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Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

I Want

Thou shalt not covet

It wasn't till I got to seminary that I discovered there was more than one way of counting the commandments. I'd learned the method of Luther's Small Catechism, used by Roman Catholics as well, wherein commandment number two prohibits taking the Lord's name in vain. But the Orthodox, the Reformed, Anglicans, Baptists, and sundry others on the American scene say that the Lord's-name commandment falls into third place; second place is reserved for the prohibition against graven images.

This discovery having taken place at a Reformed seminary, it necessitated a great deal of argumentation. On the side of the graven-image people was the fairly forceful argument that the commandment is in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and furthermore that's how the Jews number their commandments—and if anyone knows how the commandments go, it's the Jews. The reason for Lutherans and Catholics doing otherwise is that, since the incarnation, there are doctrinally sound, even doctrinally imperative reasons for engraving an image of God in the person of Jesus, and therefore old commandment two is now obsolete. Take whichever reason you like: I see the reason in both, though naturally I favor the latter over the former.

However, as it turns out, the graven-image business never really was the sticking point for our debate. It was that if the magic number ten were to remain in the Lutheran and Catholic reckoning, you had to have two commandments about coveting. The original Hebrew contains two distinct sentences forbidding the coveting of the neighbor's spouse and the coveting of the neighbor's property respectively, but the point still stands that the Jews themselves don't split them into two like we do.

As such, my interlocutors found it quite bizarre to fill up a full 20 percent of the tablets of the Law with covetousness, of all things. Idolatry, murder, adultery, theft: now there were some serious sins. But coveting—simply to want something not your own, not even actually taking it away yet, which is covered by previous commandments? And when you consider the fact that our entire economic system is premised upon cultivated coveting in the form of advertising, it becomes that much harder to figure how mere wanting could cause as much destruction as the two-commandment division would seem to imply.

Betty Smartt Carter's painful "memoir of persistent longing" is, in fact, a tribute to just what damage wanting can do. In the introduction, Carter confesses that she'd rather not tell her story; she'd rather retain some shred of dignity and keep silent. She remarks, understandably enough, "It gives me no joy to remember how low I've sunk. Certainly it gives me no joy to reveal this sinkage before the world." The story is told not to glory in the sinking depths, though, but to glorify the God who pulled her out of them.

From the very beginning of the book, this God-centered orientation sets Carter's testimony apart. In a world of tabloids and reality TV, the depths to which Carter sunk will not be deep enough to satisfy a glutted viewing audience, accustomed to run-of-the-mill scandals revolving around sexual betrayal. The wanting contained herein is not the wanting of soap operas and presidential impropriety. But that's exactly what makes her story an interesting one—a lifelong battle against an underrated sin, and sin is always a scandal before God, no matter how indifferent its human practitioners have become.

Carter's desires started out innocently enough: desire for safety, warmth, and mother. As she grew up in her evangelical Presbyterian household, she learned to want more: she wanted to see a miracle, she wanted to be a missionary, she wanted to share Jesus' cross and to feel the Holy Spirit in her heart. Holy desires, to be sure, but these desires cannot comprehend the absence of their object. The terrible silence of God is not tolerated by the wanting heart, and when faith begins to quail, myriad other desires come rushing in, demanding to be wanted more.

Carter avows that she's always been a worshipper, by nature, by nurture in the church, and by virtue of her birth order as youngest child. And so her need to worship, when not satisfied in word or sacrament or song, led her to one false idol after another: her karate teacher, her running speed, a preacher's wife, the stage, various needy friends whose rescue Carter alone could effect. One after another these idols let her down and left her empty, turned in on herself in solitude or drink and wondering how things could have gone so wrong.

Along the way a few lamps lit her path and called her back to the love of God: a professor at Wheaton College, her husband, her children, good books. But the need to worship will not be denied. Finally Carter manages to isolate herself from everyone but the latest object of her obsession, who turns on her and calls her, harshness fully intended, a stalker. The word kills, and the word makes alive: in having her sin named so brutally, Carter sees both herself and what it is that she has always wanted. Nothing but Jesus, a wish simple and impossible at the same time.

Any sin is, in itself, a great clue. So often evil is portrayed artistically as arbitrary bloodlust, driven by nothing but delight in its own evilness. Such delight may drive the devil, but when attributed to human beings made in the image of God—however much subsequently distorted—the attribution misses the mark. Human sin has a kind of sense to it, and each of the next nine commandments is an expanded commentary on the first, which says so plainly that sinful ears cannot accept its plainness, You shall have no other gods before me. In coveting things and persons, Carter was making them into her gods, turning away from the true God who commanded that she ought not covet.

That is the point, of course: coveting the wrong thing was the constant testimony to how badly Carter wanted and needed the right thing. St. Augustine, author of another memoir about a life's battle with covetousness, discerned in desire a proof of God's very existence. He wrote (and Carter quotes):

I came to Carthage, and all around me in my ears were the sizzling and frying of unholy loves. I was not yet in love, but I loved the idea of love, and from a hidden want I hated myself for not wanting more. Being in love with love I looked for something to love; I hated security and a path without snares. I was starved inside me for inner food (for yourself, my God). … And for this reason my soul was in poor health; it burst out into feverish spots which brought the wretch longing to be snatched by contact with the objects of sense. … It was a sweet thing to me both to love and to be loved.

In the end, Carter recognizes that her evangelical upbringing had taught her that desire was dangerous and therefore to be squelched by faith and reason. From Augustine first, but principally through hard experience, she learned the impossibility of squelching desire, and the wrongness of doing so. Desire is not to be denied, but to be directed to its proper object. In the fulfillment of the desire, sin falls away, unsatisfying and finally undesirable. For our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, recently married, is the Vicar of St. Paul's Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Campus Ministry at Duke University.

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