Envy, Jealousy, and Related Sins
September 7, 2008

Envy, Jealousy, and Related Sins

Service Type:

Envy, Jealousy, and Realted Sins

Respectable Sins: Sermon Fifteen

by William Klock


One of the most frustrating aspects of my secular work during the last twelve years had to do with the fact that I always seemed to be the low man on the totem pole regardless of where I worked and how hard I worked.  I worked for two different companies in that time and did the same work as an Apple Computer repair tech.  In the first company I was one of three techs.  The other two had been there fore a long time.  One of them was lazy and surly.  The other always seemed to work hard, but he never seemed to get anything done, and on top of that, he was always breaking things.  By the time I left that shop after three years, I was doing 85% of the in-house repairs, yet my salary was the lowest of all three.

In my second job as a repair tech, I only worked with one other person.  The work was split pretty much fifty-fifty between us, but my colleague’s salary was about 30% higher than mine.  Yet I was the one who would stay late – sometimes working several 14 or 16 hours days back to back without compensation when we fell behind, simply because I knew that the work had to get done to keep the customers happy.  I was the one that ended up doing all the difficult or time-consuming repairs.  The boss in both instances was always happy to thank me for my work, but it was always the other guy who got the public recognition or who was called on when some really important thing came up.  Apple wanted to write new certification exams.  I was all studied up.  I had more experience.  And yet the boss would send one of the other guys to the testing evaluation seminars in California.  I was often tempted to be envious of my colleagues.

Envy is the painful and oftentimes resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else.  Sometimes it leads to the sin of covetousness when we want the same advantage as that other person.  Sometimes we just harbour resentment because they have something that we don’t.  I think we can see the envy in our lives better when we understand the two conditions that are typically present when we fall into envy: First, we’re more prone to envying people with whom we identify.  And second, we tend to envy them in the areas we value the most.

Both of those things were present in my work situations.  The guys I was tempted to envy did the same job I did.  We were all at the same competence level and had the same job descriptions.  I could identify with them as technicians of pretty much equal ability as myself.

I became envious because in each case they had an advantage that I didn’t have myself: greater recognition, a bigger salary, and in my first job, they were Apple Certified and had certificates on the wall at the service counter.  That one really got to me.  I was doing 80% of the work, but the company wouldn’t pay to send me to the official training centre.  My name wasn’t on the wall for the customers to see.  When I called them about their computers, theyd frequently ask, “Who are you?  I didn’t see a plaque with your name on it?  Are you qualified?”  When an important client called up and needed a field service call, nobody ever asked me to go.  Because of our close proximity to Vancouver, we had a lot of celebrity customers, but it was rare that I ever got to meet or work with any of them.

The irony is that I didn’t need a bigger salary at the time, I didn’t like having to take time out of my schedule to deal with training and certification seminars for stuff I already knew inside and out, and most of all, I resented not being asked to make the outside service calls, yet I hated that sort of work anyway.  In all, the thing that tempted me to envy wasn’t the work I was missing out on, it was the recognition that came with it.  See how subtle envy can be?

I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever been envious of a great politician, a sports star, a musician, or an actor.  I might admire some of them, but I’ve never been tempted to envy them.  What they do is so totally different from what I do and what my talents are, it just isn’t an issue.  Someone once asked me, do you get envious of the big name pastors out there that go on speaking tours and have gigantic churches.  No, I don’t.  That’s not me.  They might be fellow labourers in the “pray trade,” but their jobs are totally different from mine.  They’re not people with whom I compare myself.  I’m far more tempted to envy colleagues in my own denomination with churches that started at the same time as my own, but have grown twice the size.  (Now I don’t have a reason, because I’m in one of those growing churches!)

A salesman might envy the guy in the cubicle across the hall who’s on the rise, making more sales, and heading toward management.  A minor league ball player might be envious of one of his teammates who’s being eyed by the majors.  Parents might envy other parents with children who are better at school or sports.  We might envy our friend with the fancier car or house.  The possibilities are as endless as the different things that we all esteem.  The issue is that whenever we start to compare ourselves to someone who seems better off than we are, we court temptation to fall into envy.  Sometimes we may not even want what that other person has – we just resent their having it.  So when we are tempted to envy, we need to remember that no matter how seemingly small and acceptable it might seem to us, it’s listed with all the other really vile sins that St. Paul catalogues in both Romans 1:29 and Galatians 5:21.

