By Pastor Glenn Pease
Sometimes the best way to say what something is, is to say what it isn't. If a child asks you what a smooth surface is, you would probably say it is a surface with no bumps and no rough spots. Bumps and rough are not what smooth is, but what smooth isn't. It would be hard to describe what smooth is without reference to its opposite, and what it isn't. If a daughter asks a mother what she means by perfectly clean sheets, the mother will say, "I mean that there is no dirt or stains on them." The easiest way to describe a vacuum is to say it is the absence of air. The easiest to describe total darkness is to say there is no light, and the easiest way to describe pure light is to say, as John does of God, He is light and in Him is no darkness at all. When John tells us about what heaven is like, he focuses on what heaven is not. It is the absence of night, pain, tears, sin, and death.
The point is, a quality or value can only be fully grasped by seeing its opposite, and by knowing what it isn't. That is why Paul, after telling us two things love is-patient and kind, follows up with a list of 8 things which love is not. Love is like all supreme values, for it is easier to say what it isn't than to say what it is. The first thing Paul says that love is not is envious. Pride is usually considered the first sin of man, but envy is a partner with this first sin. Satan envied God, and he tempted Adam and Eve to envy God. He said that they could be like God knowing good and evil. In other words, God has something you do not have, but it can be yours if you do what I say. Envy makes the self the center of focus, and this opens the door to all sin. Paul puts envy before pride in this list of what love isn't, for it leads to all that is unloving.
1. Cain killed Abel and became the first criminal in history because he envied his brother.
2. Joseph brothers envied him because of his relationship to his father, and they sold him into slavery.
3. Saul sought to kill David because of his envy of David's popularity.
4. The leaders of Israel sought to kill Jesus because they envied His popularity.
The number one cause for all non-loving behavior in human relationships is envy. Watch children play and you will see them fight over a toy bitterly when there are dozens of other toys to play with. It is not that they want it that bad, but they just do not like another to have it. They are motivated by envy, for as soon as one loses interest in the toy the other will no longer crave it either. Paul says he gave up childish things like this when he became a man. Maturity is the ability to not need what somebody else has to be content. It is not easy to grow up emotionally and be loving instead of envious.
We live in a world of much inequality. People do not get equal breaks. Some have better looks, better health, more wealth, and even more spiritual gifts. This is a major problem in the world, but also for Christians. We do not like a world where this reality kicks us in the face almost daily, and reminds us that we are inferior to others in some way. It all seems so unjust and unfair, and it leads easily to envy. One can get so obsessed with his own inequality that his own gifts and blessings lose their meaning. The women sang, "Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands." This led Saul to feel that he was nothing, and no longer a hero. He could have been a great hero of Israel, and a great king, even if David did surpass him, but he so let envy take over in his life that all that mattered was the destruction of David.
Envy causes people to lose perspective and they are made to feel so inferior that with the loss of self-love comes the loss of all love. They become so bitter that they are like one who said, "I can't read, and therefore wish all books were burned." P. J. Bailey said, "Envy is a coal that comes hissing hot from hell." It leads to all that is the opposite of love. It shrinks the soul and destroys all relationships. Envy can kill the best relationships. George Whitefield and John Wesley were great friends, but they came to a time of tension in their relationship. A man who did not like Wesley asked Whitefield if he thought he would see Wesley in heaven. He said, "Certainly not." The man was pleased until Whitefield explained. He said, "Wesley will be so near the throne of God, and you and I so far that we will not be able to see him." Whitefield could have indulged in some envious slander, but he chose the way of agape love, and that saved their relationship in spite of the tension.
Love does not envy Paul says, but he does not say that Christians do not envy, for we know that being a Christian does not eliminate envy. It is love that does not envy, and so when we do envy we need to recognize it is because we do not love, or that love is not now in control of our emotions. What this means is that love must be a constant choice of the will. It is not automatic. What is automatic is the response of the fallen human nature. The negative is more likely to be automatic, and the positive is more likely to be work. Katherine Porter said, "Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it. Hate needs no instruction, but wants only to be provoked."
