Sunday, November 7, 2021


It's February 351 – you've stepped back 1,670 years and nine months. It's a fine, temperate day in Egypt. And you're walking through the desert. You're searching for one man: a holy hermit named Anthony. You're told his hundredth birthday was last month. He was one of the first to press out into the deep desert, taking the fight of holiness to the desolate waste, shining his light in the den of devils and their mirages. Some go to him and have demons expelled in Jesus' name. Some go with a need, and he prays through the night, and miracles happen. Some go just to watch him a few hours, to better understand holiness. Some go to hear words that reset broken souls. Some bring their burning questions, for it's said that in his silence, Anthony hears the voice of God.

The trip is difficult. The pebbly ground is rough beneath your sandals. Rounding the mountain, you find the pebbles once more give way to sand. You think you're getting close. You face a sheer rock wall and see a few dark crevasses and clefts. Could one of these be his? You shout, “Abba Anthony! Abba Anthony!” And you wait in hope. Half an hour goes by, and you see motion through a three-foot-wide crack in the rock. Emerging from his tiny cave comes a frail old man with a long white beard, his dusty olive-brown form covered in a sheepskin. In silence he unrolls a mat of woven palm-fronds onto the sand, tosses a second mat to you, and sits.

You unfurl your mat at a distance – you can see bathing has no place in his rule of life. He wears rough and scratchy clothing. He usually sleeps on the hard ground, which helps him keep vigil most of the night to pray. He eats once a day after sundown, chiefly bread and salt, with minimal other vegetables to supply the necessary other vitamins. And his sole drink is the water he needs to survive in the desert. His philosophy is that “the soul's intensity is strong when the pleasures of the body are weakened.”1

Now, you ask him your question: “What means the scripture that says, 'Thou shalt not covet'?” For you have a feeling that your heart is beset by temptations to covetousness on every side. In reply, Anthony looks you in the eye and assures you that every temptation is an opportunity to glorify God as you flee it or fight it. “Without temptations,” he says, “no one can be saved.”2 He explains to you that “the written law works with us in a good service until we are able to restrain all passions and to fulfill the good ministry of virtue.”3 If you want to be truly pure, God gives believers “control over their souls and bodies, in order that both may be sanctified,” and this control is worked out “through many fasts and vigils.”4 Your mind needs to be “taught by the Spirit” to lead body and soul back to their original condition, “free from everything alien that belongs to the spirit of the enemy.”5 If you “hate all earthly possessions” and “stretch out the hands of your heart to heaven,” then “God will... grant you the invisible fire which burns up all impurity from you and purifies your mind. Then the Holy Spirit will dwell in you, and Jesus will stay in you, and thus you will be able to worship God as is proper.”6 Heed the Spirit, he says, and you'll be purified; give in too easily to desire, and you risk demons.7 But these demons are “afraid of... fasting, vigils, prayers..., humility..., and most of all..., devotion to Christ.”8 So the Spirit assigns this rule of purification: moderation after the power of the body, devoid of any greed or desire.”9

Hearing his words, in tears you tell Abba Anthony about all the times in life you've stumbled, all the desires at whose feet you've fallen. He gets up from his mat. He comes closer, kneels in the sand, and wipes the tear from your cheek. And he says, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”10 He sits with you in silence from then on out. Darkness falls, and he keeps vigil to pray for you until the first rays of dawn. You wake to see him smiling over you. He sends you on your way.

As you begin your walk through the sands of time back to 2021, maybe you think to yourself, “Now there was a man who doesn't covet.” You might also think to yourself that you've never met anyone like him, and aren't sure you ever will. Walk anywhere in modern America, and you won't find people chasing his particular path to holiness. Not even close. His are not ways natural to American Christianity, in part because we've been so effectively discipled not by the church but by convenience and comfort. Consequently, we meditate very little on what it might actually mean to “crucify the flesh with its passions and its desires” (Galatians 5:24).

But that's precisely what might be the inner heart of the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” Oh, to be sure, it wears its main meaning on its sleeve. We aren't to set our sights on what belongs to another – no lusting after his or her spouse, no envious hankering after house or land or family or stuff. But we already covered lust under the commandment against adultery. And we already covered envy under the commandment against theft. So if all this does is tell us what we already know, we might as well close our Bibles and skip home, right?

