The Ten Commandments in the World of Business: Thou Shalt Not Covet

Alas

As the equipment and workers left the premises, I was pleased to see the upgrades my new neighbor recently made to his house, yard, and landscaping. Very nice trees, all new windows, paint, gutters, new fence, etc. I am certainly excited about any property improvements my neighbors make. Who wouldn’t be?

But it didn’t take long for my admiration to turn into something less positive. My yard could use some new trees. And I would love to install a circular driveway in front of my house, like many of my neighbors have. My fence is rotting in places. I wouldn’t say that I became “pouty” over my neighbor’s improvements, but I moved from appreciation to…what? Envy? Maybe, maybe not. Coveting? Well, what is coveting, anyway?

The Journey

Here I begin a series of commentaries around the Ten Commandments, and how each may be understood in the business and marketplace context. For reasons that will become apparent, I will discuss these critical elements of the Christian life in reverse order; that is, beginning with the Tenth Commandment. Moreover, while a full theological exploration of each of these commandments could approach book length, I will limit my discussion as best as I can.

Coveting

Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.”

So, to clarify terms, the coveting that is forbidden by God involves allowing a legitimate appreciation or desire for things that others possess (or that I do not possess) to be corrupted into an illegitimate obsession – one that often leads to a multitude of other sins. That is, it is natural and good to have an appreciation for that which is valuable and beautiful. I appreciate the improvements my neighbor has made to his house. I can celebrate his improved lot in life (pun intended). But it is entirely possible for someone in my position – the neighbor, the observer, the unimproved lot – to move from contentment about my own possessions to jealousy, hatred, theft, destruction. Now, my neighbor really has nothing to worry about from me, but admiration, appreciation, and contentment can quickly become corrupted in any of us when we see what others have acquired. And, of course, covetousness can be measured by degrees. I might not burn my neighbor’s trees, graffiti his windows, or steal his gutters, but I might become too quick to judge him harshly, or gossip about his materialism, or avoid him altogether, out of jealousy or spite.

C.S. Lewis takes note of the particular frustration that God must experience as He sees our discontent with His provision:

He has provided a rich, beautiful world for people to live in. He has given them intelligence to show them how it can be used, and conscience to show them how it ought to be used. He has contrived that the things they need for their biological life (food, drink, rest, sleep, exercise) should be positively delightful to them. And, having done all this, He sees all His plans spoiled…by the crookedness of the people themselves. All the things He has given them to be happy with they turn into occasions for quarreling, and jealousy, and excess and hoarding, and tomfoolery.[1]

Marketplace Coveting

As we consider the particular temptations toward coveting in the business context, we begin by simplifying the meaning. We are speaking generally of wanting or desiring what we do not have, such that it leads us to discount our appreciation of what we do have, or to compromise our biblical principles in order to obtain the object of our desire. I may covet many things in the marketplace:

  • the job my former classmate just landed
  • the promotion my colleague deserved and was awarded
  • the attractive woman with whom I have been working on a work project
  • Status symbols such as parking spaces, or office locations

In fact, the things that are most likely to tempt us to covet will change across time in our business lives. We can learn much from Maslow’s familiar “Hierarchy of Needs” here. Maslow suggested that humans are motivated to satisfy different types of needs in different stages of life[2]. He specified the following (from lower-order needs to higher-order needs):

  • Survival and physiological needs (e.g. food, shelter)
  • Safety and Security needs (e.g. neighborhood, job)
  • Relationship and belongingness needs (e.g. spouse, friends, memberships)
  • Esteem needs (e.g. awards, advancement, status symbols)
  • Self-actualization needs (e.g. fulfillment, legacy, creativity)

Early Challenges

Those of us in the earliest stages of a business calling are most likely seeking things that ensure fulfillment of “lower-level” needs. We desire a job or position that ensures that rudimentary bills, such as rent and student loans, can be paid. We seek a job in an industry or firm that is established and stable. These are all normal and understandable desires. In this quest, however, we don’t always have…well, enough.

As soon as my budgeted bills are covered by income, I wonder why I can’t afford a little more, a little fun. Surely I deserve to be doing what “everybody else” is doing, right? Surely I should be in my own house, not this crummy apartment. Someone with my potential should be in a car more fitting of my (desired) social class. And soon the thankfulness (even thrill) I once had for my job is gone. We know that people in all business positions constantly compare their efforts and rewards with others, making determinations of “equity”[3]. Soon I am making note of the (likely undeserving) peers around me who have better jobs, more money, and “nicer things”, even though I am likely smarter, harder-working, and more deserving. I have moved from contentment with the manner in which God has provided for my needs to coveting what does not belong to me.

Worse yet, it is this early discontent that leads many young people to incur the financial indebtedness that has become the enabler of their covetousness. Those of us pursuing service in the business world are especially vulnerable to this early covetousness. Many of the rewards of business success are the exact type of material rewards that most appeal to people seeking material security. It is very easy to fall into coveting in the materialistic, money-minded world of business.