So when you feel envy you need to recognize this is a defect, and a falling short of the ideal. You do not have to go to pieces and feel guilty, but simply acknowledge your feelings are sub-Christian. This means they are not to be the basis for your behavior or your talk. You check any of your words or acts that are motivated by this emotion, for they will not be loving words or acts. Suppression of the natural man is not only good, it is essential to the Christian life. You hold back the negative results of non-loving emotions, and instead you chose to act and talk on the basis of love.
Can you be loving when you feel non-loving? Of course you can, and you must, or you will let your old nature, rather than your new nature, be your guide, and this is to quench the Spirit. When you are open to the filling of the Spirit of God, you will quench the works of the flesh and deny their expression, and you will choose instead the way of love. This calls for honesty with our emotions. Gary Collins, the Christian psychologist writes, "Envy is an emotion that everybody possesses but to which nobody admits. While many people would confess that they are anxious, discouraged, lonely, overly-busy or bothered by feelings of inferiority, very few of us will tell another we are envious. Indeed, we don't even like to admit this to ourselves. But above all, we especially want to keep our envy a secret from the person whom we envy."
Envy is a dangerous emotion for our mental health. The harsh and horrible things said about it cause us to so fear it that we do not want to acknowledge we have it. We need to learn it is far healthier to be aware of our emotions, and learn to control them, and not repress them. Do not fear your negative emotions so much that you do not face them. The only way to gain the victory is to face your enemy and say, "I am now envious, and in a non-loving state. My attitude and behavior will be influenced by this emotion, and I can easily do or say what is non-loving. I must now chose to do and say that which is the will of God for me. I must will to love even though my feelings would take me down a non-loving path." You will only be able to be this honest when you are fully aware of your negative emotions. There are three things about envy that we want to focus on. First let's look at-
I. THE EVIL OF ENVY.
Envy is a violation of love on all levels. It is a rejection of loving God with all your heart, for envy says I consider God unfair to me, for He has given others what He has not given me. Therefore, I am rejected by Him, and I will in turn reject His will for me. This is why Cain killed Abel. He said that life is not fair, and God plays favorites, and so I will try to fight God's plan and kill the one he favors. His envy led him to first despise God, and then to despise his brother. Envy leads us to violate God's commandments by leading us to a low self-image where we hate who we are, for we are less and inferior to someone else. This in turn leads us to despise that someone else who is superior, and so we have gone full circle and end up hating God, and hating our neighbor, as we hate ourselves. Envy leads to the reversal of the will of God for us completely.
That is why one of the most destructive characteristics of non-love. It is anti-love which makes us weep with those who rejoice, and rejoice when they weep. Theogenes, the Greek hero of the public games, was so envied by another athlete that it drove him to destroy the statue that was erected in his honor. He finally succeeded in toppling the image, but it fell on him and killed him. Envy is like this-it is like shooting an arrow straight into the air above you. It will not likely hurt anyone but the one it falls on, which is you. Envy is so destructive to the self that it can cause the self to loose its sense of value and esteem, and thereby lead it to take risks in doing evil and folly that would not be considered with one with a healthy self-image.
Envy of another is saying that you are of little worth compared to them. You are saying that you are rejected and have little value. Others are so much better off, and so they are superior. You want to rise up and destroy their good fortune for that is the only way you can feel self-worth by making others less. Much of the evil of life is caused by this lethal logic of envy. The victory over this evil is clearly found in the development of one's self-esteem. If I can see that I am not of less worth and value to God, and to others, because I do not have the name, fame, or assets of others, then I need not be motivated by envy. It may enter my emotions, and I feel it, but then my mind weighs the facts in the light of my self-worth, and I conclude that I am loved and valuable even without the gifts that others have. I may be inferior in many ways, but I am loved by God, and I love God. I am loved by others, and I love others. I will not let envy rob me of these values that make me an equal to any who have ever lived.
As parents, we know that when we bring a second child home from the hospital that we do not love our first child less because now we have another one to love. But the first child does not know this and so there is often a battle with envy at an early age. It is based on the fear that another's good fortune is my loss. This is not so in God's family, or in our earthly family, God does not love any of children less because some are more blest, but it is a felt emotion of many children and many Christians. We all go through the battle of seeing others in the family seemingly more loved than we are. This leads to life becoming a competition where you have to fight for your share of love. You are no longer the exclusive object of attention, for now there is competition, and the new baby seems to get more affection. The rest of your life will be competition as other children get the teachers approval more than you. Others will get awards that you don't get. The coach will pick others over you. Someone else gets the job you wanted. There is always some realm of life where someone else is the winner, and you are left feeling envy.
