A nice line of trees separates our driveway from my neighbor’s. They look great. My wife likes them. But they are causing me trouble. Lots of trouble. I guess to be specific, it’s not the trees causing me so many problems, but the secret and powerful things underneath them—to which I had never really given any thought. That is, at least until these long and growing wooden tentacles began to break up my driveway. And my neighbor’s driveway. And his water main. And the drains running from my house out to the curb. And the brick wall between my house and the neighbor’s house on the other side.
These tentacles are not like our infamous California earthquakes, which do all their damage at one time. The nefarious roots of these beautiful trees wreak havoc on my bank account—an expensive episode one year, and another costly episode the next. They are my trees. They are clearly on my side of the property line. I admired them when the realtor showed us the house seventeen years ago. But little did I know what came with them. I learned within a few years that they paid no attention to the property line. They loved making trouble for me with my neighbors. It was one thing when they first busted up my own garden drainage pipe, but it was a whole new ballgame when my neighbor came over with an estimate to have a contractor haul off his broken driveway and re-pour the whole thing with new concrete.
Selfishly, on a random day off, I would like to have said, “Hey, that’s your driveway, not mine—fix it yourself!” But I knew better. Those roots are from my trees. Any simple investigation could prove that. I also quickly learned that laws dealing with such matters have been on the books in our state since 1872 (section 833 of the civil code, if you must know), and I am fully responsible for the transgressive roots of the trees my wife loves so much.
To know that envy disrupts the peace, contentment, and joy that God would otherwise grant to our internal life is bad enough, but even worse is the fact that if envy is not detected, dug up, and thrown out it will inevitably inflict some serious relational damage on the people we are walking next to in life. Cain and Abel might express the most extreme example of one person literally killing another on account of envy, but we can be sure that quite a few of our past relationships have been “killed” for the same reason. We may blame the boneyard of past friendships on all sorts of things, but in reality the unseen destroyer in many cases can be traced back to the sin of envy.
Consider some of the symptomatic expressions that seep out from unrepentant envy. Let’s start with a fairly broad term that we are more likely to identify as a reason a relationship should end, while we continue to remain ignorant of the underlying cause. The word God uses is hatred. When asked why we don’t want to hang out with that person anymore, or why we’d rather not go to the game with him, or go to her dinner party, we might say, “I just don’t like that person.”
“But why?” our spouse might ask.
“I just really don’t like that guy,” we blurt out. That will usually end the discussion and change our weekend plans, but “hatred” really isn’t the reason. In many cases, it is only a manifestation of the true problem.
Here’s how God’s Word describes the mess: “For we ourselves were . . . passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). In that sentence the word envy sits surrounded by the effects that it has on the way we relate to each other. Malice may not be a word we use every day, but I remember memorizing the Greek word from which it is translated. It was easy for me to remember, because to me it always sounded like the thing it was—an onomatopoeia in my mind. The Greek word is kakia! It reminded me of the words yucky or icky. This word carries the idea of junk that is bad. It refers to things that are evil or harmful. It is even translated “trouble” in the familiar passage where Jesus said each day has enough kakia of its own (Matt. 6:34). That’s for sure. Every day has some bad stuff in it. The yucky stuff.
The words on the other side of “envy” in Titus 3:3 are super familiar—“hated” and “hating.” But in the original language of this text, they translate two different words. The first word translated “hated” is only used once in the Bible. Outside of the Bible, in other early Greek writings, it refers to people who are considered despicable, abominable, or disgusting. These are people we don’t like—people we really don’t like! The other word translated “hating” is roughly synonymous, and a term used commonly throughout the New Testament for a sense of disfavor and disregard of another person. It certainly carries with it the strong disdain that leads us to announce, “I just can’t stand her!”
We have to be vigilant and on guard against the ugly roots of envy that threaten to break up our connections with one another.
