By Pastor Glenn Pease
We seldom get the whole story on anything. No doubt, most of us are aware of how the rocks brought back from the moon were kept in isolation for some time lest they contain some organism that could spread disease for which we have no defense. That made a lot of sense, and made everyone feel more comfortable about bringing back to earth that which was unearthly. But what I didn't know until I read Isaac Asimov is that man was thoughtful enough to be concerned about taking earth's germs to the moon, and elsewhere, as well. So at enormous expense the space vessels we have launched have sterilized. If there is life of any kind out there, man did not want to be responsible for destroying it with his diseases.
Man, even in his fallen state, is certainly more noble than Satan, for he did not hesitate to contaminate our planet with the deadly virus that got him booted out of heaven. He enticed Adam and Eve to be envious just as he was. He wanted to be like God, and even better than God, and this envy cost him the loss of all godliness rather than its acquisition. Satan then deceived Adam and Eve by saying they could be like God knowing good and evil if they ate the forbidden fruit. The envied God having what they did not have, and so they ate, and every since we have lived in an envy infested world.
It is the major plague of all time. It infects more people than small pox ever did in the past, or that aids does in the present. Yet, you will have a hard time finding any government spending big bucks to study it. It is terribly destructive to Christian lives, and the ministry of the church, but you will have a hard time finding sermons on this serious issue. You can find sermons on murder, for most Christians don't murder, and there are plenty of sermons on all of the Ten Commandments because most Christians do not break these basic laws of life. But when it comes to envy, you are really meddling, for there is not likely a Christian anywhere who is not infected with the virus of envy. We do not like to deal with stuff like this, for it is not comfortable like dealing with the sins of other people. All I have to do when I hear about the sins of others is to be grateful I am not one of those sinners. It gives you a sense of pride when you can say with the Pharisee, "I thank God I am not as other men." But envy is not in the same category.
The first thing we need to understand about envy is that it is a common Christian sin. It is common in non- Christians too, but it does not go away because one becomes a Christian. These people that Paul is referring to here are not pagans or Jews, but Christian men who preach Christ. There is nothing wrong with their message, but their motive is sinful. It is amazing, for Paul says it is possible to do the highest things in life with the lowest motives. These good Christian preachers were motivated by envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition. Their goal was not the body of Christ being built up, but their own reputation being built up. They wanted the fame and glory of Paul, and they were willing to hurt Paul if that would help them achieve the goal.
In spite of these terrible motives, Paul rejoices because people can be saved by the Gospel even if those preaching it are jerks. The message that faith in Jesus Christ can cleanse and free you from sin, and make you a child of God, is just as true, and just as effective, no matter what the source. It can come to people by the printed word; by radio; or television, and it doesn't make any difference what the motive is of those who spread it. It is not the messenger, but the message that is the power of God unto salvation. If an atheist sees a chance to make a quick buck by selling Bibles, those Bibles will be just as effective as Bible given by the Gideons.
Paul says that it makes no difference how people hear the Gospel, for faith comes by hearing, and the messenger can be awful sinner, but the message will still save. Paul is not saying that it is okay that some Christian preachers are motivated by envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition. These are sins are that condemned everywhere in the Bible. Paul is not saying that he enjoyed having Christian brothers stir up trouble for him, for this would be to confess he was a sadistic person. There is nothing good about the motives of these men. To think so would be to make hypocrisy equal to honesty. Paul is not rejoicing in them, but in the Gospel they preach, for that is his first love, and he will not attack, even these self-centered jerks, as long as they preach the Gospel.
There are many things that bother me about preachers. There are so many self-serving ministers in the world. Many get rich off the Gospel by false pretenses. People are appalled by the revelation of a popular youth evangelist who has made millions in his ministry because of his fantastic testimony of being a cult leader before he came to Christ. His story deeply impressed me along with millions of others, but it was all concocted out of selfish ambition. It worked to keep the checks coming in, but it was all a lie.