Constant Challenges

Interestingly enough, people at all stages of business life are susceptible to the coveting that is related to our relationship and membership needs. The fact is we are working with and around people (mostly), and much of what we do is stressful. We seek many forms of comfort through our work relationships. We form bonds of camaraderie with co-workers and team members. We build social communities at work that facilitate productivity and creativity. These are all positive outcomes of the organizational experience. But there is a dark side of marketplace life that arises from coveting. I will mention two here: the sexual coveting that comes from proximity, and the social coveting that comes from the “Inner Ring”.

There are many wonderful, fulfilling, and legitimate relationships that form in the context of business life. But it is no great revelation for me to mention that humans in the business world often engage in sexually-motivated activities with co-workers and colleagues. Proximity and the pressures of business life create interpersonal sparks that are a constant temptation for most people. This creates the modern-day scenario that God has in mind when He commands, “…you shall not covet your neighbor's wife…”. I am speaking, of course, specifically of illicit relationships, adulterous affairs, and the coveting that leads to exploitation, such as sexual harassment and the creation of a sexually hostile work environment. Modern business life is susceptible to these temptations, especially when we allow ourselves to “go there,” that is, to covet sexual relationships that are outside of marriage. Enough said.

The second relationship challenge is related to what management researchers have identified as in-groups and out-groups. According to the Leader-Member Exchange[4] model of organizations, managers and other leaders create for themselves an “in-group” of employees who are most-trusted, first-consulted, and who have access to inside information not shared with others (those in the out-group). This is, of course, not problematic, as such arrangements facilitate decision-making and progress. C.S. Lewis refers to this group as the Inner Ring, and he notes that it exists in all organizations, not just businesses. The great concern we ought to have, according to Lewis, is that our human nature is to covet membership in the inner-ring:

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods…one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous…This desire [for membership in the Inner Ring] is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action…Of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

We know, in the business community, that our bosses, our organizations, our industries have Inner Rings. We are tempted to covet entrance into these Rings. It is the coveting that leads us to compromise our principles, to demonstrate our loyalties in problematic ways, to leave behind our former friends who are keeping us from being as “relevant” as we wish to be. As Lewis notes, we are at our best when we simply find ourselves in the Rings that matter, from having been diligent and productive in our work, and faithful to our friends and employers.

Later Challenges

The greater marketplace temptations for those in later stages of business careers, or who have “risen beyond” the needs at the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, are those pertaining to power, esteem, and status. It is one thing to earn and receive authority, responsibility, power, and the titles that define them. It is another thing to look across the hall, or across the street, to titles and powers we have not yet attained, and then to begin the maneuvering we deem necessary to obtain what is not ours. At higher levels of management, it is even possible to project our coveting into the organizational context. Since I know that executive compensation is positively correlated with organizational size, I may covet the acquisition that will drastically increase my firm’s market position. What won’t I do to make that happen?

Ambition is a funny thing. We likely agree that one should be ambitious to do good (e.g. Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 3:13), and to be productive, and to grow in life and in skills and in accomplishments. But we also know that ambition can come to control us (e.g. James 4:13-17).

One needs only to watch a few episodes of “American Greed” (a CNBC network series: http://www.cnbc.com/id/18057119) to have a sense of the destrucive pattern. There is a “WOW!” factor upon seeing the story be repeated again and again – “white collar” and business criminals are typically swayed through overwhelming temptation to have what others have, to be what others have become, to live a life that is beyond their reach through patient, legitimate means. Bluntly, the stupidity displayed across the real-life stories in the series is a consequence of coveting. Having gotten a view of the “high life” from colleagues, customers, or otherwise, many people in many business activities lie, cheat, and steal (literally) to realize the new desires that have been awoken within them. Their common refrain is that it is not simply the money or the toys that compels them, but it is the status, the esteem, the access to ever-better company, that most tempts them. They covet a new, better life. It is not just the neighbor’s house, or his wife, or his servants or possessions that we covet. It is all of it. The whole thing. We want it all. And we want it now.

Like it or not, the higher we rise in the business world, the greater is the temptation to covet, and the greater is our access to the resources that may make all of our covetous dreams come true.

Thou Shalt Not Covet

Placed at the end of the Commandments given to Moses on Sinai, it is tempting to view covetousness as a relatively minor transgression. Earlier I noted that covetousness is problematic, in one sense, because it might lead to the commission of other sins. But let’s be clear – coveting is a grievous sin in its own right – it is specifically named as one of the ten transgressions we are commanded to avoid. How then shall we be obedient to this command?

