‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ We remember the wicked step-mother’s rage when she discovers it’s not her. As well as the more obvious sins (anger, murder), that children’s story illustrates more subtle sins that often go together: jealousy, envy, competitiveness and pride.
What is jealousy? Jerry Bridges, in his book, Respectable Sins, defines it as an intolerance of rivalry. There are times when jealousy is a good thing. In a marriage, a husband should be jealous if his wife shows too much attention to another man, and vice versa. God is described as a jealous God, indeed his name is Jealous (Exod. 34:14). He doesn’t tolerate rivals to the worship he alone deserves. The apostle Paul claimed on one occasion to have a godly jealousy – on God’s behalf because the Corinthian Christians were going astray from devotion to Christ. But most of the time our jealousy is not godly, it’s sin, and is listed as such in several places in the Bible (Rom. 13:13, 1 Cor. 3:3, Gal. 5:20, James 3:14-16).
Envy is similar to jealousy. It’s a resentment of something someone else possesses, which may include a desire to have what they possess, or may just resent them having it. Bridges says that we tend to envy those with whom we most closely identify, and we envy them in things that we value most. For example, I’m unlikely to envy someone’s footballing ability, because I’m too old to be trying to be good at football, but I may well be tempted to envy someone’s preaching ability, because I am interested in being a good preacher.
The root of jealousy
The key thing to see in understanding jealousy and envy is that they both stem from competitiveness with our fellow human beings. We all do it – compare ourselves and our circumstances with those around us. I may be quite content with my life until I go on Facebook and see all the fun my friends have been having – now my life seems really boring, and I’m tempted to envy and jealousy. Or maybe you’re quite content with your clothes and your appearance until you see your colleague in work – her new clothes, her new hair style. That’s where envy and jealousy may come in. Or it may happen in church. You look around on Sunday morning and find yourself wishing you could be gifted like that person, or as approachable as that person. Bridges’ comments are very helpful; the areas that we value most – which will be different for each of us and may be very good things – are the areas we are most prone to envy and jealousy.
There’s one more layer to dig down in understanding envy and jealousy – they come from competitiveness, and competitiveness comes from pride. Twice in his letters to the church in Corinth – renowned for their spiritual pride (e.g. 1 Cor.) – Paul mentions their jealousy (1 Cor. 3:3, 2 Cor. 12:20). Pride means we want to be better than others, have more than others. C. S. Lewis says pride is essentially competitive – a person is not proud of being rich but of being richer, or cleverer, more beautiful or gifted or popular. Pride leads to competitiveness which inevitably leads to envy and jealousy.
The fruit of jealousy
Before we look at some of the antidotes the Bible gives us to envy and jealousy we need to see their fruit. Several times in the Bible jealousy is mentioned in the same breath as quarrelling and strife. We also see this connection in the classic examples of jealousy in the Bible – King Saul’s jealousy of David led him to try to kill him. The Jewish leaders’ jealousy of Jesus led them to kill him. And we see similar in the Jewish opposition to the apostles in Acts. Envy and jealousy will destroy our relationships, maybe not as obviously as in the above examples but always in some way it will create strife and division. And one final thing – they are like a cancer; they may start small, and we think we’ve got them under control, but unless we recognise them for what they are and ruthlessly root them out, they will fester and grow and slowly destroy both us and our relationships.
The Bible gives us several truths that are antidotes to envy and jealousy. First, there is the truth of God’s sovereignty. God has made me the person I am, with the gifts and abilities, strengths and weaknesses I have. His providence has also determined every aspect of my life history and current circumstances. When I’m envious or jealous of others I’m really saying that God hasn’t done a very good job, and if I had my way I could do a better job. Reminding ourselves of God’s providence is a very powerful antidote when I’m tempted to envy and jealousy – God is good and he does all things well, I don’t need to fret and struggle, I can rest in his sovereignty.
Another very important truth in this battle is God’s grace. Often underlying envy and jealousy is a feeling that we deserve better. Sometimes that can be a whole way of looking at life – as if we’re entitled to certain things. The truth is God owes me nothing. Everything I have – from my income, to my looks, to my gifts and ministry opportunities – is a gift of God’s grace. For people like me it’s a great temptation to be jealous of other ministers who appear to be more ‘successful’ than me, or be envious of their gifts or opportunities. But again, Paul says that we have the ministries we have by the sheer mercy of God. I don’t have a right to serve God at all – that itself is a gift. He doesn’t need me.
Finally, we should remind ourselves of Jesus’ teaching on true greatness. Often in our jealousy we’re striving to be at the top, to be the best, for others to put us first. But Jesus said that true greatness is not found at the top but at the bottom. ‘If anyone would be first he must be last of all and servant of all’ (Mark 9:35). After all that’s what he did, he was the first, but he became the last by humbling himself – first to become human, and then he took that further step down to death on the cross. When we feel ourselves envious or jealous we need to ask God’s Spirit to help us see Christ’s humility and so humble us.
We should also remember though that Christ stooped low in order to lift us up, so that we can be seated with him in the heavenly places. He became poor so that we though his poverty might become rich. In Christ, God has given us himself. It was treasuring Christ that was the secret of the apostle Paul’s contentment (Phil. 3-4). Envy and jealousy can only happen when we forget what we’ve been given and who we now are in Christ. We’re children of God, co-heirs with Christ. What more could we possibly want?
Next in this series: The tongue »