At the core of these terrible things is our familiar word envy—resentment and bitterness toward someone because they get to enjoy and experience the blessings we crave. Our unrestrained desires for their blessings and privileges grow into an intense irritation and our secret wish for their pain, loss, or embarrassment. When envy gets in between me and that person it results in bad and hateful words, actions, and innuendos that do nothing but ensure the destruction of whatever relationship might be left. And that is a big deal. Bigger than we’d like to think.
God has told us,
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9–11)
“God, I do love my brothers and sisters,” we say, “maybe not all of them, but the ones I like—I love.” We may rationalize these kinds of sins with nonsensical ideas like that, but let’s think for a moment and consider standing before Christ when He evaluates our lives and “laying down” that line. It won’t fly. We wouldn’t dare attempt to utter it. All the contemporary sentimental Christian music notwithstanding, we won’t be dancing and frolicking with Jesus, at least not before we, as His humble and unworthy servants, stand before Him for our evaluation—the evaluation that carefully considers how we have kept His Word and what things motivated our hearts (1 Cor. 4:5). That’s a sobering thought, but one that is supposed to snap us to attention and have us take His Word and our sins seriously.
This, by the way, is not a reference to a prelude of some sort of purgatory where we will go so we can burn off our sins for a specified period of time. It is rather the judgment for rewards that will certainly come with some tears and pain of lost opportunities, due in large part to our skill of rationalizing our sins. Not only does 1 Corinthians 3:11–15 speak clearly to this future reality for Christians, but Romans 14:10 puts it in the context of our relationships—“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Talk about snapping us to attention! In the words of 1 Peter 1:17, “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.”
In the time that remains of our “exile” on this sinful planet, it won’t be easy or comfortable to regularly monitor our hearts for impulses of disdain, bitterness, or resentment toward the more gifted, more beautiful, or more advantaged, but we must. Leading a circumspect life is essential for those of us who know the truth. We have to be vigilant and on guard against the ugly roots of envy that threaten to break up our connections with one another.
At times I’ve been tempted, in my vigilance and amid grief over my own bitterness toward others, to just withdraw. I’ve stroked my chin and wondered if the Desert Fathers of church history, back in the third and fourth centuries, were onto something. Maybe an emotional retreat for the remainder of my “exile” to a relational desert without all this “Christian communal stuff” is the way to go. I could avoid all the bitterness, frustration, and temptation to envy by being a twenty-first century-monk who keeps everyone at arm’s length.
I will go so far as to say that the whole monastic enterprise of the religious hermits took a decent idea too far. I get the value of “retreats” and “alone time.” Jesus did it for hours at a time, and once even for over a month (Mark 1:35–37; Matt. 4:1–2). But the predominant example of Christ, who was in close, intertwined human relationships, as well as the required outworking and significance of all the New Testament “one another” commands, forces me to conclude that physical or relational hermithood is not allowed.
God made us all for relationship—married or single, father of seven or widowed empty-nester. God meant it when He said it’s not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Adam had God, but he was designed for friendships, partnerships, and camaraderie. Jesus was God and had a better, more gratifying spiritual relationship with God the Father than we could ever imagine, and yet He lived, traveled, and leaned on a circle of twelve guys and had a network of men and women He was deeply devoted to, as well as a team of seventy that He engaged in ministry with. He didn’t withdraw. He wasn’t distant. He didn’t say that close human relationships aren’t worth the pain, heartache, or temptation.
I wouldn’t want to speculate as to how exactly envy might have been a temptation for Christ (though I can imagine living life with close friends who would never have to suffer the Father’s wrath for sins on the cross would certainly not be easy), but I do know that He is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but [is] one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus was harassed by temptation, but He chose not to isolate. We can’t isolate either.
