Paul says in Colossians 3:5, "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry."
It is particularly the last item on his list of things to put to death that I want to focus on - putting to death covetousness. Covetousness is desiring for ourselves what others have, desiring to have what God has not given to us rather than being content with and thankful for what he has given to us. Covetousness is therefore directly opposed to thankfulness. The covetous heart is not a thankful heart. Where the thankful person looks at their life and is thankful for all God has done for them and given to them, the covetous person looks at their life and sees only what God has not done for them (and, in their opinion, ought to have) and what God has not given them (and, they think, should have).
But covetousness is more than just not counting your blessings enough. It is even more serious than that. Paul says that covetousness is idolatry.
Here, Psalm 106 is instructive. This Psalm recounts Israel's history, specifically how God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The people had groaned and complained and cried out to God to save them from slavery. God heard their cries and, through Moses, lead them out of Egypt to freedom through his mighty works. The Psalm goes on to recount how, even after such a great, awesome and very visible salvation, Israel repeatedly forgot the kindness and salvation of God and all the mighty deeds he performed to rescue them and provide for them. Israel repeatedly grumbled and looked at the surrounding pagan nations and began to covet what those nations had rather than what God had given to them. Rather than looking back at God's mercy and kindness to them in the past and his rescuing them from slavery, Israel started to look back and compare the leeks and onions and cucumbers they used to eat when they were in Egypt with the mana and quail God was miraculously sustaining them with now. Where Israel should have seen God's faithful, steady, reliable provision, they saw monotony. And when Israel grew covetous for what God wasn't currently giving them, they quit trusting him for the provision he had promised them in future - a land flowing with milk and honey, a land in which they would eat from orchards and crops they had not planted and sit under vines they had not cultivated. As Israel grew covetous, they became idolatrous. As they stopped being grateful to God for his salvation and provision, they stopped being faithful to God in their worship. As they coveted what other nations had, they started to covet the gods of those nations also. Turning from God's provision and coveting was simultaneous with turning from God himself and turning to idols. In fact, it was more than just simultaneous, it was synonymous.
As it was with Israel, so it is with the church, with Christians today, Paul tells us in Colossians 3:5. Covetousness is idolatry, he says, and it is so serious that he tells us to put it to death. It is pretty straightforward to see how covetousness is at the heart of idolatry, at the heart of false worship. When we are discontent with God's provision for us, when we are discontent and unthankful for how God cares for us, what we are really doing is being discontent with God himself, unthankful for God himself. We, like the Israelites, can look back and see how God saved us from slavery to sin, how he did mighty works of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus, to rescue us from slavery sin, death and the judgment of hell. Yet so often we forget all God has done for us and we instead look around us at the prosperity of the unbelieving world and we start to covet what they have. We grow unthankful for all we have from God through Christ and we start to desire what the world has, be it money or things they have that we don't, or whatever it is. And if we are honest, and if we look at it for what it truly is, we realize that we are actually discontent with God. And when our eyes longingly look toward what others have that we don't, they are looking away from God. And when our hearts covet what others have rather than finding contentment in what God has given and being thankful for it, our hearts are actually wandering away from God and turning to that which is not him. This is the very definition of idolatry. When we exchange what God has done for us and given to us for that which he has not, what we are actually doing is exchanging God himself for something else, and that something else has become an idol. Covetousness is idolatry.
Time for a little logic experiment: if covetousness is idolatry, doesn't it follow that true thankfulness is at the heart of right worship? Seems logical, but is it biblical? Let's test it.
Paul says to put to death covetousness, which is idolatry. This is part of a list of things Christians are called to put to death, to put off, to put away (3:5-10). A little further along Paul gives the Colossian church (and us) things to replace them with, things to put on. Colossians 3:12 and following tells us we are to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, etc. Above all these things we are to put on love, since it is love which binds all these other traits together in perfect harmony (3:14). Then Paul says that the Colossians are to let the "peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful" (3:15). Then he says to, "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (3:16). And then Paul sums it all up by saying that "whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (3:17).
In this section of Colossians 3, Paul speaks of 3 ways that the church is to practice the presence of Christ in them...in us. We are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, we are to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, and in everything we do and say we are to do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus. The peace of Christ, the word of Christ, and the name of Christ. And what comes with all these things, all these practices for the life of the church? Thankfulness. Look at it again. Along with letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, Paul calls us to be thankful. And as we are to let the word of Christ richly dwell in us, which is done by teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom and by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, this is all to be done with thankfulness in our hearts to God. And when he calls the church to do whatever we do in word or deed in the name of Christ, he says that it is all to be done while giving thanks in our hearts to God the Father through Jesus. In other words, the body life of the church is to be saturated with thankfulness. Gratitude is to permeate the life of Christians and our corporate life as the body of Christ. Letting Christ rule in us, letting his word dwell in us richly, doing all we do and saying all we say in the name of the Lord Jesus, all this is to be done from a posture of thankfulness.
