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5. Love Is Contrary to Envy (1 Cor. 13:4)

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As we study the description of love given to us in 1 Corinthians 13, we should look to the Lord in earnest prayer and to ourselves with careful self-examination. It is very important to a healthy Christian walk that we endeavor to learn with a sense of need driven by an awareness of the subtlety of sin (personalized, this means "my sin"). Therefore, we cling to the work of Christ in His life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin and the sure promise of eternal life. That is the bottom line for disciples who prove that they are His disciples by their love.

So we want to understand what it means to love and part of doing that is seeing love against the dark backdrop of sin. Today, then, we will consider love in its opposition to envy under the title, "Love is contrary to envy." To develop the relationship between love and envy, I will ask three questions: a) what is envy? b) How do we overcome it? c) What positive dimension of love is implied by envy?

1A. What is envy?

As something opposite of a loving spirit, what is it? What is the sin of envy?

1B. Explanation

At the very center of this evil is excessive desire. It is an attitude of the heart. It is a motive deep in the inner man. Additionally, it is excessive desire for something that you do not have. It may or may not be focused on material possessions. What is desired in this way may be some kind of notice and the inflation of the ego.

But this is still incomplete because envy does not function in a vacuum. If we liken envy to some warm coals, what is it that fans the coals into a flame? We all have the tendency to be envious as part of our sin nature. It is there, perhaps latent or dormant, just like the calm smoldering of warm coals. We should acknowledge this fact of its presence. But to my point, what fans it into turbulent flames? Envy is stirred up by comparing what we want but do not have with what others have. There is an "each other" dimension to envy (Gal. 5:26). It is personal: Scripture tells us to avoid envying one another. It is a person to person issue.

The hallmark of envy, its distinguishing feature, is oriented to this personal comparative aspect. I am envious when I dislike someone because he or she has what I want but lack in some comparative way. How this dislike manifests itself depends on many factors whether others are in some regard above us, equal to us or below us (in rank, annual salary, age, standing, and opportunities, etc.). Thus envy may manifest itself in a host of ways.

It is an internal attitude that underlies many external evil acts. This sin that is contrary to love is denounced in lists of evil practices that are very onerous and odious. In Galatians 5:26 envying is associated with provoking. Envying and provoking are acts of the sinful nature (5:19) along with things like enmity, strife, jealously, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions (5:20). Envy lies behind enmity or malice and it drives strife, quarreling, angry fits, and dissension. And Paul gives a very pointed warning to the effect that "those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (5:21). In this light, Edwards says that envy is "ranked among the abominable works of the flesh" and it is thus a "hateful sin" that Christians practiced before they were redeemed; it is a sin that they should now confess and forsake (Charity 117). We don't want to go down this road. Give envy an inch and it will take a mile (sow to the wind and you will reap a whirlwind). From the Corinthian letters we can put it like this: If you associate with envy you will rub shoulders with strife, quarreling, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder (cf. 1 Cor. 3:3; 2 Cor. 12:20).

The account of Joseph and his brothers in the OT (Gen. 37ff) gives a very revealing picture of the nature and manifestations of envy. In a word, this example shows that envy is a major obstacle to loving-kindness. Note how the comparative element leaps from the text: "his brothers saw that their father loved him [Joseph] more than all his brothers" (v. 4). Their hearts were filled with envy (jealousy, v. 11) that manifested itself in hatred and non-peaceful speech (v. 4). Remarkably, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. What an ugly sin to lack peace in your speech toward someone. Their speech stirred up quarreling, strife, and dissension. What they wanted was something good in itself, the love of their father. Having that desire was not wrong. It was not wrong to have that desire in a deep and consuming way. Sin enters the picture when what they want but lack is given to their brother and they dislike him for it. The wants in question may be okay in themselves. But when we step off the path of righteousness in jealous pursuit of our wants we sin. When our wants are enflamed, unsettled, and stirred up by the knowledge that others have what we want, then we tend toward envy in attitude and action. Then our attitude is such that we cannot rejoice in their joy in some good that we want but lack in a comparative way.

2B. Analogies, illustrations, and examples

1) If we think of an envy tree, what holds the tree in place, what roots it to the earth? It is held in place by pride. The comparative aspect helps us see how envy is rooted into our conduct. Pride is "the great root and source of envy. It is because of men's hearts that they have such a burning desire to be distinguished, and to be superior to all others in honor and prosperity, and which makes them uneasy and dissatisfied in seeing others above them" (Charity 121).

