A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sin of self-pity—a temptation we overlook because it wraps itself in a cocoon of selfish sorrow. We deserve better, we think. We turn sullen when our goodness goes unnoticed and without applause.
Self-pity slides into envy, because looking at others with an envious eye feeds the self-pitiful spirit. Social media makes it easy to succumb to this sin. In a culture of constant self-display, the comparison game never ends. You can always find someone online who has more influence or bigger reach than you do. You can often spot good reasons for the success of others, as well as reasons that don’t add up, and the latter leads you to question your talent and wonder why you’ve not received the attention you think you deserve.
But it’s not just social media. Envy is everywhere. Whenever you see others who appear to be achieving success that (in your opinion) is undeserved, it chaps you even more. It’s not just that your greater talent and gifts are less appreciated than they should be; it’s also that the lesser talent and gifts of others are appreciated beyond their value.
One of the most transparent confessions of envy I’ve come across is from Christina Bieber Lake in The Flourishing Teacher. She writes:
I admit that I have felt very strong envy before. I have said some pretty bad things about scholars my age or younger who seem so quickly and easily to gain the larger audience that I want but cannot seem to find. These scholars write about the same issues I’ve been thinking and writing about for years, but they have gained the lucrative speaking engagements, they sell more than a few copies of books, and their names are known. Even as I write these words now, I can feel my bones rotting.
If you’ve ever succumbed (or surrendered!) to the enticement of envy, you’ll recognize that feeling of rotting bones. The selfishness of self-pity, when mixed with the resentment of envy, leaves you in a furnace of quiet anger at the injustice of it all. I’ve worked longer! I’ve worked harder! That preacher gets undeserved accolades. That teacher hasn’t put in the hours I have. That writer isn’t as insightful as everyone thinks. Why did this coworker get a promotion? Why was I overlooked? It’s not fair.
Far be it from me to dispute the facts on the ground. Everything you feel inside about the situation may be accurate! It’s possible that you were overlooked for a promotion in spite of your stronger qualifications. Perhaps you are a better preacher than the guy leading a faster-growing church in town. Maybe you really do have more knowledge and insight into a subject, while another professor writing in the same field has seen a book take off. It might be true that you’ve worked longer and harder and that you do deserve more recognition.
None of that changes the sin of envy. When this poison rots your bones, you give in to anger and sullenness that robs you of joy and keeps you from contentment in plowing the fields the Lord has put before you. That’s why, when she feels that rising tide of anger, Lake reminds herself of a greater calling:
The only thing that helps me is to remember that God gave me my own gifts and a clear calling. It is not up to me to manufacture the outcome of my faithfulness.
Contentment and Calling
On a similar note, Tilly Dillehay writes that contentment is connected to our calling, and to our hope in future justice. We trust that our satisfaction must only and ever be found in God and His glory, not our own measures of success or recognition.
This is the essential answer to the heart’s question of “Why not me, why not now?” The answer for the Christian is, “God is your true portion and he will fill your cup to overflow on the day of his coming” (Lam. 3:24, Ps. 16:5 Ps. 23:5).
But how do you do that practically? Well, to start, the way to win the comparison game is to stop playing it. Chasing the success of others cheapens your own contributions. Envy at its worst will lead to silly imitation. You feel like someone else has leapt over you, so you try to follow the same path by mimicking whatever “magical” element must have made them stand out. Lake speaks to this temptation from her own experience:
When I started teaching at Wheaton, there were a few very strong teachers who all the students practically worshiped. The Legends. I’m sure you have a few of them at your school too. I thank the Lord that I learned early on that if I tried to imitate them, I would become a miserable, second-rate version of myself. God gave them the gifting to be the quarterbacks with the dazzling plays. God gifted me, instead, to be the middle linebacker who inspires the team to fight.
I have a choice. I can rot with envy that I am not the star quarterback, or I can perfect my game and remember that my contribution is important… As with spiritual gifts, so is it with our vocations. We are only responsible for being faithful in exercising the particular gifts that God has given each one of us.
Blow Up the Comparison Game
The way to keep from playing the comparison game is to blow it up. And the best way to blow up the comparison trap is to fix our eyes on the cross of Jesus. There, we are gloriously and happily cut down to size. We see even the best of our contributions as just pennies, talents given us by God which are to be offered back up to the One who has all the treasure. Instead of flailing about in discontentment, our hearts fill up with gratitude that King Jesus would see fit to use us in any way at all.
Let the cross overturn the comparison game. Celebrate the opportunities you have to serve King Jesus in whatever field He has placed you. And then give thanks for the ways that other servants of the King offer their service—no matter how their work compares to yours. And pray that in your fight against self-pity, the Spirit will root out that bone-rotting sin of envy.
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