Battling the Unbelief of Envy

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By John Piper About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Battling Unbelief

Psalm 37:1-7

Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

(The following is a transcription of the audio.)

A Definition of Envy

One of the barriers to being concerned for other people is that we envy them. We’re going to talk tonight about battling the unbelief of envy. Let’s define it.

As I analyzed envy myself this afternoon—and when I checked my thoughts with Webster’s dictionary—two things stood out about it.

1) Envy has an element of desire in it. Somebody has experienced an advantage or benefit in life, and you want that to happen to you. That doesn't necessarily make you envious, however, because that kind of desire is okay when you’re drawn to imitate saintly people.

2) The other element—and the one that makes envy bad—is that the desire is tinged with resentment that it’s going well for the other person and not for you. That’s what makes it envy.

So, in a sentence, envy is a mingling of a desire for something with the resentment that another is enjoying it and you are not. Things aren’t going so well for you, but things are going well for them; and it just gnaws away at you sometimes. Why does it go so well for that person when it doesn’t go so well for me?

Opportunities for Envy Abound

The next thing I did this afternoon was to try and flesh it out. I tried to find some examples of envy from my own life, from my imagination, and from other people’s lives.

What are some illustrations of envy? See if you can find yourself in these scenarios:

I thought of Mr. Dukakis and Mr. Bush, and I thought that this could be an opportunity for envy. If a man devotes a year of his life, lots of money, and lots of effort to become the next president but ends up losing the race—even when he thinks he’s a better candidate, has better policies, and has a better running mate—I think he could easily lie awake at night and just seethe inside that it didn’t pan out the way he had hoped. He could feel like he devoted a lot of time and energy and got nowhere.

Or what if your friend gets married and you don’t get married. You’ve known this friend a long time perhaps, and now that person is getting married and you're not. You could start to feel a little resentful that it happened to him or her and yet it hasn’t happened to you.

Or say you have a child who is chronically sick while the other families around you always seem to be healthy. You could think, My child is always sick. My child gets sick week in and week out and has these extraordinary problems; but these other families, who are no better than ours, are always well.

Or what if you're on the second string of your high school sports team. All you do is warm the bench, while the guy on first string, even though he's such a smart alec, gets to play all the time.

Or suppose you have a friend who a plays the lottery. They're a real scoundrel but they make a million dollars. You might think you deserve that money more than your friend.

Or you're a pastor and you see other churches growing while yours fluctuates between no growth at all and just minimal growth. You might think this ought not to be.

Or perhaps you think that others are much better looking or much more fashionable than you. God gave you your looks, but how easy it is to walk through life, see others who seem so much more handsome, and feel envious of them.

A Prohibition and a Warning Against Envy

There are so many opportunities for envy. It’s a universal threat to our joy and to our concern for other people. So what I want to do is observe a text where it is prohibited in Scripture, look at some consequences of giving in to it, and then talk about how to fight it. And considering our time, I’m just going to assume almost these first two.

Namely, I assume that you agree with me that the bible says, Don’t be envious. Can we just start with that one? I have four texts here. Psalm 37:1, Proverbs 23:17, Galatians 5:26, I Peter 2:1. All of them say, Don’t be envious. So it’s not biblical to be envious. It is against the will of God for you to give into envy.

And then we could talk about warnings. Let's look at one passage here. Galatians 5:21 is in the passage about the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit, and one of the works of the flesh is envy.

Galatians 5:19 - "Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy"—which, by the way, I believe is a subspecies of envy.

I tried to think, Should I preach a sermon on jealousy? I was thinking this last August. And as I thought and thought I concluded that jealousy is a species of envy. What I mean is that jealousy is a kind of envy that is directed toward another person when they are getting affection that you wish you had. You're jealous of another person when they get affection from somebody that you think should be coming to you.

