Rottenness of the Bones
Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able
to stand before envy?
Envy is a feeling of resentment and jealousy towards others because of their possessions, attainments, or good qualities. Christians are warned throughout Scripture to guard against the sin of envy and its bitter fruits. Peter writes: “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:1,2). Paul says, “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying” (Romans 13:13).
James warns of envy and strife between Christians in strong terms. He says envy and strife are earthly, not of God, sensual or natural, not of the spirit, and are of the devil (James 3:14-16). He says the consequences of these things are dire. We read in verse 16, translating more nearly to the meaning of the Greek text, “For where envying and strife are, there is anarchy and every evil work” (James 3:16).
James is telling us that envy, an improper self-centered attitude, leads to strife and a tearing down of Christian fellowship and support rather than building one another up. It is specially noteworthy that James tells us envy is of the devil. Isaiah says it was Lucifer’s original sin: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell [Sheol], to the sides of the pit.” (Isaiah 14:12-15).
Lucifer deceived himself through envy and it was through envy that he sought to deceive and tempt Eve: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.”—Genesis 3:1-6
The enticement was to be envious of the knowledge God possessed and desirous of having that knowledge for herself. Paul says Eve was indeed deceived and, though he ate the forbidden fruit, Adam was not deceived (1 Timothy 2:14). And so it is that the biblical record informs us that it was through envy that man fell from favor with God, and through envy the human race has been plunged into sin, sickness, and death.
The remarkable association of envy with death is given many times throughout the Bible. This includes the account of Cain’s envy of Abel in Genesis 4 to the chief priests delivering Jesus up to death because of their envy of him (Mark 15:10). Paraphrasing James’ words, envy is encouraged by the spirit of the world, it is natural to fallen man, it is of the devil, and the Christian is often tempted to envy by the devil (James 3:14-16).
The Christian experience is unique. We have the treasure of God’s holy spirit in the earthen vessel of the old fallen human nature (2 Corinthians 4:7). The Christian is defined as a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), a new man (Ephesians 4:24) who is to put off the conduct of the old man (Ephesians 4:22). Envy is of the old man, the old fallen human nature with its frailties of pride and insecurity.
The Fall of Saul
One account in the Old Testament tells a sad tale of envy and its destructive effects. It concerns Saul, the first king of Israel. When first chosen king of Israel, Saul was a humble man, “little in [his] own sight” (1 Samuel 15:17). But Saul became proud and defied the instruction of the Lord. In a conflict with the Amalekites, a nation which ambushed Israel during the exodus, Saul was told to slay everyone and everything including the animals. But Saul spared the Amalekite King Agag and took the animals under the pretext of offering them to the Lord and as a feast for the people. For this rebellion Saul was rejected. Samuel said to him, “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” (1 Samuel 15:22,23)
Samuel’s words were clear. Saul had been rejected because of his pride. And it was this pride that led to his crazed envy of David. After David slew the giant Goliath he was widely celebrated by the people, and the women sang of his acclaim: “And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands. And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands: and what can he have more but the kingdom?” (1 Samuel 18:7,8).
Saul’s pride was hurt and he became so angry and envious of David he sought repeatedly to kill him: “And Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with him, and was departed from Saul” (1 Samuel 18:12). It was both his pride and his insecurities that caused Saul’s pathological envy of David. Saul failed to maintain his relationship with God and could not tolerate seeing David’s prosperity, for David excelled in the favor of the Lord.
There is a most remarkable further aspect to this story. As Saul’s son and heir to the throne, Jonathan had more to lose than anyone by the failure of his father and the accession of David. But in David, Jonathan saw no threat; rather he found a kindred spirit who shared his love for the Lord. And they became close friends: “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). Perhaps as clearly as any biblical account this story shows that the antidote for envy is love. Jonathan did not seek his own advancement and he was not envious of David’s acclaim. Love, not envy, influenced his perspective; he loved David and loved the Lord, for he knew David was favored by God.
Jonathan’s love of the Lord is eloquently expressed when he and his armor bearer went up against the Philistine army: “And Jonathan said to the young man that bare his armour, Come, and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised: it may be that the LORD will work for us: for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). Through his love and faith in the Lord Jonathan and his armor bearer confronted the Philistines and through the Lord’s providence the Philistine army was routed. Jonathan truly was a kindred spirit with David who had expressed his love and faith in the Lord in his confrontation of Goliath: “Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God. David said moreover, The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the LORD be with thee.”—1 Samuel 17:36,37
David and Jonathan’s love of one another was based on their mutual love for the Lord. One of the most beautiful expressions of love in Scripture is found in David’s words as he laments the death of Jonathan: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
One observer has said that between a man and a woman there is a union of the flesh, but between David and Jonathan there was a union of heart and mind.
Love Triumphs over Envy
Love is clearly the antidote to envy; the two cannot coexist. Paul said that love does not envy (1 Corinthians 13:4). For Christians love must ascend if we would be perfected in love. The new man must not merely subdue the old man but triumph over him. Perhaps a lesson of the old fallen human nature can be drawn from King Saul’s pride and insecurities. Love is the antidote, and not just the love of others. One must first love God with heart, soul, and mind. Then, as Jesus said, we are to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus’ words indicate if God comes first, there is an allowance for self love, a love and self esteem that precludes pride and vexing insecurities, because the focus is God-centered not self-centered.
Because Saul did not put God first in his love, he rebelled against him; he loved and esteemed himself more than the Lord and this led to his demise. A proper love of God, our neighbors, and ourselves will allow us to look upon the prosperity of others with joy for them and not pain for ourselves.
For Christians loving God first and foremost means a vital and living relationship with God. This brings to Christians the peace of God that passes all human understanding (Philippians 4:7). This allows one not only to be not envious of others, but to rejoice with the good fortune of others. It also allows Christians to look beyond themselves, to look out for the interests of others, to love and support others in their needs.
The apostle Paul said, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). The context of this verse is wonderful. Paul encouraged the brethren to be like minded, to have the same love towards one another, not to oppose but to support. And then he says a remarkable thing: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”—Philippians 2:3-5, NAS
Paul goes on to say Jesus did not envy God (as did Lucifer) but in humility was obedient even to the death of the cross. His love was so great he gave his life for others and thus demonstrated for all mankind the depth of his love for God (John 14:31).
Looking to Jesus as an example Christians are inspired to follow in his footsteps and to put off envy and all the works of the old man. Knowing we have this treasure in an earthen vessel we are inspired to “fight the good fight of faith” as a “good soldier of Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:3).
Jesus prayed for his disciples (John 17:21) that they might be one even as he and the father were one. He gave them a new commandment: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” And then he added: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34,35). Such a love cannot envy a fellow soldier but must ever labor “to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12,13, NAS).
Nor can a Christian envy the unbeliever: “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but live in fear of the LORD always” (Proverbs 23:17, NAS). If the heart is not thoroughly cleansed and still desires any of the ways of the old nature if only they were not forbidden, that one must take the burden to the Lord and redouble his efforts not only to love righteousness but to truly hate iniquity.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy [envy]. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”—Romans 13:8-14, NAS