Covetousness or contentment?

It is impossible to satisfy covetousness, for desire always surpasses its fulfillment

Allan R. Magie, Ph.D., is chairman of the department of environmental and tropical health in the School of Health, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

None of us would challenge the value of the Ten Commandments, at least not openly. They represent the ideal model of personal behavior in our rich Judeo-Christian heritage. But in these days of liberal interpretation, perhaps they can use all the defense they can get. Surely the one most needing support, at least for many of us, is the tenth: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's" (Ex. 20:17).

"Now hold on," I can hear you say, "aren't there things we can covet? Why not covet items that will make our lives more pleasant? Won't material possessions free us from mundane activities so that we can have time free to worship and serve the Lord?"

Our secular lives are continually assailed by commercial entreaties to covet all sorts of material goods, and in addition, to make ourselves so downright attractive that we will be coveted by all manner of persons. New gadgets, high-powered cars, chrome-plated labor-saving devices, trinkets of various kinds, the latest fashions, hair styles, deodorants, the list grows on and on. After all, that's what keeps our standard of living high (along with inflation), and new wonders are promised for tomorrow.

Don't get carried away with daydreaming! God has warned against coveting. Is there potential danger in coveting even nonforbidden objects?

To understand spiritual laws, we can often turn to the intricate human machinery and see a parallel in the physical laws that govern our being. The nervous system functions by carrying mes sages to and from all parts of the body from the control center or brain. This network is composed of billions of nerve cells each one capable of transmitting life Sustaining information. The nerves operate with biological electric power. And they use as little of this power as necessary. That is, they will not continue to send messages when the body is already aware of the information.

Take the sense of smell, for instance. A wife meeting her spouse at the door when he returns home from a meeting where others have been smoking tobacco immediately gives out a phew! and then can't understand why she gets the reply "What's wrong?" The reason, of course, is that he has become accustomed to the odor.

The same thing happens to the perfume a woman adds to enhance her mystique. Walking into a room, she will find everyone aware of the new "smell." How ever, within a very few minutes, unless she adds to her aura, no one there will notice that particular scent. Their olfactory nerves are still operational, but their brains are now aware of the new scent. So, in order to get fresh attention, our lady will either have to add more of the same essence or a new blend. When that is done, the olfactory nerves quickly make everyone aware of the new level of intensity of the old odor or the presence of a new one. You see, the nerve cells simply stop signaling the brain once it has been made cognizant of a change in the body's environment.

In a similar way we quickly adapt to the coolness of a swimming pool, even suggesting to newcomers, "The water's fine; come on in!" It is for this reason that many persons will finish off a hot bath or shower with cold water.

Even when it comes to something unwanted, like pain, this principle operates. We can become accustomed to a given level of pain until we are aware of it only when it fluctuates. Pleasure stimuli, too, are treated similarly by the nervous system.

This virtually automatic adjustment of our sense organs to varying levels of stimulation can be used to understand areas of our experience that are not so easily detected or measured.

As an example, take money. If you are like most clergy, you are accustomed to living on a fairly rigid budget based on an expected income. Periodic raises are expected that may give you an incentive to perform your responsibilities more efficiently. Have you ever noticed how quickly you become adjusted to the new level of income? In fact, if you are like most persons, you have probably already spent or committed the salary increase even before you get it!

Then, before you realize it, you find yourself just as contented, or discontented, with the new salary level as you were before you received the raise. That's adjustment. Instead of adapting to stimuli carried by the nerve fibers, it's adapting to money used to satisfy your needs and wants.

By now the application to the tenth commandment ought to be clear. One reason for not coveting anything is that when you obtain it, it only leads to additional pleasure stimuli, to which you rapidly adapt, and then find yourself not one iota better off than you were before obtaining it.

But now, at this elevated level, a new dimension enters the picture. If you do not maintain this increased level, or actually regress to a former level of existence, the pains of displeasure that you experience will be as great or greater than the anticipated pleasure of achieving a higher level.

Thus, there is really little, if anything, to be gained by reaching a higher level of prestige, income, or other temporary station in life, and therefore, little value in coveting them.

Certainly life has higher rewards and values than those sought by the world today wealth, honor, fame. Great men of the past, such as Gandhi, Schweitzer, and unnumbered others, have shunned such amenities, to share with Christ the shunning of the goods and conditions glamorized and desired by most men.

Our Saviour didn't even own a pillow on which to rest His head; yet He lived a full and rewarding life of service. He really hasn't asked us to disdain all accessions He only desires that we keep these in perspective to the eternal world to which we journey. Nothing should be allowed to occupy our thoughts and ambitions so much that it distracts us from the great purpose of life yielding our wills to God and unrestricted willingness to follow in His footsteps of service to our fellow men. Jesus said: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself "; "but seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:34, 33).

Paul adds this counsel: "Covet earnestly the best gifts" "faith, hope, charity" (1 Cor. 12:31; 13:13).

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Allan R. Magie, Ph.D., is chairman of the department of environmental and tropical health in the School of Health, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

November 1982

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