Or... we can go back and see what we've missed. Some of the earliest meditations on this commandment see it most deeply as an exhortation to discipline our desires. For “excess, even of good, is never a boon to mortals, and a great luxuriousness draws one to immoderate desires.”11 Desires, they said, need to be “brought into obedience to the governance of reason, and then all things will be permeated through-and-through with peace and good order.”12 And they saw the Law of Moses as “thoroughly teaching moderation so that we restrain all pleasures and desires.”13 Some even suggested this was the point of all those dietary laws – don't eat this, do eat that – because God took away the tastiest foods to teach them discipline.14 “The passions of the cravings are endured patiently, being restrained by the self-controlled mind, and all the stirrings of the body are silenced by reason.”15 “When the Law has told us not to desire..., reason is able to restrain the desires.”16

Even in the New Testament, James explains how “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire; then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). In other words, if our desires aren't disciplined, they seduce us, and sooner or later, one will get pregnant, its baby will be sin, and sin grows up to be a killer. Paul, for his part, sees this one as an especially significant commandment. It's the one Adam and Eve had in the Garden.17 And when it was broken, when the commandment was exploited by sin to stoke a desire for the fruit it ruled off-limits, then that sin gave rise to all the other kinds of covetousness and desire in our lives (Romans 7:7-8). But God gives us grace that can “train us to renounce... worldly desires, and to live temperately and righteously and piously in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Temperance is the virtue that pulls us back from desires and pleasures wherever desires and pleasures get immoderate, disordered, out of line with reason and human dignity.18 Paul was willing to go to considerable lengths to work out his temperance: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.... I pummel my body and make it my slave, lest... I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).

Our denomination's Book of Discipline reminds us that not only are we to “refuse to yield to the baser desires of the flesh and mind,” but we're even to “guard against excessive indulgence in things not evil in themselves, such as food, clothing, recreation, and personal possessions.”19 “At times, self-control may require abstinence from or renunciation of certain activities or things even though they are not evil in themselves,” especially activities or things that “particularly tempt [you] to overindulgence.”20 That's what we teach – on paper, at least.

So how might that look in real life? First, “Thou shalt not covet” then rules out greed and calls us to contentment. We know St. Anthony praised “renunciation of the world and human things.”21 Does our society need to hear about that today? We're bombarded daily with advertisements, messages meant to stoke our desires and tempt us to crave. So eager is every business to elicit your craving that they'll literally pay money to television networks, radio stations, and billboard owners just for the opportunity to tempt you! Advertisements are seldom merely reasoned cases. They're canny appeals to your flesh, preying on insecurities or awakening appetites. And it must work! They stir your desires for what they're selling, and you and I buy, buy, buy.

But what does Scripture say? Jesus tells us, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life doesn't consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). “The greedy” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). “Those who desire to be rich fall into... many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction, for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). “But godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). The ideal, Jesus reminds us, is to “sell your possessions and give to the needy,” thus exchanging them for “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (Luke 12:33). That was the verse that changed Anthony's life as a young man.22 One early Christian said we should “regard the things of this world as foreign to us, and not desire them, for when we desire to obtain these things, we fall away from the right path.”23 So what can we do? Discipline our desires. Remind ourselves that those things fall apart, that we're pilgrim strangers and should travel lightly anyway. But what we do get, we should “use with contentment of mind, preserve them readily, and share them readily.”24

Second, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out ambition and calls us to humility. Someone once defined ambition as an “inordinate desire of honor,”25 and if that's the case, we can see how it's out of line. Does our society need to hear about this? Again, yes! Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville saw America as a country swept with a “universal outpouring of ambition.”26 Are we less ambitious, less grasping and climbing today? No, bigger is better, we say. We want to earn more, influence more, be more. We want to impress and outdo, so we crave after certain jobs, certain spaces, certain status symbols. We angle for opportunity and advantage.

But what does Scripture say? “Do nothing from selfish ambition” (Philippians 2:3), “for where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 19:30). “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Psalm 84:10). Sometimes, what's healthiest for our souls is to take a step back and down – stay in small places, learn to love the low rung on the ladder, stand outside the camp with Christ.

Third, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out gluttony and calls for restraint. Anthony explained that “excessive eating stirs up the body, which is now moved by gluttony.”27 Does our society today need to hear this? Yes! Consider that, as of 2013, the average American was consuming 24% more calories each day than the average American in 1961 did. After fifty of those new calories were added by alcohol (more on that in a bit), another eighty-five were added by more sugar and artificial sweeteners, another hundred came from extra meat, another hundred and seventy came from more grains, and four hundred of the new daily calories come from all the vegetable oil we now use.28 And as for eating out, some restaurant meals are said to be three or four times bigger now than in 1950.29 This is one factor – far from the only factor, but one – influencing what's commonly titled today's 'obesity epidemic.'30 And again, our Book of Discipline declares that “moderation is also required in the amounts and types of food one consumes.”31 So this concept shouldn't be foreign to us.

