4 Ways to Fight Envy (part 1 of 3)


(NOTE: this is a sample chapter of our book project, Borrowed Glories: Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God. To read more about this project, go here.)

 

Put Off, Put On

By Tilly Dillehay

You don’t want to be this way anymore. I know you don’t.

Envy is the only sin I can think of that is really no fun at all. It begins in negative feelings of inferiority, progresses into negative feelings of resentment, and then stagnates in a stewing, frothy mess of petty or belligerent offspring-sins. Even when envy gets what it wants—the destruction or removal of another person’s borrowed glory—it is left with empty energy that simply must be redirected to a new object of hatred.

None of this lights up any pleasure centers in anybody’s brain. Gluttony, greed, lust, vanity, murder, pride and all their cousins at least have that much going for them.

Thankfully for the Christian, it is both our right and our business to put off the old self and to put on the new self (Eph.4:20-24). I say ‘thankfully’, because this is truly a mercy. The work of fighting sin is hard work, but it is merciful work, too. To gain any kind of freedom from sin is a luxury that the world simply doesn’t have.

And slavery to sin is a merciless slavery. Envy is a perfect example of that—a sin that requires all your heart, soul, mind and strength and delivers you nothing (not even a lighted pleasure center) in return.

The Christian who battles the sin of envy may mistakenly feel that he is in more of a skirmish than a battle. Why? Because envy is so easy to keep a secret, even from oneself. And like other sins of the heart, the human imagination is always trying to relegate it to second place in the sin scale. Envy can’t be as dangerous as fornication, because nobody ever sees it and it doesn’t really hurt anyone. Then, if envy ever produces natural offspring—other, more overt sins—our tendency is to cut off the sin that has flowered up out of it, without attempting any harm to the envious root.

This attitude is terribly insufficient. Here are two good reasons to take envy seriously enough to pull out the big guns against it:

One, Scripture makes it clear that although man cares mostly for the outward appearance, God is concerned with the heart (1 Sam 16:7). This means that all this business about envy being a ‘secret sin’ is nonsense, and God can see your envy and your fornication side-by-side as if they were two slugs lying next to each other in the sun. There are no secret sins.

Two, Scripture makes it clear that what is in the heart doesn’t stay in the heart, because, as Jesus observed on more than one occasion, it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matt 12:34, 15:18). Envy leads to action—like every other sin of the heart. Envy is not safe, it doesn’t stay put, and it comes accompanied with the most open and shameful sister sins that you ever feared to fall into.

Envy is a monster, and you’re going to have to do explosive, violent war with it. One of the ways scripture models the fight with sin is through the ‘put off, put on’ model outlined in Ephesians 4:

But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Phil 4:20-24).

In the spirit of Philippians 4, here are four virtues that you’ll need to put on as you put off the sin of envy: love, diligence, humility, and transparency.

 

  1. Put off envy by putting on love

Love and envy are diametrically opposed. Scripture is explicit about this in one of the most famous definitions of love ever written, 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor. 13:5-8a)

The full passage here on love places such an emphasis on this virtue that we can declare it the most important virtue there is. Even faith and hope will pass away, it says, but love is for both this world and the world to come (13:13).

By the time this passage was written, Jesus had already established this idea of love as the most important thing. When asked to condense the whole law to one statement, he condensed it to two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

If love and envy cannot coexist, because love doesn’t envy, then love will surely be a great aid to us in banishing envy from our hearts and lives.

The practical tips here for acting out the motions of love are just that—motions. Yes, I’m recommending that you fake love until you make it, in this case. The tips in this chapter major on behavior over emotion, because although emotion is difficult to generate out of thin air, it does tend to follow action around on a leash.

 

Show love by thanking God for the success of the person you envy.

Jesus commanded us specifically to pray for our enemies as one way of ‘doing good’ to them (Matt. 5:43-48). This is a great way to start acting love towards the person you envy.

