When I first began at Desiring God, a monitor hung on a wall in the office. Of many other useful functions, it showed our staff how many people were on the website in real time. If you looked at the smaller type at the bottom, you could see how many users were on particular pages. So, for a new article published that morning, you might look over and see a few hundred people on the page. You could watch the numbers rise as the article spread, and see it top out a few hours later, and begin its slow decline.
Over time, that monitor, like Sauron’s lidless eye, came to stare at me. I watched as some of my articles were shot down mid-flight. By afternoon, the article dipped into the dozens. The warm tingle would wash over me: insecurity. I worked hard on that article. I thought more people would read it. Is this really God’s call on my life?
I remember resonating with Shakespeare when he described man as not being able to feel what he owns, but by reflection (Troilus and Cressida, 3.3.99). He meant that a man could not know himself to be what he thought himself to be unless others acknowledged it. Was I any good? I could only know by reflection. Warm admiration or high numbers on a screen needed to tell me so. If a writer publishes an article, but it doesn’t receive any compliments, was it even worth writing? The temptation begins to creep in: Will they be impressed? Will it be good enough to be envied?
That screen not only showed me my own numbers, but others’. I’m sure you can imagine the temptation: Dashboard, dashboard on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Though not all writers, we all know the enticement, don’t we? They may track different stats, but we each have our monitors.
What is envy?
Envy: The favorite son of pride, the dark appetite that turns allies into enemies and angels into demons.
Envy: The rival moon unable to share the sky with the sun, for fear to discover itself to be the lesser light.
Envy: The genesis of human murder, a sin of which Abel’s blood still speaks.
Envy: The disease that festers with God’s blessings . . . given to others.
Envy: That bitter wind that chills the king’s throne, even after victory, as it hears the singing in the streets, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7 NASB).
When Pride heard that song, the text tells us, “Saul eyed David from that day on” (1 Samuel 18:9). The bloodshot eye set on others’ successes, the inward grimace when others are better noticed, better complimented, or (you hate to admit it) simply better than you at the thing that you’re good at. Do you know that sickly eye that looks down upon brothers, spear in hand, and thinks, I will pin David to the wall? We all have our javelins. We have our ways of explaining why our rivals aren’t really that talented or wonderful or beautiful or godly at all.
Envy, the bewitchment that bids a man kill his brother or a man his God: “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” Pilate once asked. “For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up” (Mark 15:9–10).
Wisdom of Demons
It was during that season of temptation that God gave me grace to do what my flesh protested: I took a brother aside one day and confessed to him my temptations to envy him and his recent success. It was a humbling, embarrassing, sin-slaying light. Are you tempted to envy anyone close to you? Consider confessing the temptation to them that you might war together against this demonic wisdom.
“Demonic” is no hyperbole. The apostle James writes, “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:14–15).
How do we resist? To answer, I want to bring in C.S. Lewis’s fictional demon, Screwtape, to help us, not with the diagnostic (in which Lewis excels), but to guide us to a cure. In letter 14 of The Screwtape Letters, the demon writes to his nephew,
The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents — or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. (71)
Don’t you want that kind of heart? The kind that says with Moses, whatever your particular giftings, “Oh, that all were prophets!” (see Numbers 11:29). Or, “Oh, that all were mature mothers, powerful preachers, resourceful men living to the glory of God!” To be like Paul, so about his Master’s business that he remarks of jealous ministers,
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. . . . The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? [Only that in every way they should be silenced? Only that in every way God would curse their ministries?] Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15–18)
O Lord, give us hearts like this.
Doctrine of Given Gifts
Screwtape goes on to highlight a doctrine that God has used in my life to bring down the monitors from the walls of my heart.
The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings — the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the color of their hair. (72)
They might as well be proud of the color of their hair. Fellow Christians, your gifts — are you ready? — are gifts. You only and always exercise gifts from God — and that for the building up of others. Whenever you begin to think that you really are something after all, ask Paul’s question, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Engraved over our best successes, our best works, our best moments will be two words: Things Received. Or one word: Grace. This doctrine frees us to live in community with others more (and less) talented than we are, and — dare I say — even celebrate the achievements of others.
Brooms to Sweep the Floor
John the Baptist is such a good example for us. His disciples tempted him toward envy: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness — look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26). What is the first thing out of his mouth? “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27).
Let me share with you a poem I wrote a decade ago, meditating on this scene between John and his disciples:
I’m afraid you will not take it well,
Another brother has set sail
To the man across the way.
But our brothers, night and day?
I wonder what you have to say,
Should he now rise to reign?
Are both baptisms just the same?
Is ‘Baptist’ also in his name?
We wait for your reply. . . .
His sandals, I still dare not untie,
My question for you is simply why
Are you still with me upon this shore?
I baptize with water, nothing more.
I am but the broom to sweep the floor,
Before the King comes in.
The Bridegroom with his Bride to win,
The Lamb who takes away your sin,
And heals all our disease.
Has not the Spirit in degrees,
The One of whom the Father’s pleased,
And all creation hails.
When the Master over the slave prevails.
All disciples set your sails,
To the One across the way!
He must increase; we must decrease. Our talents are given us for Christ. We are but brooms to sweep the floor before the King comes again.