Some sins are out in the open, and everybody in the church knows that they are in fact sins. I am thinking about theft, drunkenness, adultery, and the like. But there are other sins that are harder to identify, and because of this they can even function openly in Christian circles. I am thinking here about things like desire, envy, competition, and ambition. Now there are some situations where some of these are perfectly fine, but they are still dangerous. For example, consider desire—the quarry from which many sins are hewn. This is a word which, thankfully for worship bands and the writers of rock ballads, rhymes with fire. Perhaps we would be better occupied with that which gives desire that sinful crackle it frequently has. This is what our spirits’ desires naturally run to, and so what we are looking at today is the sin of envy (Jas. 4:1-3, 5-6).
“A stone is heavy, and the sand weighty; but the fool’s wrath is heavier than them both. Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?” (Prov. 27:3-4).
Summary of the Text
The writer of Proverbs begins with an illustration. A heavy stone is hard to pick up (v. 3), and the same thing is true of sand (v. 3). It too is heavy. And when a fool gets angry, that is heavier than both or either of them. You should rather have your pick-up truck filled with wet sand than to encounter a fool in his anger. Then, building on that first thought, since we are now at the next level, wrath is cruel (v. 4). The synonym anger is outrageous (v. 4), but envy carries everything before it. Envy is therefore a formidable sin. It is the full bloom of folly’s rose.
Now jealousy is to be possessive of what is lawfully your own. Because we are sinners, we sometimes give way to jealousy for wrong causes, or in a wrong manner, but Scripture is clear that jealousy is not inherently sinful. Our God is a jealous God; His name is Jealous (Ex. 20:5; 34:14). Wanting to keep what is lawfully yours is no sin.
Simple greed or covetousness wants what it does not have, and wants to have it without any reference to God’s conditions for having it. The thing that it wants may have been seen in a store, a catalog, or a neighbor’s driveway. This sin is tantamount to idolatry (Eph. 5:5), putting a created thing in place of the Creator.
But envy is more than excessive jealousy, and is far more than simply a lazy or idolatrous desire. Envy is a formidable sin, as our text shows, because it combines its own desires for the object (status, money, women, whatever) with a malicious insistence that the other person lose his possession of it. In two places Paul puts malice and envy cheek by jowl (Rom. 1:28-29; Tit. 3:3), and this is no accident. In the Bible, whenever envy moves, violence and coercion are not far off (Acts. 7:9; 13:45; 17:5; Matt. 27:18). Envy sharpens its teeth every night. We may therefore define envy as a particular kind of willingness to use force or coercion to deprive someone of what is lawfully his. Of course an envious man may be a coward as well, and so fall under Pope’s condemnation—“willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.” But even here, the sin is present in the heart.
The Natural Condition of Man
We see in the letter of James that the spirit within us “lusteth to envy” (Jas. 4:5-6). This is our natural tendency; it is a universal problem. We should see also that a recognition of our complicity in the sin is the way of escape. That recognition is called repentance, and can only be found in Christ. This is because outside of Christ, envy is the natural condition of all mankind. Before we were converted, what were we like? “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Tit. 3:3). That is what we are like. “Being filled with all unrighteousness . . . covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder . . .” (Rom. 1:29).
When we are brought into Christ, this does not grant us automatic immunity to this sin—we must still guard ourselves. We have to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, and that includes death to this sin. For example, the godly have to be told not to envy sinners (Prov. 3:29-32; 23:17-18). And we have to guard ourselves against sanctimonious envy, the kind Judas tried to display in his false concern for the poor (Mark 14:5,10; John 12:3-6).
The Invisible Vice
In striking contrast to many other sins, nobody readily admits to being envious. Envy is petty and malicious. Envy is unattractive to just about everybody, and in order to operate openly in the world, it has to sail under false colors. Envy is clandestine; envy is sneaky. To admit to envy is to admit self-consciously to being tiny-souled, beef jerky-hearted, petty, and mean-spirited, and to admit this is dangerously close to repentance. To be out-and-out envious is to be clearly in the wrong, to confess yourself to be an inferior.
And so envy often decks itself out with the feathers of admiration, and tends to praise too loudly or too much. One writer said to “watch the eyes of those who bow lowest.” The praise can come from someone who does not yet know his own heart, or it can come from someone who is trying to position himself to get within striking distance. Guard your heart; don’t allow yourself to become an unctuous or oily flatterer.
Envy occupies itself much with matters of social justice, and becomes a collector of injustices, both real and imagined. Since envy cannot speak its own name, the closest virtue capable of camouflaging the sin is zeal for social justice. And since true Christians should be very much concerned with genuine justice, be sure to run diagnostics on your heart as you do so. This is because our modern political tangles are a veritable festival of envy, everywhere you look. Trying to find envy in our political disputes is like trying to find some beads at the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.
And envy gets worse as a person’s gifts get greater—when dealing with talent, artistic temperaments, and great intellectual achievements. We sometimes assume that we can “cultivate” our way out of the temptation, which is the reverse of the truth.
Heading It Off
What about when you are being envied? Wanting that is a snare also. And because we are all a bit naive about this sin, in ourselves and in others, we glibly assume that if God only blesses us a little bit more, that will make it clear to everyone that we are nice people and that there is no reason to envy us. But of course, this only makes everything worse. Should the “neighbor” in the tenth commandment assume that if God only gave him a bigger house and faster car that this would somehow resolve the problems of his green-eyed neighbor next door? Is he serious?
Many of you are at the beginning of your lives, your careers, your accomplishments. And you need to know that when marked success comes to some of you, the poison will start to flow. Even in the church? Yes, even here, but if we take note of our hearts now, if we internalize these truths now, we are laboring for the peace and purity of our congregation—one of the things we are covenanted to in our membership vows. When James takes aim at conflict in the church, he takes aim at envy. So remember that the love of Christ is forever, and envy is transient. Speaking of the earthbound, Solomon says, “Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (Ecc. 9:5-6).
Gore Vidal once said, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” In stark contrast, the apostle Paul said, “Love does not envy” (1 Cor. 13: 4).
And the reason love does not envy is because love was crucified on the cross, and love was sent to the cross because of envy, as Pilate recognized, and then love rose from the dead, leaving all that envy behind in the grave.