Don’t Fixate on What You Don’t Have (Horizons 9)

 “Words of Love: Don’t Fixate on What  You Don’t Have”
Exodus 20:17-21; 1 Kings 21:1-16; Luke 12:13-15

When I was in middle school, it seemed as though everyone had these really cute Pappagallo shoes and clothing but me. The shoes were flats in soft leather with bows in a variety of colors. The clothes were bright pinks and greens or blues and yellows. Pappagallo products were expensive and my family couldn’t afford them. But how I longed for them so I would fit in more. In my case, the commandment to not covet fell on deaf ears.

Covetousness is believing that our lives would be so much better if we had something or someone that another person has. We may covet an affectionate marriage, a great golf handicap, a lovely home, a larger television, glittering jewelry, a close relationship with our grown children or designer clothes (and the sleek body to wear them). If we were to make a list of things that people covet, the paper would run out the door and into the street.

Like a teenage boy’s stomach during a growth spurt, covetousness can never be filled up for long. Covetousness and its close cousin, greed, are ravenous beasts. In focusing on what we do not have, we negatively evaluate ourselves and our lives. Unchecked covetousness sets up a throne in our hearts and minds so that we are ruled by it. Greed can poison our perspective on what is necessary for human life and destroy our vision of the common good. Covetousness does not care about the poor. It destroys our ability to enjoy what we have. It sours life.

Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” paints Ebenezer Scrooge as a person warped by covetousness and greed. Dickens writes: “Oh! But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel has struck out a generous fire; secret, self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Few of us would fit the description of Scrooge, but we may be driven to hoard, or find ourselves constantly wanting more. Just direct me to a sale and I can justify what I buy.

Bombarded by ads, commercials and coupons, we are a consumption-based economy. We are encouraged to spend so the economy will grow. Greed is seen as good in our country, which makes it all the more difficult to not covet what our neighbor has.

What can curb our covetousness? Gratitude and working with the poor can help.

I asked a class to write down, silently, for five minutes, those things for which they were grateful. “Five minutes?!” they protested. At first, the pace of the writing was slow. Then people became absorbed in the assignment. When I called time, I asked them how they felt after writing their gratitude list. “When I came into class, I was rushed and a bit irritable. Now I am more peaceful,” replied one person. Another commented: “As I continued writing, prayer, worship and the forgiveness of God popped up. I am usually thinking about the next thing I have to do. This slowed me down and helped me to remember God’s goodness.”

Gratitude helps us celebrate the richness of life now. It centers us in the present and makes us realize the abundance that we do have. Even when life is a misery, we can find something for which to be grateful: a cup of coffee or a pet snuggling on our laps, perhaps. People who write daily in a gratitude journal often spot God’s activity in their lives more readily. Daily for a week list those things for which you are thankful and see what a difference it can make.

Greed and covetousness also dwindle when faced with others’ immense needs. For several years, I have tutored a child in a poorer, inner-city school. Thirty-six percent of children live in poverty in my city. Weekly going into one of the poorest sections of town keeps me aware of the many people who live without basic necessities, like a living-wage job, healthcare or quality education. If we move among the poor, our lives will seem luxurious in comparison and God may energize us into working on the root causes of poverty, like affordable housing, racism and job training.

Covetousness makes us restless and dissatisfied. Augustine, the North African Bishop of Hippo, wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. There is less room for greed as we embody God’s call to raise up the poor. Covetousness diminishes as we give our lives continually to God’s purposes and increase in gratitude.  And the gratitude we experience will  shine through us to others.

RosalindBanburyRosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.

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