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Answering The Atheist
March 5, 2006 / Volume 6, Issue 10

Is it OK to covet? Some verses tell us to covet (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:39), but others say not to (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21; Romans 13:9; Ephesians 5:3). Is there a contradiction?

We need to be careful that our modern understanding of and limitation on words does not cause us to misunderstand or misconstrue what the message of the Bible is. For instance, the word "lust" in our English language is exclusively understood as being evil. However, the Greek word epithumia can be used in either a positive or negative way. James writes, "...he is drawn away of his own lust (epithumia) and enticed." (Jms 1:14). But the same Greek word is used in Luke 22:15 by Jesus, saying, "With desire (epithumia) I have desired (epithumeo) to eat this passover with you..." The same word was used for both good and evil desire.

In like manner, the words which are translated into English as "covet" (of which epithumia is one) can be used either of good desire or evil desire. Which it is will always be determined by the context.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is speaking about the miraculous gifts which God gave through His Spirit. In verse 31, the apostle told the Christians to "covet earnestly (Gr. zeloo) the best gifts". They were to covet, desire, or long for the gifts which God was giving them. Doubtless, this is a positive use of the word "covet". The context of spiritual gifts continues through to the end of chapter 14, and thus, in 14:39, Paul again writes, "...brethren, covent to prophesy..." Desire the gift of prophecy which God is giving you. There is nothing sinful or wrong in what Paul is commanding.

Then, there are other times when the context reveals to us that the word "covet" is being used of evil desire. In Romans 13:9, Paul is quotinig various laws which appear in the Ten Commandments, including the command to not covet (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Paul does not quote the entire command from the Law, but the whole is certainly inferred. Moses' Law regarding covetousness read, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's." (Ex 20:17).

The last text mentioned by the questioner, Ephesians 5:3 reads, "But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints." The context certainly would indicate that here the apostle is not talking about desiring the things which God has determined to give us (as was the case in 1 Corinthians 14). In the context, covetousness is listed along side "...fornication... uncleanness... filthiness... foolish talking... coarse jesting..."

There are things which it is appropriate for us to covet (desire, long for); the things which God desires to give us. And there are things which it is inapporpriate for us to covet (desire, long for); the things which are sinful and which are merely for the fulfillment of the lusts of the flesh.

There is no contradiction.

This article is a response to Skeptic's Annotated Bible