I don't have any intention of attacking his evil motives. God will deal with that. The fact is, he exalted Christ as the Savior, and people were saved by his dynamic preaching. You will seldom hear me denounce any popular preacher or evangelist because, even if I question their methods or motives, if they preach the Gospel, it is cause for rejoicing. This is the spirit of Paul, and of Christ who told His disciples who wanted to forbid a certain man to perform ministry: If he is not against us, He is for us. It is a shame that Christians can be so sinful in their motives, but it is wonderful that God can use even these stained vessels to carry the water of life.
Being a Christian optimist does not mean being blind to the sin, folly, and pathetic weaknesses of God's people. It means an awareness that God gets His will done, and His kingdom expanded, regardless of the sorry motives of His messengers. Optimism about God and what He can accomplish does not mean there is no place for Christian pessimism about people. Paul was so honest it was shocking as he deals with the negative side of the Christian life. These were men of God, yet they were full of envy. The Greek word Paul used here is phthonos, and it also means jealously. They were jealous of the way God had used Paul, and envious of the love and fame he had gotten in preaching the Gospel.
Before we throw too many rocks at these Christian slime balls, we need to examine what the rest of the New Testament says about this sin in the Christian life. We might just discover that the New Testament will say to us what Jesus said to the Pharisees who were ready to stone the woman taken in adultery: " He who is without sin among you cast the first stone." I say this because the New Testament makes it so clear this is a basic Christian weakness, and it is a flaw in Christian personality. It is no minor sin either, but one of the worse that the New Testament deals with. In fact, it is the sin that sent Jesus to the cross.
In Matt. 27:18 we read the thought of Pilate when he was trying to release Jesus. It says, "For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him." The Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus. They saw people flock to Him, and He was not even an ordained man. They hated it that the people loved Jesus, for they were suppose to be the ones that people turned to for spiritual guidance. It makes trained professional people angry when the non-trained amateurs get more fame than they do. Lawyers are screaming mad at a layman who wrote a book telling people how to make out their own living will.
This sin of envy is capable of any evil, even to the point of killing the Son of God to eliminate Him from the competition. We live in a dangerous world because of the potential of this sin. Paul lists it as with the worst sins of depravity in Rom. 1:29. In Titus 3:3 he lists it again as one of the terrible sins of the Christians in their free-conversion days. He writes, "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Paul uses the same word when he describes these Christian preachers and teachers in I Tim. 6:3-5 where he concludes, "...who think that godliness is a means to financial gain."
There is nothing new under the sun. This is a major problem in our day as millions of Christians fall for the health and wealth gospel. They send in millions of dollars to those preachers who tell them God wants them rich. They do just what the false teachers of Paul's day were doing by convincing people that the point of being a Christian is to become financially independent. Paul goes on in this context of I Tim. 6, and urges Timothy to learn to be content, and not seek for riches that lead to so many desires that ruin Christians. Then he says those famous words in verse 10, "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many grief's."
The point is, Christians can get so full of envy of what others have that they will harm the cause of Christ, become deceitful and dangerous, and even forsake their faith in the pursuit of keeping up with the Jones. Envy is a curse on all men, but especially the Christian. We do not have the time to study James chapter 4, but in that chapter James teaches the same thing as Paul. He says a major sin of the Christian life is the envy that makes them love the world and materialism more than the spiritual values of life. When they do this, they are submitting to the devil, and resisting God, which is just the opposite of what should be the Christian commitment.
Can Christians really be that worldly, and out of God's will? Peter in I Pet. 2:1 confirms Paul and James by writing to Christians: "Therefore, rid yourself of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind." You don't have to rid yourself of what you can't have, and so it is established beyond a doubt that Christians can be loaded with envy that makes them a danger to the body and to themselves. It is a powerful feeling that can make them behave like the devil himself. We think lust is powerful, and it is, but here is a more hidden sin that is just as powerful, if not more so, and it is scary what it can do to the Christian. Lust may slay its thousands, but envy slays its tens of thousands.
