Series: Love Is
After the starting with what love is, Paul now moves to what it is not. Love does not envy.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek New Testament Commentary), Anthony Thistleton
1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), David Garland
Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken
I’m taking a little break from social media right now, but it’s not because social media doesn’t have positive uses. I’m reminded of a time when a friend of mine with whom I hadn’t spoken in years posted one of the “memory” photos Facebook showed him of the two of us, along with a few really kind words about me and Citylight Center City. He used his social media account to highlight me. I have a somewhat opposite problem. I often scroll through Facebook, see the highlights of other peoples’ lives, and instead of rejoicing in that like my friend did, I get a little knot in my stomach. Much to my shame, I admit the happiness of others sometimes makes me sad. In that particular snapshot, which one of us, my friend or I, is better demonstrating love? According to 1 Corinthians 13, the passage of the Bible all about love, on which we’re spending some time focusing on Sundays, the answer is clear: What I was feeling did not spring from love, because love does not envy. To understand what something is, we must also understand what it is not, and that’s what Paul begins showing us with this statement that love does not envy, and that’s what we’ll focus on now: The problem of envy, and the solution to envy.
The problem of envy
Envy has been defined as a spirit of opposition to others’ comparative happiness. It is not merely wanting what someone else has: You can see a friend’s sneakers for example and think, “Wow, those are cool. I’d like to buy a pair of those,” and there be no lack of love involved in that. Envy is when you start to think things like, “Man, how come he gets to have those and I don’t?” It’s when what someone else has that you don’t actually bothers you. Envy resents what someone else has if you don’t have it, or if you have less of it. Rapper KB put it like this on a song called Envy: “Simply you having more than me just offends me.” That’s envy.
Envy can apply itself to anything your neighbor has. The obvious example I already shared is some possession. How often have we gone to someone’s house that is nicer than our own and our heart sinks a bit, upset they have it and we don’t? We may envy the honor or status of another, as when we hear someone praised. We may envy the life circumstances of another, as when we want to be married and grieve the news of another friend getting engaged, or when we want to have kids and grieve the news of another friend getting pregnant. We may envy the skills or talents of another, the happiness or ease of life we perceive another to have, the trips they’ve taken, and a host of other things.
Envy can show itself from the top too, so to speak. Let’s say you are the one with the bigger house and you begin to take pride in that fact, and you like that everyone comes over to your place for big events; you may grieve if someone else in your community buys a comparable house. If you get a promotion, you may grieve that someone else is also getting the promotion. If perhaps even in the church you exercise a certain gift, you may feel threatened by someone else with a similar or greater gift. Another KB line: “The fun in number 1 is the point that I’m up in front of 2.” So envy will tend to make us not only despise what others have, but it will make us want to preserve what we have, and keep others from sharing it.
While envy can come out in a number of ways, author Jerry Bridges points out that we tend to envy those with whom we most closely identify, and we tend to envy them in the areas we value most. So for example, let me tell you about two people I don’t envy much: Dr. Crawford Loritts and Steve Chaves. Dr. Loritts is the long-time pastor of a large church in Atlanta and a world-renowned Bible teacher. He is gifted and successful in an area I value much: pastoral ministry, but I don’t closely identify with him: He’s much older than I am, and clearly way ahead of me. I look up to him and seek to learn from him, but I don’t envy him. Steve Chaves is a member here at Citylight who many of you know, and Steve has a PhD in engineering and works as a robotics engineer. That’s cool, I’m happy for Steve, but I’m not a robotics engineer nor am I trying to be a robotics engineer, so while I identify closely with Steve (we’re good friends, we went to college together, we’re about the same age), I don’t envy him, because his success is in an area that’s not a high value for me. On the other hand, let me tell you about two people I do struggle with envying: Matt Cohen and Andy Resh, Citylight’s other congregational pastors. I identify closely with them, they serve in an area I highly value, and therefore it is to my shame I admit to you that there are times I hear about the success of their ministries and grieve it. And we’re even part of the same church!