How does it branch out? It involves attitudes like malice and bitterness and various actions that overflow in tearing others down. This leads to various branches on the tree of envy such as hating them, wishing for their demise, and being glad when they fall. In our actions, we may tare them down with the hidden agenda of raising self up.

2) An example can be taken from my tennis playing. I want to win at singles. But here I go each week for "my weekly beating" as if I am a glutton for punishment. But another player wins in singles all the time (or 99% of the time). An envious spirit shows up when I have feelings of dislike for this person because he does what I want to do but cannot do. An envious spirit would include thoughts like being happy to hear that he has tennis elbow or upon hearing that he dropped some weights on his foot, I say to myself, "I hope he broke it good."

3) Comparison with covetousness will help us see what envy is clearly. Envy overlaps with coveting, excessively wanting what others have. But as we have seen the hallmark of envy is comparison by which we become acutely aware of the relationship between what others have and what we want but do not have. Like coveting, envying involves being discontent with what we have. We are discontent in a way that takes us down a path of sin in thought and deed.

When we covet we have excessive desire for something that belongs to another. We may covet their spouse and their possessions. Coveting leads to adultery and theft. But the excessive desire of envy is not so much that we want something that belongs to another (to move it from their home to ours). It is an excessive desire that is inflamed by a competitive or comparative spirit. We want a higher salary, more success, more friends, and more praise than someone with whom we are comparing ourselves. We want to race ahead of them. We want to excel above others within our circle of influence. And we dislike it if we are unable to do so while someone else is able to do so. At the point of such comparison and dislike of their success we have an envious spirit.

4) Consider the scenario of a college graduate. Imagine that you have a child that finishes college and gets a better paying job than you have, that took you twenty-five years to get. Will you be envious? You will probably not be envious of someone so close to you because this case involves either your love or your pride. But the temptation to envy commonly occurs when someone inferior to you in education, experience, or prestige has a child that graduates from college and gets a salary far above what you get from the same company where you work. The desire to excel can be so aggravated that you find yourself disliking the young graduate. You may wish for his down fall. You may speak ill of him telling others about his faults. You may even do things that help him fall. If he does fall, you will experience a cruel sense of joy (cf. Charity, 123-125).

5) Finally, envy may exist in matters spiritual like preaching the gospel out of envy (Phil 1). This is a subtle and perverse aspect of the sin of envy because spiritual growth involves advancement in righteousness. If we seek to grow in righteousness and at the same time we dislike it when others appear to grow in righteousness at a faster pace than we do then an area in which we most need growth is the area of envy. Its scope is such that any area of need and want could become an occasion for envy.

2A. How do we deal with our tendency to be envious rather than loving?

1) We should humbly acknowledge this tendency.

The coals are there warm and ready to be fanned into a flame. And we should call it sin without making excuses or covering it up.

2) Focus the duty in its true spirit and intent.

This command is given in many places in the NT and it has quite a bite given the evils with which it is associated. It is also commanded here in the context of the love chapter (cf. 12:31), that shows that Paul is commanding by description. The love that He describes is the excellent way in which we are to walk. Weighing this fact will help us find the proper stance to take in this field of battle.

It is a command to believers to put off a style of life, of the inward life (of attitude and desire). And a command to believers comes with a promise of grace to help in time of need. So consider the fact that part of the true spirit of this command is that it comes with promise. In this way we can take our stance with confidence and hope that God will be our strength and shield.

Labor to absorb it into your heart and soul as a foundation for diligent application. Again, here is the duty: we are to throw up a red flag whenever we feel malice in our hearts toward those who prosper in ways we seek for ourselves but cannot prosper for the time being. The duty we have is to check responses that arise from seeing this disparity. Turn your thoughts away from comparing your progress with that of others, and set your mind on things above. Guard speaking out of such comparison (bite your tongue).

3) Consider the example of Christ

He made Himself poor (humbling Himself) that you may be made rich. Note that your state in life as to outward affairs is temporary. You are a pilgrim on this earth, just passing through. Your citizenship is in heaven. Ponder the fact that you have riches untold in the storehouse of things new and old. In this light, be assured that Christ will see to it that you receive this inheritance in glory when the very creation is delivered up into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. You really do not need to bother yourself with comparative attainments in possessions or honor on this earth. These are as God gives them. And the attainments and glory that matter most are promised with certainty. Consider His example and follow in His steps trusting in His promises.