Thankfulness is key to letting Christ rule in our hearts rather than allowing our allegiance to become divided by covetousness, which is idolatry. Thankfulness is key to letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly, rather than allowing alternative "truths" to push God's word out. As we teach and admonish and encourage and exhort one another, as we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, in other words as we worship, these are all to be done with thankfulness in our hearts to God. Why? Because, like Israel, if our hearts aren't thankful, then they are covetous. And if our hearts are covetous, then like Israel our hearts are wandering away from the true God and seeking after false gods. When our worship is no longer springing from a heart of gratitude, it is coming from a heart of discontent and covetousness and pretty soon we are fashioning false gods so we can bow to them instead.
Like Israel, we are always in danger of taking the gifts God gives us and melting them down and forming them into idols. After all the plagues and the passover and the angel of death, as the Israelites were finally leaving Egypt, God moved their Egyptian neighbours to give them articles of gold and silver. A faithful Israel would have thanked God for these things and would have saved up all these treasures to be used to fashion the articles of the Tabernacle, when the time came to make it. But a discontent and covetous Israel instead melted them down and fashioned a golden calf out of them, because covetous people are idolatrous people.
Later in Colossians, Paul points out that thankfulness ought to permeate the church's prayer (4:2). Thankfulness as the peace of Christ reigns in the heart of Christians and in the life of the church, thankfulness at the center of the church wisely teaching and admonishing one another, thankfulness in the church's worship in song, thankfulness in the church's prayer. This sounds like thankfulness is at the heart of the true worship. And thankfulness to God through Christ as the church does all that it does in Jesus' name means that thankfulness to God is ultimately at the heart of the Christian life.
In Colossians 3:1-3, Paul tells the church not to set our minds on things that are worldly, on things that are of the earth. Rather, we are to set our minds on things that are above, things that are where Christ is seated at God's right hand. When we set our minds and hearts on earthly things, our focus is worldly, idolatrous. Therefore, we are called to set our minds on that which is above, that which is of Christ, that which is in submission to the reign of Christ. When we do this, we are in a right orientation not only to God through Christ, but we are then in a right orientation to the earthly things as well. God gives us many things in this life, and they are gifts which we are to receive with thankfulness. But when we set our hearts on things, we find that they go from being good gifts to being bad gods.
A bit ago, we did a logic exercise: If covetousness is idolatry, then thankfulness ought to be found at the heart of true worship. It certainly seems to be one of the things the Holy Spirit is teaching the church through the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3. But if this is indeed the case, we really ought to expect to find this elsewhere in Scripture as well. And, in fact, this is exactly what we find.
Psalm 107 speaks of God's works of redeeming people from their various difficult situations and circumstances, from being lost and without hope. The Psalm begins with a call to give thanks to the LORD, to YHWH God, for he is good and his steadfast love endures forever. Then it goes on to describe the plight of various peoples whom God has rescued. After each particular example of someone God has saved from their trouble, the Psalmist repeats the regular refrain, "Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of men", along with the particular thing the Lord has done for them. This is repeated in Psalm 107:8-9, 15-16, especially 21-22 which puts thankfulness in the context of worship (the very middle of the Psalm), and 31-32.
Psalm 108 shows us an example of the frequent parallelism we find in Hebrew poetry. In verses 3 and 4 we see truths stated in two ways in order to magnify and draw attention to them. Both verse 3 and verse 4 are sets of parallel and equivalent statements.
"I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples;It is easy to see in verse 4 that "steadfast love" in the first line is equivalent to "faithfulness" in the second line, and "above the heavens" is equivalent to "reaches to the clouds". But look at the equivalent statements in verse 3. There, "among the peoples" is equivalent to "among the nations", but for our present contemplation, just as clearly we see that "I will give thanks to you" is equivalent to "I will sing praises to you".
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great above the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the clouds."
In Psalm 100:4, we have another example of parallel exhortations which are equivalent, restatements of the same call to God's people but stated slightly differently.
"Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!Here we see that the way to approach God in worship is to come into his courts with praise, and to enter his gates with thanksgiving. In the act of worship, we are called to bless God's name, to give thanks to him. Entering God presence with thanksgiving is at the heart of coming into his presence with praise. Blessing the name of the Lord is done, at least in large part, by giving thanks to him.
Give thanks to him; bless his name!"
These are just a few scattered examples. But it is enough to see that true and right, biblical and godly worship has thanksgiving at its very heart. Gratitude is at the center of true worship and praise. And if that is so, it is no wonder that Paul says that covetousness is idolatry.