Now to be clear—are they actually your enemy? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s possible that they have actually set themselves up against you, seeing you as the rival that you are and directing hatred right back at you. But it’s also possible—and maybe more likely—that they are just a friend or acquaintance of yours who has no idea you feel this enmity towards them, or at least hasn’t identified the ‘weird vibes’ they’re getting from you as envious hatred.

Either way, the envious heart turns even friends into enemies. Whether or not it’s accurate, your heart believes that this person is an enemy to your happiness. That means that you can pray for your friend, who you are thinking of as an enemy, and still be obedient to Jesus’ word here.

When you pray, thank God for them and for their borrowed glory. Thank him for granting them success.

 

Show love by asking God for the further success of the person you envy.

That’s right. Pray specifically for their success, especially in whichever borrowed glory it is you are envying them for.

This means that if you have a friend who is getting all A’s and just got a free ride to Yale, your order of business is to pray that he would keep getting A’s at Yale. If your beautiful friend just started dating a guy who is everything you ever dreamed of, pray that they would honor God in their relationship and begin to grow strong together in their love, as the Lord wills.

Ask for things for them the way you would ask for things for yourself. Yes, this means giving thought to their whole person and spiritual state and attempting to ask wisely for things that would do them long-term good, but also it means not limiting your prayers to things like ‘Lord, I pray that you would protect Tim from becoming prideful.’

 

Show love by enjoying the borrowed glory of the person you envy.

Most of the glories we’ve discussed in this book are not possessions, but personal traits. Beauty, talent, personality, spiritual maturity, and more. The wonderful thing about these gifts from the Father is that they can be both possessed by one person and enjoyed by others simultaneously.

With the borrowed human glories that involve some kind of personal trait, God has ordained that one person’s gifting provides another person’s enjoyment. When you are spending time with your cousin, her charm and humor is something you can belly laugh over. When you are listening to your friend give a talk at a professional convention, you’ve got a chance to both learn something and to worship the father for making him so good at what he does. The fact that your brother plays really good music means—to state the obvious—that you have the opportunity to hear really good music.

Go through the exercise of doing what you may have avoided for a long time—gaze upon the glory with an unflinching gaze. Look for opportunities to praise the father for what he’s made.

 

Show love by praising the person you envy.

Under normal circumstances, praising something is both a natural result of enjoying it, and part of the process of enjoying it. This means that for you to silently, stoically sit and soak in the borrowed glory of a friend or acquaintance without expressing admiration would be unnatural. It would truncate the exercise of enjoyment. It would also waste a wonderful opportunity for you to do battle with envy.

Ephesians 4:29 commands: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” What talk is more corrupting than the natural talk of an envious person in ‘polite’ society? They find ways of inserting a barb into every compliment. They find ways of gossiping without openly declaring anything.

The alternative, according to this passage, should fill us with joy and possibility. We could instead use words that are ‘good for building up’, that ‘fit the occasion’, that ‘give grace’. Is that possible? We could do that?

Not only can we—we must. And we may find that it is very difficult to praise a person warmly and simply with our mouths and continue to hate them with our hearts.

Become a ‘fan’ of the person you envy. Praise openly where praise is due. Don’t flatter, and don’t praise in such a way that you are taking a penultimate borrowed glory and treating it as ultimate. There is a way to tell a pretty girl that she is pretty without implying that to be pretty is the most important thing in her life or yours. There is a way to graciously praise a person’s book without openly worshipping them.

This is part of the reason why we dragged you through all of those topical chapters on the specific borrowed glories. We meant to give you a real sense of what it’s like to experience each specific borrowed glory secondhand, but we also meant to use scripture to place each of these borrowed glories into an appropriate place of significant insignificance. The goal is to neither ignore the borrowed glories nor to grovel before them.

To acknowledge God as the source and author of it all, and to see the glory as creaturely and derivative, is the only way this can be done. This frees us up to praise our neighbor both naturally and freely.

 

[Continue to : 4 Ways to Fight Envy (part 2 of 3)]

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