Envy and Imitation

The Lord has been bringing to mind the topic of envy a lot lately.

Not long ago, Tim Challies did a great series on it and it’s got me thinking about imitation and sanctification and what envy does with them.

Envy is wanting what someone else has, and, even more than that, wanting it in such a way that you hate the person who has it. For instance, Cain murdered Abel because the sacrifice Abel gave was better. Cain was envious, among other things. And Challies reminds us of Pilate’s words, “It was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matthew 27:18).

So Jesus was delivered up to die, out of envy. Serious stuff.

I’ve heard that comparisons are the culprit of envy, especially for moms. I sort of agree. I’d say it like this: a sinful heart that is dissatisfied with its lot compares itself to others in such a way that what others have becomes desirable in their eyes, so much so, that what they have looks even worse than before.  And the cycle continues: they have something better than me, what I have looks worse. I start to despise them for what they have. More than that, I despise God for what they have, because He could give me what I want, if He really loved me. Whoa.

Ugly, isn’t it. And I’ll say right here that I’m guilty. I have longed for other people’s stuff and even longed to be other people! Anyone who went through Jr. High can probably relate. But God has cut the root out of my envy and here’s how He did it: He gave me all things, including His Son.

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
(Romans 8:32 ESV)

What a miraculous sin-killing truth! I have the Son, I have salvation, I have the Kingdom of God forever! Who cares about so-and-so’s nice wood floors? Who cares if they are smarter and prettier than me?

Let’s go farther though. Sometimes we envy godly things. Twisted, but true. We envy someone’s spirituality. Their God-given gifts of the Spirit. Their godly parenting. Their disciplined lives. Here’s where envy does it’s most insidious work. It takes a good example and corrupts it, leaving us empty-handed.

We are meant to watch each other’s lives. We are meant to observe each other’s godliness. We are meant to work out our salvation together and learn from each other. Consider these commands to imitate other believers:

“For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.”
(2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 ESV)

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
(Hebrews 13:7 ESV)

“Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.”
(3 John 1:11 ESV)

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
(Philippians 3:17 ESV)

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
(1 Timothy 4:12 ESV)

Isn’t it clear that we’re meant to watch others lives, to compare, in a way, so that we can imitate those who are examples among us? I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have a number of people around me that I could imitate. I do what they do. I parent like they parent. I talk like they talk. Why? Because they’re better at it than me! Because doing so brings me closer to my Jesus. It is a sweet providence that He has given me brothers and sisters to imitate.

He does it because He loves me, not because He’s bringing the hammer down saying, “Abigail, you just need to be more like so-and-so. You are so messed up.”

No. That’s not the way He does it. He lovingly puts His arm around me and says, “Look over there, follow their lead. That will take you on safe paths. That will lead you to the still waters.” And all the while, He is the one leading me and Christ is THE example. I imitate them, not because they’re perfect (no way!), but because they are imitating Christ.

One other way that envy completely turns our Christian life upside down is it reverses one of my favorite verses: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. (Romans 12:15-16 ESV)

If I’m envious, I don’t rejoice with those who rejoice. I weep out of self-pity and anger with those who rejoice. And I don’t weep with those who weep. I rejoice at their misfortune, because it makes me feel better about myself. I weep at the rejoicing and rejoice at the weeping.

The cross of Christ cuts out our envy, pride and self-absorption so that we can weep and rejoice at the right time.

The cross of Christ makes love possible. It removes envy and replaces it with love. I can look at the good work of God in a friend’s life and have overflowing joy on their behalf. Because I am part of Christ’s body, the Church, with them, rejoicing over them is the same as rejoicing for myself! We’re on the same team! We’re part of the same body!

The cross of Christ makes imitation glorious, not cheap. I can see the example set by my sisters and run in the way of godliness because of them. What grace there is in glorious imitation!

And where would our parenting be without imitation? Exhibit A, B, and C:

thoughts on the humblebrag

I was intrigued by this post by Justin Taylor, explaining the concept of the humblebrag. Here’s an interview with the originator of the term.

A humble brag, as I understand it, is when you brag about yourself in a way that masquerades as humility or is coupled with self-deprecation. Here are some examples:

‘Ugh. I just pocket dialed spokesperson for Pentagon.’ —Greta Van Susteren

‘If you think getting your house ready for guests is a hassle, try preparing it for HGTV cameras. I am the worst florist ever.’ —Tony Hawk

Here’s the example Justin Taylor gives:

“I remember my first months in Harvard classrooms, gob-smacked by how my contributions, however lame, were invariably treated with respect because my accent framed them.” -Andrew Sullivan

When I read the concept and the examples, my first thoughts went somewhere other than the ugliness of the humblebrag. Instead I thought of the ugliness of envy and how hard it is for us to be happy for someone else’s successes.

So what if Andrew Sullivan mentions that his school was Harvard? I often say what school I went to, it just so happens that it isn’t prestigous. Why shouldn’t Harvard attendees be able to talk about their life just like the rest of us? The fact that it bothers us that he mentions the name of his school is a reflection of insecurity in the listener, not the speaker.

When good things happen to someone else, like winning an award, or having a great job, or writing a book, or [fill in the blank], it’s better for my soul to rejoice in their success, rather than nitpick their statements looking for a hidden braggart.

Being a humble brag is a bad deal. I don’t want to be one; I don’t want my kids to be one. But, I can’t help but feel that the real issue is our inability to be happy for others. Without being able to see into people’s hearts, it’s hard to judge whether they’re bragging or simply stating what’s happening in their life at that moment. After all, I assume that Greta Van Susteran really did accidently pocket dial the Pentagon. How’s that any different than me saying, “Ugh, I just pocket-dialed the babysitter.”

I think having a problem with Greta saying that she pocket-dialed the Pentagon (which is actually pretty funny) is more about being unable to bear anyone who does better than we do. (I could go on here to relate how I think that this envy culture is a result of liberal ideology and the concept of equality of outcome, or how it flows out of our depraved and wicked hearts, but I wouldn’t want to sound too confident or self-important or controversial.)

Here are my take-home lessons: 1)Don’t brag. 2)Don’t envy. 3) Don’t be paralyzingly self-aware. Enough.