Do you see how wicked envy is? If love means anything, love is clearly not that. Love rejoices in the good of the one it loves; envy grieves and opposes the comparative happiness of another. But deeper than that, love for God rests in God Himself, and therefore doesn’t need what God chooses to give to someone else. If I love God and I have Him, who cares if my neighbor has a bigger house? Love for God also trusts that if God has given something to your neighbor that He hasn’t given you, He must have a good purpose for it. When we envy another then, we either act as though God does not exist, or we imply that He’s messing up, and that is fundamentally unloving toward Him. It is a rejection of Him as ruler of the universe. It is the rejection Satan engaged in when he envied the godness of God, God’s rightful status as uppermost, and it is the way he tempted the first humans to turn from God, suggesting to them that God was holding out on them, working in them an envy of God’s status and the desire to be God themselves. And when the first humans acted on that and took the fruit that God had forbidden, the consequence was God’s just sentence of condemnation.
The results of envy can even be seen in this life. Listen to these words from James 3:15-17: “But if you have bitter [envy] and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where [envy] and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” So what comes from envy? Disorder and every vile practice. Here’s where envy goes: Pastors start cheering against other pastors in their own church, friends against friends, brothers against brothers, and so on. If it goes unchecked though, envy goes even further: It can lead to us talking badly about another or spreading lies to knock them down a peg. If we envy a possession, it can lead to theft. If we envy a person’s life circumstances, it can lead to anger toward that person and even murder. In the case of those on top, envy leads them to keep others down, to hoard their knowledge, social capital, money, and power for themselves, while ignoring the plight of the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. It tears a society apart: People who have power just want to grow and keep it, people who don’t just want to get it. In our interpersonal relationships, it leads to the bad kind of social distancing, where in our hearts we pull back a bit from the relationship and keep the people we envy at arm’s length, because we just don’t want to have to be reminded again and again of what they have and we don’t. You see why James says where envy exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice?
Not only will envy ruin a society, a church, and our relationships…envy will ruin you. It will shrink and contract your joy so that the only times you can really be happy are when you are happier than someone else, when you are uppermost, alone at the top of the hill, and guess what? That day is never coming. Envy is the disposition of hell, and it is just as miserable. Take an honest look at your life: How much of it has been spent in envying others? How many days have gone by with envy burning in your heart toward others? How much time and energy have you wasted envying someone else’s life, all the while missing what God might uniquely want to do in your life? Envy will steal your joy, lead to every vile practice, tear communities apart, hate your neighbor, hate God, and incur God’s judgment. We are now under that judgment, and as long as we remain under God’s judgment, we kinda can’t stop ourselves. You can restrain some of the vile practices to which envy leads: You can stop yourself from stealing, murdering, perhaps even from speaking poorly of others, but how can you actually stop envying? As long as you are cut off from the love of God, you can’t. So let’s talk about the solution to envy.
The solution to envy
Since we can’t solve our own envy, God has gone about solving it. God is love, which means He is the opposite of envy. Remember we said envy was an opposition to the comparative happiness of another, but God opposes the comparative unhappiness or misery of another. So when God saw us in the misery of our envy, what did He do? He opposed it. He said, “Even though these people have rejected me and plunged themselves into misery as a result, I don’t rejoice over their misery.” Satan was wrong. If God just wanted to keep us down, He would have left us in our misery, but He loved us so much that not only did He oppose our misery, He became miserable for us. Envy wants to bring others down, but God brought Himself down. You know when God became a man in Jesus Christ, this is how he was described? “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces. He was despised and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3). In other words, we envied him not. He who was truly and rightfully uppermost, the position we all so envy, left that position behind in order to take on the position none of us would dare envy.
Consider Jesus’ life on earth. When Jesus came there was a popular preacher already on the scene named John the Baptist. He had a large following and many disciples. Instead of envying him, even though it was through Jesus that John the Baptist was made, even though John the Baptist himself affirmed that he was unworthy to even untie the strap of Jesus’ sandal, even though John the Baptist himself affirmed that he was the one who needed to be baptized by Jesus, Jesus was willingly baptized by him! In John chapter 6, we read of many great works Jesus did, but when people tried to take him and make him king, He turned it down! He had a shot at the position that all at that time envied, and He said no to it. Then He went on after these great works to tell His disciples that they were going to actually do greater works than He (John 14:12)!
