The word of the day is “cistern.” In today’s reading of Proverbs 5:1-15, the sage warns against the seduction of loose women and urges the chastity of a faithful marriage. To picture his counsel, he uses a striking image, “Drink water from your own cisterns and running water from your own well” (NKJV vs. 15). The practical lesson is that there is no reason to draw water from someone else’s supply when we have our own. Of course, that applies to sexual relationships. But like so many folk sayings, the maxim has a wider application. Today we will look at covetousness and envy as overwhelming desires for the possessions of others.
The Social Context of Covetousness and Envy
Covetting is such a serious temptation that it ranks with idol worship, murder, and adultery as one of the Ten Commandments. It is such a great fault that it mentions four categories of sins that violate it. It forbids coveting the neighbor’s house, wife, ox or donkey (his means of living), or “anything else that is our neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). Note that the Hebrew word for neighbor is not necessarily the person next door. In Hebrew, neighbors are companions, friends, and fellow citizens with whom we have mutual and personal relationships (Hebrew Dictionary #7453, 264).
The biblical concept of neighbor suggests that our neighbors are those we know well enough to determine what water they have in their wells. If that is true, then coveting arises in the social context of close relationships. Seeing a new car on the freeway typically does not excite our passions. But if our neighbor shows off his new car, then we might feel a twinge of desire.
Passions of the Heart
Both covetousness and envy are passions of the heart. Covetousness is the desire to have what someone else has. Envy is wanting what someone else has and resenting the fact that he has what you want. Both passions depend on a comparison between our reservoirs and the cisterns of others. Thus, the Philokaia says, “It is hard to check the resentment of an envious person for what he envies in you he considers his own misfortune” (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 97). Envy harbors ill will against the person who has what we do not. But covetousness also harbors bitterness, the realization of what we lack in our own backyard.
If not controlled, these tempting desires are deadly, not only for the soul but the body. Both envy and covetousness can lead to the outward sins of plots, schemes, manipulations, or stealing to get what the neighbor has. For instance, King David’s coveting of Bathsheba enticed him into adultery, betrayal, and murder.
The Remedy for Covetousness and Envy
What, then is the remedy for these passions? How can we gain control of them before they bear the fruits of blatant sin? St. Paul advised the young pastor, Timothy, “Now godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). The Greek word for godliness means piety, devotion, and holiness (Strong’s #2150, 106). Piousness is to be recommended. But it is sealed with contentment, that is, the sense of sufficiency with what one has (Strong’s #841, 47). To reach such satisfaction, we must quit comparing ourselves and what we have with our neighbor and what is his. Furthermore, we must be grateful for the wells and cisterns that we already have. Or, as St. Ambrose of Optima said, “We must begin with thanksgiving for everything. The beginning of joy is to be content with your situation” (Quoted in Fr. Luke A Veronis. Orthodox Network Blog).
Paul states that piety with self-satisfaction is “great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). The Greek word has the sense of securing resources for ourselves (Strong’s #4000, 207). Thus, in this verse, Paul is not speaking of acquiring material things but of spiritual rewards, the freedom from the comparisons that cause resentment and sinful behavior.
But what if we are dissatisfied with our well and cistern? Let us put any comparisons with our neighbor aside and seek the grace of contentment.
G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber.[i] Cistern: A reservoir or tank for storing water