In the Old Testament envy turned the sons of Jacob into brutal brothers who were willing to kill Joseph to get him out of the way. God used their envy for good, just as He used that of Pharisees who killed Jesus, and that of the preachers who envied Paul. God can bring good out of evil, but those who do the evil are just as guilty, and just as accountable. God's using of evil for good does not excuse the evil. Envy in the Christian life is pure evil and not good, even if Christians with it can still share the Gospel. Those who are poor Christians can still do a lot of good, but their badness is still bad, and they will suffer loss in both time and eternity.
If you start turning green with envy you are getting right for judgment. Psychiatrist Willard Gaylin describes envy as a mental illness. It is the feeling that anyone else's achievements or happiness diminish mine, and, therefore, it is a desire to bring others down and spoil their dreams because it makes me seem better. When you hear a Christian put others down, you can diagnose their problem as envy. That is what Christian brothers were doing to Paul. They had the common perception of the envious which says, there is not enough love to go around, and so, if somebody else is getting it, I am losing it.
Envious people resent anyone who seems to have more than their share of life's blessings. They are easy to find, for there is always someone richer, more successful, prettier, or more handsome. No amount of good fortune can make envy go away because you are never ahead of everybody. Satan was, but he still had God to envy, and because he could not be number one he lost his status in heaven and eternal happiness. Envy is the entry way to hell, and Christians can live that close to the devil's sphere of influence. Experts say that it is a hard emotion to unlearn, for it becomes a habit because one gets pleasure out of tearing others down.
The Christians tearing Paul down were, no doubt, feeling completely justified, for Paul was in prison and they were not. Who is the most blessed of God? Is it those of us who are free, or Paul who is a jail-bird, and bringing disgrace on the cause of Christ? They would have facts like this to point to in order to justify their mean spirited competition. The envious Christian lives in a self-centered world where the I is lord, and not Jesus. The result is, he or she is not a team player. It is not what is good for the kingdom that matters to them, but what is good for me only. If someone is getting too much love and praise, that is not good for me, and so I must find some dirt about that person to put a stop to their pleasure.
Most gossip is a tool of envy, for it is a means to lower others so we can be exalted. It is very hard to avoid this sort of thing, for even this sermon is an illustration of it. By putting down these Christian brothers were envious of Paul, we can all feel better, for by comparison with them we are paragons of virtue. Finding terrible Christians to compare yourself with is a good way to feel good with little cost. These guys are so bad that being better than them is a snap. This can lead to pride and self-deception that makes us feel mature when we are an inch taller than these pigmy Christians.
Envy is so common and so dangerous that it has always been listed next to pride in the 7 deadly sins. Being aware of it is a key factor in controlling it. Every relationship in life where you feel inferior to another person is a potential temptation to become envious. We are tempted to envy anyone who is superior in any way. Envy is makes people delight in the fall of the great. Where big name people blow it, and fall from their height of fame, it gives us pleasure because we had envy in our hearts, and envy glories in the fall of the famous. We feel bad when great Christians lose their fame and fortune by sinning, but on the other hand, we also feel satisfaction, for what right did they have to be so honored and happy? They are no better than we are, we say, and that is envy at work.
One of the burdens of greatness is the host of people who watch for your downfall. Psa. 106:16 says, "They envied Moses also in the camp." Every major leader in the Bible was envied, and there were those just hoping they would fall. Men are a lot like lobsters. They say if you have a bucket full of them none can ever get out, because if one starts to climb up the others will pull it down. Men love to pull each other down lest someone climb higher than they are. That is envy at work. If you aspire to be a star in any field of life, be prepared to be both loved and hated, for envy will be inevitable in the hearts of many, including those who love you.
Envy does not have a positive side effect. When criminals do not treat each other fairly it is a blessing, for envy usually trips them up. Police count on successful robbers making their friends and neighbors envious of their prosperity, for this brings them forth with information. In a one hundred thousand dollar swindle the man who got only two thousand squealed on the others who took ninety eight thousand. Envy is the policeman's friend and that is true until one of his fellow officers gets to be captain, and then it is the same old enemy of peace of mind.
