READ : 1 Corinthians 13:4
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful.
1 Corinthians 13:4 rsv
You know what the green monster is. That’s what we call the ugliest of all human attitudes – envy. When I say Jesus saves us from envy, from the green monster, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Who needs that?” You’re ready to acknowledge that there is such a vice, such a human frailty, but you don’t feel troubled by it yourself.
Probably most of us feel that way. Who wants to admit being envious? If I envy someone, I obviously feel myself to be inferior to him or her in some respect. What’s more, my attitude is the very opposite of love so that even if I experience envy keenly, I’ll do everything I can to keep others from recognizing that I feel that way.
WHAT ENVY IS
Envy, as the dictionary defines it, is “a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another, accompanied by a desire to possess that advantage.” I see someone more skilled than I as an athlete or student or musician. I note the virtues, the graces, the popularity, the esteem in which that person is held, and it makes me feel acutely uncomfortable. I don’t like it that they possess these blessings, that they shine in these ways. What’s more, I’d like to have what they possess for myself. If I had the power, I’d arrange that I should enjoy it rather than they. That’s envy.
What makes this so sinister is that the happiness and the welfare of others, instead of making me glad, makes me sad. Their good becomes a kind of evil to me. And my attitude toward them is such that I covet what they have as mine.
Have you ever wondered why we speak of a person “green with envy”? Why green? It may be because there’s a Scottish word green which means “to yearn” or “to long.” But then, too, there may be something physiological to it. When people are filled with strong feelings of envy, it can actually affect, I’m told, the circulation of the blood, can cause “peripheral contraction of the capillary arteries.” What about that? When those tubes contract, we begin to get pale. And everyone knows that as you pale, you begin to look a little green, as we say, “green around the gills.”
The monster part is easier to understand. Of all evils in human life, there are few things as damaging to happiness, as destructive to persons, and pernicious to our souls as envy. For the person who experiences it, the envious one, it brings nothing but misery, absolutely nothing else. Other forms of sin may be equally damning in the end, but they at least bring a kind of temporary pleasure and satisfaction. The promiscuous must find enjoyment in his affairs. The covetous obviously get kicks from his wealth. And the proudly ambitious must feel a high when he becomes famous, when his name is in lights. But envy only makes you feel badly at the start and then worse and worse as you go along. If it really gets a grip on you, it can squeeze the joy right out of your life.
HOW IT AFFECTS OTHERS
But that’s not the whole story. It can affect the other person too, in a most destructive way. At heart, envy is a killer. It carries with it a smoldering resentment that’s always on the verge of malice. Think, for example, about the first murder in history. What was behind that?
Here are two brothers, Cain and Abel. They both bring an offering to the Lord. Abel’s offering is accepted; Cain’s is not. Cain sees this. In that connection, did you know that “envy” comes from a French word which means “to inspect” or “to look on”? You might call it a certain way of viewing others. Cain saw both how Abel is favored and he is slighted. He was “angry,” we read, and “his countenance fell” (see Gen. 4:6). Maybe Cain had the first green complexion in history! God warned him to watch out for that attitude. But it wasn’t long before Cain took his brother out in the field and murdered him. That’s how envy worked itself out.
Remember King Saul when young David began to win his storied victories on the battle field? Saul grew more and more uncomfortable. Then the young girls in Israel began to sing their hero-songs. One popular number went like this: “Saul has made havoc of thousands, but David of ten thousands” (see 1 Sam. 18:7). That was more than the king could bear. It kept gnawing away at his insides until one day he picked up his spear and tried to nail David to the wall. He missed on that occasion, but Saul never stopped trying to get rid of David for the rest of his unhappy life. That’s what envy did to a once great and humble king.
Think about King Herod when he heard the news from the magi. “A king indeed! Someone to replace me? To be considered greater than I? Never! I’ll kill off every possibility of a replacement even if I have to slaughter hundreds to get the right one.” Herod’s plan failed, but when others finally slew the young king some years later, do you know how it happened? The New Testament records that the religious leaders of the day delivered up Jesus to die – listen to this – out of envy. Why? we wonder. The worst of Shakespeare’s villains, Iago, expressed it perfectly when he said this about a good man he wanted to destroy, “He has a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”
HOW IT WORKS IN US
That’s the monster we’re talking about when we speak of envy. But what does that have to do, we wonder, with decent people like us, who surely wouldn’t do anyone any harm? We don’t have a problem with this kind of thing, really, do we? It would surely be more pleasant, more affirming to us, if we could convince ourselves that we’re free from such feelings. But that might not be the way of honesty.
I don’t know about you, but I have noted on a number of occasions the tell-tale signs of this thing in me. Let me give you hints of what I mean.