Now that can be a very healthy thing. God is jealous over love that should be coming to him. And a husband or a wife should rightly be jealous over a bad relationship that they see developing between their spouse and another person. But there is also an unhealthy jealousy. The reason I don’t focus on it is because I think that everything I will say about envy applies to jealousy as well, because it’s a sub-category under envy.

"Anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy"—there it is at the beginning of verse 21—"drunkenness, carousing and the like. I warn you as I warned you before that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

So there’s the warning. This is real serious business. Everything I’m preaching on in these fall sermons is serious business. In other words, if you give reign to this unbelieving state of envy it could so take over your life as to cause you to make shipwreck of faith and do you in in the end.

Fight Envy Like King David Did

Alright. We’ve seen what it is; we’ve seen that the Bible condemns it; and we’ve seen that there are negative consequences if you give way to it indefinitely. Now let’s just talk about how to fight it. That’s the big issue, and Psalm 37 is the place where we’ll start.

This is a great Psalm for talking about how to fight envy because it starts off with the main point of "Don’t be envious." Then I count six solid reasons for why not to be envious in the first 11 verses. What I’m trying to do tonight is give you an example of how to fight the fight of faith in your devotions.

When you wake up in the morning and notice a feeling of envy inside you towards somebody at work, a family member, or somebody, and you say, "This shouldn’t be there. What can I do about it?," here's what you do you. You get out the Bible, kneel down in prayer, and start reading. You look for the biblical promises that explode envy. But to do that you have to realize, first of all, that envy is a form of unbelief.

So lets look at Psalm 37:

"Fret not yourself because of the wicked, be not envious of wrong doers."

So there it is. Basic statement: be not envious of wrong doers or get all fretted about them.

"For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb."

And then I think verse 3 tells us what we ought to do instead. This is the opposite of envy:

"Trust in the Lord, do good."

And then the next phrase could be a command or a promise. It’s both I think. The RSV says,

"So you will dwell in the land and enjoy security."

It could be "enjoy security," but, literally, it is "feed on faithfulness." Either way I think it means God’s faithfulness, and so the idea of security is right and good.

"Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." "Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him."

Notice these positive things that you're supposed to put in place of envy in your emotions. "Trust" (verse 3), "delight" (verse 4), "Commit" (verse 5), and "trust" again in the second half of verse 5. So the reason I chose Psalm 37 tonight is because it teaches us that envy is unbelief, or has its root in unbelief. And the opposite of envy we see is faith, or trust, or delighting in God, or rolling your burdens onto the Lord.

So I hope it is clear that when we are beginning to envy—when we’re starting to look at somebody and resent that they have something and we don’t—and we’re beginning to lose our peace and contentment in God because of it, the issue is faith. Okay? That’s the point so far.

Six Reasons from Psalm 37 Why Believing Is Better

Now the other reason this Psalm is so great is because it gives so many reasons why we shouldn’t be unbelieving. It tells us why we should be totally restful and confident that God is for us. It tells us that he’s working in a way that, even if it looks like something’s going better for them, things are going to go great for us. Now let’s look at those. I wrote down six reasons that I see in this chapter for not being a in the grip of the unbelief of envy.

1) Verse 2: "They will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb." So if you are starting to get envious about a wrongdoer, like the scoundrel who just won a million dollars, God says, "Wait a minute. You don’t want to be in his shoes. He is going to fade like the grass, and those who do the will of God abide forever" (1 John 2:15). So that’s argument number one.

It’s repeated in verse 9: "For the wicked shall be cut off but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land." And in verse 10: "A little while and the wicked will be no more." So the first reason you shouldn’t let envy get the upper hand when you're feeling it towards an unbeliever or somebody who is unrighteous is the thought, "Wait a minute. God has said in his word that this person is going to fade like a flower—very quickly. They’ll be gone and then whose will their prosperity be?"

2) Verse 3: "So you shall dwell in the land and enjoy security," or, "and feed (pasture) on faithfulness." In other words, that’s the reward that comes from trusting God. Trust the Lord and do good and you will pasture in a land that is green. Your desires will be met, which leads to the next one.

