One of the Ten Commandments breaks the mold of the other nine.
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are like the Lord’s Prayer. We recite them so often that we become numb to the words. We mouth them thoughtlessly.
So it is helpful now and then to slow down our recitation and pay attention to the words. When we do, we find something unexpected in the Ten Commandments.
The first nine commandments prescribe actions that God’s people are to do or not to do. For example: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall not kill. You shall not steal.
Even the first commandment–You shall have no other gods before me–implies action. You shall not honor, reverence, or worship any other god before the Lord.
Then we come to the tenth commandment–You shall not covet.* The sentence structure mirrors that of the previous commandments. But the prohibition is not against an action, but an emotion.
The emotion of coveting usually leads to some kind of action, such as an act to deceive and seize another person’s property. The commandment, however, focuses on the motivating emotion that precedes the action, not the action itself.
In this respect, although the tenth commandment parallels the structure of the others, it is a commandment of a totally different kind. That’s why I call it the ugly duckling commandment. It may walk in line with the other ducklings, but it is not a duck.
Why the Difference?
That fact raises a question in my mind. Why is it included in the ten commandments? It makes sense to command actions. We take it for granted that we–to a large degree at least–can control our actions. Our laws presume that fact. Otherwise all our legislation makes no sense.
But can we presume that for our feelings? I have come to believe that we cannot. I don’t think we can compel people–or even ourselves–to feel in a certain way.
Our feelings come and go, without any input from our decision-making will. Sometimes we wonder where those feelings come from. We may not want to feel them. We do our best to suppress them. Yet feelings have an uncanny way of making themselves present in our psyche whether we want to feel them or not.
So it seems odd to me that God is here commanding an emotion, not an action. Sure, coveting is a terribly destructive emotion. It has caused untold injustice and suffering in the world. We badly need to limit it. And, sure, God is God. His wisdom sometimes exceeds our comprehension.
But how can God command something that goes against the very dynamics of human nature? How can God command what we should feel? That’s the nagging question the tenth commandment raises for me.
The Driver of Human Behavior
Where that question leads me is the many places in the Bible where the heart is seen as the locus of our motivation. In the Biblical viewpoint, what ultimately drives our behavior is not rational reflections, but the motivating desires of our inner being.
Yes, rational considerations often drive our decisions and the actions that grow out of them. But if rational considerations come into conflict with our desires, desire is likely to win out. For in the Biblical viewpoint the core of the human problem is not our ignorance, but our disordered hearts. Time after time our desires drive us into destructive behavior in spite of our knowing that the course of action we choose to follow is wrong.
This fundamental insight first came to me with my study of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. In chapter five of that letter, Paul talks about the battle that is going on constantly between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit.
The good qualities of character that we so admire–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–are not products of our will-power, but gifts given to us as we deeply root our lives in the Holy Spirit. They grow as the mature fruit out of a heart transformed by the Spirit.**
When we stop to think more reflectively about it, we realize that behind all the commandments of God concerning our behavior lies the more central issue of the desires of our heart. Our wrong actions grow out of our disordered motivations. And if we would change those actions, then we must ultimately deal with the disordered feelings that lie behind those motivations.
The Viewpoint of Jesus
I think that is the great insight of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He takes the commandments—like the commandment You shall not kill—and realizes that we have not solved the spiritual problem of our behavior until we deal with the feelings that lie behind it. So he directs our attention to the feeling of anger that drives murder.
Likewise when he comes to the proverbial commandment You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, he directs our attention to that deadly binary cast in our feelings that causes so much civic, ethnic, and international strife and violence. We must deal, Jesus says, with our emotional cast of mind that divides people into friends and enemies. We must grow beyond that dualism if we are to resemble God our Father.
All this then gives deeper meaning to Jesus’ remark to Nicodemus, You must be born anew (or from above). The experience of being born anew is not primarily some insurance policy against going to eternal damnation. It is an experience of being remade in our inner being, of having our hearts transformed. Instead of the language of born again, the apostle Paul will use the language of new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). And that is the great hope that drives the spiritual journey for Christians.
So the tenth commandment has a reason for being the ugly duckling in the list of the Ten Commandments. It cautions us against any spiritual complacency, the assumption that we can fulfill God’s expectations by simple obedient action to the law. What is required to fulfill those expectations is something much deeper and more radical than we customarily assume.
* In calling it the tenth commandment, I follow the ordering of the ten commandments in the Reformed (Presbyterian) tradition, the religious tradition in which I live. Although all Jewish and Christian traditions keep to a consistent ten commandments, some number them differently than others. Roman Catholics and Lutherans, for example, split the commandment on coveting into two commandments while merging the first two commandments into one. What I have to say about the commandment on coveting remains true whether we regard it as one or two commandments.
** I reflect on this insight of Paul at length in my recent book Charter of Christian Freedom. It is a study guide to the Letter to the Galatians written especially for people with no or a limited theological education. It can be ordered from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock or from Amazon.