We continue this morning in the great love chapter of the Bible, I Corinthians 13. We saw last week that, in verses 4-7, Paul breaks down the concept of love into different pieces which is extremely helpful. Because, as I said, it’s easy for us to sidestep the word love because it’s so general, but it’s much harder for me to get around the specifics. For example, I may say, “I love you” but if I raise the questions, “How patient am I with you? Or, how kind am I to you?”, now I’ve got something that I can measure my love with.
As we continue to look at these qualities of love, I’ve asked you to make two lists, either on your sermon notes page or in a separate notebook. One list is labeled “My Love Strengths” and the other, “My Love Weaknesses.” And as we go through these verses together, I’d like for you to think about each of these characteristics of love that Paul describes and write it down under one of those two lists. Is this something that you do pretty well, or is it something you struggle with?
I said last week that we’re going to break this passage down into four parts. Paul tells us what love is, what love is not, what love does and doesn’t do, and then, finally, what love always does. Last week, we looked what love is. Love is patient and love is kind. This morning, we’ll begin to look at what love is not.
If you listen to country music, you may have heard a song that is sung by the Eli Young Band. In that song, they sing, “I may not know what love is, girl, but I know what love ain’t.” So, for the next several weeks, we’re going to talk about what love ain’t.
Beginning in verse 4, “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.” (I Corinthians 13:4-5)
This morning, we’re going to focus on the first thing that love ain’t – “Love does not envy.”
We know that the Corinthians were certainly struggling with this aspect of love. In chapter 12, Paul talked about how each member of the body was given a spiritual gift and each of those gifts was important. But there were some Christians who felt that their gifts weren’t as important as the gifts that others had. And so, they were envious of those with more important gifts.
There are several things that I want to do in this lesson. First of all, I want to talk about what envy is and how it can manifest itself in our lives.
Next, I want to talk about why we tend to be envious and who it is that we envy most often.
And then, finally, I want to talk about how we can keep envy from taking control of our lives because in order for us to be more loving, we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with any envy that’s in our lives.
What is Envy?
I think it’s important, first of all, to draw a distinction between envy and jealousy. I realize that we tend to think of those two words as meaning pretty much the same thing, but there are two different Greek words used in the Bible – one of them is translated “envy”, and the other is translated “jealousy” – and they actually have different meanings. And envy is the worse of those two sins.
Here’s the difference. Jealousy says, “I want what you have.” We might say, for example, “I’m jealous that Jorge got to go on a cruise.” What we mean by that it that we’d really like to go on a cruise, too. Next time you go, take me. That would make me happy.” Or we might say, “I’m jealous that you got a new iPhone.” What we mean by that is that we’d like to have one, too. And if we could get one, then that would make us happy.
Jealousy says, “I wish that I could have the same thing that you have.” But envy says, “Not only do I want what you have, but I also don’t want you to have it. I want to have it instead of you having it.”
If I’m jealous, then I can be happy as long as I can acquire this thing that you have. But if I’m envious, then I can only be happy if I can take that thing away from you. And if I can’t get it, I will still be happy as long as I make sure that you don’t have it any more.
What that means is that envy is not really concerned about that possession. Envy is more concerned with the honor or status or sense of worth that goes along with having that possession. If an envious person wants something, it is because that object symbolizes or signifies its owner’s status.
For example, suppose you love cars. You especially appreciate the quality that goes into making certain cars. And you have your eye on a certain BMW that your neighbor is driving, because you love the driving performance of this particular model. You would love to have that car. That’s not envy. It’s jealousy, but it’s not envy.
But if you want a BMW because it will make you feel superior to your neighbor, who just bought a new Camry, that would be envy. Anything but to be the only person in the neighborhood still driving a Taurus!
But notice, it’s not the car that makes us envious, so much as what being the owner of that car says about who we are. It’s about the respect and the admiration that we command when we drive up in that car. We don’t envy the car. Rather, we envy the status of a person who drives that kind of car. Getting the car is just a way to be seen as the person we want to be seen as.
Let me give you a biblical example, because we see this in the Jewish leaders and their attitude toward Jesus. Matthew 27:18 tells us that Pilate recognized that “it was because of envy that they had delivered him up.” You see, the Jewish leaders saw that Jesus had the respect of the people and they were envious of that.
They weren’t just jealous. It wasn’t just that they wanted more respect from the people. They were envious, because they saw that Jesus had the respect of the people and they wanted to take it away from him.
That’s why jealousy is sometimes a bad quality in the scriptures, but sometimes it’s a good quality. Jealousy simply means you want something very, very much. And as long as what you want is good thing, then there’s nothing wrong with wanting it. That’s why God is described as a jealous God. He wants a relationship with us more than anything else. So, jealousy can sometimes be a good thing, but envy is always sinful.
Envy doesn’t like to see others achieve recognition or prominence, and it will do whatever it can to bring the other person down. Someone has said that an envious person is a lot like a crab. If crabs are caught by a fisherman in his basket and one starts to climb out, the other crabs will reach up and pull it back down.