4) You should attack the tree at the root level, which is pride.

One of the most important related virtues is that of humility. Put in the form of a prayer this simply means that you say, "Lord, I submit myself to you. I accept the limits you place on my life in relation to others. I know that you know best. So if I want to excel in some area but cannot do so, I leave that in your hands. If you choose to give what I want to others and not to me, then so be it. Your will is most important. Not my will but your will be done. I resign myself to your plan as it unfolds perfectly in every detail. I commit myself to the doing of your will of precept and commandment" (cf. the song, "My Jesus as thou wilt").

Focus the fact that how you deal with what you attain in relation to what others attain is a double submission to the authority of your sovereign Lord. On one hand, it is a matter of submission to His command to avoid envy. On the other hand, it is a matter of submission to His Fatherly love accepting what He gives and withholds. Disobedience in the sin of envy is both rebellion and ingratitude rolled into one. We honor Him by submission to His providence and precepts, and we arrogantly dishonor Him when we do not submit to His providence and precepts.

5) Think of envy as a caterpillar and as a cancer.

This is a reminder of consequences. Edwards compares the envious person to a caterpillar that delights in devouring the most flourishing plants and trees (Charity 126). A consequence of envy is that it retards prosperity by wasting energy in quarrels and dissension.

Furthermore, envy is not only hateful in itself but it brings great discomfort to the envious person. Edwards cites the Proverb that says, "envy is the rottenness of the bones" (14:30). It is like a powerful cancer eating away on our vital organs. It is thus offensive and full of corruption. Therefore, it is nothing other than foolish self-injury "for the envious make themselves trouble most needlessly, being uncomfortable only because of others' prosperity, when that prosperity does not injure themselves, or diminish their enjoyments and blessings. But they are not willing to enjoy what they have, because others are enjoying also" (127). Its foolishness should cause us to abhor it and shun its excuses as we seek the spirit of Christian love that will lead us to rejoice in the welfare of others (127).

3A. What positive aspect of love is implied (in the denial of envy)?

We get perspective here when we remember that desires are good. Strong desires are good as well, even consuming desires. This is the dynamic of the positive that is implied here. We are to have a consuming passion for holiness and righteousness in our daily living born of a deep longing and earnest desire to please the Lord Jesus and glorify His name.

This is the hungering and thirsting for righteousness that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount. This has to mean that we cultivate a good diet on His word taking it into our hearts by memory, study, and understanding for application. It involves crying out for wisdom in prayer to the Lord and seeking to have all that we have in dedication and devotion to our risen Lord.

We thus sell all that we have for the kingdom and its righteousness (Matt. 13:44). But, lo and behold, we still possess things. "Sell all" means that we give it all away in exchange to receive it back with every earthly thing tied and connected to the kingdom. Thus in all earthly things (food, clothing, job, money, skills, accomplishments, and possessions) we seek His kingdom and His righteousness first (Matt. 5:19-21, 33). This is the passionate priority of our living across the board of all that we have and desire to have. What you want you want for His glory. Your wants are subject to His will and honor.


To not be satisfied with what we have so far attained in our Christian walk is not a sinful desire but the good kind of strong desire, and zeal. It is a consuming passion for the things of Christ. Like our Savior, accepting and doing the will of God becomes our food and drink.

How do we cultivate this kind of wanting and desiring? One way is to look deep into the value of the kingdom. When you see it you will seize it. When you see it as a treasure, you will seize it as a prize.

Be like a squirrel that climbs down a one-sixteenth of an inch wire to get some sunflower hearts, doing what it takes to get what he wants. Focus your desires and wants on Christ and His kingdom righteousness. Seek first and foremost to do His will of precept, surrender to His will of sovereign decree aiming at His glory in promoting the good of others. That is love.

With this heavy-duty obstacle to loving-kindness removed, with envy countered, we can then deeply desire the good of others and go about promoting their good in every way we possibly can. And by this obedience, the good that we passionately desire above all other things is the glory and honor of Jesus Christ our risen Lord.

Related Topics: Love

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