I Want That or Can I Help?

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Well, this is the last of our series on The Big Temptations – traditionally but unhelpfully known as ‘the seven deadly sins’ (as if others are not deadly). Oscar Wilde once said, ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.’ On the other hand, the moralist says, ‘You’ve just got to tell yourself, ‘It’s wrong, don’t do it.’’ But the Christian knows that neither of those is the answer. Oscar Wilde’s obviously wrong. Whereas the moralist is more dangerous because he’s less obviously wrong. But knowing what’s right doesn’t give you the power to do it, does it? Experience teaches us that. And so does the Bible: the Bible says that the only thing that can give us the power to resist sin and become the people God wants us to be is a relationship with Jesus – as we’ll see again this morning.

Well, we’ve done (or perhaps I should say ‘covered’) pride, sloth, gluttony, greed, lust and anger. And we come this morning to envy. So,

Firstly, WHAT IS ENVY?

Well, maybe a colleague of yours is promoted over you. And you resent that: it’s harder than you’d thought to congratulate him; and harder than you’d thought to work for him. That’s envy. Or maybe friends tell you they’ve just got engaged, or are expecting a baby – things you’re still hoping for, yourself. And although you want to be pleased for them, your first emotion is to be displeased for yourself. That’s envy. Or maybe there’s someone in your class or university course and she just seems to do the work effortlessly, while you have to struggle and put in long hours. And you begrudge her that ability. That’s envy. You only have to look at someone else’s house, or family or looks, or wealth, or gifts or success for envy to surface.

And it’s more than just wishing you had what they have – it’s got a darker side to it: envy is also wishing they didn’t have it, and has within it a streak of resentment, even hostility, over the fact that they do. And it’s born of comparing myself with someone else – eg, comparing my abilities and achievements with theirs; or comparing my possessions and position in life with theirs. And if I think they’re better than me at something, or better off than me in something, envy begins to surface – because that gap between them and me has somehow made me feel less. They’ve somehow threatened my sense of worth – which explains the darker side of envy. Because what do we do when threatened? We become hostile.

Now, as with all other sinful desires, envy is like a submarine. It’s always there under the surface, but it breaks surface in at least three ways. The first way envy surfaces is in active hostility. That’s what the Lord Jesus got that first Easter. Israel’s leaders accused him to the Roman governor, to get him crucified. And listen to what the governor said (in Mark 15):

9"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, 10knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. (Mark 15.9-10)

So they knew the people were turning away from their leadership to Jesus; they felt threatened and out it came in active hostility – just like it does today, eg, when the really able kid in the class is verbally bullied and called a ‘Geek’ or a ‘Spod’.

The second way envy surfaces is in passive hostility. So, eg, instead of praising someone for their success, we just can’t bring ourselves to do so – and say nothing. Or, eg, we’re not actually un-co-operative towards that colleague promoted over us; we just won’t go the extra mile for him.

But the third way envy surfaces is in competitiveness. Eg, the Old Testament (OT) book of Ecclesiastes says this, 4.4:

And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbour.

You see, if I my sense of worth is threatened by you doing better than me, one apparent solution is to compete so that I do better than you. And certainly before I became a Christian, competitiveness (the Bible would say, envy) was basically what made me tick. I happened to be good at academic work so I started coming top of class, then top of year, then top of school. And that’s where I got my sense of worth. Which drove me to keep trying to come top – I had to. But that’s actually a lousy way to try to find your sense of worth, because it only works as long as you’re succeeding. Come second, or (horror of horrors) get a grade B, or get dropped from the first team, or mess up a professional exam, and where’s your self-worth then?

Well, enough on ‘What is envy?’


Well, the moralist would say, ‘You’ve just got to tell yourself, ‘It’s wrong, don’t do it.’’ And people often think that’s all Christianity is saying: ‘Do this, this and this; don’t do that, that and that.’ But nothing could be further from the truth. Christianity isn’t moralism. And, anyway, moralism isn’t the answer because it fails to get to the root of the problem. Because the root problem here isn’t envy. The root problem is looking for our sense of worth in the wrong place – namely, in comparing ourselves with others, rather than in relationship with God. And the Bible says the solution to envy lies in finding our sense of worth there: in the fact that God created us, and supremely in the fact that he gave his Son to die for us.

So to start with, let’s think about the fact that he created us. I wonder if you’d turn in the Bibles to Psalm 139 and vv13-16, where David writes:

13For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16your eyes saw my unformed body.

