Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:26)
It’s funny that the Old Testament’s references to envy focus on God’s people looking outward to the world (“sinners”). They were not to envy wrongdoers.
The New Testament’s references, by contrast, are directed inwardly, warning believers against envying each other. For those of us who know the inner workings of church life, we fully understand the change.
Now, a confession first.
Over the last two weeks, as I’ve reflected on the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, avarice, anger, sloth, gluttony, and lust), the one that interested me least was this one: envy. What’s exciting about that? Nothing exotic. No funny stories to tell, no dramatic scriptural stories to relate.
In fact, I decided envy is not a problem in my world. I honestly don’t know anyone sitting around stewing over the neighbors having a car and wishing it was in their own driveway. I know of no preachers fuming because another pastor received a doctorate which he should have rightfully received. So, maybe envy is no longer a problem to moderns.
The reason for that strange–and erroneous–conclusion is the narrow definition I was applying to the concept.
If to envy means to wish we owned something another person now possesses and only that, few of us would be guilty. But that’s far too skinny an interpretation of this obese transgression.
Here then are several observations on envy, what I’m calling “the sneakiest” of the seven deadly sins.
1. Envy is ugly.
Henry Fairlie, in the “Seven Deadly Sins,” a book I’m leaning heavily upon for some of these insights, writes: It has been said that envy is the one deadly sin to which no one readily confesses. It seems to be the nastiest, the most grim, the meanest. Sneering, sly, vicious. The face of envy is never lovely.
In fact, he goes on to point out, envy is not even pleasant. Consider that all the other six sins provide at least a measure of pleasure–self-gratification–in the early stages. Lust provides titillation, avarice the pleasure of possessing, pride a sense of self fulfillment at least momentarily, and sloth the joy of snoozing. But envy provides no pleasure at all.
“It has the ugliness of a trapped rat that has gnawed its own feet in its efforts to escape.” (Fairlie gives that line as a quote, but never attributes it.)
2. Envy causes us to lower standards.
We envy those who make good grades and win awards, so in time, we work within the educational system to make sure standards are thrown out the window and everyone makes As. Grade inflation, it’s called. Some schools refuse to even assign grades, because they look upon the students (and their parents) as customers and don’t want to offend them.
People envy the genuine artists and poets and writers, but unable to achieve the high standards they have attained, they lower the standards. They turn out art that is rubbish, poetry that obeys no standards, and books and movies that insult our intelligence.
These are the works of envy. Fairlie calls this “the revenge of failure.” Since we cannot succeed in this field, we get our revenge by changing the rules and branding our work a success.
3. Envy is behind all spite and gossip.
The old Church Covenant, which we Baptists adopted a century ago and which still hangs prominently inside some church buildings as though it were handed down on Sinai, warns against something called “backbiting.” An old term, but no one doubts what it means: accusations, character assassinations, slander, gossip. A tamer form of back-stabbing.
Gossip assumes pious disguises in church. “Pastor, I knew you would want to know….” “I know you’ll want to be praying for Sister Thompson….” “Hey, I know you’ve been praying for that girl that used to come to our church. Well, I just found out that….”
No one gossiping would admit that he/she is envious of the target of their attack. But that is the heart of their slander.
As the new and very young pastor of a church, I was quickly informed by the church secretary as to who was having sin problems within the congregation. This so surprised me I did not know how to react, but listened. A few weeks later, the secretary announced she and her husband had been transferred to another state, and they moved out. The chairman of deacons said, “Preacher, God has just done you a big favor. That woman was the biggest gossip in church.”
Little people envy, and thus little people gossip. Wanting to make others low and themselves look larger, they employ this most unChristian of methods.
4. Pastors too are guilty of envy.
A preacher sat in my office. “The reason I don’t go to the pastors conference is that I get so tired of hearing them brag on how many they’ve baptized, how large their church is, and such.” I said, “You must be talking about some other conference. Our guys don’t do that. In fact, most of them are having a hard time, almost none of them ever mention baptizing anyone.” But I knew what the problem was.
That pastor was suffering from a terminal case of envy. It soon came to light that he was lazy and worldly (if imbibing of alcohol and betting at the casino qualify as worldly), and he was summarily dismissed from the church.
People who know pastors only from a distance might be surprised to learn that some struggle with envying their peers. The most obvious form it takes is when they look askance at the larger “more successful” preachers, the ones who have made the newspaper because of awards received, mission trips taken, new churches built, and such. Listen closely the next time pastors congregate, and chances are you will hear someone speaking negatively toward one of his brothers.
“Sure, he wrote a book, but his church is really small.”
“He’s taking all these mission trips when I understand his church is hurting financially.”
“He’s started several new churches, but the older members are complaining that he’s neglecting the members he’s got.”
Envy is so ugly on the one displaying it. If a smile brightens a face and blesses a room, envy sours the mouth and uglies the eyes and dampens the joy in any gathering.
5. Envy is all sadness.
Fairlie says, “If all the (seven deadly) sins are loveless, Envy’s eyes are peculiarly so. They seem to find nothing to love in the world, not in the whole of creation, not in anyone else, not even when they are turned up to what is lovely. The other sins have been celebrated, however perversely, in popular song down the ages, but Envy has no song. It does not sing; it…is riddled with fear. This gnawing fear that, if someone else gains something, it must be losing something.”
Faith or fear. Faith produces joy and gladness; fear produces envy and sadness.
6. Envy makes us competitive.
Why, we sometimes wonder, do fabulously successful people continually devote themselves to earning more and more money?
Look at professional sports. Last week, St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman Albert Pujols left that team where he had been so successful and so beloved to go to another team that paid him more money. Never mind that the St. Louis team offered him enough that he would never have to think about money again for the rest of his life. So why did he do that?
Not for the money. It’s about envy.
The most successful coach or athlete wants to be the best rewarded. He yearns for the recognition that comes from being the highest paid in his profession.
Envy does not fuel all competition, but it powers plenty of it.
7. Envy afflicts the finest of people.
One day Moses began to be the subject of slander from his sister and brother. Miriam is in all the children’s story books as the big sister who took care of her baby brother down in the bulrushes. We so admire this lady. And, Aaron was the head of the priestly line at this time. These are great people.
But listen to what they are saying. “So? Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Doesn’t He speak through us as well? Who does he think he is?” (Numbers 12:2)
Not good. If they had said this outside the hearing of Almighty God–I speak facetiously–maybe they could have gotten by with it. “And the Lord heard it,” we read.
Later on, we read of a group of 250 leaders of Israel, called “men of renown,” coming to Moses with a little confrontation. “You have gone far enough, Moses. All the people are holy, every one of them. God is in our midst. So why do you exalt yourself above the assembly of the Lord?” (Number 16) Sooner or later, every pastor hears a version of this! Get ready, preacher. But be sure to do what Moses did: let God answer it.
Both events had disastrous consequences.
The remedy for envy is love. It’s that simple.
Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant; does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. (I Corinthians 13:4-6)
If I love you, I “rejoice with you when you rejoice and weep with you when you weep.” (Romans 12:15)
And where do we get this love?
The love of God has been shed abroad in your hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)
It comes back down to a matter of our relationship to Christ. Good old-fashioned repentance, humility, and surrender. Being filled with the Spirit, we rise to go forth in love.
Sorry, if you wanted something deep and complex. Maybe next time.