God knows the hazards and liabilities of getting to know people well. He is aware that you will discover things in your friends’ lives that you desperately want. He is sure you will have friends, relatives, and coworkers who have been given things in life that have been taken away from you. The Lord is not blind to the fact that in truly caring, loving, and praying for others you will be tempted to covet, because you will see the disparity in various categories of life—between their prosperity and your deprivation. He knows you will be tempted to say, “Why should I be praying for another blessing or victory for little Ms. I-Have-Everything-I-Want?” Even so, God expects you to lean into relationships and not shy away from them. God would rather you read a Christian book like this and begin to quell the waves of resentment and discontent in your life, than have you run away from the circle of people in which He has placed you.
I was recently staying in a hotel that didn’t seem all that fancy, but the restaurant on the first floor was certainly trying. Being raised as a latchkey kid from Long Beach and having my taste buds conditioned by hot dogs and Top Ramen, I’m not an exotic eater. Ask anyone who knows me. They’ve learned not to invite me over for fancy foods. I have twelve things I like, and I have no interest in venturing beyond them. Anyway, this restaurant had a one-page menu with a list of fancy-sounding items, none of which I could envision. I began to wish for pictures next to each item. That would have helped. But then again, maybe it wouldn’t. I’m sure we have all been to eateries that spent more money on the menu photoshoot than on the kitchen equipment. You know what I mean. The plate comes out and you want the menu back to try to find a resemblance.
Sadly, so much of our envy is foolishly amplified because we begin to believe all the false advertising of what we think other people’s lives are like.
People’s lives are much the same. Especially in the modern era. And I mean the modern, modern era—like in the last ten or fifteen years. The problem of knowing if Grandma’s doodied-up, sweet-talking friend from church is all she presented herself to be has become a lot harder since she got a social media account. And people of Grandma’s age are not half as good at presenting their best public selves as their grandchildren are—who know exactly what to post, when to post, and what filters to use.
The temptation to envy in a performative world was bad enough when we worked in the same office with someone or participated in the same small group Bible study, but now we go home and see a whole new level of choreographed performance. Your buddy stands there in all his staged vacation photos, you see the retouched and retaken pictures of him and his wife in their softly lit embrace on date night, and watch the video of his kid scoring the game-winning touchdown. Even his dog seems to smile for the camera.
Sadly, so much of our envy is foolishly amplified because we begin to believe all the false advertising of what we think other people’s lives are like. Without any resentment-stoked satisfaction, I can tell you from my vantage point as a longtime pastor in the same congregation, that what you see on Sundays or even Wednesday nights is often far from the reality of the members’ messy and pained lives. From the church counseling offices, I can tell you that some of the most venomous and embattled marriages keep up with a regular flow of the sweetest and most affectionate arm-in-arm profile pictures, and a barrage of loving public compliments. Kids and parents who are at each other’s throats can be great at posting the most beautiful and poised family photos—where everyone is wearing matching white shirts and rolled up jeans while their feet are gently washed by the waves at the beach.
Consider your own life for a minute. First spend a good chunk of time in the mirror of God’s Word and allow the sharp edges of God’s written revelation to cut deep into your own conscience (James 1:22–27; Heb. 4:12–13). Then think for a minute about the people who may envy you. Imagine what they believe about all they admire about you. Think of how strong, patient, selfless, or forgiving you are. How would you feel to know they are struck with sorrow that they don’t have it all together like you? Imagine if they have growing resentment for you because, after all, you are just so amazing. You get the point. Only Jesus was all He was cracked up to be. The rest of us have a chasm of various miles between the “me” people envy, and the “me” that really exists. And yet relationships are strained, damaged, and some are even obliterated because of the festering evil of envy.
