Tuesday, March 01, 2011

How to Overcome Envy -- expanded

I'm giving this talk Friday 04 March 2011 to a group that's just finished hearing a series on mission.

How to Overcome Envy

I understand from Jeff that you've been hearing lately about mission: the reason you're sent, the message you bring, and the mission you're to accomplish. Sounds like a great series.

My topic for this evening is about envy. Envy will slow you down: it will dilute the reason, compromise the message, and impede your mission.

What Is Envy?

Envy is pain at the good fortune of others. (Aristotle, Rhetoric)

Envy is like this: My friend wins a brand new Mercedes-Benz in a raffle — a raffle that I also entered. If that makes me unhappy, if that makes me less contented, that's envy.

What if my friend's kid gets into an elite university, or gets a 100% scholarship to an elite university, and I'm unhappy about that? Or if a colleague gets a promotion or an award? If I was happier before I heard about their good fortune, that's what makes it envy.

Why Do We Envy?

Let's look at an old example from Psalm 73, a psalm of Asaph:

Psalm 73:1-5

    Surely God is good to Israel,
        to those who are pure in heart.
    But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
        I had nearly lost my foothold.
    For I envied the arrogant
        when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
    They have no struggles;
        their bodies are healthy and strong.
    They are free from the burdens common to man;
        they are not plagued by human ills. 

Psalm 73:12-14

    This is what the wicked are like—
        always carefree, they increase in wealth.
    Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
        in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
    All day long I have been plagued;
        I have been punished every morning.
(Psalm 73:1-5,12-14)

The psalmist sees others with good things he doesn't have. He sees his own problems and thinks others don't have them.

It's like that with us, too, and by the way the person you envy doesn't have to be arrogant or wicked. Here's an example, a guy I'll call "Nick." Nick wrote a novel. His agent called one day, "The publisher wants to offer you a million dollar advance." Nick quit his day job and wrote one best-seller after another. Nick is a real person, by the way; I think he's a Christian. I'll tell you more about him later.

So I compare myself with somebody who has more than I do, and I feel envious. What would happen if I compare myself with somebody who has less? I might thank God for blessing me with abundance. I might be more contented. I might become more generous. I might wait a little longer before buying my next expensive toy.

What's Wrong With Envy?

I'm an engineer, so here's an engineering answer: envy doesn't take all the facts into account. Asaph knew this too:

Psalm 73:16-18

    When I tried to understand all this,
        it was oppressive to me
    till I entered the sanctuary of God;
        then I understood their final destiny.
    Surely you place them on slippery ground;
        you cast them down to ruin.
(Psalm 73:16-18)
In other words, in the case of the arrogant and wicked who seem to have no troubles—at least for now—their end won't be all that good. I'm not saying to rejoice when calamity hits them; I'm just saying that their situation isn't as good as it looks.

Even if someone isn't blatantly evil, arrogant or wicked, we don't usually know much about their problems. I mentioned "Nick" — that's Nicholas Sparks, who wrote The Notebook. Have you read it, or seen the movie? He's written a bunch of best-sellers, and they're pretty good reads. He also wrote Three Weeks with my Brother, where I learned about...

his marriage in 1989; the loss of Nick and Micah's mother two months later after a horseback riding accident; the death of Nick's first baby and the physical problems of his second son; the death of their father in a car accident; and the passing of their younger sister from a brain tumor.
(from Publishers Weekly Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.)

Whoa, Nick was about 25 when his mother died; the rest of that stuff happened before he was 40. I'm a lot older than that, but I still have both my parents; my sisters are still alive, my children are both healthy and following the Lord. I would not trade places with him.

Psalm 73:21-22

    When my heart was grieved
        and my spirit embittered,
    I was senseless and ignorant;
        I was a brute beast before you.
(Psalm 73:21-22)
Senseless and ignorant that's not a good way to be. Or like a beast.

Here's the thing: it's hard to follow God when I'm coveting or envious and embittered. In other words, like other sins, envy makes us stupid.

Envy is the enemy of just about any good thing I can think of. It even goes against the Ten Commandments.

What To Do About Envy?

I'm indebted to Kathy Collard Miller for most of these steps.

Remember that God is in control.

Charles Swindoll wrote,
Sovereignty means our all-wise, all-knowing God reigns in realms beyond our comprehension to bring about a plan beyond our ability to alter, hinder, or stop.
(also quoted on p.103 of Becoming Myself; Becoming His: Living the Life God Designed for You, by Kay Watson — per Google Books)
When I recognize that God is at work, that he's in full control, and that he will accomplish his plan concerning me (Psalm 138:8 NASB), envy will lose some of its steam. He's got good plans for me.

Here are some more verses; you probably know them. Daniel 4: "All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth." There are a lot more — Isaiah 14:24 says "As I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will stand." Isaiah 40 talks about how all the nations are regarded as nothing. Psalm 75 says that he brings one down and lifts up another. He is the one who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will — from Ephesians 1. And so on.

Decide to Bless

Kathy suggested a prayer along these lines: “Lord, bless them. Give them many more opportunities. Expand their ministry.” This is a way of applying 2 Corinthians 10:5 — one method we can use to "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (NASB).

Since Jesus told us to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), how much more should we bless those who didn't hurt us in the first place?

I would like to suggest that we ask God even before we face the situation, to make us the kind of people who can bless rather than get mad.

Remember that we each have a role

The Apostle Paul talked quite about this in 1 Corinthians 12; here's verse 17 from the NIV: "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?" There is no "appendix" in the body of Christ!

In particular, you have a role, and your role is essential.

Grow in Grace

On my blog I write, "do the above for 20-30 years and repeat as needed", which also applies here. I've put in the handout some helpful commands from the Scriptures...
If I'm practicing these, it's hard to be envious:
  • Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5)
  • Rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4)
  • Let your mind dwell on: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely... (Philippians 4)
  • Remain in Christ, and let his word remain in you (John 15)
  • Love one another as he has loved us (John 13)
  • Bless your enemies, and your peers and friends (Matthew 5)
  • Humble yourself under God's mighty hand, and he will exalt you at the proper time (1 Peter 5)

Really important: There is no condemnation

Romans 8:1-4


  • Remember God's in control
  • Be determined to bless your rivals
  • Remember that your role is essential
  • Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
        When you fall, remember there is no condemnation!
My prayer for you is: that you may grow in the knowledge of God's will through all spiritual wisdom and insight... (Col. 1:9-12)

Addendum: How it Went

I had 40 minutes to deliver plus Q&A. Last year I talked way too long, but this time I was done in about 25 minutes. Afterward someone stood up at the mike and said, "We're definitely gonna invite you more often."

During the question/answer section, someone observed that "victory" in this area comes and goes. I replied that there is no magic formula, but we practice the disciplines, we grow in grace, we do it for 20-30 years and repeat as needed.

Another question was: How do you respond if somebody is envious of you? Maybe you don't think you're in such an enviable position, but suddenly a harsh remark comes out from someone who thinks they know you well? What came to mind was the idea that we often feel that we have to act like we've "got it all together" and don't have any problems. If someone shares with me that they're feeling envious, it may be time for me to be a little more transparent, tell them about my struggles, ask them to pray for me.

Now that I think of it, someone remarked how our kids got along so well together. "It wasn't always this way," I replied. "There was a while when we couldn't turn our backs or one of them would be biting the other. We prayed a lot in those days." Which reminds me of this verse from 1 John 1:

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin.

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