We’ve been talking for the last couple of weeks about the loads of life we bear when we try and do it apart from Jesus. We’ve talked about anger and, last week, fear. This week we are talking about yet another load. This time the challenge comes from our not trusting God will provide for us as abundantly as He has promised. If God isn’t doing it, then we have to pick up the slack. When it all depends on us, though, and we see someone who has more than we do, our natural tendency is to envy them for it. Let’s talk more about envy and how Jesus offers us a better way.
The Green-Eyed Monster
Think back with me to your childhood for a few minutes this morning. What were some of your favorite toys? Personally, I was an action figures guy. (And just so we’re clear, those are not dolls for boys. They are totally different.) I had all kinds of action figures and I’d make elaborate set ups all over our basement. To the casual observer it probably looked totally random, but everything was right in its place. All of the various toy catalogues are starting to hit mailboxes around the country. Of course, you won’t be able to find any of the things in them, but it’s still fun to look through them and dream. I know we’ve received at least the Amazon Kids’ Wish Book. The last time I looked through it, I’m pretty sure there was something circled on every single page of the book. I remember doing that. I remember once when my dad was serving as a local judge, sitting in his chambers while court was in session and going through and circling everything I wanted in the Toys R Us catalogue we had just received.
Well, whatever kind of toy was your pick, was there ever a particular one you really wanted? Better yet, was there ever one you really wanted, but you didn’t get it. Let’s go even one step further than this. Was there ever one you really wanted, you didn’t get it, but your friend did? What were you feeling then? I remember a time when my best friend got a bucket of hand-me-down G.I. Joes from his cousin. There were what seemed like dozens of them. And their gear. And vehicles. It was awesome. I could have had hours of fun and a whole myriad of adventures with all of that stuff. And he had it. Any guesses as to what I was feeling? Naturally, I was just delighted by his stroke of good fortune and continued playing contentedly with the random collection of old action figures I had. Also, if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. I was all eaten up with envy. I suspect you were too.
This morning we are officially halfway through our teaching series, A Heavy Load. For the last couple of weeks we have been talking about the challenge of doing life apart from Jesus. That’s something all of us do at least from time to time. Maybe for you that’s simply life in a nutshell. The reasons we do this are many. It could be that you don’t really believe Jesus is going to be able to do anything for you in life. That’s okay and I’m glad you’re here. Maybe you were raised to think you shouldn’t bother Jesus with the small stuff. The trouble is, you don’t want to embarrass yourself by bringing Him the ugly stuff, and the big stuff all tends to be ugly, so you just keep it all for yourself. Perhaps you simply want to prove yourself up to the task of life and don’t like to ask for help. Whatever the reason, though, the result is basically the same: Life is harder than it has to be. Now, that’s not to say doing life with Jesus is a cakewalk. In the short term it may seem to be just the opposite of that. But as you go forward with His help, you’ll find that even the hard stuff isn’t quite as hard as it was before. He lightens our load as we go so the going isn’t quite so hard.
In this series, we are talking about some of the specific loads we try to carry when we do life without Him. A couple of weeks ago we kicked things off by talking about anger. Anger is not a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, in some circumstances, anger is the right emotion to have. We know this because in the Scriptures we see God getting angry occasionally. But, as we talked about, it is easy to find ourselves overwhelmed by injustice, our anger wells filled beyond capacity, and angry all the time. That’s an understandable state of affairs, but it is also one that isn’t good for us or anyone around us. Jesus’ brother James offered us a solution to this mess. We must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We have to lean into God’s kindness. Your anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does.
Last week we bled over from anger to fear. Often, when we aren’t angry about one thing or another, we’re afraid of it. In a world where there seems to be so much to fear, this too is a situation we can understand. Yet fear can take over our lives if we’re not careful. Instead of giving into fear, we need to root ourselves in trust. Specifically, we need to place our trust in someone we are confident has all it takes and more to handle whatever challenges may lie before us. As Jairus learned in Mark 5, Jesus is this person. Because He rose from the dead, we can be confident He can handle whatever is going on in our lives. Fear falls apart in the face of trust in Jesus.
