There is a fable that Satan’s emissaries were trying to tempt a holy man who lived in the Libyan desert. Try as they might, the demons could not get the man to sin. The seductions of the flesh and the onslaught of doubts and fears left him unmoved.
Angered by their failure, Satan stepped forward. “Your methods are too crude,” he said. “Just watch.” And he whispered in the holy man’s ear, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.”
Instantly a malignant scowl clouded the holy man’s face. “Envy,” Satan said to his cohorts, “is our final weapon for those who seek holiness.”
As pastors, we struggle with the same enticements as the people in our congregations. But because our ministries are public, our most powerful temptation may be envy. We all know how much it hurts to be compared with a pastor who is more successful.
“You’re OK, but you’re no Swindoll,” a parishioner tells us with a touch of finality. Or a board member asks, “Why aren’t we growing like Jerry Falwell’s congregation?” as if we had the power to create a Liberty Mountain in the church parking lot.
But such comments are passing, and we can handle them with a bit of good humor. It’s more difficult when your congregation prefers your assistant pastor’s preaching – or when the church next door is bursting at the seams while yours is slowly declining.
Then it’s easy to become critical and defensive. We say we have “a ministry of depth, not a numbers racket.” Or we accuse the congregation of liking the assistant’s preaching better because he “tickles their ears.”
Our fallen nature loathes to be cast in bad light. It’s difficult to rejoice with those who are more successful. At times we even take a quiet satisfaction when we learn about others’ failures; by comparison we are doing better.
What aggravates the problem is that God’s blessings seem so inconsistent. We see a church with phenomenal growth even though its pastor is a dull preacher who does little to inspire his congregation. At the same time, another church with an excellent preacher with good public relations skills may decline in membership.
There are pastors whose theology is weak, whose methods of fund raising are suspect, and whose personal lives are in shambles, yet they are blessed with growth and money. Meanwhile, there are pastors who have integrity and faithfully teach the Word of God, yet they can’t raise enough money to paint the church. No wonder a missionary said to me, “Have you ever noticed how often God puts His hand on the wrong person!”
Yet envy will cripple any pastor and his ministry. First, it erodes faith. Jesus asked the Pharisees, who were men pleasers, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another, and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” (Jn. 5:44). With their eyes on one another, they were unable to focus their eyes on God. The envious are in no position to please God. They are not free to believe wholeheartedly in Christ.
Second, envy produces isolationism.
Although the Pharisees gave the excuse of doctrinal reasons, that was not the real reason they condemned Christ. Pilate discerned their underlying motive: “For he knew that because of envy they had delivered Him up” (Matt. 27:18). Envy was the motive; theology was the smoke screen.
Paul had a similar experience in Pisidian Antioch when his preaching drew large crowds. “But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul and were blaspheming” (Acts 13:45). Once again theology was the excuse for antagonism, but the motivation was less noble.
Writing to the Philippians, Paul discerned some were preaching Christ out of envy and strife, hoping to make him look bad. Yet he rejoiced that Christ was preached, even though their motives were sinful (Phil. 1:12-18).
“Nothing would delight my friend more than to see me fail,” said a missionary who had accomplished more in five years than an older worker had in 10. An envious person may fear unfavorable comparison so much that he works behind the scenes to sabotage a colleague’s ministry. Done carefully, his hidden motive may never come to light.
Saul was not as careful in his attempt to hide his jealousy. He was so angered by the comparison in the cheers of the crowd, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands,” that he became obsessed with killing his young rival (1 Sam. 18:7). God’s response was to send a demon to trouble Saul, evidently so he would be goaded into repentance. But Saul eventually committed suicide instead. Once envy has found a home in the human heart, it resists eviction. Even death may seem more attractive than conceding success to someone who is younger and less qualified.
How do, we overcome this deceitful monster? We must treat envy for the sin it is. It is rebellion against God’s providential leading in the lives of His children. An envious person is saying God has no right to bless someone else more than he.
Jesus told a parable about a landowner who agreed to pay a denarius a day to workers who arrived early. Others who came later in the day didn’t haggle about their wages, but were willing to trust the landowner’s fairness.
At the end of the day, those who came last were the first to be paid. Each received a denarius. Those who’d worked since morning assumed they’d be paid more, but were shocked to receive one denarius also (Matt. 20:1-12).
It seems unfair. Imagine an employer paying those who arrive at 3 p.m. the same as those who show up on time. But Jesus gave the story a twist: It was fair because the first workers got what they’d agreed on. If the landowner wanted to pay the latecomers that much, too, he was at liberty to do so.
Speaking for the landowner, who represents God in the story, Jesus says, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:15).
God can do what He wishes with His own. He can be more generous with others, and we have no right to complain. Envy is rebellion against His sovereign rights.
Envy is also a sin against God’s goodness. Whatever we have, be it little or much, it is a gift of God. When he was tempted to envy when Jesus Christ eclipsed his ministry, John the Baptist rightly replied, “A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given him from heaven” (Jn. 3:27). Envy is based on the assumption that our abilities and gifts are something we’re entitled to have.
Envy is a sin that lashes out against God’s goodness and sovereignty. It’s the pot telling the potter how to make other vessels. Francis Schaeffer said there is no such thing as small people and big people, only consecrated people and unconsecrated people. One pastor said, “When I finally accepted the fact that God did not want me to be well-known, I began to experience His blessing.”
All comparison of one ministry or one person with another is sinful. We can easily compare the height of a skyscraper with an apartment building, but if we compare them against the height of a distant start there’s not much difference between them. Likewise, the differences among us fade into oblivion when we compare ourselves with Christ.
God wants to give us a humble satisfaction with our place in His vineyard. Having any place in the vineyard affirms His mercy and grace. To envy those who are given greater blessing is to imbibe a spirit of thanklessness and rebellion.
Moses was a Spirit-filled man, but God multiplied his ministry in the lives of 70 elders who were given the gift of prophecy. Two of these elders, Eldad and Medad, were particularly gifted and prophesied in the camp. When a young man came running to Moses and told him the news, Joshua said to Moses, “My lord, restrain them.” But Moses answered, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them” (Num. 11:28-29).
You can’t destroy a man who rejoices in the success of others. He has a proper perspective about himself and his God. He can rejoice in those who are more successful. He’s thankful for even the small opportunities to serve because he hasn’t lost the wonder of the Father’s care. And a genuine smile breaks forth when you tell him his brother has been appointed Bishop of Alexandria.
Dr. Erwin Lutzer, Moody, November, 1985