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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Stamp Out Envy

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace.

That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble."

James 3:16 – 4:6

The Pentecost season is concerned with every-day Christian living. Two weeks ago we talked about living such a life that Jesus can one day say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Last Sunday we saw that we are to show our faith in Christ to others through our good deeds. Today’s Epistle lesson might get a little more personal as we’re told to stamp out envy – envy which causes strife among us.

“Where you have envy and selfish ambition,” James wrote, “there you find disorder and every evil practice.” “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” he asks, “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you can’t have what you want. You quarrel and fight.” Pretty strong words – especially when you remember that James is writing to Christians!

Half in admiration, and half meaning it, a woman exclaims, “Oh how I envy that beautiful coat!” Or a man sees his neighbor’s new car and says, “I’m absolutely green.” And the “green-eyed monster” strikes again when a teenager sees an athletic jacket that he or she wants! And can’t have!

How seriously should we take envy and the way it shows itself in our speech, our thoughts and our attitudes? Is it just a minor social vice to be treated lightly, or are its roots and consequences serious enough to demand the attention of Christians? What does God’s Word have to say about envy? And if it is serious, what can be done about it?

Medieval theologians certainly considered it to be serious. They listed “envy” as one of the “seven deadly sins.” The others were pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, anger, and sloth. These were considered to be the primary human instincts most likely to cause us to sin. They are “deadly” in the sense that they prevent any spiritual growth. At least four of the other six are directly related to envy, either as causes or as results. Pride, covetousness, and lust contain the seeds of envy, and anger is its companion.

The Medieval theologians who listed as “deadly” these seven sins also had the opportunity to observe men and women under the separated and supposedly ideal conditions of monastery life. And it’s interesting to note that these same sins showed themselves among people who had supposedly renounced self-seeking and personal ambition in order to work together for a common ideal.

There’s a story of an especially pious monk who was living in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. It seems that Satan’s henchmen tried and tried to tempt him to sin but without any luck. They appealed to pride, to lust, to anger – to all sorts of things – but to no avail. Then Satan himself came to check up on his demons, and told them they were going at it all wrong! They hadn’t tried envy. So Satan said to this pious monk who had gone to the desert to escape the sin and corruption of the world, “I hear that your brother was just made the Bishop of Alexandria.” Immediately the countenance of the monk fell as he envied the honor and prestige and power his brother must be experiencing.

Envy is a basic human emotion common to all of us. And most of us are inclined to treat it as if it were a minor vice. But God takes a different view of it and plainly labels envy as a sin, listing it with other sins that we do consider as serious. When the Apostle Paul gave the Romans a list of wickedness, he included envy with such things as depravity, murder, and God-hating. When he gave the Galatians a list of the acts of the sinful nature, he included envy with such things as sexual immorality, idolatry, and drunkenness. Pretty serious thing, envy!

Envy and jealousy are closely related, but I need to point out that they are not identical. Webster defines “envy” as “a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another’s advantage, possessions, etc.; resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires.” The point is that the envier doesn’t envy the object – such as a new car – but resents the person who owns it. By definition, then, envy is always a sin.

But “jealousy” is different, it’s the fear or suspicion that we might lose something we already have. As such, it can be unwarranted, unreasonable, and sinful, or it can be legitimate and even good. A jealous wife is not an envious wife. A jealous wife is afraid to lose her husband to another woman. If she sees a woman who is younger, prettier, more talented, etc. she may become envious. But if she thinks she’s losing her husband to the other woman, that’s not envy, it’s jealousy. So jealousy can be legitimate, and even good.

God Himself told the children of Israel, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” God is concerned about losing His children to false gods. And Paul had the same concern about the Corinthians when he wrote, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Paul was concerned, too, that Christians were falling away from the faith, and so was “jealous… with a godly jealousy.”

As if to underscore His warning against envy, God has given us a lot of pictures in His Word of men and women who allowed the sin of envy to ruin their relationship with Him and with others. Remember King Saul and his envy of David? The relationship began with affection and admiration. But then David came back in triumph from some battles and the crowds cheered him and shouted, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” The score was 10 to 1 in favor of David, and Saul’s envy of David’s popularity led to hatred and attempted murder.

It’s probably in the family circle that envy leaves its most lasting scars when it rears its ugly head. Where love and mutual consideration should be found. The quarrels and fights resulting from rivalry to be first in affection, or attention, or share of material goods, are the most tragic. Beginning with Cain, who committed murder out of envy of his brother’s acceptance by God, the Bible is full of such family tragedies. Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, lived in mutual envy – Leah because Rachel had Jacob’s love, and Rachel because Leah had his sons.

And remember the brothers of Joseph and how their envy of his new coat, his dreams, and his position of favor with his father led them to plot his death. If they couldn’t have what Joseph had, he wasn’t going to have it either. This is a common symptom of the envious. If I can’t have something, nobody else will; if he loses it, then I can rejoice.

When I was about 12 years old, a bunch of us kids would play hockey in the street after school. The streets were covered with hard-packed snow, and we had some pretty lively games. And then one day Freddy Peterson showed up with a big, heavy, professional hockey stick. Our little Montgomery Ward sticks were no match for his, whether we were hitting the puck or one another. And we thought Freddy was pretty arrogant as he wielded that big stick. I think he broke Myron Weston’s stick with it – and that was the last straw. We all wanted a real hockey stick like Freddy’s, but if we couldn’t have one, he wasn’t going to have one either. So at a pre-planned signal, three of us came down on his stick with ours, all at the same time, and we broke his in two. Now I’m ashamed of what we did, because he lost a prized possession, his feelings were hurt, and we all stood around and laughed when he ran home crying. And Freddy was our friend!

The early church experienced the damage envy can do. We read in Acts that one group of Christians envied the other because the other group’s widows were better cared for. They weren’t getting their “fair share” of the poor fund.

Envy and bickering bring the Christian church into disrepute among those who don’t know Christ, and destroy the effectiveness of the church’s witness. Satan knows this, and from the very beginning until today, he’s sown the seeds of envy among God’s people.

Envy, if it’s allowed to fester, leads inevitably to hatred, and hatred as surely leads to strife, violence, and even murder. What a change we’d see in our homes, our churches, and our nations if, instead of envying one another, each person were to honestly rejoice in the blessings that come to others.

How can we stop envying and begin rejoicing with others? Not by self-effort, that’s for sure. For no amount of self-effort can overcome our sinful human natures. Only the Spirit of God can conquer our flesh. When we recognize envy as sin – sin against God and sin against our fellow man – we can then confess it as sin and be forgiven. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again, is the antidote to every form of sin.

The sin of envy does not need to flourish among the saints. Christians need not struggle for security and worldly wealth. Christian families don’t need to be torn apart by bickering and strife. There’s no need for Christian churches to be divided by factions.

Paul “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” Why? Because his Lord supplied all of his needs, and worked all things together for his good. He encouraged those whom he led to Christ to tell their needs to the Lord, but first to give thanks for the blessings they already had. After reminding themselves of all the gratitude they owed – then they should present their requests to Him.

Peter adds a helpful ingredient to overcoming the sin of envy. “The Word of the Lord stands forever,” he wrote, “and this is the Word that was preached to you. Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind.” If our minds and hearts and lives are filled with the Word of God, there won’t be any room for envy and all the rest. As we read, study, and obey God’s Word, envy will be crowded out.

We can give thanks that Jesus Christ has given us both the Word of God and the Spirit of God to help us in our Christian life.


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