Well, if the first two parts of our conversation in this series were at least connected to one another, this morning is going to take us in a slightly different direction. Sure, some of the emotions that can come from this particular weight of doing life without Jesus can manifest as anger or fear, but the heart of the issue this morning is going to be something else entirely. One of the things God promises to be for us throughout the Scriptures is our provider. He is the Creator of all we see and don’t. As David wrote, He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He has no need of our resources. He has all the resources there are. And He’s generous. He provides rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. If we trust Him, He will take care of all our needs.
When we try to do life apart from Jesus, though, that option isn’t available to us any longer. Instead, we’re on the hook to provide for ourselves. When we do life on our own, we are responsible for laying our hands on what we need to survive. If we see someone who seems to have their hands on more than us and is surviving better or more comfortably than we are, we have three choices before us. We could steal it. That usually doesn’t go well because society tends to pass laws against that. We could work really hard to try and get it for ourselves (or go into debt to get it before we can afford it which leads to its own set of problems). That takes work; often more work than we are willing to put in to have it. Or, we could be envious of them and hate them for having it. This is the path of least resistance and the one most people take.
Understanding this, we can have a pretty good sense of what envy is. At its core, envy is what we feel when someone has something we don’t have. It is not to be confused with jealousy. They’re cousins, but not synonyms. Jealousy is what we feel when something we count as ours is threatened somehow. Envy comes when we want what someone else has. It may manifest through a desire to have it for ourselves. It may also be experienced simply as a desire for them to not have it anymore. Either way, envy is the issue.
We see admonitions against envy all over the Scriptures. One of the most potent of these comes near the end of the apostle Paul’s first letter to his protege Timothy. Now, if we’re not careful, it’s easy to think when reading what Paul writes here that his focus is pretty narrow on envy of people who have more money than you do. His words here, however, are not only much more broadly applicable to envy than that, they point us toward the other side of envy that comes when we let Jesus help us with this burden. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to 1 Timothy 6:3, and let’s see what Paul has to say here.
“If anyone teaches false doctrine and does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in disputes and arguments over words. From these come envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions, and constant disagreement among people whose minds are depraved and deprived of the truth, who imagine that godliness is a way to material gain.”
Let’s pause there just a minute and make sure we’re all on the same page. Paul here is talking about something that animates much of his first letter to Timothy: false doctrine. Doctrine is simply a set of beliefs held by an individual or an organization. Throughout this letter, Paul is concerned with believers in Timothy’s church believing things that aren’t true. They believe these things because they’ve been taught to believe them. In other words, there were folks in Timothy’s church who were teaching things that didn’t accord with the truth about God’s kingdom and character and everyone was the worse for it.
False doctrine is slippery stuff. Normally, when we think about it, we’re thinking about some weighty theological concept that we probably don’t understand very well anyway. It’s easy to guard against that kind of false doctrine. Paul here had something entirely more subtle than that in mind. There were folks in Timothy’s church who thought righteousness and following Jesus well was a way to get ahead in life. They had taken their focus off Christ and when we do that, we very naturally start using religion as a means of self-advancement. We get drawn into debates about minutiae that while not necessarily unimportant, aren’t nearly as important as we make them out to be. We do this, though, because when we can win those conversations, we can gain control over the means of salvation which can be an incredibly lucrative affair. The real issue here, though–at least as Paul identifies it–is this desire for material gain. These folks are envious of people wealthier than they are and are trying to find the means of catching up to them, often at the expense of others.
The bottom line here is that envy like this is a dangerous trap. Paul goes on in v. 9 to offer a pretty sobering warning against this. His words are focused on money and often get a lot of attention because of that, but he’s simply pointing to the logical end of envy. Listen to this: “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” That’s tough stuff.
