The sins of ministry: Envy

Ever since the time of Cain and Abel envy has been with us. To paraphrase the words of the Apostle Peter, ‘The green-eyed monster of jealousy constantly prowls around, looking for some Christian to devour’ (see 1 Pet 5.8). 

Envy may begin in wanting what other people have, but it always ends up with bad feeling against the person. As William Stafford put it:

Envy is resentment of the good another person enjoys, with hated of the other person for having it… Unlike avarice… envy does not simply seek to acquire that thing; it resents the other’s possession of it.

Harry Williams further clarifies the nature of this second deadly sin, when he wrote:

Envy like lust, is founded on my conviction that I lack something that the other person possesses… and what makes me bitter is my conjecture that the other person is more abundantly alive than I am.

Envy ultimately wants to destroy others. Envy, for instance, was the ultimate cause of Jesus’s downfall: Mark tells us that the chief priests handed over Jesus to Pilate “because they were jealous” (Mark 15.10). The chief priests could not stand his goodness – they envied the power that Jesus had to win other people’s hearts – and so they sought to have him put to death. It is a fearful though that the worst case of envy this world has even known involved religious people, people who thought they were going God’s way. It is amazing how self-deceived religious people can be!

Sadly envy is a cardinal ministerial sin, along with its bed-fellows of rivalry, jealousy, ill will and what G.W. Byrt once called “the-spirit-that delights-in-the downfall-of-others”. Ministers seem to delight in making comparisons with other ministers. They delight in listening to gossip about other ministers and then passing it on. It is sad how ministers, who for the most part are good at keeping confidences entrusted to them by their flock, lack all discipline in keeping confidences about fellow ministers. Such gossip is for the most part ill-natured. It is part of the “cutting-down-the-tall-poppies” syndrome. It is rooted in envy and jealousy.

A wonderful illustration of ministerial envy is found in the story of how:

… the devil was once crossing the Libyan desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of small fiends were tormenting a holy hermit. The sainted man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched their failure, and then he stepped forward to give them a lesson. ‘What you do is too crude’, he said. ‘Permit me for one moment’. With that he whispered to the holy man, ‘Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria’. A scowl of malignant jealousy at once clouded the serene face of the hermit. ‘That’, said the devil to his imps, ‘is the sort of thing which I should recommend’.

How can we deal with envy? The encounter of the Risen Lord Jesus with Peter by the Sea of Galilee (John 21) suggests the following ways:

First of all we need to focus on God’s love for us: Peter had failed Jesus, but nonetheless Jesus was willing to give Peter another chance – because he loved him. What was true of Peter is true of us. If only people realised the enormity of God’s love for them, then so much envy would simply disappear. For by comparison with the undeserved love and grace of God everything else that this world has to offer are but trifles.

Secondly, we need to focus on Jesus and not on others. For when Peter said to him, “Lord, what about him?”, Jesus declared: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me” (John 21.21-22). Our business is to follow Jesus, and not to be concerned with anybody else. One of the temptations of ministry is to be forever comparing oneself with others, and in the process become envious of others and of the way in which God appears to be blessing them. Jesus, however, calls us to forget self, carry our cross, and follow him.

Thirdly, we need to accept that God has a distinctive plan for each of our lives. Diversity is a mark of God’s creation – it is also a mark of his new creation. Peter died a martyr’s death in Rome for his Lord in AD 61; John appears to have lived to a great old age and eventually died in his sleep – although both followed Jesus, both ended up living very different lives. The fact is that there is no one pattern for our lives. God deals with us on an individual basis and calls each of us to live out our particularly calling. There is no point in comparing ourselves with one another. Instead of casting envious eyes at others, we need to follow Jesus and fulfil his purpose for our lives.

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