Covetousness: An Inadequate Definition

By Johnny Stringer

I have often heard covetousness defined as the desire for something that belongs to someone else. I do not believe this definition is correct. Thayer defines Pleonexia, translated “covetousness”) as “a greedy desire.” To covet something is not just to desire it, but to have a greedy desire. It is to desire something too much, attaching so much importance to it that it is an idol to you (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). You are covetous if you desire something so much that you would sin in order to obtain it or so much that you cannot be content without it. Whether or not the thing you desire belongs to someone else has nothing to do with it.

It is possible to desire something that belongs to someone else, yet not be guilty of covetousness. Did you ever buy anything? Probably so. Why did you buy it? Probably because you desired it. Did it belong to someone else? Yes, it belonged to whomever you bought it from. So you desired something that belonged to someone else; therefore you bought it. If covetousness were merely the desire for something that belonged to someone else, you would have been guilty of covetousness when you desired the thing you later bought. Everything you see in a store belongs to someone. Are you guilty of covetousness any time you want something you see in a store?

I used to hear that if you desire what belongs to someone else, you are covetous. Hence, if someone has something you like, you should not desire his; instead, you should desire another one just like it. But if there is an object like the one that belongs to the other person, it, also, probably belongs to someone else. The real point is, you do not want to take something from someone who does not want to give it up. If you want to take it from him against his will, then you desire it too much; hence, you are guilty of covetousness.

Suppose someone owns some property in just the location where you want to build. You do not want property just like it somewhere else; you want that particular property. Or suppose you collect stamps and you know someone who owns a stamp that is the only one of its kind in the world. You do not want a stamp like that one; you want that particular stamp.

Are you covetous because you desire the property or stamp belonging to someone else? Not necessarily. If the person will not sell you the stamp or the property, are you content without it? Or do you attach so. much importance to it that you will not be content without it, but will resort to whatever means are necessary to get it. The answers to these questions determine whether or not you are covetous. How strong is your desire for the object? How important is it to you? Is it a greedy desire?

Not only can we desire something that belongs to someone else without being covetous, but we can be covetous in our desire for things that do not belong to anyone else. Suppose, for example, the holder of a political office dies leaving the office vacant. A special election is held to fill the office. The office belongs to no one. You want it so badly that you are willing to lie or do just about anything else to get it. In that case, you covet the office; you desire it too much. Your desire for something that does not belong to anyone else is covetous.

So you see, covetousness is not merely the desire for something that belongs to someone else. It is a greedy desire that grows out of thinking a man’s life consists of the things he possesses (Lk. 12:15). “Take heed, and beware of covetousness.”

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 10, p. 301
May 21, 1987