When we want what others have–whether that be money or anything else–we are setting ourselves on a path fraught with danger and destruction. The question we must consider here, though, is what envy actually accomplishes. Well, it certainly doesn’t solve our lack of whatever it is we have determined we need to get by better than we currently are. Instead, envy turns our hearts away from and against the person who has this thing. What does this accomplish, though, except to poison that relationship? We can’t be near that person in positive and productive ways any longer without our envy of them taking control and directing our thoughts and, in extreme cases, even our actions against them. What envy really accomplishes is to give us an excuse for why we don’t have this thing. It justifies our lack in some way that tries to make us feel more at peace with not having it.
We don’t have it because the other person is stingy. The other person really doesn’t deserve it, but won’t share it. The other person has more than they need and just acquired this other thing to flout their excess. We don’t actually need this thing because we’re better than that. How pitiful that this person feels the need to have this thing in order to get by when we’re getting by just fine without it. Once we arrive at that particular point, though, we’re not really done with our wanting of whatever it is. We are simply trying to cover our illicit and growing desire for it with a smokescreen of false piety. Left in the dark like this, our envy can grow into a monstrous plant whose blooms are poisonous to everyone around us. And when its fruit begins to come to bear it is a truly bitter affair. And all of this comes because we have bought into the false doctrine that God somehow can’t or won’t provide for us as abundantly as He does. In the end, envy will leave us empty.
This, of course, begs the question of what can be done about all of this? How do we overcome envy? We start by fixing our doctrine–that is, we commit ourselves to believing the right things about God. In this case, He is a gracious provider who will meet all the needs of His people. If seeing our needs met doesn’t ultimately depend on us (which does not mean we don’t still work hard), then we don’t have to shoulder the burden of making sure we have enough. If He provides abundantly as He has promised He does, we don’t have to look enviously at those who have managed to obtain more than we have. Instead, we can embrace envy’s antidote.
That, of course, begs a rather obvious question: What is envy’s antidote? Come back to the text with me and look at the verses we skipped a second ago. Paul told us that envy’s tendency is to see godliness as a means of material gain. While that idea can prove true–think about Prosperity Gospel preachers like Kenneth Copeland who is worth about three-quarters of a billion dollars–it won’t lead to what we are really seeking. Instead, the path to the gain of life we desire leads somewhere else. Look at v. 6: “But godliness with…” what? “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”
Godliness with contentment. Pursue a life of reflecting God’s character well and be content with what you have; be content with who you are. Don’t focus even a second’s worth of your precious time and energy wanting what anyone else has, whether that is something material or something more immaterial like a skill or talent or personality trait. There’s no gain to be had there. God didn’t make you to be like they are or have what they have. He made you for where you are now. He’s not done with you yet which means you aren’t going to be there forever, but you’re on the path He wants you on, and they’re on the path He wants them on. If you try and get yourself on their path then you will necessarily not be giving any attention or effort toward becoming more fully who God made you to be. The trouble is that God made you to be you, not them. He has plans for you to do things for Him and them to do things for Him, and they aren’t the same things. You are chasing something, therefore, you will never have. And even if you should manage to lay your hands on it, it’s not going to be what you really want. What you are really seeking is either security or validation. Whatever the thing you’re wanting happens to be, it won’t give those to you. Any sense to the contrary is a false one. And if you’re seeking security or validation in someone or something other than God, you’ve got an idol problem. No, the truth is that envy will leave you empty, but contentment will fill you up. Envy leaves you empty; contentment fills you up.
Paul goes on in the next verse to explain the reason for this: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” Think about that. If you start with nothing, and you end with nothing, everything else is just bonus. You may have a lot of bonus or a little bonus, but it’s just bonus. You don’t need any of it. As long as you’ve got something to fill your belly, something to cover your body, and we’ll even throw in something to put over your head, you’ve got all you need. In Christ we have the guarantee of His provision for our needs, but we have even more than that, too. We’ve got the promise of eternal life in Him. We’ve got the promise of eternal life in God’s kingdom where there will be no need of any kind. We will only know contentment. But apart from Him, all of that goes away. We’re left having to manage on our own. We have no guarantee of anything. Everything depends on us. That’s a heavy load to bear. Life without Jesus is a heavy load. Envy will leave you empty; contentment fills you up.
