‘We aim at God’s glory when we are content to be outshined by others in gifts and esteem’ (Thomas Watson).
Envy is a weed that readily grows in my heart. If I go on social media, my first look is a casual scroll through pictures and memes shared by friends. But if my eyes alight for more than a second or two, it is usually because I’ve spotted some point of comparison. Like a tilted bottle of water, I feel my emotion shift from a settled disposition of contentment to a sullen mood of disappointment. A sadness ebbs into my heart. It’s a sadness so ugly and shameful that I’m embarrassed to admit the truth in public. Deep down I feel a self-pity that someone else has experienced a dollop of blessing instead of me. Rather than rejoicing in the happiness of a friend, the beauty of her life triggers a bitter taste of disappointment.
My guess is that I’m not alone in needing to combat the sinful passion of envy. Many others will be familiar with the resentful sensation that a neighbour’s slice of cake is bigger and better than ‘mine’. The question I want to raise is this: What should we do when envy spring up like a thorn in the heart? What steps can we follow to keep unequal scales from spoiling our contentment and joy?
The place to begin is to drill down into the core of the Christian heart. Deep down, regardless of how we feel in a passing moment, the bedrock of the heart of a Christian is a passion for the glory of Christ. We long for Jesus to be made preeminent in everything. On the one hand, the more he is exalted, the less room there is for sin, for suffering, and for death. On the other, anything that detracts or distracts from the glory of Christ is an obstacle to human happiness which needs to be demolished and removed. We need to keep this subterranean love in mind as we grapple with our more superficial passions.
As mentioned already, envy is the recoil of comparing ourselves with others. We see something beautiful in the life of another person and lament because the good belongs to them, not us. Now, when it comes to identifying a good in someone else’s life, we should always ask an initial question: Does the good that I perceive do anything to amplify the glory of Jesus? Often the answer will be ‘no’. In many cases, envy is built on a covetous desire for something that has little or no spiritual value – or perhaps even negative value. For example, a new car does not amount to much in the kingdom of God. For me to envy my neighbour because he has a nicer car than me is to forget the whole economy of grace. Often the best response to such envy is an honest admission before God that we have idolised the sticks and stones of this world above the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Yet, there are other times when we envy people for spiritual gifts that they have or for the special manner in which God uses them to extend His kingdom in this world. At such times, we might envy the evangelistic fervor of someone, their tenacious prayer life, their winsome and cheerful character, or their intimate communion with Christ. What should we do in those moments when we are not coveting an object without spiritual value, but rather one that is a sign and blessing of God’s grace at work in this world?
This is where we need to be reminded of our deep passion to see Christ exalted. The truth is that the beauty we see in the lives of other believers – this is not their own doing, but rather the work of Christ in and through them. What we are observing is not the magic of ‘John’ or ‘Mary’ or ‘Ian’, but the glory of Jesus shimmering off the character of his people. Once we acknowledge this, we need to ask yet another question: If we truly love Christ, how can we be sad if more of Jesus is being put on display to the world? Such an attitude is a betrayal of our deepest love and most abiding hope.
One of the old emblems used to depict the life of individual Christians is that of a mirror. It is useful because it reminds us of two things. One is that all light is derived from Jesus. A mirror has no capacity to shine in and of itself. It is only through reflection that it radiates light or beauty. The second is that the glory of Christ is non-competitive. Mirrors do not compete with each other for limited light. In a room full of mirrors, if one mirror catches the sun, this increases the likelihood that another mirror will reflect the same light. We should keep this image in mind as we observe the beauty of Christ in the lives of other Christians. To see Christ mirrored in the life of a friend does not leave me with less light to enjoy. The opposite is the case. The more I see of Jesus in you – and rejoice in the vision – the more capacity I have to reflect Jesus to someone else.