Closely related to envy is jealousy.  They’re so similar that we often confuse them.  The subtle difference is that jealousy is usually defined as intolerance of rivalry.  Instead of just wanting what someone else has, we actually want them to stop having it.  Now there are some cases where jealousy is good.  If someone is trying to win your husband or wife away from you, jealousy is a good thing.  God himself declares that he is jealous and that he will not tolerate the worship of anything but himself.  Sinful jealousy is what happens when we’re afraid that someone might become our equal or our superior.

One of the best examples of jealousy in Scripture is the story of Saul and David.  After David killed Goliath, the women of Israel sang, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7).  Saul got really angry.  Here he was, God’s anointed – he thought he was a big shot just because God had chosen him.  But then along came David.  God anointed him too and suddenly he was getting more honour than Saul, and from that time on, Saul saw David as his rival and became jealous – even to the point of trying to murder David.

It’s easy for us to become jealous if God has blessed us in some aspect of life or ministry and then someone new comes along who does it all better than we do.  Think of a car salesman who’s been top in his company for years.  Suddenly a new guy is hired and quickly outdoes the first and starts receiving all the recognition that the other guy used to receive.  The first salesman will probably be tempted to become very jealous.

So how do we deal with the temptation to become envious or jealous?  The first thing we need to do is remember the sovereignty of God.  We need to recognise that God is sovereign over our talents, our abilities, and our spiritual gifts.  If we’re going to successfully overcome temptation here, we have to bring God into the picture.  We have to remind ourselves that he determines not only what abilities we have, but also the degree to which he has given them to us.  It’s pretty obvious if you look around that some people are better selling things than others.  Some are better at pastoring than others.  Some are better working with their hands.  Some people are more mechanically inclined than others.  Not only that, but God has blessed us with a wide diversity of spiritual gifts.  We aren’t to be jealous that God gave one person a gift that he chose not to give to us or that he has given two of us the same gift, even when the other person has greater ability and aptitude with it.  And for that reason, just because an individual has a gift that you don’t, doesn’t mean that person is any closer to God than you are.  All these gifts come from God, who makes poor and makes rich, who brings low and exalts.  We have to recognise that to be envious or jealous of someone is either eliminating God from the picture or else accusing him of being unfair in his distribution of gifts and talents.

As we combat envy and jealousy, we also need to remember that all of us who are believers are “one body in Christ and individually members one of another,” or as the NIV translates it, “Each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5).  This is why St. Paul says, “Outdo one another in showing honour” (12:10).  Instead of being envious of those with some advantage over us, we really should be honouring and applauding them.  God has given them that gift precisely because it is needed in the Body – we are all one.

Third, we ought to remember that if we spend our emotional energy on envy and jealousy, we lose sight of what God might do uniquely in our lives.  God has given us all different gifts and abilities for a reason.  He has a place and an assignment for everyone – and his great desire is for us to step up to that job he’s got for us.  Even if some receive more earthly recognition, all are important in God’s ultimate plan.

Another potentially sinful attitude that’s related to envy and jealousy is competitiveness – the urge to always win or to always be on top in whatever your field of endeavour is.  We can all be like this and it starts early as we play tick-tack-toe or checkers with our brothers and sisters and get upset when we lose.  But it’s not just little kids.  I’ve seen grown men throw bigger tantrums when their team – or their son’s team – lost a ball game.  Competitiveness is basically an expression of selfishness.  It’s the urge to win at someone else’s expense.  It’s the opposite of loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Now that’s not to say that friendly rivalries are a bad thing and a certain amount of competition can push us to do our best.  The problem is that as a society, we’ve gone way beyond this.  You see, a competitive spirit is not a Christian virtue.  2 Timothy 2:15 stresses not competition, but that each of us ought to do our best at what we do.  St. Paul wrote to the Colossians that in our work, we ought to work heartily – we ought to do our best.  We just have to remember that our “best” isn’t the same as another’s “best.”  God has gifted each of us uniquely.  But because he has gifted us, we ought to be motivated to do our best by a desire to glorify God using what he has given us – not to win recognition for ourselves.  We may well get the recognition, but that should never be our motivation.

