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.
Numbered among the seven deadly sins is envy. Envy is mentioned several times in the Bible. Every reference is negative. It was out of envy that King Saul turned on David, setting off events that would end in the destruction of Saul’s family and civil war in his nation (1 Samuel 18:9). It was out of envy that Jesus was falsely accused by the religious authorities of crimes that sent Him to the cross (Matthew 27:18). The spirit of envy is one of the classic signs of human sinfulness (Romans 1:29). The spirit of envy is numbered among the works of the flesh that turns a person from God (Galatians 5:21).
Part of our problem is that when we envy we are “doin’ what comes naturally.” Everyone envies someone sometime. We envy those who get the assignment we wanted or the promotion we sought. We envy those whose talents seem better and whose families seem more intact. We envy those whose personalities glisten and whose gifts sparkle when placed next to ours.
The big dance is two weeks away and everyone is wondering whom “he” will ask. He is the combination of scholar and athlete, with the looks of a Greek god and the personality that would swoon anyone’s mother. Then the horrible word leaks out. He’s going with your frizzy, frumpy roommate. What is worse, he is going with her because she asked him!
Instantly the mind moves into high gear. He accepted because he was stunned by the incredible source of the request, thrown off balance, temporary insanity. As for the roommate, what do you expect of someone like that? She didn’t play by the rules. She probably cheats when she runs track, too!
If envy is natural, like being left-handed, what’s wrong with it? Envy is used to peddle products, to sharpen competition for promotion, and to separate winners from losers. Granted, resenting someone for what they have achieved or contributed is not noble, but it is effective in getting people to do, to buy, and to react.
Scripture offers several reasons to beware of envy. First, envy is not good for you. Proverbs 14:30 puts it bluntly: A mind at peace gives life to the body but envy rots the bones! That is hardly a lyrical statement, but it makes the point. Envy is numbered among the deadly sins because it can kill you. It can kill your joy, your hope, your peace, and your capacity to love. It can kill your faith and the sense of the nearness of Christ. It can kill your will to believe and your motivation to obey. It can kill your sense of fulfillment because, no matter what you do, someone has done more, or done it better, or done it faster, or done it with greater recognition and praise. Left unchecked, envy can kill everything that makes you a ‘human’ being. Envy rots the bones.
The second problem with envy is that it lures you into doing stupid things. I read about a merchant in a small town who ran a store across the street from another merchant. They were keen competitors and the one merchant began to envy the other. One night an angel appeared to the envious merchant and said, “I will grant you one wish but with the proviso that, whatever you want, your rival will get twice as much. If you want more wealth, more business, or more happiness, your rival will get twice as much. Now, what do you want?” The envious merchant replied, “Blind me in one eye.”
Envy creates a spiritual vertigo, in which we lose our moral balance and sense of direction. Out of envy a worker criticizes someone who received a promotion they both sought. He verbally slashes his coworkers before others. He may succeed in bringing down that coworker’s reputation. What he does not realize is that in the process of giving vent to envy, he has destroyed his own reputation. No one trusts him, no one confides in him, no one wants to work with him, fearing that the same envious spirit will turn against them. As King Saul was destroyed by his envy of David, so envy can lead us to do stupid and destructive things.
A third problem with envy is that it can drain our sense of gratitude. I talked with a friend some time ago who had been passed over for promotion to captain in the Navy. He is a fine officer and Christian and I thought it would be helpful to let him know I shared his disappointment.
I was not prepared for his response to my call. He thanked me and then added that being passed over for promotion hadn’t bothered him, other than briefly. What did bother him was that he knew a number of those who had been selected for promotion; these he labeled “jerks, dirtbags and no-loads.” The pain came not with his failed selection; the pain came as others succeeded. The source of his pain was envy.
There is irony to this story. I also happened to know my friend’s boss, who is a captain and another effective Christian officer. In an earlier conversation with that boss about general matters, I listened to him growl about how he had watched his classmates’ careers, how they had moved as captains into positions of power, visibility and responsibility while he was stuck in a backwater job.