Frederick Buechner said that “Envy is the consuming desire to have everyone else as unsuccessful as you are.”
There’s a joke that demonstrates the nature of envy. There was an Englishwoman, a Frenchman, and a Russian. Each of them was given a single wish by one of those genies who always seems to pop out of a bottle.
For her wish, the Englishwoman says that a friend of hers has a cottage in the country, and she would like a similar cottage, with a couple of extra bedrooms and a brook running in front of it. That’s jealousy, but it’s not envy.
For his wish, the Frenchman says that his best friend has a beautiful blonde girlfriend, and he would like such a girlfriend himself, but with longer legs and a bit more in the way of culture and fashion. That’s jealousy, but it’s not envy.
Then the Russian, when he is asked what he would like, he says that he has a neighbor with a cow that gives a vast quantity of the richest milk, which yields the heaviest cream and the purest butter. The Russian says, “I want that cow….dead.” That’s envy.
If I’m envious, I can only be happy if I can take that thing away from you. And if I can’t do that, I will at least be happy if you lose it.
Now, at this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “I would never do that”, so envy must not be one of those sins that I struggle with. But stay with me. Because that’s what I thought when I started working on this lesson. But God has revealed just how deeply ingrained envy is in my life. And I suspect you may discover the same thing yourself.
Why Are We Envious?
At the very root of envy is the need to compare ourselves with others. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 10:12 (NCV), “We do not dare to compare ourselves with those who think they are very important. They use themselves to measure themselves, and they judge themselves by what they themselves are.”
And that’s what envy does. The bottom line for an envious person is how he stacks up against other people, because he measures his self-worth comparatively.
A good example of this comes from the story of Snow White. You remember how the Evil Queen stands in front of the mirror and wants to know, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who’s the fairest one of all?” And for a while, the mirror on the wall tells the queen that she is the most beautiful woman in the land.
But one day, the mirror informs her that Snow White has blossomed into the most beautiful woman in the land. And the Evil Queen goes into a rage. Because it’s not enough for her to be viewed as a beautiful woman. She can’t deal with being seen as less beautiful than someone else. It’s all about the comparison.
But it doesn’t just happen in fairy tales.
- Cain didn’t like the fact that God favored Abel’s sacrifice over his own, so envy led him to kill his brother.
- Joseph’s brothers didn’t like the fact that Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved them, so envy led them to sell Joseph off as a slave.
- Rachel didn’t like the fact that Leah was held in higher regard because she had children, and so she got envious.
- King Saul couldn’t stand the fact that women were singing the song, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (I Samuel 18:7), and so envy led him to try to kill David.
- In the book of Esther, Haman was envious of the attention that Mordecai received from the king and so he tried to kill him.
It’s not enough for an envious person to say, “I’m good.” He feels the need to say, “I’m better.” All of us have a need to be loved and found worthy, but an envious person makes attaining this love and worth a comparative game.
How many times do we see this in the apostles? Several times we read that “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” (Luke 22:24). They didn’t want to be viewed as just “great”. They wanted to be seen as the “the greatest”. They felt the need to compare themselves with all the other apostles and come out on top.
That’s why the strategy of envy is not just to get something for yourself, but to take down the person you envy. Envy’s view of the world is essentially me-versus-you. If you are “up here” and I am “down here”, there’s only two ways I can get on the same level with you. I can either raise myself up, but that’s a lot of work. Or I knock you down, which is a whole lot easier.
So, what are some of the ways that we knock others down? Some of the ways that envy can demonstrate itself. See if you can relate to any of these:
• Envy feels offended at the talents, successes, or good fortune of others;
Somebody will send me a clip of another preacher and say, “Alan, you’ve got to hear this guy. He’s fantastic!” As that can be hard for me to handle, because sometimes ego gets in the way. Now there are a lot of men that are better preachers than I am — I just don’t like to listen to them. No, that’s not true, but you understand what I’m talking about, don’t you? It’s very difficult to rejoice over somebody who does exactly what you do, but does it better.
• Envy feels a rivalry and competition.
Let me suggest that if you have a “competitive spirit”, you probably struggle with envy.
• Envy takes pleasure at other’s difficulties or distress;
I remember when I was a kid, I played second base for a Little League team. I was on the first string (although for the life of me I can’t remember why). But one week, my family went on vacation. When we got back, I found that I had been replaced. In the game that was played while I was away, the second-string kid made a fantastic catch, so he replaced me. You find yourself thinking a lot of terrible things in a situation like that as you sit on the bench. Even though he’s on your team, you want him to flub up and commit errors. You might even wish that he would get hurt. Because envy takes pleasure when other people mess up.
• Envy will assume the worst about others’ behaviors and perhaps even make false accusations.
I could go on, but as you can see, sometimes envy involves what we think about, sometimes it’s how we feel about others, and sometimes it’s what we say and what we do. But Paul tells us that “love does not envy.” It should be obvious that the attitude of an envious person is directly opposed to love. If we love someone, then we want only good things for them and we rejoice when those good things happen to them.