But what does Scripture say? “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:20-21). “Such persons do not serve our Lord Christ but their own belly” (Romans 16:18). “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Other early Christians also warned that “if the diet oversteps the limits of self-sufficiency, it harms man … We must shun gluttony and partake of only a few things that are necessary. … We don't need to abstain from rich foods completely, but we shouldn't be anxious for them. … Overeating begets in the soul only pain and lethargy and shallow-mindedness.”32

But gluttony can take forms beyond knowingly eating too much. It can mean eating recklessly and mindlessly. It can mean obsessing over gourmet meals or spending too much on food. It can even mean being an overly picky eater who insists on only certain things and isn't thankful for anything else.33 All these are different ways of forgetting the fundamental purpose of eating, which has been defined as “nourishing the body in a manner that fosters loving and serving God and neighbor in thanksgiving for God's gifts.”34 So the early church didn't keep all the Old Testament dietary laws after Christ “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), but they adopted rhythms of fasting every Wednesday and Friday,35 and were careful the rest of the time too. One fourth-century preacher called fasting “likeness to the angels.”36 We could do with more fasting in our Christian life today.

Fourth, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out drunkenness and calls us to sobriety. One of St. Anthony's students, St. Pachomius, wrote: “It is written indeed, 'You shall not covet,' and again, 'You shall not get drunk': Covetousness is not one thing, and drunkenness is not one thing.”37 Do we have a society that needs to hear this? Yes! In 2019, about one in four American adults reported binge drinking in the prior month. Every year, 95,000 people in America die from alcohol-related causes, to say nothing of its other social ills.38 It's for such reasons that our Book of Discipline “encourages abstinence from the use of and traffic in beverage alcohol.”39

So what does Scripture say? “Awake, you drunkards, and weep! And wail, all you drinkers of wine!” (Joel 1:5). “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:34). “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). “Drunkards” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Do “not even associate with anyone who bears the name of 'brother' if he is... a drunkard” (1 Corinthians 5:11). “Be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). One early Christian called drunkenness “the demon of our own choosing.”40

And that message goes beyond alcoholic beverages. It calls for caution and moderation when it comes to other potentially addictive substances. Neither alcohol nor all those other things are bad in themselves! But they can lead to chemical dependencies. We all know the plight of opioid abuse by those who get addicted to painkillers. Many illicit drugs are also highly addictive. But there are also common and socially acceptable addictive substances that call for caution and moderation. Nicotine is addictive. Smoking causes more annual deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs put together.41 Does that make it a sin to smoke one cigarette? Not necessarily – but if it harms your body or impedes your life, that's hardly temperate. When we willingly court the risk of addiction, can we really be sure that our attitude toward that next smoke can't be labeled covetous?

Much less harmful, much more socially acceptable, but still addictive is another drug called caffeine. It has its uses – even at our church coffee hour! But taken in excess, you might know the jitters it can cause. And once you build up a dependency, you feel awful without it. Withdrawal symptoms come on you. Are we immoderate and intemperate with our use of coffee, tea, or other sources of caffeine? That question deserves to be asked.

Fifth and finally, “Thou shalt not covet” calls us to patience. Does today's society need to hear that message? Yes. Americans want everything fast, convenient, and delivered. We want our food fast, our shopping fast, our answers fast. Increasingly, we don't read, because TV and the Internet are faster and more fun. It's all about maximizing speed, utility, convenience. And convenience isn't bad! But what are the trade-offs? What does building habits of impatience do to us? Five years ago, a team of scientists found evidence they said suggests that impatient behavior may actually speed up the aging process of our DNA, potentially causing our cells to age and our life span to shorten; and they found that the effect may be especially severe for impatient women.42

And what does Scripture say? During their desert journey, bad things happened to Israel when they “became impatient on the way,” for that's when “the people spoke against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21:4-5). But “good soil” will “bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). “If we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). Patience is, in fact, one of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), and we're called to “walk... with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1-2). “Patience in well-doing” is, according to the Apostle Paul, something God rewards with “eternal life” (Romans 2:7), so especially “be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). Sometimes, then, this commandment invites us to take things slow – read a book, write a letter, share a home-cooked meal, visit a physical market, invest time with someone. Don't hang up on hold. Don't get bent out of shape. Let things take the time they take.

