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The Lost Sin of Envy
April 30, 2012
A little while ago God did what he sometimes does and rather suddenly made it very clear to me that I had a sin in my life—a prominent sin—that had somehow been hidden to me. It surprised just how prevalent this sin was, how ugly, and how little I knew about it. Once I saw it and once I tried to understand it, I came to see that it may well be a sin you struggle with as well. It is one of those sins we talk about very little and one of those sins that has wormed its way into our culture and into the church. It may just be a lost sin, a sin we’ve forgotten about. Many of us don’t even have a clear category for it anymore. Ancient writers and theologians talked about it a lot, even suggesting that it was the second most serious and second most prevalent of all the sins, and yet today it has almost disappeared from our vocabulary or it has been confused with related sins like jealousy or covetousness. That sin is Envy.
Proverbs says that whoever walks with the wise will be wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm (13:20). What I found out is that Envy has been a friend of mine for a long, long time. I just didn’t realize it until recently. He has infected me with his foolishness. Let me tell you how he’s worked in my life.
Nine years ago I slapped together a little web site so I could share a couple of articles with my parents. The Lord took that site and has done something amazing so that today tens of thousands of people read it every day. Not only that, but I have been able to write books and I have been able to travel all around to teach and preach and so much more. You might think that I would be just thrilled with all that has happened and certainly I should be. And yet I came to see that this really was not the case. Instead I was growing resentful, I was envious of what I didn’t have and of what God hadn’t given me. I came to see that I had made friends with Envy.
For the next couple of days I want to write about Envy, sharing some of what I’ve learned about it, about him. I want you to be able to know Envy when you see him because maybe, just maybe, you’ve become friends with him as well.
Today I want to introduce to you Envy in two ways—first by giving you a look at his list of accomplishments and then by telling you what God says about him.
There are only four people in the world before Envy shows up. Then there are three people in the world. Adam and Eve have sons named Cain and Abel. Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer. Abel brings an offering to God that God loves and accepts because it comes from a heart that genuinely loves the Lord; Cain brings an offering to God that God hates and rejects because it comes from a heart that does not love the Lord. The Bible says, “The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.”
God accepts Abel’s offering and he rejects Cain’s and that is when Envy shows up. Envy convinces Cain that somehow God’s rejection of his offering is directly tied to his acceptance of Abel’s offering, as if God can only accept one of them. Envy leads to hatred and hatred leads to murder and soon Cain has killed Abel. Envy celebrates a victory.
A few generations later Envy shows up in a marriage. Jacob has married two women, but only one of them is able to have children. Leah, the unwanted and unbeautiful wife, gives birth to baby after baby and then Envy shows up and convinces Rachel, the beloved and beautiful wife, that Leah’s children somehow implicate her. Rachel would rather die than rejoice at her sister’s blessing. With every fight, with every tear, with every act of adultery, Envy rejoices.
Envy is not done yet. Eventually Rachel does have a child and she names him Joseph and he is the favored son of his father. Joseph’s brothers hate him for this, they are envious of his position and really they are envious of the fact that God sees fit to reveal himself through Joseph. So they attack him and sell him as a slave. Envy celebrates another triumph.
And it goes on and on. Envy shows up all throughout the Bible. He makes appearance after appearance and he always brings death and misery and destruction with him. He even shows up at the end of the life of Jesus and helps murder the Son of God. Jesus has been brought before Pilate and the crowds are crying out for this innocent man to be slaughtered, to be put to death, in the cruelest possible manner. And even Pilate can see, “It was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matthew 27:18).
Envy has a long and ugly history of dissatisfaction and fighting and death, which makes me start to wonder why I’ve maintained a friendship with him for all this time.
What God Says About Envy
The Bible doesn’t just show Envy in action but it also contains clear warnings against him.
1 Peter 2:1 says, “Put aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” It is clear: Envy is a sin that I need to get rid of. Galatians 5:26 talks about living as a Christian and warns, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” A few verses earlier Envy is listed as one of the works of the flesh, one of the deeds you do when you shove aside the Spirit and live like a person who has never known God’s grace. It is right there with sexual immorality, idolatry, drunkenness and all the rest. Paul says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” An envious man is in no way morally superior to an adulterous man. A man consumed by Envy needs to ask, “Do I even know the grace of God?” Paul even lists it in the first chapter of Romans, that chapter that lists all the evil things God gives people up to do when they continually harden themselves against him. Envy is truly evil.
But the Bible is not without hope. God gives hope to the envious. In Titus 3 Paul says, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” Don’t miss the words “were once.” Paul says that the Christian used to be friends with Envy—past tense—but then Christ saved us, he delivered us from this sin and so many others. There is hope even for the envious, hope that is grounded in what Christ has done. Christ died to deliver us from sins like Envy, to make a friend like Envy into an enemy, and to put him to death.
There is a glimpse at the long and ugly history of Envy. It’s obvious that I’ve been a fool to allow him to be my friend, to be my companion through life. I want to work toward dealing with Envy, to learn how to put him to death, but first, tomorrow, I want to look at his personality, to see how he works, how he changes the way you think and act.
(Note: Long experience shows that it is more important to maintain a reasonable word count than to write one very long article. This is the blogosphere, after all. For that reason I will break this into a few parts.)