Picture your bathroom. Now picture your toilet. Now, you know that space behind the toilet, the disgusting place where nobody goes? The place that, if you should happen to drop your toothbrush, it means that you’ll just have to buy a new one? Okay, that place is like your heart. Or at least the sinful parts of your heart. All kinds of junk lives back there: lying, back-biting, lust, pride, bitterness, anxiety, envy.
Sanctification is our effort by God’s grace to clean behind the toilet, to remove the muck and the mire that still inhabit the dark recesses of our hearts. But sanctification can go wrong in all kinds of ways. Legalism is attempting to clean behind the toilet without any disinfectant; all you do is rearrange the gunk, smearing it all over tarnation. Licentiousness is embracing the gunk, going back there looking for a snack. (I realize that image is disgusting, but that's what sin is: disgusting).
But we don’t want legalism or licentiousness. We want gospel-driven sanctification. We want to take the disinfectant of the gospel and use it to make the-place-behind-the-toilet sparkle. But even gospel-driven sanctification can misfire. Instead of actually applying the gospel to the sin in our hearts, we just wave the disinfectant at the gunk, acting as though the mere presence of the gospel will have some magic effect. We can’t just wield the gospel like a mantra that is supposed to spontaneously transform the filth into fullness and fruit.
What’s needed instead is for us to roll up our sleeves and move into the corner behind the toilet, armed with the grace of God and a heavy-duty scrub brush. Practically speaking, this means both growing in our awareness of the gospel in all of its manifold glories as well as deepening in our knowledge of our own hearts — our temptations, our weaknesses, our particular brokenness, and our besetting sins. As we grow in both types of knowledge, we pray that the Holy Spirit makes the link and applies the right dimension of the gospel to the right manifestation of sin. This kind of dynamic, Spirit-empowered, grace-saturated effort is what John Piper calls “acting the miracle.”
Which brings me back to envy. If we’re to scrub envy with the steel wool of Scriptural promises and gospel truth, if we’re to assault the strongholds of covetous comparison with the sword of the Spirit, then we need to know the enemy and its schemes, plots, and plans. And the first thing we should note is that envy, like all sins, hunts in a pack.
In Galatians 5, Paul provides us with a list of works of the flesh that are evident and obvious. Most of the sins in the list can be grouped under two headings: sexual immorality and the wolf-pack of envy: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy. Romans 1:28–31 contains a similar list including the associates of envy like covetousness, malice, murder, strife, deceit, and maliciousness.
For me, lists like this are only helpful when I have some idea of what distinguishes the various sins from each other, when I know what it is that I’m up against when the desires of the flesh wage war against the Spirit. So here’s my attempt to differentiate envy and its vicious band of wolves.
Naming the Pack
Envy is a feeling of unhappiness at the blessing and fortune of others. In the words of one author, it is the painful and often resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else.
We often lump envy and jealousy together, but there is an important distinction. Jealousy is oriented toward what we possess; envy is oriented toward the possessions of others. We are jealous for what we have (which is why jealousy is not always a sin); we are envious of what others have.
Covetousness is an overweening desire for that which is not yours. Covetousness wants what the other guy has; envy is angry that the other guy has it.
Rivalry is competition that is rooted in a proud and envious assessment of your own abilities and the abilities of others.
Resentment is a simmering bitterness at some perceived injustice. The “injustice” may be as simple and twisted as a friend receiving an opportunity that you didn’t.
Malice is the suppressed hatred that plots and takes pleasure in the downfall of another. When you envy another, malice dreams and envisions their ruin and then gives a satisfied chuckle if the ruin comes to pass.
The common features in these sins are 1) a distorted and corrupted desire; 2) a perverse comparison of oneself with others; 3) an ungodly preoccupation with the advantages of others; and 4) a smoldering anger at the blessings of others.
These sins always leave the same carnage in their wake: mistrust, conflict, divisions, dissensions, and strife. Envy inevitably tears people apart. It is corrosive to genuine fellowship and camaraderie. It makes friendship and unity impossible. It undermines all of the glorious “one-anothering” that the gospel calls us to: love one another, encourage one another, accept one another, honor one another, serve one another, be kind to one another, bear with one another, and so on. The wolf-pack of envy is the death of gospel-shaped community.
Defined by God’s Grace
So if this is the pack that hunts in the filthy places of our hearts, what does the disinfectant of the gospel actually do? When we encounter envy, covetousness, rivalry, resentment, malice, and strife in our hearts, what dimensions of the gospel should we bring to bear? How should we then scrub?
Many things might be said. For now, I’ll just point to one of the most fundamental. In 1 Corinthians 15, after recounting those gospel truths that are “of first importance,” Paul tells us something absolutely essential to living a full, big-hearted, sin-killing life of discipleship: “By the grace of God I am what I am.” Grace is what defines us. Grace is what forms and fill us. Grace is what makes us who and what we are.
God’s glad-hearted approval of us in Christ is what frees us from being defined by the blessings and opportunities of others. God’s warm-hearted embrace of us in his Son delivers us from petty enslavement to the gifts and abilities of our friends and family. The soul-enlarging grace of God enables us to say:
I do not need to grasp for the talents and gifts of others. I do not need to covet my neighbor’s spouse, house, family, ministry, or opportunities. I am not defined by the abilities of others; I am defined by the grace of God. Therefore, I will refuse to measure myself by a false standard. I will resist the compulsive and relentless urge to compete with everyone under the sun (especially those who are called to do the same things that I am). I will put to death malicious dreams about the downfall and failure of others by savoring the sure knowledge that God is lavish in grace and that he has promised to graciously, freely, and abundantly give to me and them all things in his Beloved Son.
So today, soak in God’s grace, kill the wolf-pack of envy, and don’t forget to scrub behind the toilet.
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