And on the cross, He who was truly uppermost was reduced to the lowest, least enviable status. Our envy was laid on Him, our misery was laid on Him, the judgment we incurred was laid on Him. He became comparatively miserable in order that when He rose from the dead, He might share His happiness with whoever believes in Him. What is God holding back from you? He did not spare His own Son. And now all who believe in Him are forgiven of their envy, and are even said to be seated with Him in the heavenly places. Far from keeping us down, Jesus shares with us His own righteousness, shares with us His status as God’s Son, shares with us a place in His Father’s kingdom, and even gives us a seat with Him on His throne. In John 15:11 Jesus said He spoke to us in order that His joy might be in us, and that our joy might be full. He does not desire to be compartatively happier than you, but rather to share all of His happiness that you, that your happiness would be full. He is the love that does not envy, and he is the solution to your envy.
Believe in Him, and you will come to know God as the true and just ruler of the universe, and you will come to love Him as the greatest treasure you could possibly possess. If you are so rich in Him, why envy what He’s chosen to give someone else? Why resent Him any longer? Envy can actually start to die; I’ve seen it in our church. I’ve seen people who don’t own homes hear of a friend who just bought a great house, and really rejoice with them. I’ve seen some of you in this church who I know wish you had kids rejoice in and love my 2-year-old son. I’ve seen some of you who wish you were in greater positions of leadership in this church praise the gifts and qualifications of other leaders, even now as we’re in the process of praying about who might be future elders in our church. I’ve seen some of you go through seasons of suffering, pain, and hardship, who nonetheless rejoice at the ways you see God working in the lives of others.
Don’t you want more of that? Don’t you want less envy? You can actually be part of the solution. You can’t solve it; God solves it, and we can only start being part of the solution if we first confess our envy and trust what God has done to save us from it. But then, we can actually join in on what God is doing to rid ourselves and our church of envy. Part of the reason this passage is here even is because Paul wanted the Corinthians to get on board with what God is doing to rid their church of envy. And what he does to help them is he lists the characteristics of what love is and is not, so that when they sense desires rising in them that are love, they feed those desires, and when they sense desires rising up in them that re not love, they crush them. Here’s one he says is not love: Envy.
So, if you sense envy coming up in you, do not tolerate it for a moment. Confess it, rehearse again how it steals your joy and fills you with misery, how it leads to every vile practice, how it hates neighbor and God, and how it brings God’s judgment. Look again at how God has loved you, how He shared your misery in order to share His happiness with you, how He did not spare even His own Son in order to lift you up when you were at your lowest. Then act differently than what the envy in you is telling you to do. The envy in you makes you want bad things for the person you envy, so you know what you can do to be part of the solution? Start praying regularly for good things to happen to the person you envy. I once made a prayer card for people I envy, and I would pray specifically for God to do the things in their life that I envy. I’d pray that God would lead people to Christ through the ministry of other pastors, I prayed that people would even give praise to God specifically for His work in their lives through those pastors. Man that was painful, but man it was good.
Envy makes you want to grieve with those who rejoice; rejoice with them instead. Like literally point out, talk about, and bring positive attention to the good things God is giving them or doing in and through their lives. “Hey did you guys hear so and so got engaged? Isn’t that awesome?” “Hey didn’t so and so do a great job leading our Citygroup discussion the other night?” “You know, you listen remarkably well when we have a conversation. I really appreciate that.” When envy makes you want to distance yourself from a relationship, dive deeper in. When envy makes you want to defend and hold on to your power and position, give it away. And finally, when envy makes you want to distance yourself from God, praise Him all the more. There is one kind of envy in the Bible that is actually positive: It’s when we are envious that God get all the glory He deserves. It’s when we are envious on His behalf so to speak, bothered when false gods are trying to take His spot, bothered when we ourselves are. He truly is uppermost, and we can rest from our envy when we rest in Him.