3 Temptations of Leadership: Envy
It’s just one of the respectable sins we find easy to hide while it poisons us
Christian leaders struggle with all sorts of temptations. We fool ourselves if we think otherwise. It’s how we handle those temptations that determine whether or not lives will be destroyed.
Often when we think of Christian leaders and their temptations, we think about the so-called “big” sins, those usually having to do with sexual immorality. But there are many more temptations than meet the eye—temptations to commit respectable sins, or sins we’re prone tolerate, as Jerry Bridges notes. These are often sins that are easier to hide, at least initially. One not talked about nearly enough is envy.
When we envy people, we believe something they possess, or something we think they possess, makes them superior to us. Not only do we want what they have, we want to outshine them. Maybe it’s…
• a bigger church
• a particular ministry
• lots of influence
• a dream job
• a relationship
• youth and beauty
• gifts and talents
• a particular virtue
• a bevy of opportunities
It need not be one thing; it could be a combination of traits and characteristics that we envy. In her book Glittering Vices, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung says envy is the sin of the “have-nots,” that is, people who feel like they are lacking whether or not they actually are. The issue here is not poverty; rather, it’s a matter of so badly yearning for what others have that without it, we feel inferior. Their success, or perceived success, makes us miserable.
Perhaps we believe they’re undeserving of these gifts and we’re the deserving ones. We’re the ones who’ve been faithful to God and who are more competent. We’re the ones who’ve had to scrape by, working hard just to get what little we have. We put in so much effort with little payoff. They, on the other hand, they’ve had it easy. Why are they prospering when they’ve done very little, they haven’t been good stewards, and they have wrong-headed theology? Why are they the favored ones? Doesn’t God see the good work we are doing for him? “It isn’t fair! It isn’t fair!” we cry.
Envy has us acting the part of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son—even if no one around us has a clue. We cross arms. We sulk. We throw a pity party for ourselves, refusing to rejoice with those who rejoice. We feel as though God has kicked us to the curb. We may even attempt to underhandedly sabotage the objects of our envy. What we are doing is refusing to listen to the Father’s voice telling us, “Everything I have is yours” (see Luke 15:31).
Unrepentant envy leads to hatred.
According to New Advent, one definition of ‘hatred’ is a hostility toward another person that…
indulges a propensity to see what is evil and unlovable in him, feels a fierce satisfaction at anything tending to his discredit, and is keenly desirous that his lot may be an unmixedly hard one, either in general or in this or that specified way.
Envy fuels hatred, which in turns fuels strife. For example, think about the cat and dogfights online between Christians.
Recently I sat aghast as I scrolled through my Twitter feed. Earlier that day, a few guys had beat up on a well-known female Christian blogger. Thankfully, I saw that many had come to her defense. I couldn’t help wondering if the offenders’ vitriol had more to do with their envy over her widespread influence than opposing theological viewpoints. What is so warped about envy is that our sense of well-being is so fragile that it can sometimes hinge on the demise of others—our rivals. We feel confident and successful if and only if we’ve one-upped them. Are our blessings really blessings if they’re contingent on other people being cursed?
Not only do we envy those who have what we desire, we tend to be envious of those with similar interests and gifts. I deeply appreciate the skills and talents of musicians. Growing up, I never had the chance to learn an instrument (though I’d like to someday). So at this point at least, I don’t struggle with envy toward musicians. But, I’ve certainly been envious of other writers. Similarly, pastors tend to envy pastors and worship leaders other worship leaders.
As Christian leaders, what do we do with our envy?
First we own up to it, we confess it. We confess to God and trusted others. There is a communal aspect to dealing with our envy; exposing our struggle in a beloved community of trusted others will help keep us accountable. It is especially important that Christian leaders regularly practice the discipline of confession. It may even be necessary to confess it to, and seek the forgiveness of, the one we’ve wronged through our hateful words and actions. Perhaps we will even have to make restitution.
In addition to confession, we need to practice the discipline of regularly fasting. For some that means fasting from Facebook and other social media in to order starve the envy inside. Pastor Daniel Darling noted that he had to stop going to popular conferences and heed the advice of another pastor who told him to stop reading church growth books. Fasting from these things would reign in his envy. It would stave off his proclivity to compare his ministry to others whose ministries appear to him as more successful—it’d stave off discouragement.
Third, we ask God to reveal and remind us of his unconditional love for us. Borrowing a phrase from Father Greg Boyle, when a “soul knows its worth,” it won’t envy. Konyndyk DeYoung writes:
A self secure in its unconditional worth, a worth based on God’s love, is a self free to affirm others’ gifts without feeling threatened or thereby made inferior. It is a self free to love without anxiety that its own contributions will be compared to another’s and found wanting. It’s a self that is able to take joy in its own good and the good of others.
Envy is a sin that seeks to sink its claws into the souls of Christian leaders, thereby agitating their souls and poisoning their ministry. Some of us walk around miserable because we have our eyes on everything and everyone but Jesus. It is critically important that we regularly take time to reflect to see if envy might be fueling our misery. And if so, we can take the steps to be rid of it.
Marlena Graves is a regular contributor to Gifted for Leadership and Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Relevant, the Clergy Journal, and other venues. Her book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness is forthcoming from Brazos Press.