|Francisco de Zurbaran, St. Francis Kneeling|
That notorious scoffer, the late Christopher Hitchens, complained that the Tenth Commandment ("Thou shalt not covet") was humanly impossible to keep. "One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much." He then added, "In particular, it is absurd to hope to banish envy of other's people's possessions or fortunes if only because the spirit of envy can lead to emulation and ambition and have positive consequences" (god is not Great, p. 100). It appears that the spirit of American capitalism, for Mr. Hitchens at least, trumped the Ten Commandments.
Mr. Hitchens, as was usual, managed to miss the whole point entirely. The ultimate purpose of the Ten Commandments was to demonstrate the universal guilt of humankind. The apostle Paul put it like this: "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:19,20; NKJV). Paul goes on to elaborate in chapter 7: "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet'" (Rom. 7:7). The law represents God's perfect standard of righteousness. As such it is 'holy and just and good" (v. 12). But on one level Hitchens was quite right: humanly speaking it is an unattainable goal. But the problem is not with the law; the problem is with us. We are hopelessly corrupt and depraved. "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin" (v. 14).
"But wait a minute," you say. "I'm not 'hopelessly corrupt and depraved.' I have a job and a family. I even do volunteer work in the community." And sure enough, if you look at most people they outwardly seem respectable enough. They have jobs; they have families; they obey the law. They mind their manners (mostly). They may even be charming and well educated. How could someone like that be "bad"?
But that is the whole point to the Tenth Commandment, as Mr. Hitchens properly sensed. If you were to ask the spouses of these charming and well-educated people (or even better yet, their ex-spouses), you might get a different picture. In the privacy of their own homes, where people feel free to relax and be themselves, we begin to see problems. There may be a certain amount of tension and conflict in the home – grumbling and complaining, even outbursts of anger. We may see carelessness and indifference to the feelings of others. Possibly a certain amount of petty lying. What we are likely to see, in fact, is a lot of self-centered behavior.
And if we look further, into the dark corners of the mind, we are likely to see a boiling cauldron of human passions – anger, lust, pride, envy, jealousy and greed. There are likely to be attitudes that have the potential of leading to behavior that is compulsive, anti-social, and self-destructive – and addiction to cigarettes, overeating – possibly addictions to alcohol, gambling or pornography. There may be what are now delicately called "anger management issues." It is not a pretty picture.
All of this puts us at variance with God's will. God did not create us this way. The utter lawlessness of the human heart drives a wedge between us and our Creator. Our reckless and immoral impulses and desires are a direct affront to His holiness. He created us and gave us everything that we have. He is holy and wise and just. His bounty overflows. And yet in spite of all that we have willfully turned away from Him and committed acts that we ourselves know are wrong and are ashamed to reveal to others. Is it any wonder that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Rom. 1:18)?
The problem, then, is not that God's standard is too high; the problem is that our level of performance is abysmally low. God's standards are determined by what He is, not by what we are. And if we fail to meet His righteous standard, it is a reflection on us, not on Him. He is just and holy; we are fallen sinners. The voice of justice is clear and resounding: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).