It may be a challenge to consider that my strained relationships and deteriorating friendships are a strategic part of a battle between heaven and hell, but that is the profound truth. Remember the description in 1 John 3:12 where Cain, who was embroiled in envy toward his brother, was said to be “of the evil one” and so murdered his brother Abel. The demise of this first sibling relationship is tied to Satan himself. As Jesus stated in describing the highest-ranking enemy of God, he comes “only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). The chief angelic destroyer has set his sights not only on separating us from God, but also on separating us from each other. And that makes sense. If Jesus says that nothing is more important than that we love God with all of our heart, and then adds that we are also to love our neighbor as ourselves, then certainly the enemy of Christ is going to be dead set on undoing both. God has affirmed “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1). So we can be sure that Satan is actively dispatching his demonic henchmen to disrupt the relationships we have with one another. And it is ominous to consider that the very first tool he used in destroying human fraternity was the crowbar of envy.
In my lectures on the topic of angels and demons, I have often summarized that promoting relational conflict among us and doing his best to keep us apart are among the top priorities of God’s archenemy. Knowing the enemy’s strategy in this regard might do us good in working hard to fight his temptations.
The spiritual battle “in heavenly places,” as Ephesians 6:12 calls it, is always on the cusp of breaking out into relational battles here on earth. And yes, even in the most tightly knit circles within the church. Consider the warning of God to the young pastor Timothy when he is told, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23). The passage goes so far as to say that there are emissaries for evil inside of the church who have been caught up in “the snare of the devil, after having being captured by him to do his will” (v. 26). The one Jesus said is prowling around to steal, kill, and destroy is attempting to create friction, conflict, and destruction, and so often he uses his favorite weapon of envy, which most people give little or no thought to these days.
God used the half brother of Jesus to inscribe some unvarnished truths and hard solutions to the strain and injury our envy causes. This biblical passage perfectly lays out the experience of envy without ever mentioning the word by asking some thought-provoking questions, which we must take time to answer honestly. James begins by asking, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” (James 4:1a). In light of what I just explained, don’t just pop off with Flip Wilson’s retort, “The devil made me do it!” Consider the strategy he is employing in your heart. James rushes right to the familiar diagnosis. “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (v. 1b). We know that we need to seek remedy for these transgressive unseen roots, but there they are, driving the relational breakdowns in our lives. I know the passions he is referring to clearly relate to envy because of the next two lines, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (v. 2). And what do we desire and covet? If it results in “murder” and “quarreling,” it must be more than simply chasing after the similar things my friends possess—it must by definition involve full-grown hostility and bitterness toward them for having what I want. Whether it’s their brains, brawn, or business acumen, we want what they have, and we don’t like them for having it. James uses the word murder, and though no literal homicides were taking place in their Bible studies, the verbal assassinations of gossip and backstabbing were clearly out of control.
The foolish passions at war within us are the problem. And they must be overcome.
Perhaps the reason James uses the word covet instead of envy in verse 2 is because he is going to point out the selfish illusion of chasing after the things that other people in our lives possess. This coveting is the foundation for the envy, and it is nothing more than “wrongly asking” God for these things simply to “spend it on your passions” (v. 3). It’s getting caught up in the false fantasy that having all the temporal blessings that the Joneses possess will make us happy and finally bring contentment. God used Solomon to give us this timeless wisdom: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Eccl. 5:10). The foolish passions at war within us are the problem. And they must be overcome.
I say the solution is hard because the passage couldn’t be more dramatic in spelling out the initial phase of seeing the problem rectified. We can’t recite a simple prayer or follow a set of easy steps. We must start with a full-blown hatred of our old ways, and the old values that still crop up in our Christian lives. It’s a jarring call to take the problem seriously. It’s another level deeper than what James wrote in the previous chapter about the “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” that was damaging relationships being “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:14–15). This is where he drops the serious indictment, and also where he introduces the solution. Read this passage slowly, humbly, and reflectively—carefully consider the topic of the sin of envy and the relational damage it causes. Note that it starts with admitting the worldly values that should be a thing of the past for us. Reflect on how pride, Satan, and the proper response to God’s jealousy are all interlaced in this important text.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.
by Mike Fabarez
It’s often undetected—but if you knew the damage it was causing, you’d do everything possible to root it out! Envy. It’s...
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