So think of your looks, your abilities, your IQ, your skin colour, your basic temperament, your gender: you are all those things by creation. That’s how God wanted you to be. He doesn’t want you to be someone else, otherwise he’d have made you someone else. And that’s the first key to my sense of worth – accepting what I am by creation – rather than comparing myself with others and wishing I was them.

Now just while we’re here in Psalm 139, look on in v16 (the second line):

All the days ordained for me were written in your bookbefore one of them came to be.

So that means God isn’t just sovereign over what I am by creation. He’s also sovereign over where I am in life. And I need to accept that, too – rather than compare my circumstances with those of others. Eg, in his sovereignty, God kept me single until I was forty. And the Bible tells us that singleness, like marriage, is a good gift to be used for serving the Lord. And I accepted that and experienced that. But as more friends around me got married, the temptation was to compare myself with them and be envious, rather than say to myself, ‘Ian, you are where you are under God’s sovereignty.’ That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want our circumstances to change, or pray for that or seek that. It just means we shouldn’t envy the circumstances and timings of others’ lives.

So that’s the first key to my sense of worth – being able to say, ‘God loves me for what I am by creation.’ But the even bigger key is to be able to say, ‘God loves me enough to have sent his Son to die for me.’ Because we’re not just the product of creation. We’re also the product of the fall – we have sinful desires (like envy) knocking around in us, and they break surface in sinful actions. And yet when God could simply have treated us with justice and condemned us, he extended the most extraordinary love to us in Jesus. So for the last part of this, would you turn on in the Bibles to Galatians 2.20, where the apostle Paul writes:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

So someone trusting in Jesus can say, ‘I have been crucified with Christ.’ What does that mean? It means that when the Lord Jesus was crucified that first Good Friday, in God’s sight, I was there – my life and my sin were taken by Jesus to the cross and the condemnation that should have fallen on me fell on him in my place. So it’ll never fall on me. So I’m forgiven and accepted for good. But then he also rose from the dead. And again, in God’s sight, I was there in him, being raised back into living fellowship with God, which is why v20 goes on:

... and I no longer live [the non-Christian Ian Garrett], but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2.2)

So a Christian can say: ‘God loves me for what I am by creation. And supremely, God loves me despite what I am – despite my sinfulness and sinning’ – ie, unconditionally. Whereas so much love and acceptance in the world is conditional, isn’t it? Speaking at weddings, I often use the story of the advert in The Evesham Advertiser. Evesham’s a rural part of the world and someone put this in the personal column a few years ago:

Young farmer with 500 acres seeks friendship with young lady with tractor. Please send photo of tractor.

That was obviously a lonely heart being tongue-in-cheek. But on the face of it, he’s saying, ‘I’ll love you if you have a tractor.’ And that’s conditional love – ‘I’ll love you if you are this, I’ll love you if you do that.’ So much love is conditional – which is actually the root of the envy problem. Because, eg, if you love me for my tractor, but then someone else comes along with a better tractor, I’m going to start worrying that you’ll love them more and me less, and I’m going to start envying the person whose better tractor has threatened my source of love and therefore my sense of worth. And the only thing that sets us free from that envy trap is living in the unconditional love of God. That’s the only solid foundation for our sense of worth – because nothing can threaten it – not even our sinfulness.

So now let’s turn over to Galatians 5, and see how finding our sense of worth in God’s love frees us to overcome envy – and all the other sinfulness knocking around inside us. Look down to Galatians 5.26, the end of this passage:

Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

So, envy was a problem among Christians then, in church life – and it still is. The submarine is there – maybe not breaking surface in active hostility, but what about in passive hostility among us? Or competitiveness among us? Eg, can I ask those of you in music group who are – dare I say it? – just average: are you genuinely gratefully for the more gifted people – eg, who do solos? Or is there a streak of envy, of resentment that people are looking at them and not you? Do you ever want it to be you up there next time, for your sake, rather than the best person up there for Jesus’ sake?

Well, the answer to all such envy is to find our sense of worth in God’s love shown at the cross. So look back up to v13:

You, my brothers, were called to be free...