3) Verse 4: "Delight yourself in the Lord" (that is, "trust in the Lord,"), "and he will give you the desires of your heart." Now that’s an amazing promise, because envy usually arises from not having the desire of your heart. You will see somebody that has something that you wish you had, and you'll see that this desire is missing in this life. So the best way to fight is to go to this promise and say, "Now Lord, you have made a covenant with me in verse 4. You say that, if I will put my delight in you, you will give me the desires of my heart. So I am now going to delight in you."

Now that’s a key step: trusting in God sufficiently so that you come to rest in who he is for you. It may also have a profound effect on the kind of desires you must have met in order to be content. But all the desires that you have will eventually be satisfied. That’s the essence of those amazing promises in Romans 8:32 ("If he did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, will he not with him freely give you all things?") or in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 ("All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or life or death or things present or things to come—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s"). The Bible makes staggering promises for people whose delight is in God rather than things.

4) Verses 5 and 6. "Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your vindication as the light and your right as the noon day." I can remember several years ago when Steve and Susan Roy were living across the street from us on Elliott Avenue over there. Steve had just resigned from InterVarsity. He did not have a position. We didn’t know whether he would be hired at Bethlehem, and he was painting on the weekends. And for Steve Roy, a theologian through and through, painting wasn't what he wanted to do.

One day as we were walking across the street he said, "We really need some encouragement." I can remember standing right there on the sidewalk. I said, "Here’s the promise for you today: Isaiah 64:4: 'Who has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him?'" And they told me many times in succeeding years that they could remember that encounter on that afternoon as well. "God works for those who wait for him." That’s the word. And that word "work" (in the Hebrew) is there in verse 5: "He will work for you. He will vindicate you." And that word "vindication" is precious too, because one of the things that lies behind envy oftentimes is the feeling that things aren’t going as well as they ought to go. We’re getting a raw deal while, for somebody else who doesn't even deserve it, things are going much better. What we want is vindication, and that’s exactly what is promised here. The vindication will come.

5) Verses 9 and 11: "For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land," and, "the meek shall possess the land." Now if you say, "Well wait a minute. I’m not a Jew, and I don’t expect to inherit Palestine," be careful. All of the promises of the Old Testament made to Jews will either be fulfilled to you the way they are fulfilled to Jews or better.

Where in the New Testament is there a better promise with almost the exact same words of verse 11? The Beatitudes, namely, "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." Alright, so I don’t get Palestine, just the earth. In fact, in Romans 4:13 it is those who are believers like Abraham who are called heirs of the world. 1 Corinthians 6 says that you will judge angels. To the disciples he said that they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. We, the non-disciples or non-apostles, will judge angels. The Bible is so full of the most stupendous promises that it can remove the resentful feeling that simmers beneath envy.

6) Verse 11: "The meek will possess the land and delight themselves in abundant shalom." This word is translated "prosperity" here, which probably has a ring that is not so helpful in our day. In the Hebrew it refers to the whole well-being that comes to those who trust.

So here’s a little example of how you fight the fight of faith in the morning, if envy starts to rise up in your heart. You get a text like this where it says, "don’t be envious," and then you say, "Lord, if I’m going to get over this envy I’m going to need some powerful arguments for why I should be resting in you. Would you give me some?" And then you just read step by step. And as you get to one you stop, and you pray, "Lord open my eyes to see the wonder of this promise. And grant me by your Spirit the capacity to savor it, rest in it, believe it, walk by it, live in it and act on it today, please." And you go to the next verse and work on it again until you find God meeting you and just lifting this ugly thing of envy off of you.

Additional Ammunition Against Unbelief

Well let’s take a few more texts that you could use in your warfare against envy.

Proverbs 23:17: "Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all day." And here comes this great promise: "Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off." So here’s a person who looks at a sinner and sees that they're prospering. Then that person starts to feel like their hope isn't really going to prosper. They try to live for Christ but things don’t seem to go as well for them as they do for the sinner. The Bible is so aware of that problem. Psalm 37 was written to address it, and so was Psalm 73.