As Paul tells us in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” But envy can’t seem to bring itself to rejoice with those we view as our competitors. Envy weeps when good things happen to that other person, and envy rejoices when bad things happen.
And envy causes strife in our relationships. Several passages in the New Testament that tell us not to envy connect it with strife. “Let us walk….not in strife and envy.” (Romans 13:13). You see the same connection in James 3 and I Corinthians 3.
But of all the things that happen because of envy, perhaps the worst thing is what envy is does to us. Someone has said that envy is the only sin that’s no fun. Think about it. If you lust after someone, that may lead to some temporary pleasure. If you’re guilty of gluttony, that can bring a lot of pleasure. But who enjoys envy, even for a moment? All envy does is make you miserable as you compare yourself to others and think of all the things you don’t have.
Who Do We Envy?
It’s important to understand that we aren’t envious of everybody, just certain people. And if we think about the people we envy, and why we envy them, there’s a pattern that emerges.
We don’t usually envy who are far removed from our own lives and lifestyles. That is to say, we don’t envy people who are vastly more talented or successful than we are. We tend to envy people that we think others will compare us to, people who are pretty much like us—only better.
Let me give you an example. When I read that Usain Bolt from Jamaica holds the title of being the fastest man in the world, having run the 100-meter race in 9.58 seconds, I do not feel even a little bit of a twinge of envy. Now, I am obviously nowhere near as fast as Usain Bolt and I am definitely inferior to him, but I’m not envious because I don’t have to worry about anybody comparing me to him. Nobody has ever said, “Come on, Alan, you can run faster than that. You’re just not as good as Usain Bolt.”
But if a new preacher comes in and everyone starts to say, “This guy is great. He’s the best preacher we’ve ever heard. He’s a lot better than Alan was.” Now, the temptation to envy begins to take hold. Because the more they talk about how good he is, the more inadequate I feel by comparison.
If you’re an English major in college, you won’t be envious of a writer who wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, but you will be tempted to envy if you turn in a term paper that gets a B, but one of your friends gets an A+.
If you are one of those people who defines yourself by your career status and your earning power, you will not find yourself being envious of Bill Gates or Elon Musk. But you will be tempted to envy the fellow who works in the office with you who just got a $2.00 an hour pay raise.
As Aquinas put it, we only envy those whom we wish to rival or surpass in reputation. Because of this, William Willimon has said that envy is a “small town sin” because it’s a by-product of living so close to people with whom we make comparisons. Which is why I think there is so much temptation for us to struggle with envy in the church.
How Do We Overcome Envy?
Let’s close by looking at the most important question. Because if love does not envy, then we need to stop doing it. If envy is something that you struggle with, how do you overcome it? And the solution isn’t just to say don’t do it. Once we understand why we envy (to feel a greater sense of self-worth), then we realize that the only way to avoid this sin is to find a completely different foundation for our self-worth.
Someone has said that making the transition from envy to love is like making the transition from dating to marriage. The premise of dating is that you have got to outdo the competition to win your girlfriend’s affection and secure that relationship. But once you’re married, it’s no longer a competition. You know that you are loved, and you can feel secure in that love.
Envy depends on a comparative self-value. The worth of an envious people—at least from their perspective—is conditional on out-doing their competitors. And so, to overcome envy, we need to develop a view of ourselves where our sense of worth and our value is not dependent on what other people think about us.
God says in Isaiah 43, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. . . . You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1,4)
We are already loved by God, unconditionally — not because of how good we are, not because of how attractive we are, not because of how many things we’ve been able to achieve — but we are loved simply because we are God’s children. We all need that kind of love. And that’s how God loves us.
Jesus in the gospels—especially in Luke’s account — goes to great lengths to affirm and lift up those who lacked status or worth, those who were considered low in the social rankings of that day. And his love for them wasn’t based on performance or special qualities. It was an undeserved gift given to them just as they were.
Meanwhile, the Pharisees continued to compare themselves with everybody else. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus talks about the brother who goes off and wastes his inheritance, but then he comes home and his father throws a big party. And, of course, the older brother is upset. He “was angry and would not go in” (Luke 15:28). The reason is because he was envious. His brother was getting all the attention that he deserved. He said to his father, basically, “It’s obvious you love him more than you love me. You never threw a party for me.”
And the response of the father is to say, “Son, you are always with me. You’re my son. I love you. This is not a competition. You don’t need to compare yourself with your brother. You are special to me.”
Robert Roberts has said, “The message is that God loves me for myself — not for anything I have, not for my beauty or intelligence or righteousness or for any other qualification, but simply in the way that a good mother loves the fruit of her womb. If I can get that into my head — or better, into my heart — then I won’t be grasping desperately for self-esteem at the expense of others.”
Love does not envy. Where does this fall on your list? Is this something you’ve got under control, or is it something you struggle with? Is there anywhere in your life where envy has taken hold? Do you feel the need to compare yourself with others to feel valued?
Envy wants to pulls others down to our level, but love wants to do everything possible to lift them up, and takes great joy in their accomplishments.