The background to this is that some people were telling the Galatian Christians that trusting in Jesus and his death was not enough to be right with God. They said you also had to be circumcised, and eat kosher and keep various other bits of the OT law. And Paul’s spent five chapters saying, ‘No: the moment you believe your acceptance with God depends on Jesus’ death plus something you do, you lose all confidence of his acceptance and you’re back into all that insecurity about whether he really does love you.’ And Paul says in v13, ‘You’re free of all that’ – because Jesus’ death has put you right with God for good, so he does love you as you are and even despite what you are. ‘But,’ read on in vv13-15:

13... do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbour as yourself." 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So v15 shows that sin (including envy) was surfacing in these churches in active hostility. But Paul’s saying, ‘You’ve been freed from that. If your sense of worth is in God’s love shown at the cross, it sets you free to love others.’ So take, eg, the soloist in music group whom you’re tempted to envy. You can say to yourself, ‘I’m so glad we’ve got people this gifted’ – rather than wish they weren’t there showing up your averageness – because, Christian: you don’t get your sense of worth from how you compare with others. And you can say to them, ‘Well done, that sounded great’ – rather than not say that because it’ll remind you they’re more gifted – because, Christian: you don’t get your sense of worth from how you compare with others. Which leaves you free to love people genuinely, un-self-interestedly, unthreatened-ly (if there’s such a word. There probably is in America...)

Let’s read on, v16:

So I say, live by the Spirit...

What does he mean by that? He just means, ‘Let how you live be shaped by your relationship with Jesus.’ So, he rose from the dead. He’s not on earth as he was 2,000 years ago, but he’s present in every believer by his Spirit. And his Spirit gives us a sense of his love for us, and of his presence with us and a new desire to love him back and to love others as he’s loved us. And Paul’s just saying, ‘Run with those desires!’ Read on in vv16-17:

16…Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. [So sinful desires (like envy) are still knocking around in us; we’re not going to get rid of them this side of heaven. But running with our new desire will sideline them.] 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do whatever you want. [So there’s an inner conflict. But the end of v17 means, ‘so you do not just do whatever your sinful nature wants.’ Ie, Jesus in your life by his Spirit has given you a new desire to please him, which has the power to overcome your old desires. So, eg, when you feel envy surfacing, but simultaneously feel the desire to praise or congratulate the person – well, run with the new desire and the submarine of envy will be forced to dive again.] (vv16-17)

But then in v18 he says something that doesn’t seem to fit at all:

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

And that might make you wonder why he’s suddenly mentioned the law – God’s OT law. But in fact it fits perfectly. He’s just underlining again that simply being under law, under God’s moral code, can’t change people. So in his law, God tells us his morality for us – eg, ‘Do not envy’ – and the law is good and we need it to know how God wants us to be. But the law is like a mirror – it can show you the moral dirt on your face but it can’t get it off. It’s like a map – it can show you where you should be heading, morally, but it can’t get you there. Only Jesus in our lives by his Spirit can change us.

So, read on into v19. Here we move from desires under the surface to actions breaking surface. Verses 19-21:

19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

What’s he saying there? That if I fall into sin – into envious behaviour, or sexual immorality, or having a row or getting drunk – that I’m not really a Christian? No! Paul knows that even in trying to live for Jesus, Christians will sin every day. Look at v21: he’s talking about ‘those who live like this’ – ie, those whose habitual lifestyle is this, those in whom there’s no conflict with sin, no resistance to sin, no sorrow over sin, no change – ie, those who show no evidence of having been born again into relationship with Jesus. So examine yourself. Are you there in vv19-20?

By contrast, look at the evidence that we have been born again into relationship with Jesus, in vv22-23. None of this is remotely perfect or sinless in us,

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

So, if your sense of worth is in God’s love, the fruit is that you can love others. You can want their good and rejoice in their good, without envy. And then joy: if your sense of worth is in God’s love, you have the biggest thing there is to rejoice about. So you can look at someone else’s house, or family or looks, or wealth, or gifts or success without envy – because those things are peanuts compared to what have in Christ. And when envy, with its dark side of hostility, goes, then peace breaks out among us. And so on through that list. So, again, examine yourself. Are you there in vv22-23?

But finally, Paul brings us back to where he began – to how Jesus makes people like that, back to ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’. Look at v24:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.

So remember: when Jesus was crucified, in God’s sight, I was there – my life and my sin were taken to the cross and condemned. So as I look at the cross and think how my envy (among other things) took Jesus there, I’m left thinking, ‘If that’s how ugly and deadly envy is, I want nothing more to do with it.’ But then Jesus rose from the dead and again, in God’s sight, I was there in him, being raised back into living fellowship with God. Which is why Paul ends (vv25-26):

25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit [ie, let’s run with the new desire he’s planted in us ]. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

It sounds like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the only thing that can break envy – or any other side of our sinfulness – is the power of grasping what Jesus really did for us when he died and rose again.

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