Many of these are hard areas in which to discipline our desires – I certainly find some of them so! It might be among the more challenging things we're invited to do. But to have our desires properly disciplined will really make them stronger and better-aimed. C. S. Lewis said it best: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”43

And that's exactly it! We are far too easily pleased. And the disciplining of our desires is meant to help us fix that. When we embrace contentment here, it's to build an even greater desire for the great gain set in store for us when at last we hold our heavenly treasure. When we humbly forsake undue ambitions here, it's to climb to the heights of God's holy hill and share the glory of Christ. When we fast and accept simple food with thanks, or when we soberly keep watch for the Lord, it's because we're heightening our craving for the banquet of his kingdom. And when we train ourselves in patient waiting, it's to enjoy the final harvest when this long season ends. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), in a spirit of “power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Just “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), because God alone is the One who “satisfies the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16). To desire God more than anything else, and to desire other things reasonably for his sake and only in ways that aid us toward him – that is perfect purity of heart and soul. That is disciplined desire. May our desires be disciplined to build their strength and right order in Christ Jesus, and may we deny ourselves now and take up his cross and follow him to a more desirable glory! Amen.


Almighty God and Father, the world is passing away along with its desires, but the one who does your will abides forever, in accordance with your promise.  Yet our desires too often are the desires of the world, the desires of our flesh, disordered by sin and thrown out of moderation.  We confess this isn't what any of us should want.  Discipline our desires, Lord, and train us in temperance by your grace.  Help us hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Help us chase relentlessly for your kingdom.  Help us aspire to a share by grace in your glory.  Help us wait on you in the patience of hope.  Grant us to desire a godly life in Christ.  Grant us to desire our better and heavenly country.  Grant us to desire all that you desire.  Make your name the desire of our soul.  But most of all, let us desire you yourself.  If we delight ourselves in you, you promise the desires of our purified hearts will be ours, in due and healthy measure.  Satisfy our pure desire even in scorched places, and make us oases in the desert of life.  Give us a measure of the grace you showed to your holy one Anthony of old, and help us here and now to have a heavenly mindset more like his.  Strengthen our resolve to make no provision to gratify the disordered desires of the flesh, but rather to crucify the flesh with its desires, to clothe ourselves in Christ, and to live in his light.  In his name we cry out to you, God, that we are willing to take up his cross and follow after him, wherever he goes.  Amen.

1  Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Saint Anthony 7

2  Apophthegmata patrum, Anthony 5

3  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 4.8

4  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 1.22-23

5  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 1.28-31

6  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 5.33-35. Third-person pronouns all shifted to second-person pronouns in quotation.

7  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 1.61-62

8  Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Saint Anthony 30

9  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 1.63-64

10  Apophthegmata patrum, Anthony 6

11  Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences 60-61

12  Philo of Alexandria, On the Special Laws 4.95

13  4 Maccabees 5:23

14  Philo of Alexandria, On the Special Laws 4.100-101; 4 Maccabees 1:33-34; 2:7

15  4 Maccabees 1:35

16  4 Maccabees 2:6

17  Compare Greek Apocalypse of Moses 19.3

18  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q141, a1, reply 1.

19  Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church §

20  Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church §

21  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 1.77

22  Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of St. Anthony 2

23  2 Clement 5.6-7

24  Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.3.38

25  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q131, a1, respondeo.

26  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Library of America, 2004), 738 (II.3.19).

27  Anthony of Egypt, Letter 1.37

28  Skye Gould, “6 Charts That Show How Much More Americans Eat Than They Used To,” Business Insider, 10 May 2017. <>.

29  Carmen Chai, “Fast Food Portions are Four Times Bigger Than They Were in the 1950s,” Global News, 25 May 2012. <>.

30  Lisa R. Young and Marion Nestle, “The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic,” American Journal of Public Health (February 2002): 246-249.

31  Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church §

32  Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.7,10,17

33  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q148, a4, respondeo.

34  Matthew Levering, Aquinas's Eschatological Ethics and the Virtue of Temperance (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019), 51.

35  Didache 8.1

36  Basil of Caesarea, Second Homily on Fasting 6

37  Pachomius of Tabennesi, Letter 3.7

38  “Alcohol Facts and Statistics,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, June 2021. <>.

39  Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church §

40  Basil of Caesarea, Homily Against Drunkards 2

41  “Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, updated 29 October 2021. <>.

42  Onn-Siong Yim, et al., “Delay Discounting, Genetic Sensitivity, and Leukocyte Telomere Length,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (8 March 2016): 2783-2784.

43  C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses (Macmillan Company, 1949), 1-2.

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