line. I do know that I’m responsible before God for the state of my own heart. I do know that I’m accountable to Jesus to be extremely careful not to let down my guard lest covetousness creep in unawares and seduce my soul away from single-minded, whole-hearted devotion to him alone.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
Longing to long for Him alone,