When man and woman were in the Garden, they possessed everything. They had intimate fellowship with God--walking with Him everyday. How glorious! The only thing God said that they couldn’t have was fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. You could boil this one commandment to “Love the LORD your God.”
First, apart from God, humans can’t refrain from the overwhelming evil desires of their own heart. Eve sinned when she desired the fruit that God forbade more than she desired fellowship with God. Each of us in that same circumstance would have made the same decision. As a matter of fact, everyday we choose something rather than God--sleep, food, relationships, books, TV, sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. We are like Israel when Jeremiah reports the Lord crying out: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
Next, the Apostle James warns against thinking that God had anything to do with that sin or our sin. “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempted he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death” (Jm. 1:13-15). The word lust is epithumias which in the OT Septuagint is translated “to covet” (Ex. 20:17 epithumeseis). This is the bottom line: Man is drawn away from God when he lusts after anything besides God.
Furthermore, in the decalogue, the last commandment says, “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” (Ex. 20:17). Coveting is having ungoverned affections. Jesus sums up these commandments under two overarching headings--1) Love the Lord and 2) love your neighbors (cf. Rom 13:9). This principle can also cover things that are not innately bad, but which God has not provided you (cf. Matt. 6:25-34) so rather than seeking everlasting joy in God we try to find it in his gifts.
Last, the Apostle Paul says, “Sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Eph. 5:3) and “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5; emphasis mine). Notice that in both of these lists covetousness is associated with sexual sins. Why is this? Because at the root they are the same. Paul is using a synecdoche (the whole for the part). All sexual sin is covetousness--ungoverned passion for something that God forbids. However, not all covetousness is sexual sin. Covetousness is far broader.
Why though in the Colossians passage is covetousness idolatry? Or how is covetousness idolatry? Because idolatry is primarily putting something in the place of God. When we covet, we are saying to God, “You are not enough! I want MORE!” A preacher in a recent sermon I heard commented that the first commandment is “No Idols!” and the last is “No Covetousness!” These commandments form an inclusio of sorts. They are really two perspectives on the same problem. Man seeks pleasure and satisfaction in everything but Christ.
Let’s not get caught up in drinking out of the filthy cisterns of things, but instead let’s drink out of the all satisfying well of salvation. C.S. Lewis says,
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels [cf. 2 Cor. 3:18, 4:4-6], 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 us [Jer. 2:13], 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 (The Weight of Glory 26).
May we never be satisfied with mud pies when we can have so much more!