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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

James 3:13-18
August 4, 2013 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

         Plonk! Norman spun around. He thought the splash was a big fish, or maybe a beaver. But then he realized his brother was throwing rocks in his fishing spot. In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean tells of fishing one day with his younger brother, who wasn’t catching any. Norman, on the other hand, had puzzled out what bug the trout were eating, tied on the correct fly and caught half a dozen. He would have caught more if his fishless brother hadn’t given him the “rock treatment.”

         Envy between siblings is a classic part of human life. That little stab of pain or anger you feel when someone close to you has more, or performs better, or gets by easier, or is prettier than you, is as common a feeling as any we know. It’s there at the beginning of human history in the relationship between Cain and Abel, and it is part of our lives. It’s the next in our look at the seven deadly sins which are at the heart of all sin.

         Our text from James 3 wants us to have a life of wisdom, a life that recognizes and roots out the deadly sins in our souls, in our communities. Verse 13 invites us to demonstrate such a good life by showing “that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Part of that wisdom will be getting rid of life-destroying sins like envy.

         As sibling rivalry suggests, we are most envious of people near to us. As much as advertising and cable television want us to envy the cars and clothes and mansions of the rich and famous, we agonize more over our brother-in-law’s or next door neighbor’s new Lexus than over Nicholas Cage’s Ferrari or Jay Leno’s Porsche. James understands that factor or nearness as he addresses those who are “wise and understanding among you.” Notice he says, “among you.” Envy arises among us, when we live and brush shoulders all the time. A church, a Christian community, is a perfect breeding ground for envy.

         Envy is sorrow at another’s good. You are envious when his happiness makes you feel sad, when her blessing be­comes your curse. The sin of envy is the habit of being bitter when God has been good to another person. And generally, for that sin to arise, you must be fairly close to that other person, feel like you are that person’s equal. Envy is that ugly sense of injustice you experience when someone has what you do not even though you believe you deserve it just as much or more.

         We color envy green. It fits. Green is the color of illness. Envy makes us feel sick when we think about what others have and we do not. Green is the color of growth. Envy is like a weed that springs up in a beautiful garden. It grows among siblings, among co-workers, even between husband and wife. And among followers of Jesus.

         Our Gospel lesson today from Mark shows us Jesus’ disciples enviously protecting their right to use the name of Jesus to cast out demons. They don’t like it that someone else has discovered the awesome power that is in His name. That green weed of envy still springs up when we see or hear about other followers of Jesus who are experiencing more spiritual, or even material, success in His name.

         My pastor friends and I are quick to mock Joel Osteen and his kind because he preaches a phony gospel of prosperity. But I’m pretty sure, at least for myself, there’s also at a thin green vine of envy winding through our sarcastic disdain for that sort of preaching.

         James saw the church as fertile soil for envy. Coming together to seek the Lord’s wisdom by prayer and Bible study, you start to think such wisdom should bring respect and prestige. From there, it is an easy step to envying the respect others receive, feeling like your own faith and understanding is as good as theirs.

         There is only one cure for envy, says James in verse 14. It must come out into the open: “Do not be boastful or false to the truth.” Like some weeds that grow beneath other plants, envy thrives as a secret sin. If you are a glutton, it will be known. If you are greedy, people will notice. If you get angry, your voice will be loud and your face will turn red. Everyone will realize you are angry. But you will not literally turn green with envy. You and God may be the only ones who know about it. You may be able to hide it really well.

         But envy inside consumes your soul like the worms which eat the apples on the tree in our church yard. All you see is a tiny hole where it entered, but if it stays long enough it devours all the flesh. There will be nothing good left inside. The worm of envy may not show in the way you talk and act, but it may be killing you from the inside out. It’s no wonder James adds the adjective “bitter” to envy. It’s poison.

         Think about how that poison plant, that little green worm is killing you. Listen to yourself. Do you ever say something like this, maybe just to yourself? “If I were as talented as she is, I wouldn’t waste it like she does,” or “Of course he can volunteer. He’s not working seven days a week just to put food on the table,” or “She always looks so calm, so collected. I hate her,” or “Of course he got promoted. I would be too if I kissed up like he does,” or even “Why would God give children to someone like that and not to us?”

         You can hide feelings like that. Even people close to you won’t know envy is the problem. Your life will look like good fruit to most people, but something rotten is growing inside. Sometimes perfectly good fruit falls on the ground. If you’ve grown tomatoes you know. If it lies there long enough, bugs, worms crawl up into it from beneath. It can look shiny red and beautiful, until you pick it up and see the whole bottom half rotted out.

         James did not want that to happen in the church. He does not want teachers and leaders of the church carrying around little worms of envy for each other. He does not want Christians to be rivals, each trying to be the most respected, the most loved, the most spiritual. Verse 15 tells us that’s not spiritual at all. It is not wisdom. It does not come from heaven, it crawls up into us from the earth, from the devil.