What can we do, then, to grab hold of this spirit of contentment Paul commends to us? A few verses over from where we stopped a bit ago, Paul offers some counsel to those who are most tempted to think their personal reserves are going to be enough to help them weather whatever storms life may throw their way. That is, he gives some advice to rich people on how to be rich well. Assume for just a minute that we’re all rich (which, in comparison with most of the world, we are), and listen to what he has to say: “Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.”
Paul there points us to some of the secrets of being content in this life. If you want a life of contentment, start by developing the discipline of sacrificial generosity. The reason for this is twofold. First, you cannot be owned by something you give away. If you are actively giving away your resources, those resources will never take hold of your heart and leave you wanting–needing–more than you have. Second, making sure you hit the mark of sacrificial generosity will keep you in a place of constantly having to rely on God’s provision rather than your own. As long as you are relying on Him, you’ll find being content with what He provides a whole lot easier. Envy leaves you empty; contentment fills you up.
And if you want to develop the discipline of sacrificial generosity here’s how: Make giving a priority (meaning it comes before other things), pick a percentage to give that represents a meaningful sacrifice to you given your current financial reality (that may be 10%, but it may also be more than that; don’t limit yourself to 10% here just because you’ve been told wrongly all your life that’s what Christians are supposed to give), and make that percentage grow progressively over time (when you find that you current percentage no longer represents a sacrifice for you, increase it to the point that it does). Doing all of this won’t be a magic bullet to make envy go away, but if you start doing it consistently, you’ll find your battle against it a whole lot easier than it was before.
The second thing you can do to live a life of contentment is to serve. Find ways to serve the people around you. This also will accomplish a couple of things in your life. When you are helping folks whose situation is worse than yours, it will tend to make you a whole lot more grateful for what you have. As we’ll talk about in just a second, gratitude is an envy killer. The other thing it does is that when you are focused on helping others see their needs met, you won’t have time to give any attention to worrying about your own. You’ll simply be trusting God to take care of them. The more you place your trust in Him, the less you’ll fear what life might bring as we talked about last week, and the more you’ll learn to rest contentedly in His arms. Envy leaves you empty; contentment fills you up.
A third thing you can do to grow a spirit of contentment in your life is to develop a habit of gratitude. Envy comes out of a lack of gratitude. Instead of being thankful for what we do have, we’re focused on the things we don’t. We start hating the people who have them instead of us. When we practice a habit of gratitude, though, our attention will not be on what we might be missing, but on what we actually have. There’s nothing quite so powerful at helping us see how much we really do have as learning to feel–and express–gratitude for all of it. Overwhelmed as we are likely to become with all we have, we’ll be giving no attention to the things we don’t. Envy diminishes, contentment rises. Envy leaves you empty; contentment fills you up.
One last thing here and this is a biggie. Learn to actively celebrate the successes and advancements of the people around you. When someone you know gets something you want but can’t have for some reason, your first tendency will be to envy them because of it. But what if instead you celebrated it with them? Now you’ve shifted your focus from a perceived lack to rejoicing in the goodness of God in the world around you. When you are celebrating the people around you, you won’t be concerned with wanting what they have, you’ll be delighting in their having it. And here’s the thing: When someone delights with you in something you have, you’re more likely to share in it with them. The reverse is also true which means when you’re celebrating them you’ll both be richer together. Envy leaves you empty; contentment fills you up.
Listen, I know how easy it is to fall to wanting what the people around us have. I’ve certainly experienced more than my fair share of it. Like you, it has led me to make some decisions that probably weren’t very wise. But can you imagine being rid of that? There is a way. Envy wears on you over time. It drags you down. It makes life heavy. Life without Jesus will do that. It leaves us empty. Contentment fills us up. The path to contentment isn’t complicated. To walk it you need to place your whole trust in Jesus and start seeing the world through His eyes. Try it out. There’s a whole world of living waiting for you to enjoy. Envy leaves you empty; contentment fills you up. Live full. You’ll be glad you did.