The Gospel According to Envy

How Jealousy Corrupts Ministry

I have one friend on the mission field in impoverished Mongolia. Every time she enters a home, the hosts are eager and polite. They bend over backward to show her honor and listen carefully to what she has to say. She often finds them ready to accept the gospel message, perhaps too ready — it takes time to know whether they’ve really understood and embraced Christ or were simply being polite to important guests.

I have another friend who has ministered in Paris for many years in a small evangelical church. The tents, eager faces, and humble hospitality of a sparsely populated region contrast sharply with the upscale apartments, bored faces on the subway, and chic displays of urban sophistication.

When each friend describes her experience, it’s exactly what I would expect. It’s often easier to minister to people in the likes of Mongolia, who tend to think of you as their social superior. But how do you minister to those who are looking down long noses at you in places such as Paris?

Resolved — and in Bondage

When I was a teenager, I remember settling a firm resolve in myself, just in case God called me to the mission field: I would be happy to work in a remote village in Africa, an overflowing orphanage in India, or a backwoods town in the States. But I never would work among people who were rich, good-looking, and sophisticated. In other words, I’m happy to reach “downward” with the gospel but, Lord, don’t ever make me reach “upward.” Don’t make me share the gospel with people who make me uncomfortable with their external blessings.

I didn’t realize this as a teen, but my resolution about where God was allowed to call me revealed a heavy yoke around my soul, one that I would later identify and name: I was in bondage to envy.

In my twenties, the Lord did a lot of surgery on me to extricate envy from my closest relationships with sisters and friends. But it wasn’t until recently, when I began comparing the callings of my two missionary friends, each spreading gospel hope in two very different contexts, that I realized I had never thought seriously about the way envy might be hamstringing ministry in my life.

If an envious disposition once made me shy away from the idea of big-city missions, does an envious disposition ever affect the way I do ministry now, as an ordinary church member in small-town America?

Sin of the Inferior

Envy exists because inequality exists. We live in a world made by a glorious Father who has sprinkled his glory all over creation and imbued human souls with a special portion of this glory. Because of sin, the people he has made are cracked mirrors, walking around in T-shirts and jeans, but we are still made in his image and so possess trace amounts of his glory.

C.S. Lewis observed that “the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which — if you saw it now — you would be strongly tempted to worship” (The Weight of Glory, 45). This has been my exact experience of life among humans. I bump into glory all the time. I meet another woman who is beautiful or charming or intelligent or wealthy or well-connected — and I simply have to respond. Glory demands response, even the fleeting human glories that are only faint reminders of our origin.

I may respond with admiration, the impulse to get close and warm my hands on the glory, or with covetousness, resentment, and even hatred. The latter response is called envy. Envy is seething discontent over glories that God gives to other people. It is offense over inequality, a burning awareness that someone nearby is your superior in some area of life that you particularly value.

It usually strikes among peers. Sisters. Coworkers. Two girls at the top of their class. Two men in the same field of expertise. If envy is given free rein in our hearts, it can lead to broken relationships with those most intimate to us, as well as to further sins, ranging from gossip to murder (Matthew 27:18; Genesis 4:1–16).

But the envious heart could change the shape of your life’s story in another, subtler way. It could affect where you choose to minister, whom you choose to befriend, and how powerful you believe the gospel to be. Indeed, it could hamstring your effectiveness in telling people of Christ.

Reach Up, Not Just Down

What if we become so nearsighted that the borrowed glories of man obscure our vision and appetite for the original source of glory? There is a reason why so many of the New Testament Epistles contain warnings for the early church about covetous cravings for material glories.

“You desire and do not have, so you murder,” says James. “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2–3). And Paul asks, “While there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:3).

The implication of these warnings is that, obviously, it is only human to get all coiled up over the glories we see with our eyes. Our appetites for glory are strong. But to mistake our ingrown need for God himself with the powerful craving to see glory distributed equally to ourselves and our neighbor — this is to live according to the flesh. It thwarts our ability to walk by the Spirit and obstructs the power of the gospel.

How can we love our neighbors when we’re too busy looking at their houses? How can we tell our friends that Christ is a spring of water welling up to eternal life when we’re salivating over their Instagram profiles, replete with perfectly matched children’s outfits and marriages to capable men? How can we climb over fences to tell people the good news when those fences are erected not by poverty, but riches?

How heartbreaking when our love is big enough to offer hope to those who have less than we do, yet we have no love for those with more. Is the gospel too small for these people? Is it so small in our eyes that the size of our neighbor’s paycheck is enough to obscure it?

Even Among Siblings

What about inside the church? Is inequality interfering with our ability to love and speak truth to one another inside our communities? Remember James’s warning: “If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing . . . have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:2–4).

But for someone with an envious heart like mine, sometimes the opposite impulse is at play. I would prefer to put distance between myself and the person who is richer than me, in whatever exterior glory, than to creep close to them for leftovers. Either of these forms of materialism — preferring the rich because you hope to benefit from proximity, or preferring the poor because inequality makes you uncomfortable — demonstrates a painful blindness to the kingdom of God.

Instead, we are to see rich and poor alike as human souls in need of refreshment and exhortation. The longer we live in this world, the clearer we see God’s work through the giving and taking of material blessings. His plans demonstrate to us, over and over, that he provides our every need and intends nothing short of freedom from sin. His sovereign caretaking teaches us, with Paul, how to be brought low and how to abound, how to face plenty and how to face hunger — thanking and praising him all the same (Philippians 4:12).

In other words, we need to get comfortable with the idea that God works according to his pleasure, to give and to take at will, and always for his glory and for our good. He calls us not only to weep with those who weep, but to rejoice with those who rejoice. God is Lord of us all.

Eyes on the Glory

There’s only one way to learn to face plenty and hunger, abundance and need alike with serenity, joy, and self-forgetful love. We feast our eyes and our appetites on glory himself. In Christ, we are no longer cut off from the source of glory. We no longer have to unsettle ourselves over the derivative glories possessed by the little kings and queens he has made. Their glories are only ever whispers, made to draw our eyes to the thunderous noise of God’s pleasure in his own glory.

With our bellies full of his mercy and grace to us, with our eyes enamored by the beauty and splendor of Christ’s humility and might, we no longer have to stay hungry for our neighbor’s house or enamored with our neighbor’s husband. Inequalities are not flattened in the presence of God, but they trouble and distract us less and less. In him, we are all wealthy beyond our wildest imaginations. In his presence, the most intimidating individual we’ve ever tried to love becomes creaturely and dependent. Our envious hearts, once they are satiated on this God, are free to reach upward with the gospel, and not just downward.