In his book King’s Cross, Dr. Timothy Keller recounts a conversation he had with a girl at his church who had gotten last place in a school pageant, while her friend had won. “Are you trying to tell me,” she asked him, “that the Bible says I should be as happy for her as I would have been myself if I had won?”
Keller said yes. The girl’s answer: “Christianity is ridiculous. Who lives like that?”
Many of us, like this girl, have an instinctual distaste for other people’s good news. Christians are called to rejoice over the blessings of others, but when something we picture happening for us—getting the career job, meeting our future spouse, earning the grade that will justify all our work—happens instead for somebody else, our mind darts automatically to what we lack in comparison. We feel a sour twinge of envy that taints whatever happy mask we put on when we give our congratulations.
The Bible has a reason for condemning envy alongside murder (Romans 1:29; Galatians 5:21). Envy is a “rottenness to the bones” that siphons all the contentment from a person’s life (Proverbs 14:30 NKJV). Whether we feel jealousy toward an enemy (Proverbs 3:31) or a dear friend, it is a response that we must battle in ourselves with the strength of God.
When Pilate was considering what to do with Jesus, he realized the motive of the Pharisees who sought Christ’s execution: they had handed him over to death because of envy (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10). That’s because envy is a form of hatred against oneself and others. When the temple leaders encountered Jesus’s purity and the love that the common people had for him, they saw him only as a comment on their own shortcomings, a reflection of their own inferior piety and sinfulness. Their loathing for themselves transformed into hatred for the one who had come to give his life for them (Mark 10:45). Envy is hatred directed inward and released outward.
Jesus told the Bible’s most famous story of forgiveness with the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, but we often forget that the story’s second half is about envy. The prodigal son’s righteous brother, jealous of the celebrations over his sibling’s return, storms away. His father appeals to him that “‘you are always with me, and all that I have is yours,” but “[i]t was right that we should make merry and be glad” for the younger son’s return (v. 31-32). The older brother is blind to this because envy is fundamentally selfish and self-centered. One of the real tragedies of an envious heart is that it precludes us from experiencing any real joy and gratitude for our friends and family—joy for their own sake in their own right, not for how their fortune causes us to feel about ourselves. A personality distorted with envy lives bitterly in the dark: “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16).
Envy, worst of all, is an offense to God. It is a belief that we know better than God what should be happening in our lives right now. It dishonors God’s wisdom, his understanding of what we can manage, what we can receive, and what we are ready for.
But God, with that same understanding, has made Jesus the solution to our own darkness.
All of us have turned away from God somehow (Romans 3:23). We are only able to stand before God because of his mercy and leniency toward our evil (Psalm 130:3). Jesus’s love in dying for us to provide this grace is beyond our knowing (Ephesians 3:19), and in Christ we can all claim an infinite share of that love. Since God doesn’t have favorites (Romans 2:12), no Christian can receive more of God’s love and friendship than another. If we make him our first and last possession, greater than any goal or desire we have for ourselves, God will be the death of our envy.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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