There is one sin at the root of all others, and it is the most insidious. It makes you believe you are right and justified and not sinning at all. It convinces men that they are the victims and not the perpetrators. It drives us away from God, and into deeper sin. It is easy to see why this sin is the worst – because it causes an exponential multiplication of sin if not caught early.
When we look at the 10 Commandments, no matter what version of the Bible we read, we see that 6/10 of the commandments have to do with wanting or taking things that do not belong to us. From Exodus 20:
- Thou shalt not kill
- Thou shalt not commit adultery
- Thou shalt not steal
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s manservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s
This topic amasses the majority of sins the Lord sought fit to command the Israelites not to commit, and three of the Ten Commandments are devoted to coveting, alone.
Covetousness vs. Industriousness
What is ‘coveting’ and why is it so bad? To ‘covet’ means ” to yearn to possess or have something.” In and of itself, yearning to possess or have something is not a bad thing. Scriptures are filled with examples of industry and accumulation of goods in a positive context. Paul commands the Thessalonians “that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you,” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and then again “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you…if any [among you] would not work, neither should he eat. Now…we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.” (2 Thessalonians 3:8-12) He tells Timothy to preach to the people, “if any provide not for his own and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (1 Timothy 5:8) He also commands the Ephesians “let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good,” (Ephesians 4:28). Helaman 3 and 6 record a prosperous people, favored of the Lord because of their labors. Alma 60 features a scathing epistle to the government by the leader of their military, Captain Moroni, who wrote, “Do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?” He demands, “Except ye do repent of that which ye have done, and begin to be up and doing…it will be expedient that we contend no more with the Lamanites until we have first cleansed our inward vessel, yea, even the great head of our government.” Nephi taught his people “to build buildings and to work in all manner of wood…and of precious ores.” (2 Nephi 5:15) Perhaps most telling is Paul’s statement to the Galatians “It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.” (Galatians 4:18)
It is not wrong–in fact, it is encouraged–to yearn to accomplish things in this life. That is what life is all about. We were sent here from Premortality with infinite possibilities for our personal accomplishments. Wanting to be excellent is Godly and as far from sinful as one can be. However, wanting to be excellent is not coveting.
To covet is to desire something–even a good thing–when it is not God’s plan that you should have it now. It is to abandon God’s plan for you to obtain something that you want. It is to reject His loving, watchful eye. The scriptures quoted above about the prosperous souls of the Book of Mormon or about the early church members in Paul’s day sound almost identical to nearby verses about the people who were not industrious, but instead covetous. In Alma 1 the people “because of the steadiness of the church…began to be exceedingly rich…and thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any that were naked…and thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy” and in Helaman 4 “this great loss of the Nephites, and the great slaughter which was among them…was because of their exceeding riches.” These are only two of many juxaposed examples from scriptures that display that wealth in and of itself is not correlated to covetousness or industriousness. Covetousness is a sin that can be committed in times of plenty and in times of need, by the ultra-wealthy or the destitute.
The Cause of Covetousness
One might trace covetous feelings throughout all history back to jealousy, the negative feelings that come from being left out, a feeling of indignation or entitlement over perceived past crimes. Covetousness is one of the oldest sins; it was covetousness that drove Cain to kill his brother Abel. “And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering [God] had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.” (Genesis 4:4-5) Abel outperformed Cain by giving the Lord the firstlings of his flock, while Cain gave of the fruits of the ground. Presumably, Cain did not work as hard or sacrifice as much as Abel to give his offering, so the Lord knew his “idle”, “slothful” heart and rebuked him. Cain, feeling entitled and aggrieved, coveted the Lord’s approval of his brother and ultimately coveted his brother’s life. So he decided to take what he wanted, that which did not belong to him, and the first murder was committed. Covetousness is the seed which begets some of the worst sins known to man. However, even though covetousness is one of the oldest sins, proliferates more sin, and is certainly a “sneaky” sin, it is not the sneakiest sin. Nor is it the root of sin, itself.
If 60% of the Ten Commandments focus on covetousness, the other 40% focus on being selfless.
- I am the Lord Thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
- Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
- Honor thy father and thy mother.
Each of these commandments has to do with focusing not on self, but on your Father in heaven and your father on earth. If you turn your heart to your Fathers, you will be grateful for all that you have been given. You will see the Lord’s loving counsel toward you not as restrictive but as freeing. You will see your loved ones as worthy of your honor instead of worthy of your wrath, or indignation, or jealousy. There is a lot of overlap between selfishness and covetousness, as you can imagine. In all instances of coveting, one is being selfish. Selfishness makes a person believe that they are justified in their desires, even when they aren’t. They focus solely on what they want or feel like they need instead of maintaining an eternal perspective and thinking about what God knows they need. They focus on what they don’t have instead of having gratitude for what God has given them, and how they can serve Him in return. It is a sin that leads to a litany of other sins, as men are wont to give their hearts to their lusts instead of to God once they’ve convinced themselves that they are justified in their feelings. As insidious as selfishness is, however, it is not the sneakiest sin, and it is not the root of sin. There is another sin at the root of selfishness.