The salesman in my earlier example should concentrate on doing his best to sell his product in a way that honours God.  If his best makes him the top salesman, great.  He should not be proud of his ability, but grateful to God for giving it to him.  But if his best makes him number three or number four (or whatever), he can take comfort in knowing he did his best and can still give thanks to God.

Now envy, jealousy, and competitiveness all fall under the subject of rivalry.  Instead of seeing others as fellow members of the Body of Christ, we can slip into thinking that their rivals whom we need to beat and outperform.  But there’s a more subtle sin that also falls into this category.  This is the sin of seeking to control others to our advantage or to get what we want.

People come for counselling for all sorts of problems, but this underlies a lot of them, whether married people or friends.  If two people are in a relationship and have strong personalities, they can often butt heads with each other – especially if they’re married to each other.  One or the other always wants his or her own way and won’t back down, no matter what.  In most of our relationships, one person is usually more dominant than the other, and if the dominant person isn’t careful, he or she can control the relationship.  It happens with husbands and wives, but it happens just as often with kids on the playground.  One person wants his own way and he steamrolls over anyone who stands in that way.

This is the sort of sin that tears churches apart.  A church I attended for a short time while in university was torn apart when the long-time music director refused to bow to the demands of a new pastor, who was forced out the job.  The end result was a church split.  The campus ministry of which I was a part was virtually taken over during my final year by a woman graduate student who became angry when the group leadership refused to nominate her as president of the ministry.  She claimed God had called her to head the ministry, despite the fact that the group held to the biblical principle of male headship.  When she wasn’t elected she started trying to dominate every aspect of the group.

The controller tries to get his way using various methods.  One way is to completely dominate a relationship by sheer force of willpower so that the other person (or persons) always gives in and lets him have his way.  Another is to get angry when his decisions are questioned or his desires are not readily granted.  Frequently, I’ve seen, the controller-type person, when he doesn’t get his way, resorts to manipulation to get what he wants.  He might make people feel guilty or incompetent.  The controlling husband might say something like, “Why is dinner never on time?” when, in fact, dinner is almost always on time.  The manipulative wife might say, You are just like my father” (because her father wouldn’t always let her get her way).  In the instance of the music director who didn’t get his way, he resort to tearing down the new pastor by means of character assassination.

The controller wants his own way.  But in Ephesians 5:21, St. Paul tells us that we are supposed to submit to each other.  Biblically speaking, if there’s a conflict, it should be the opposite: “Let’s do what you want.”  “No, let’s do what you want.”  “No, really, let’s do what you want…”  Always wanting to be in control is a sign of selfishness.  The really hard thing in addressing this sin is that if we’re the controller, we’re almost always the last one to recognise it and see it in our life.

This is a place where we really need to power of the Holy Spirit in our lives to show us our blind spots.  The help of others who can see our sin when we can’t is also critical.  So I urge you, as I have before, to ask God for help here and ask the people around you to help you see your tendencies toward envy, jealousy, competitiveness, or being controlling of others.  Ask the people closest to you to be honest with you about it.  And remember that if you are this kind of person – especially if you’re a controller, others may be reluctant to tell you because of your history.  So you need to approach them with real humility.  Then instead of being defensive – or using it against them – when they are honest with you, wisely accept what they say and take ask God for help in overcoming these sins.  Remember that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).  Don’t put yourself in the position of being opposed by God.

Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, we confess to you that in our pride, we often desire to take the credit for our achievements ourselves, instead of acknowledging that you are responsible for who we are and the gifts we have.  We have no business taking the credit for ourselves and we have no business becoming jealous or envious when you choose to give to others what you have not given to us.  Give us grace, Father, that we may always be satisfied with the blessings you have seen fit to give us, and let us rejoice with others in the blessing that you give to them.  We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen