The Thief of Joy

The Ninth Commandment

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbors out of their inheritance or property or try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs.


Last week, I was in a conversation with a newcomer to Iowa who had recently moved from the Southwestern U.S. She asked what she needed to do to get her lawn ready for Spring. Should she treat the lawn? Call a professional? Do nothing at all? Another woman laughed and replied, “That depends—which of the Joneses do you want to keep up with?”

Now there’s a question. From home improvement shows to the picture-perfect houses glimpsed in ads, there is a lot of pressure for our homes to “keep up.” But we don’t really even need to go so far as TV to find something to inspire covetousness or at least competition—just take a cruise around the neighborhood some December! You’ll quickly see who’s keeping up with whom when it comes to holiday light displays.

None of this is to say that it is wrong to love and care for your home, or to work to improve it. But why are you doing it? Do you actually care if there are leaves on your driveway, or are you just worried what your neighbor will think? Is your home a place of respite, or do you only look at it to see its flaws and wish you had your neighbor’s home instead?

Comparison, Teddy Roosevelt said, is the thief of joy. When we look at our neighbor’s home to see how it is better than ours (or to see how ours is better than theirs!), the only certain outcome is the loss of joy. Covetousness has the very same outcome. Wanting our neighbor’s property for our own is wrong. It hurts us, usually far more than it hurts our neighbor.

That is interesting, isn’t it? This commandment and the next are not about actions, like murder or theft or gossip. They are about our thoughts. Do we want what is not ours? Or, to quote my acquaintance: which of the Joneses do you want to keep up with?

God is concerned with both thought and action. We should neither steal our neighbor’s property nor daydream about getting it for ourselves. Our actions most often hurt our neighbors, but it is the thoughts that lead to them that hurt us. Instead of being satisfied with what we have, we compete for whatever is bigger and better. We compare ourselves to others in every way possible, and then wonder where our joy has gone.

If you want more joy in your life, do not compare. Do not covet. God, it turns out, knows what is good for us: to be satisfied with what we have, and to find joy rather than jealousy in our neighbor.

Generous God, you have given me what I need. Protect my mind from coveting what my neighbor has, and satisfy my heart with your joy all the days of my life. Amen.