         Envy is what tortures Satan. He is never happy. He is always miserable because he is always envious. He looks at God, at the angels, at you and me when we enjoy even small pleasures, and envies. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is entranced with the beauty of Adam and Eve and the love they share. When he sees them in bliss in each other’s arms, we read, “For envy, yet with jealous leer malign [he] eyed them askance… Sight hateful, sight tormenting!” The devil aches with pain when other beings have joy. We become like the devil when we give in to that same pain of sorrow because someone else is happy.

         This deadly sin is also devilish because it can cause us to do what Satan did to Adam and Eve, to come along and try to ruin the happiness someone else has. Norman’s brother threw rocks in his fishing spot. We might whisper some piece of gossip about a co-worker we envy, or get angry and spoil our sister’s birthday party, or conveniently forget to show up and help another church member with a task.

         Like all the deadly sins, envy leads to other, more active sins. Verse 16 explains “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be dis­order and wickedness of every kind.” The seven deadlies are called “capital” sins, not just because they lead to death, but because they lead to other sins. Envy leads to anger, to hatred. It leads to gossip. It even leads to violence, to murder, Cain kills Abel. All because we cannot stand for others to have joys and pleasures when we do not. The green weed of envy bears ugly fruit.

         God wants something different to grow in us. Instead of the worm or the weed that crawls up from below, verse 17 tells us “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality and hypocrisy.” God wants to grow mercy and good fruit in us.

         In college I envied John. He was a music student and we were in choir together. He had natural talent and was a fine singer. And he came from a wealthy, well-known, prominent family in the evangelical world. If I told you his last name, some of you might recognize it. He didn’t deserve any of it. He was a goof off, always late, always in trouble. I worked at my part. He just showed up and sang wonderfully.

         In my last year I decided to take a course in choral conducting. I had a vague notion I might want that skill as a pastor, to get up and lead a hymn or something. Whatever. But I was in over my head. I am rhythmically challenged. I spent hours in front of a mirror trying to learn to beat four-four time with one hand, while I cued parts with the other hand. It was hopeless. And John was in the class.  John had no problem at all. I’m sure his time in front of a mirror was zero. He just waltzed into class, picked up the music, and conducted like Leonard Bernstein. I gritted my teeth every time he got up in front of us.

         When the final exam came, I knew I would make a fool of myself. The professor had chosen a long piece of 10 pages or so. We each had to stand and lead the class through it. I sat there, singing along as others conducted, dreading my turn and yes, envying John for how easy it would be for him.

         During a break, just before my turn came, John leaned over to me. I was expecting a smart remark, but he said, “Look, you’re going to do fine. Let me tell you a couple of things.” To my amazement, he took the music and showed me problems to watch for. Then he said, “Look at this. Right at the end, the piano comes in loud. Nobody else has done it, but it would be really slick to cue that entrance.” I said, “That’s nuts. I can barely get through it, much less slip in an extra cue.” He shook his head, “No, you can do it. Watch.” And he showed me how to make the extra movement with my elbow.

         With John’s encouragement, I got through without missing a beat. I even managed that extra cue. The pianist was shocked, but she played it. At the end they applauded me! Our teacher sat there shaking his head in surprise. But inside me, something changed. I did not envy John anymore. His mercy on me, his sacrifice of what he knew, he didn’t have to do it. He could have kept that slick move for himself. But he reached out to me in compassion. The worm of envy died.

         God puts envy to death by His own compassion. The true wisdom comes from heaven. Exactly. Jesus came from heaven to show us wisdom that is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy.” Peter Kreeft writes that “God has pulled the teeth of envy by the Incarnation. There is no longer any reason to envy a God who is crowned with thorns and suffers the pains of Hell itself on the Cross” Jesus comes in gentle mercy. By yielding, by suffering and dying on the Cross, God Himself became someone we do not need to envy. He doesn’t want to keep all the joy for Himself. He wants us to share it and become more and more like Him.

         You know your own envy. You know who you look at with sorrow when they are being blessed. And you know that there is no rest in envy, no peace in that bitter desire for what someone else has. There’s only a constant, gnawing pain. But God also knows. He came and died and offered you another way, the way away from envy and into mercy and peace.

         God offers us the way of the Cross, following His footsteps along a path that cannot be envied, a path of sacrifice. When you and I follow Jesus in giving up ourselves, then envy is left far behind and dies. It dies at the foot of the Mount of Crucifixion.

         Once the worm is dead, the fruit can grow. Be­yond the Cross is Easter. To suffer with Jesus is to aim for a harvest “sown in peace.” When you sow peace, by offering it to someone else, you do not lose it. It grows large enough for all. The harvest of righteousness crowds out envy and all the other ugly weeds of sin, because the fruit of righteous is enough for everyone. In Jesus you have all you desire, and so does everyone who follows Him.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated August 4, 2013