Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. [Exodus 20:17 (KJV)]
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. [Luke 12:15 (KJV)]
Let your conversation be without covetousness… [Hebrews 13:5a (KJV)]
“We covet your prayers,” said the new pastor. This was the second time in two weeks I’d heard someone say they coveted my prayers and the phrase bothered me. For more than twenty-five years, I recited “Thou shalt not covet” as part of the Communion liturgy, so coveting anything speaks of sin to me. Granted, neither speaker was expressing a desire for my spouse, home or donkey; nevertheless, the phrase touched a nerve. If coveting is a sin, why did these men (both pastors) say they coveted my prayers?
When we covet something, we set our hearts and minds on it. The familiar meaning of covet, the one so clearly prohibited, is of desiring that which is forbidden or belongs to another. Throughout scripture, from Moses to Jesus to the Apostle Paul, we’re clearly warned about this sort of coveting. It can have serious consequences—think Eve and that apple, David and Bathsheba, or Achan and the spoils of battle. Coveting prayers, in this negative context, would use “coveting” as an adjective. We’d be saying prayers about wanting things that weren’t ours to have. Coveting prayers would be greedy, selfish and self-indulgent prayers—a little like Janis Joplin’s song that asks the Lord to buy her a Mercedes Benz, a color TV and a night on the town.
“Covet,” however, has another less commonly used meaning. We can covet and intensely desire something quite legitimate and set our hearts and minds upon it in a good way. “Covet” is used this way in the King James translations of the Bible. The Apostle Paul, while condemning the sinful kind of coveting, urges us to covet (or earnestly crave) spiritual gifts. Coveting prayers, in this sense would use “coveting” as a verb. We’d be longing for others to pray for us (and not so we’d get that Porsche or a holiday in Cabo San Lucas). We’d be urgently asking for their prayers to increase our faith and spiritual gifts.
While coveting or the love of worldly riches may be the root of all evil, not all coveting is evil. We can always covet the prayers of others to increase our spiritual riches. As to using this bit of Christianese myself, I’m not so sure. No matter what the context, for me it’s difficult to remove the negative connotation from the word covet. Although I will pray for our new pastor and his wife, rather than saying I covet your prayers, I will simply ask for them to empower me in my writing.
We have never had a single murmur from our missionaries in regard to salaries, but how earnestly do they covet the prayers and sympathies of our people! [The New England Presbyterian Messenger (1866)]