Sometimes stories help more than texts, Bible stories especially. They have a way of getting in where expository literature doesn’t. So here’s a story that I have used often to overcome my temptations to envy. It’s the story of the lad with the five loaves and two fish, especially as its recorded in John 6.

In John 6 Jesus has compassion on the crowds and says to his disciples, "You feed them." And they say, "Send them all home. We need 200 denari worth of bread to feed these people and it’s too late." He responds, "Well, what do you have?" And they say, "This little boy has five barley loaves and two fish. But what’s that among so many?" Now you stop right there and you might imagine the little kid looking up and saying, "Well it’s all I’ve got. Don’t make me feel bad." And yet that’s where we all are. We’re little kids with five barley loaves and two fish worth of gifts, looks, money—whatever you tend to feel inferior about. You look around at all these strong, beautiful, rich people who have everything going well for them, and all you have is five loaves and two fish in a job that takes 200 denari worth of bread. And Jesus says, "Give it to me." He takes it and—you learned this in Sunday school, right? It’s a great story—and he prays, and he feeds 5000 men, plus women and children. I look at that and say, "Well, maybe there’s hope for my five loaves and two fish."

And how many baskets were left over? Twelve. Why? One for each apostle who didn’t believe there would be enough. That’s exactly why: to show that when you give what you don’t think you’ve got enough of, you get back more than you thought you ever dreamed you had in the first place. That’s a story that’ll knock envy in the jaw every time.

If you start thinking that your gifts are too small, that you don’t live up to what the need of the hour is, Jesus does live up to the need of the hour. He can take the tiniest little you and multiply it. I’ve got a little plaque over my door at home that Virginia Maderis gave me out in Maryland about 15 years ago. It says, "The world has yet to see what could be accomplished by a man wholly consecrated to the Lord. By God’s power I aim to be that man" - D. L. Moody.

"To Love Is to Stop Comparing"

One last illustration: turn with me to John 21. You know this story, but I doubt that you’ve ever thought about it in terms of envy. I didn't until I read it in a book some time ago. So this is not original with me, but I love it and so I’ll share it with you. The situation is that Peter has been restored by Jesus because of his denial, having affirmed three times now that he loves the Lord. In verse 18 it says, "Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." This is Jesus talking to Peter. "This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God." In other words, he’s going to be a martyr. After this, he said to him, "Follow me."

Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved—that is, John, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, "Lord who is it that’s going to betray you?" When Peter saw him he said to Jesus, "Lord what about this man?" Now what’s going on here? Why is he saying that? He said, You’ve just told me I’m going to get killed. What about John? Is he going to get killed too?" And you can see, just beneath the surface, envy in Peter's heart. "If he doesn’t it’s not fair!" Alright, now how does Jesus deal with this?

"And Jesus said to him, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me.'" What’s he saying there? I think he’s saying that it is real dangerous to compare circumstances. It is real dangerous to compare gifts. I remember at Wheaton College, in the dormitory, Martin Noel, my RA at the time, had a little teeny piece of paper outside his door that said, "To love is to stop comparing." That’s good news. That’s right. Jesus is saying here, "Look, don’t get all involved in comparing yourself with this other disciple. What I have for him, I have for him. Here is what I have for you: me. Is that enough?"

And that is the solution to envy. Just like it was the solution to lust, which we spoke about this morning. It’s Jesus. "Follow me. If you're behind me, if you’ve got me, what do you need to worry about him for?" And so that’s the answer: we just need more of Jesus. We need to realize what an incredible privilege it is to just know Jesus. Jesus said in another place, "Don’t rejoice over this, that the demons are subject to you. Rejoice that your names are just written in Heaven." It is such a staggering privilege to be a disciple of Jesus Christ that what becomes of other disciples is neither here nor there. And so envy flies away.

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