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The sin of envy

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Webster defines “envy” as “(1) a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another’s advantages, possessions, etc; resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires (2) desire for some advantage, quality, etc. that another has.” Envy is the byproduct of greed. It is wanting what someone has enough to resent them for having it.

Why does our culture value envy? Because envy promotes materialistic greed. If I envy what you own, I’ll try to buy it. And we live in a world which measures success by possessions. And because envy promotes self-reliant achievement. If I envy what you have done, I’ll try to do it. And we live in a world which measures success by performance.

Envy is one of the devil’s most effective weapons. No matter who we are. Years ago I came across this painfully relevant story: Once there was a monk who lived in a cave in the wilderness. He had a great reputation for holiness. His reputation reached Hell itself, whereupon the devil took three of his key demons with him to tempt the monk out of his sanctity. When they reached the wilderness, they found the monk sitting at the mouth of the cave with a serene look on his face. The first demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of great power, with visions of kingdoms and their glory. But the face of the monk remained serene.

The second demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of great wealth, with visions of silver and gold and all that money can buy. But the face of the monk remained serene. The third demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of sensuous pleasure, with visions of dancing girls. But the face of the monk remained serene.

Annoyed, the devil barked, “Step aside, and I will show you what has never failed.” The devil strolled up beside the monk, leaned over and whispered, “Have you heard the news? Your classmate Makarios has just been named bishop of Alexandria.” And the face of the monk scowled.”

What makes you envious this morning? Someone else’s possession? Position? Status? Family? Happiness? Health? Where is the enemy using this deadly sin against you?

What is wrong with envy?

Scripture answers our question in five ways.

Envy is forbidden by God

•”Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong” (Psalm 37:1)

•”Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways” (Proverbs 3:31)

•”Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 23:17).

•”Do not envy wicked men, do not desire their company; for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk about making trouble” (Proverbs 24:1).

•”Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy” (Romans 13:13).

•”Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Corinthians 13:4).

•”Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another” (James 3:14).

Envy destroys souls

•”A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). When we envy what others have, we will never have enough. We are never done. And the cancer grows until it consumes us.

•Remember Cain and Abel: “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:4-5).

•”Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73.1-2).

Envy keeps us from God

“On the next Sabbath almost the whole city [of Pisidian Antioch] gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles'” (Acts 13:44-46).

Envy destroys relationships

Isaac “had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth” (Genesis 26:14-15). Joseph’s “brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind” (Genesis 37:11).

Envy destroys lives

It harms the envious, as Haman proved “I’m the only person Queen Esther invited to accompany the king to the banquet she gave. And she has invited me along with the king tomorrow. But all this gives me no satisfaction as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s table. His wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, ‘Have a gallows built, seventy-five feet high, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai hanged on it. Then go with the king to the dinner and be happy.’ This suggestion delighted Haman, and he had the gallows built” (Esther 5:12-14).

It harms the innocent, as Daniel demonstrates: “The administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally these men said, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God'” (Daniel 6:4-5).

And it crucified Jesus: “When the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him” (Matthew 27:17-18).

The cure for envy

Remember what happens to the wicked we envy.

Choose to serve. T. S. Eliot: “most of the trouble in the world is caused by people who want to be important.” Chuck Colson adds: “The lure of power can separate the most resolute of Christians from the true nature of Christian leadership, which is service to others. It is difficult to stand on a pedestal and wash the feet of those below.”

Said Lao Tzu:

Fail to honor people,

They fail to honor you.

But of a good leader, who talks little,

When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,

They will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’

When you envy what a person has or is, pray for that person. Seek a way to serve their success. And your envy will change into love, and glorify your Father in heaven.

Want what you have. Paul told his Philippian friends, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4.11-13).

Consider these lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress:

He that is down, needs fear no Fall;

He that is low, no Pride;

He that is humble, ever shall

Have God to be his Guide.

I am content with what I have,

Little be it or much:

And, Lord, Contentment still I crave,

Because thou savest such.

Fulness to such, a Burden is,

That go on Pilgrimage;

Here little, and hereafter Bliss,

Is best from Age to Age.

Do you agree?

Stay focused on God’s call on your life. Peter Marshall at age 47, three weeks before his death, prayed on the floor of the U.S. Senate, “Our Father in heaven, give us the long view of our work and our world. Help us to see that it is better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.”

Remember the source of your personal worth. Francis of Assisi: “Blessed is the servant who does not esteem himself as better when he is praised and promoted by men than when they look on him as vile, stupid and contemptible; for whatever a man is in the sight of God, that he is, and no more.”

Corrie ten Boom was asked if it was difficult for her to remain humble. Her simple reply: “When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of a donkey, and everyone was waving palm branches and throwing garments on the road, singing praises, do you think that for one moment it ever entered the head of that donkey that any of that was for him? If I can be that donkey on which Jesus Christ rides in his glory, I give Him all the praise and honor.”

Conclusion

Jim Elliot, the martyred missionary, wrote in his journal: “I walked out on the hill just now. It is exalting, delicious, to stand embraced by the shadows of a friendly tree with the wind tugging at your coattail and the heavens hailing your heart, to gaze and glory and give oneself again to God—what more could a man ask? Oh, the fullness, pleasure, sheer excitement of knowing God on earth! I care not if I never raise my voice again for Him, if only I may love Him, please Him . . . If only I may see Him, touch His garments, and smile into His eyes.”

Michelangelo used to keep a candle stuck on his forehead in a pasteboard cap, so as to prevent casting his own shadow upon his work while he was carving out his statues.

Whose shadow do you cast?