Our Ugly Ambition
The Trouble With Envy
by JOHN KOESSLER
WHEN THE PICTURE of the pastor’s newest grandchild flashed on the screen at the beginning of the service, Mary groaned inwardly. She felt a stab of guilt as she added her own halfhearted applause while the congregation clapped. She knew she should be happy for him. She was, in a way, but there was something else. Mary’s daughter and son-in-law had chosen to build their careers instead of start a family. Mary could tell that what she was feeling was envy. It wasn’t the first time. It probably wouldn’t be the last.
There is no calling, no age, no culture that is immune to envy. It is as likely to be found in the halls of the holy as it is among the profane. It doesn’t matter whether you are a child or an adult, a professional or an amateur, wealthy or poor. Sooner or later, you will feel the fevered itch in the soul that is envy.
THE VERDICT OF AN OURS/THEIRS ATTITUDE
Jesus diagnoses our struggle with envy in Matthew 20:1-16 where He tells a story about a landowner who hires laborers at several points during the day and then pays them all the same wage. Those who worked only one hour were paid the same as those who worked for 12. Not everyone was happy about it. “‘These last men put in one hour,’” the first workers complained. “‘You made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day’s work and the burning heat’” (v. 12).
We would be angry, too, if this had been the action of our employer. I doubt we would be satisfied with the explanation. According to Jesus’ story, the landowner asserted that it was his right to pay everyone the same. He was acting within his own authority. Not only were his actions legal, they were just. They were just because it wasn’t his intention to be fair. It was his intention to be generous. Jesus’ point is clear. Fair is good. Generous is better.
We don’t really disagree. Not in theory. But when we are on the receiving end of fair and someone else gets what is generous, it becomes an issue. Our disappointment with the way we have been treated relative to others drives a wedge into our relationship with God. The thin edge of that wedge is the act of comparison. We compare our experience with others and start to calculate. We become timekeepers in the kingdom of God, measuring the value of other people’s service by comparing theirs to ours.
This kind of thing often happens in the church. It is especially common among those who are highly involved in the life of the congregation. Those who fall into this trap tend to divide the church into two classes. There is the small company of the committed — among whom we count ourselves — and there is everybody else. There are those who have borne “the burden of the day’s work and the burning heat,” and there are the rest. Or to use the language of statistics we sometimes hear in the church, there are the 20 percent who do all the work, and then there are the 80 percent who do little or nothing.
THE TROUBLE WITH 80/20 THINKING
One problem with this kind of thinking is that it assumes a level of knowledge about other people that we don’t have. Do we really know what the 80 percent are doing for Christ? Are we with them on their jobs and in their homes? Do we know how they are representing Christ in their neighborhoods? Do we know the circumstances and pressures under which they bear testimony to their faith in Christ? Probably not.
Another problem with this 80/20 kind of thinking is that it tends to define ministry and service to Christ very narrowly. It tends to see the burden of the work and the heat of the day through the lens of the 20 percent. It is a perspective that is skewed toward our own agenda and interests. It defines ministry and service in a way that favors us at the expense of others.
THE SOLUTION TO A COMPARE/CONTRAST LIFE
What then should we do about the ugly ambition of envy? The landowner’s response in Jesus’ parable suggests a two-step solution. The first step is to bow the knee. The only defense against envy is to bow to God’s supremacy. God has the right to be as generous as He pleases to whomever He wishes. We will never be able to overcome our envy until we recognize that God has the right to be generous. He is not obligated to give us everything He gives to everybody else. Indeed, He does not. We do not all have the same intelligence, opportunities, or health. We do not all have the same gifts and ministries. One church grows large, and another does not. Yet none of what we call ours is actually owed to us. As Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “For who makes you so superior? What do you have that you didn’t receive? If, in fact, you did receive it, why do you boast as if you hadn’t received it?”
The second step in Jesus’ remedy is to open our hearts to God’s grace. The landowner’s reply in Jesus’ parable is noteworthy: “He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?” (Matt. 20:13-15).
“Take what’s yours and go” (v. 14). I do not see these words as a threat or a form of rejection. This is the overture of a friend. It is a kind of reassurance. If we were to put these words into the mouth of God, I think we would hear Him speak to us about our envy this way: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. I will keep all My promises. Receive what is yours and move on in the Christian life.”
We have what we have as a gift from the Lord. He is a God who loves to be generous to us. As for those things we do not have, perhaps it is because we do not need them. We are what we are by the grace of God. He is the God who has poured out His grace on us through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we are not yet what we hope to be, that is simply because we are not yet all that we will be. If we are struggling with envy, this is Christ’s word to us: “Take what’s yours and go.” In Romans 8:32, the apostle promises: “He did not even spare his own Son but offered him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything?” If we have Christ, we have everything.
JOHN KOESSLER is a member of the faculty of Moody Bible Institute. His latest book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap (IVP).
This article originally appeared in Mature Living magazine (August 2018). For more articles like this, subscribe to Mature Living.