The lower your self-image the more you will envy those who win out over you. Their good fortune will seem like a curse to you. Envy can become such a vicious beast that it will never forgive those who surpass you, and in that relationship love is blocked. When love is blocked all sorts of negative emotions grow. The Pharisees were envious of Jesus and His popularity with the people. They become totally blinded to all the good He was doing, and they sought only for a way to eliminate Him from the scene. Such is the power of envy. So much of the persecution of history is motivated by envy. Christians have done their share of persecuting each other to prevent the success of one another.
Pride cannot endure someone else becoming superior, and so it give rise to envy. Paul writes in Gal. 5:26, "Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other." The Christian is in the same danger as anyone else, and can let the inequality of life led them to envy. There are Christians who become rich, get fame, and have many blessings of all kinds. There is no equality among Christians, and so they have all the grounds for envy that anyone else does. If they do not control it, Christians can be just as resentful and unloving as the non-Christian.
Victory over this vicious vice must begin with an honest awareness that we carry the virus for this vice with us at all times. It is especially dangerous when we are in a negative mood and down on our own self-image. St. Augustine said many centuries ago, "May God take this vice not only from the hearts of all Christians, but from all men, for it is a vice proper to demons and from which they will always suffer. The devils have fallen, but they are envious of man who still stands upright. So also, some men are envious of others, not because they wish to have the prosperity that they see in others, but because they would wish that everyone be as wretched as themselves."
Do you ever find yourself feeling good at the misfortune of another? It is time to recognize, if you do, that you are letting envy be your guide. To be loving one needs to keep in constant contact with his or her own emotions. They must be evaluated in the light of love, and seen for what they really are, and then kept under control by the will which chooses the way of love regardless of feelings. Next we see-
II. THE ENERGY OF ENVY.
Where does the energy come from that feeds this anti-agape emotion? It comes primarily from a poor self-image. Lack of self-love is what leads us to not love our neighbor. Just as loving yourself will led to loving your neighbor as yourself, so also not loving yourself will led to not loving your neighbor as you don't love yourself. A healthy sense of self-esteem is the key to victory over many negatives, and envy is one of them.
We are all in the same boat with the elder brother of the Prodigal. Had he felt loved by the father he would not have needed to envy his younger brother. But because he felt unloved he felt cheated and inferior, and this was the source of the energy for the envy that made him such a negative person in a story with a happy ending for everyone but him. Had he felt secure, and could have said that he felt good about himself and his loyalty to his father, he could then have felt good about his foolish brother being forgiven and welcomed back home. Instead of pouting on the outside, he could have joined the party on the inside in celebration of a lost one who was now found.
The reason he could not do this was because he felt sorry for himself. He was saying, poor me, I never had a party with my friends, and I have been good and loyal. I am being treated as inferior, and all my efforts are forgotten. Most Christians find their emotions tending toward envy when people they feel are inferior are saved. It almost seems wrong that they should get to go to heaven after all the lousy things they have done. It does not seem fair that these people should be equal to them when they have been so good in comparison. This feeling comes because of a lack of adequate self-worth. If you get your self-image together you can keep envy under control, and prevent its energy from dominating your emotions. Next we see-
III. THE EASING OF ENVY.
I could have said the erasing of envy, but this would be unrealistic. We will not be able to eliminate all non-loving emotions. They are a part of the package of life, and it is self-defeating to be plagued by the presence of such emotions as envy. Just accept it as a force that has to be dealt with, like pimples, mosquitoes, or rainy Saturdays. Look at your negative emotions as a testing of your love. Can you cope with it, or do you collapse under it? The Christian needs to learn how to handle the negatives of life so as to ease the pressure, and be able to choose love rather than be carried away by the negatives.