In many cases we can sympathize with the victims of envy. Rachel wanted a child so bad, and her sister Leah could have them easy. Gen. 30:1 says that Rachel envied her sister. It is hard to condemn her for her envy, for her desire to have a child was valid. It is not as if she wanted a bigger tent, or more jewelry. She just wanted to have a baby. So even in areas of legitimate desire envy can get into our hearts and make us have wrong attitudes towards people that we care about.
The Emperor Tiberius Caesar exiled and architect because of the beauty of the porch he designed, and he killed a poet for the writing of a superb tragedy. The superior qualities of these men's works made him so envious that he hurt them, because he could not produce such works. History is full of such abuse of power. If you can do something better than another, you will likely produce envy. Mothers have killed their daughters-in law because they made the sons love them more than mom. Such is the power of envy. There is no sin envy will not commit to express its hatred of superiority. The Emperor Caligula killed his own brother because he was more handsome than himself.
The Queen could not tolerate it when the mirror on the wall said Snow White was the fairest of them all. In a fit of fury she devised a plan to rid the world of this superior competition. Envy wants to deprive others of what they have. The willow asked the thorn, "Why are you envious of the clothes of those who passed by us? What good are they to you?" The thorn replied, "None whatever, I have no desire to wear them. I only wish to tare them." If the envious cannot read, he wishes all books to be burned. Envy hates others enjoying what he cannot. Envy rejoices when others weep, and weeps when other rejoice.
Some sins get less offensive in time, and their definition varies with the culture, but envy has the unenviable position of being consistently despised from Plato to the present. Horace wrote in the first century, "Sicilian Tyrants never invented a greater torment than envy." Envy robs people of what they have by making them sad for what they have not. It is Satan's best foot in the door scheme to get us miserable, for all of us have the potential for falling into this sin. In the 18th century Richard Sheridan observed, "There is not a passion so strongly rooted in the human heart as envy."
The paradox is that it is good that provokes this evil. Good things happening to others is what makes people envious. If Paul was just a poor or mediocre evangelist, who was basically ineffective in touching people's lives, he would have been ignored, but because he was so effective he made other Christian evangelists envious. His success was their basis for failure. So we see that the very essence of sin is a hatred of others for having what we don't have. Satan fell because he wanted to be better than God. He brought Adam and Eve to their fall by making them want what God had forbidden. He made them envious to have that one thing they did not have, even though they had everything else in the world. Every being with a mind and a will can be brought down by the power of envy.
Sin is not a lust for what is bad, but a lust for what you don't have that somebody else does. Envy says, he has a better wife than I do, and this leaves the door open for adultery. Envy says, he has a better car than I do, and this leaves the door open for stealing. Envy says, he has a better life than I do, and this leaves the door open for murder. Envy plays a role in almost all sin. Man just does not like it that others have what he does not, and so every form of evil is committed to get it, or at least rob the others of it. Man's inhumanity to man is due to envy. Almost every Christian sin can be linked to envy. Envy enables man to do on the negative side what God does on the positive. God can bring good out of evil, but man can bring evil out of good.
Every good thing that happens in this life can, by the power of envy, be turned into an evil force that hurts the body of Christ. The history of Christian evil and folly can be traced to this awful emotion of envy. How do we conquer this green eyed monster that can take over our emotional system, and damage our role in the body of Christ? As with every sin, you first must become aware of it. Face honestly that you too are in some way infected. Confess it, and tell the Lord you know it is there, and you hate feeling it. Then act your way out of this destructive feeling. That is Paul's advise in Phil. 2:3-4, where he says, "Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better then themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others."
Then Paul describes what Jesus did in giving up equality with the Father to become a man and lay down His life for us. The opposite of envy is humility, which is the ability not to grasp at what others have, but to share what you have with others. This was the spirit of Paul, and he had the spirit of Christ. May God help us to have that same spirit, and escape the snare of the devil that can make us envious Christians.