I believe that covetousness and selfishness lead to all other sins. This is why 100% of the Ten Commandments can be explained by covetousness or selfishness. However, there is one sin that is at the root of both. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded by replacing the Ten Commandments with Two. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) What sin is defined by not following these commandments? What sin leads to all other sins? The sneakiest sin, the one that convinces a man that he is justified and leads to an exponential slide into darkness, is Pride.
When Pride Seems Justified
Pride is the counterfeit of self-worth. The Lord desires us, above all else, to recognize our infinite potential, our worth as heirs of the most powerful being of the universe, His own beloved children. Our recognition of this fact and framing our lives around this truth as we gain experience and return to our Father in Heaven is at the core of our purpose for being here. And so it is no surprise that the Great Deceiver, Satan, would sickly twist that beautiful concept into something that drives all sin and darkness in our lives. Pride leads to covetousness and selfishness when we look at our circumstances and have the self-pitying thought, “I shouldn’t have to go through this.” That thought rejects the Lord’s plan that we experience trials He knew we would need to develop into the people He yearns for us to be.
After the wealthy, accomplished, righteous Job loses everything including his health, he professes his innocence and sense of grievance to Elihu. “Is not destruction to the wicked? And a strange punishment to the workers of iniquity? Doth he not see my ways, and count all my steps? If I have walked with vanity…let me be weighed in an even balance…if my step hath turned out of the way…then let me sow, and let another eat.” (Job 31) He goes on to list all of the things that he did not do wrong, justifying himself. Elihu rebukes him, saying, “Surely thou has spoken…and I have heard the voice of thy words saying ‘I am clean without transgression, I am innocent…[God] findeth occasions against me, he counteth me for his enemy, he putteth my feet in the stocks.’…Behold, in this thou art not just: I will answer thee, that God is greater than man.” (Job 33) Later on, God Himself addresses Job. “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?…When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38)
If anyone was justified in pride, it would be Job–the man of whom God Himself said, “there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil.” (Job 1) And yet when he was brought low, and suffered greatly, even Job essentially gave into self-pity and pride and declared “I shouldn’t have to go through this.” God reminded Job directly of exactly why he should have to go through this. This plan was discussed in Premortality. The trials of having a body, the opposition one encounters here on Earth, are all part of the glorious plan that, when explained, Job himself, along with all of us who have ever been born, “shouted for joy.” We were excited because we knew the end from the beginning–we knew that this design would enable us to become like our Father, to develop and grow and reach infinite potential, to inherit all He has. It should be apparent how appalling pride is, then–to reject this generous offer, because we in our self-pity believe that our trials are not something we should have to go through. And yet, even knowing how appalling pride is, we all do it. There is not a soul on Earth who has not experienced pride. And this is unsurprising, as even Job succumbed to it.
The Sneakiest Sin, Especially Today
Pride is sneaky, leading us away into dark paths without us realizing we are even sinning. It is most often thought of as the sin of boasting in our own accomplishments, leading us to selfishly pursue what we want instead of God’s plan for us. This is the most obvious way pride masquerades as self-worth. However, I believe it is most frequently missed, especially in our society where everyone wants to be aggrieved, when we exhibit self-pity. Many would even say Job was justified in his despair, given all he had lost. But this is where we greatly err–it is one thing to empathize with Job, to understand his sorrow, and quite another to say his attitude is justified. It is our duty to “mourn with those that mourn,” (Mosiah 18) and also to “judge righteous judgment.” (John 7) It is a fine line to walk, but Elihu gives a wonderful example in how he interacted with Job.
It is pride that leads to covetousness and selfishness, because it is pride that causes us to reject the Lord’s plan and pursue our own. So what do we do when pride slithers its way into our lives and darkens our days? My wife has listened to a lot of Jodi Moore’s podcasts, and talks about her model for change. Most of our problems come not from our circumstances, but from our thoughts about our circumstances. As we heard in recent General Conference talks, we need to focus on changing our thoughts. The emotions of self-pity, jealousy, and despair usually follow thoughts of “I shouldn’t have to go through this,” and all variations thereof. “I deserve that car.” “She has more than me.” “Life shouldn’t be so hard.” “I did nothing to deserve this disease.” “It isn’t fair.” “If he gets to have one, so should I.” “I’m going to do this anyway because I deserve to feel good.” Those thoughts lead to the emotions that lead to sin. Changing those thoughts to remember the Lord and His plan will re-orient us toward the Truth. You are of infinite worth. You don’t deserve to suffer, but you agreed to suffer so that you could grow. Life should be this hard, and it isn’t fair now, but it certainly will be in the end. So don’t throw away that future and “do this anyway”, whatever sin that might be, “to feel good” now. Choose instead to remember the Lord our God. And when you inevitably see a friend succumbing to pride, empathize with them, and walk out of the darkness together.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you, and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)