One of the ways we can all help ease the pressure provoked by envy is to recognize the worth of all members of the body. The church often gets so caught up in the culture that all of its focus is on the superstars. Christians are as bad as the world in their exaltation of the few, and their neglect of the many. We need to counteract this tendency and appreciate people for being who they are. It is the glorifying of the gifts of the few that leads to rivalry just as we see it in the Corinthian Church. Some were saying, "I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ." Where is the group that says I am of Joe Blow or John Q. Smith? We create envy and rivalry by creating a hierarchy of gifts and forget that love is the greatest, and that love is the level where we are all equal. Joe Blow or Jane Doe may not have equal ability in many areas, but they are equally objects of God's love, and are to be equally love by the body.
If this is practice, and people feel loved, there is no need for envy to get a foot hold. When love reigns each member of the body can rejoice that others are superior in ways they are not, for that just adds so much more to the body. My leg loves my arm and does not feel bad that my arm can throw a ball better than it can. The whole body is grateful for all the different gifts of the individual members, for each gift makes the body as a whole more capable. The diversity and the many superiority's of one member over the others are not causes for envy, but for enjoyment.
Christians need to develop the unity of the body to erase the power of envy. Ruth Esbyornson says Christians can move in this direction by developing the ability to empathize. When you hear another Christian play an instrument, instead of wishing you could play like that, you enter into the blessing of the music and enjoy it. It becomes your music as one part of the body provides something for another part.
By empathy it becomes your music. It is not a cause for rivalry but of unity. When one Christian has had the chance to travel and see the world do not be envious that it was not you, but enter into the picture and see the world through their eyes and their experience. It is by empathy that we can see the treasures and feel the thrills of other members of the body. By empathy you make the experiences of all the members of the body become your experience. Life is made full, and you are enriched by the experience and gifts of others. You cannot be the ear, eye, nose, mouth, skin, arm, leg, and all the members of the body. No member can be the whole body, but each member can enter into the experience of the whole body, and by so doing enjoy the wider experiences of the whole body.
Do not limit your life to what you have done and feel, but by empathy enter into the experience of all the members of the body. By doing so you enjoy the blessings that go beyond your own limitations, and this eases the pressure of envy. Why envy that which enriches your life, and the life of the whole body? Empathy eases envy, and if it is consistently practiced a Christian can escape the power of envy to hurt his life. This is easier to do in an atmosphere where we do not promote pride. When the gifted are made to feel they deserve special praise and honor, we are back on the world's level where pride reigns. Jesus said the truly great are those who serve. The gifted are to be a blessing to the whole body, and the great are those who minister to all.
The pride pattern is to exalt the class president, the star athlete, the beauty queen, and make them the recipients of honor. This is what leads to envy. As Leslie Flynn says, "We try to blow out the other fellow's light when it shines more brightly than our own." But we need not feel that way if we can see the other's light is for our enlightenment and enrichment. Any Christian who is superior to us in any way is for our blessing. Their superiority is to serve the members of the body who do not have their gift. When love is kind, and all gifts are used for the good of the whole, then love is not envious, for there is no need to feel envy toward that which is a blessing.
It is rivalry that promotes envy. Gen. 30:1 says Rachel envied her sister. It is because Leah and Rachel were rivals and not partners. Joseph's brothers envied him, and so it is all through the Bible and history. Rivalry builds up envy, but unity and empathy eases envy. The reasons we envy other Christians is because of our lack of love. If we could feel we are one with them, and that we were all part of the family of God, then we could better handle the emotion of envy. I would love to hear that my brother or sister won a trip around the world, or ten thousand dollars a week for their life. Even more so if one of my children had such a good fortune, but I would probably envy if such good fortune came to one of my peers. The reason is that I do not love them on the same level. It is lack of love that leads to envy.
Had the rulers of Israel loved Jesus, and saw His fame and popularity with the people as a blessing, they could have entered into and enjoyed the ministry of Jesus. But instead, they saw Him as a rival and a threat. In Matt. 27:18 we read that Pilate, "Knew that for envy they had delivered Him." This four letter word is a four letter demon that will destroy all that is good and precious. This enemy will always be with us, but we can take the pressure off and let it be a force in our lives if we grow in love, for love does not envy.
I envy, but love does not, and so only as I and love become one can envy be eased out of my life. It may not be easy, but we must work at it. We should practice loving actions to get rid of envy. Go and do something good for someone you envy. The more love you learn to express, the more you will see envy fade, and you learn by experience that love does not envy.