Three Things that will Limit our Coveting

Cultivate a spirit and attitude of Contentedness – It is not easy to see past the trappings of materialism in a material world. As my human nature feels constrained by the limits of physical life, it is not unusual to feel as though I must maximize the material experience. YOLO, right! And yet, my God has promised to provide for my needs (Matthew 6:25-34). This includes everything at every level of Maslow’s Hierarchy. God provides for my physiological needs, as noted in Matt. 6. He is my Rock, my Security (e.g. Heb. 13:6). He provides the friends and relations and love that I need. In terms of esteem, He assures me that I have great value in His eyes. And, in the end, I am made whole in Him. As John the Baptist said, He must increase, and I must decrease (John 3:29-30). I am a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). If I cannot be thrilled and contented and completed by the joy of knowing God and doing His will, then I do not know Him very well, and I must continue to seek Him in His Word. Believe me when I say that I am not there yet, like many of you, I imagine.

Cultivate a habit of Prayer for control and perspective – As a follower of Jesus Christ, I know that I am not here (in this world) simply for me. Frankly, I am already saved and redeemed by the blood of Christ, and my entire purpose for living and working in the marketplace is to serve God and perform His will. That is, I am here to be His hands and feet. Where is the place for coveting from that perspective?

And yet, I am indeed still human. I lose perspective. I get caught up in the here and now of this world. It is by God’s grace alone that I can escape the clutches and bondage of the materialism and greed that leads to coveting. I must be in the habit of praying every day (and sometimes more) for God’s wisdom and discernment. I must pray continuously for the Holy Spirit’s help in controlling my impulses and shaping where my mind goes. I must pray that I can “be anxious for nothing”. I must pray something like this:

Heavenly Father, please help me to realize who You are, and who I am in You. Help me to remember your purpose and will for my life. Allow me to be and remain thankful and full of joy for this day that You have given me here, and for your provisions as I work out Your calling on my life. For each blessing you shower upon me and my family, Lord, I praise you. Father, I submit to the leading of Your Holy Spirit as I face temptations on this day, that each victory over temptation will be for your glory. Amen

Cultivate a system of Accountability – My wife and I work to hold one another accountable when it comes to coveting and discontentedness. Each of us needs to develop honest, realistic, ongoing conversations with someone who knows us well, and who can snap us back to reality when that covetous gaze comes over us. Since coveting is essentially a longing for that which we do not have and do not need, I need to be held accountable by my wife, who is able to remind me of how blessed we are. She is faithful to remind me (for example) that we do not NEED a circular driveway (sigh), and we would be better off using our resources to eliminate debt or support specific missions projects.

Once we have been launched into the world of business, the pressure is high to BE something special, to HAVE something beautiful, to MOVE into ever-higher circles of influence and prestige. These things in and of themselves are not bad, but they can become the objects of our obsessions instead of the means of glorifying God. We must surround ourselves with partners and communities that can keep us grounded as God elevates our ministries’ impacts. We need to be reminded that the glittering ring that is within our grasp is not always gold, and even if it is, grasping it may come at a cost. Should I take the promotion and the elevated salary that comes with it, even if my church brothers point out that it may exact a cost on my family life? That it may impact my ability to teach or preach or engage in other ministries? Maybe the answer is yes, I should take this step, sensing the Lord’s leading in this way. But I need to hear these arguments, I need to have these conversations. I must have a system of accountability.

In the end, we will be tempted go beyond admiration into the realm of coveting. We will fail to be restrained from coveting at times. But we are clear: coveting is sinful, it is forbidden, and it represents unique challenges for those of us in the world of business. Let us pray, hold one another accountable, and be ever-thankful and contended with the table that has been prepared for us by a loving God, Who meets all of our needs abundantly.
 
ABOUT THE  AUTHOR: Dr. Rick Martinez is Chair of the Department of Management, Marketing, and Business at Houston Baptist University. He holds a Ph.D. in Management from (THE) Texas A&M University, and is blessed to be involved teaching and preaching ministries at his church, First Colony Bible Chapel in Sugar Land, TX. Rick, by God’s grace, is married to Peggy, and they have three awesome children, Mariah, Tyler, and Sierra. Please contact at rjmartinez@hbu.edu.



[1] C.S. Lewis, (1970). “The Trouble with ‘X’…” In Walter Hooper (Ed.), God in the Dock, (p. 152). Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
[2] Or, at least tend to focus on lower-level needs before being concerned with higher-level needs. This is reflected in pursuit of lower-level needs at earlier stages of life and career; Maslow’s model is much-critiqued, but has a certain intuitive appeal; Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, pp. 370-396.
[3] Equity Theory is presented in Adams, J. (1965). “Inequality in Social Exchange,” in L. Berkowitz (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (New York: Academic Press).
[4] Graen, G. (1976). “Role-making processes within complex organizations”. In M. D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook of industrial and Organizational Psychology (pp. 1201-1245). Chicago: Rand McNally