And behold, I saw a white horse. Its rider’s name was Success, and Envy followed him.
Envy is a movement killer. And if you ask me, it is probably the fundamental danger facing the modest movement called Young, Restless Reformed (YRR) in the years ahead. Envy is a movement-killing sin precisely because it combines such deadly opposites. Envy is a gaping maw, a roaring lion seeking to devour, the relentless ache of the shriveled heart. At the same time, envy is a chameleon, masquerading as the smooth flattery of imitation one minute and righteous indignation at injustice the next.
God Multiplies a Movement
If you listen to the Old, Settled Reformed talk, they’ll tell you that 30 years ago, there was no Reformed “movement” to speak of. Sure, there were Reformed churches that preached the whole counsel of the sovereign God who saves helpless sinners with unfathomable grace. But there was no larger “movement” of God-centered theology and worship and preaching.
I’m told that in the late 1980s, there were only a handful of Reformed conferences nationwide. Now you can forego church altogether and just attend Reformed conferences year round (I exaggerate, but only a little). Now there are multiple organizations dedicated to planting biblically-rooted, Christ-exalting, sovereign-grace-proclaiming churches in America and around the world.
Under God, the faithfulness of men like Packer, Piper, and Sproul, as well as catalytic conferences like Passion, has born much fruit. Now there are thousands of God-centered pastors around the country, pastors who share a God-entranced and gospel-shaped vision of life and ministry. There are hundreds of Christ-exalting professors scattered in colleges and seminaries nationwide. And there are thousands more in churches and colleges and seminaries eagerly preparing for whatever God has planned for them. And thanks to blogging, tweeting, affiliated networks, the proliferation of solid publishing houses, and the rabbit-like multiplication of Reformed conferences, we can all know each other’s names.
The Danger of Success
Which is why envy is such a danger for the YRR. When thousands of God-besotted men reflect on the same Scriptures from a similar theological viewpoint, we’re likely to reach similar theological and pastoral conclusions. Which means the questions easily become: Who will preach that message first? Who will preach that message best? Who will write that book or blog first? Who will write that book or blog best? Who will plant the gospel-centered church in that city first? Of the gospel-centered churches in that city, whose is biggest? Whose is growing fastest?
Success breeds envy like nothing else does, and along with it rivalry, competition, covetousness, territorialism, and resentment. When there was a famine of Reformed teaching in the land, the rise of new Reformed voices was a welcome sight, an oasis in a parched land. But as God prospers us, and makes streams multiply in the desert, eventually the streams can start to give each other the sidelong glance. Instead of being filled with gratitude to God for his kindness, we become so many Sauls, stewing resentfully as we hear the crowds singing, “Saul has tweeted to thousands, but David to ten thousands.”
Envy is a movement-killer because it makes koinonia impossible. It operates close to home, assaulting our nearest relationships. I’d venture to guess that few men my age envy the opportunities John Piper has to preach at conferences. Instead we begrudge the gifts, talents, success, blessings, and opportunities of that pastor across town or that professor down the hall. At the college and seminary level, envy rears its head when someone else makes better grades, has more friends, is more likeable, is given more/better ministry opportunities, is better looking, more educated, more gifted, more popular, more intelligent, more esteemed, or more successful.
Lessons in Envy-Killing from the Baptist
Thankfully, the Bible is fully aware of platform envy and addresses it head on. In the Gospel of John, the disciples of John the Baptist come to him with words that seem tailor-made to provoke envy and resentment. “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness — look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26). John’s response is worth its weight in envy-fighting gold.
First, he remembers where all blessing, success, and opportunity come from. “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” I still remember, as a college student, hearing J.R. Vassar preach from this passage and say, “Don’t seek an achieved ministry. Seek a received ministry.” We kill envy when we remember that whether we succeed or whether someone else does is ultimately given from the God who reigns from heaven. And how dare we assault his wisdom by murmuring about the opportunities and success of others.
Second, John remembers his role. He is the friend of the Bridegroom, the groomsman, not the Bridegroom himself. And the groomsmen rejoice greatly when they hear the voice of the Groom. Now most of us aren’t jockeying to replace the Bridegroom. But we sometimes act like we’re in a competition to be the best man. Which is why it’s so important to labor to rejoice greatly when we hear the Bridegroom’s voice in the voices of our fellow groomsmen. What are we saying about our joy in Christ if our reaction to his presence and hand on a fellow brother is to grumble, complain, or dismiss him?
Finally, John’s joy is complete when the Bridegroom arrives and surpasses him. Where Christ increases, John is content to decrease. But are we? Are we content to decrease, when Christ increases through the ministry of another? Do we even acknowledge that Christ is increasing in the ministry of others? Or do we attribute their success to some other factor: their ambition, their compromises, and in our worst moments, to the efforts of the devil?
This will be the test for us among the Young, Restless Reformed. So I invite you to take the test with me. The next time someone else is given an opportunity or a blessing that you wish was yours, how do you react? Do you murmur about it, or do you celebrate with them? Are you filled with gratitude, or carping rivalry? When it comes to the ministries of others, are you their biggest fan or their biggest critic? Are you consumed with envy, or is your joy made complete as you see the Bridegroom increase in the success of someone other than you?
May we not be consumed with envy or enslaved to the success of others, but instead may our joy be made complete when we hear the Bridegroom’s voice and see the Bridegroom increase in the gifts and talents and opportunities of our fellow groomsmen.