I discovered early in life that envy tended to crop up in me toward others who were doing the same thing I was doing, those with whom I could feel myself to be competing. The more important the activity was to me, the greater the problem I seemed to have. When I was going through high school, for example, sports were vastly important to me. I wanted to play first string on the varsity basketball team in my senior year. But that never happened. I was the sixth man. One classmate especially kept me out of the starting lineup. I noticed that when he was in the game I sometimes found myself less than happy if he scored a basket, if he made an outstanding play. Now that’s painful to admit. After all, this was our team. Any loyal player ought to be pulling for our team and glad when anyone helped out. I wasn’t, at least not always.
Of course, I didn’t let anyone know I felt like that. I cheered for the team. I said, like the other guys, to my rival, “Nice game!” even when that wasn’t really how I felt inside. Sometimes it bothered me, made me feel a little sick on the inside.
Maybe you chuckle at that. That’s just an immature, childish trait, you say. Maybe so. But I find it hard to shake even in my later years. When my sons took part in team sports, I felt at times the same pressures working on me. Let’s say it’s the day of the big game and some other lad is playing ahead of my son. Somehow I can’t be as glad as I should when that young man excels. I am envious. I seem to want that position, that opportunity, that honor for my son. And most coaches know what a problem such fathers can be!
But I have to fight this at a deeper level, in the serious work of my mature years. Now the thing that is most important to me in my life is to serve Jesus Christ, to build up His church, to make known His gospel. You would think that such an aim would free a person from all unworthy, envious feelings. But I still struggle with them at times. Let’s say there’s some servant of the Lord who is doing a far better job than I am. Maybe he’s reaching more people. Maybe his labors are more widely recognized. Maybe he writes best-selling books that I wish I had written. Sometimes I envy that man. I can tell that because when others praise him or point out his successes, I feel a certain discomfort rising within me. I’m not pleased at that, and I don’t like myself for feeling displeased. I’m ashamed. I hate that quality in myself. But there I am in the grip of the monster, caught in the envy trap.
Maybe you’ve been there too. Whenever you feel uneasy, vaguely unhappy at the gifts, the success, the prominence of others, you’re in that battle. You may react in any of several ways. You may withdraw from that person, from mention of him or her, from reminders of them. You may come on aggressively in attack or criticism. Or you may seek to undermine that person’s reputation in indirect, devious ways. But none of those things gets you out of the bind.
THE WAY OUT
Can Jesus save us from this, this subtle, sickening thing we call envy, this poison of the human spirit? Yes, He can. Let’s think about how. First, by His Word and Spirit He helps us to recognize that we have a problem. I read in 1 Corinthians 13:4 these words that go straight to my heart: “Love envies no one.” I know that I’ve struggled with envying people at times, and that means that there hasn’t been real love toward them. If we can recognize that about ourselves, we’ve taken a big step forward. If you’re willing to label it, you can confess it, and that’s where deliverance begins.
When you’ve faced it, acknowledged it, you can begin to look at it with some measure of honesty. You can ask yourself, Why do I feel this way? What’s going on in me when I envy another person? Here’s the truth about it, friends. Envy is a dead giveaway that I’m selling myself short. It shows a lack of appreciation for my own uniqueness and worth. When you and I envy another person, we aren’t even seeing ourselves. The other one, the envied one, becomes all-important to us. His gifts, her successes, their achievements! We spend our energies watching someone else, being threatened by that person, not wanting him or her to succeed. So, in the process, we don’t develop our own potential. We feel more and more alone, humiliated, worthless, inclined to despise ourselves.
Now bring the Lord and His grace into that picture. What difference can that make? As we come to Jesus Christ, trusting in Him, He accepts us. He forgives us, even though we may still struggle with surges of envy. He pardons us, welcomes us, but does much more. His accepting love helps us to see ourselves as loved and valued. By His Spirit, He has given us, each of us, unique gifts. We have something important to contribute. When we know that, and when we’re becoming more and more able to use our gifts, we don’t feel threatened by what others may have to give.
Suppose we can see the successes, the accomplishments, the victories of others as His gifts also. That puts them in a different light. Wouldn’t it be something to have the outlook of a John the Baptist? When his followers were going over to Jesus and reports came of the Lord’s popularity, John gave a response well worth pondering. “A man can receive nothing unless it be given him from heaven” (see John 5:19). Thinking about that has been a real help to me. It led me once to an experience I treasure. I tried to think of all the people I’ve been tempted to envy and began instead to thank the Lord for them and their gifts. When I’m doing that, I discovered, it’s hard to keep on envying them. I find myself beginning to celebrate, to rejoice in, what God is doing through them. And that’s a victory I could never win by myself. It’s a gift of grace. It’s Jesus saving me from the green monster.
Love envies no one. That’s right. When you know you’re loved by the Lord and you’re becoming more and more free to accept yourself, you can begin to be glad in the gifts and graces of others. You can even do a very beautiful thing that’s the opposite of envying. You can admire. You can give thanks. And as you find yourself able to live in that new way, your heart will leap up in praise to the Savior who frees you. Lord, let it happen for us!