In both of these men, gratitude for those who had helped them had been washed away by envy over the success of others. No matter what these men had achieved, envy deprived them of fulfillment for jobs well done. Regardless of how long or faithfully they served their country, these men found envy defacing their sense of satisfaction and draining their spirit of thankfulness for what they had accomplished.
How does one respond to the temptation of envy? Face it, all diagnosis and no cure depresses Jack — and Jill, too! I key my response to envy from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In each chapter of this letter Paul offers insights into a positive rebuttal to the temptation of this deadly sin.
Paul’s first action is to name the beast. In Philippians 1:15 he says, “Some preach Christ from envy and strife, and some from good will.” Part of the motive behind Paul’s letter was to address the spirit of envy that had taken hold in some church leaders. While it is preferable to preach the Gospel from a desire to glorify God, it is possible to preach the Gospel from a spirit of envy — in this case some local leaders desired to do well in order to rub Paul’s face in their success. These people were seeking to do great things for God in order to humiliate Paul. Envy is a poisonous but powerful motivator in the lives of some people.
Paul names the beast. He calls the spirit of envy by its name. So must we. If our feelings toward others are turning to envy, we must acknowledge this is happening. Excuses and alibis just don’t cut it. “But he really is a jerk .. and .. she really doesn’t deserve that assignment” are statements we can cloak in pious and professional language, but we do so at the price of evading the truth. If the temptation to envy or the spirit of envy is working in your life, name the beast. Do not perfume it, rationalize it, or excuse it. Call it by name. There is a big difference between calling a physical problem a ‘boo boo’ and calling it ‘cancer.’ Envy is spiritual cancer. Call it what it is.
In Philippians 2:3-11, Paul offers a second response to envy. Do good to the one you are tempted to envy: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourself. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
If you are tempted to envy someone because of the position they hold, double your efforts to help that person succeed in that position. If envy creeps into your relationships with others because of their grades, their higher performance marks, or their success with sports or relationships, or whatever, intentionally seek to do them some special good. “Count others better than yourselves,” not as a put-down to your gifts but as a defense against the cancer of envy. “Look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others,” not as a way to avoid living your own life but in order to live your life to the hilt.
Paul’s third response to envy is to refocus on what matters most. In Philippians 3:8ff, he says:
But whatever gain I had I count as loss for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Indeed, for His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ … that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection. … Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect … but this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul focuses on what matters most, which is his commitment to Christ. Thus he sets his priorities and his vision for life. Indeed, envy easily takes root in a distracted heart. Once a person starts to lose his or her sense of priorities, the pettiness of envy can gain an opening. Minor matters take on silly degrees of importance. What others do or acquire become more pressing to us than how we are “pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
What really matters the most in your life? Paul’s vision of the greatness of God and the love of Christ kept him from being sidetracked by envy. We should refocus on Christ and resolve to sit by faith at His feet.
Fourth, Paul’s response to the temptation of envy is to think the best. In Philippians 4:8 he writes: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Paul is not talking about a Pollyanna mindset that refuses to see the bad, sinful or painful in life. He is talking about the resolve of a Christian to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things” in our Christian love of others (1 Corinthians 13:7). Envy thrives when we are willing to believe the worst, willing to impugn motives, willing to withhold the benefit of the doubt. The weed of envy cannot take root in a heart filled with gratitude. The poison of envy cannot seep into a mind that breathes with praise.
The problem with green eyes — with looking at life through the lens of envy — is that it turns everything it sees into the same shade of green. This is not green, the color of life, but the sickly green, the color you turn during a very rough day at sea on a very small boat. It is gradual. First you feel well, then you feel unwell; then you feel as if you are dying, then you wish you were dead, and finally you start to envy the dead! “Envy rots the bones.”
Envy does not have to tint the life of the Christian. Call it by name when it tempts you. Do good for those on whom envy would have you cast a sneering stare. Refocus on the priority of Christ in your life. Channel your thought life into what builds up rather than what tears down. As you seek to do these things by faith, and with the help of God’s Spirit, you will find the sickly green fog of envy lifting from your vision. You will begin to see life clearly, as God intends you to see. And the view is magnificent. Amen!

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