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Miriam, Aaron, & the Green-Eyed Monster

We often think of envy as a "petty" sin, but God clearly shows his anger about envy in this Bible passage.

One of the most challenging tests in life is to have a sibling seem to become more successful than you. We all remember first hearing of Miriam as the protective older sister. It was Miriam's quick thinking that suggested to Pharaoh's daughter that baby Moses could be nursed by his own mother. Then Miriam watched as her brother grew up in the lap of luxury in the royal household of Pharaoh. Miriam watched her little brother rise to greatness.

Both Miriam and Aaron held high positions among the children of Israel. Miriam was distinguished as a prophetess above all the women, and Aaron had been designated by God as the high priest, the spiritual head of the nation. But as they looked at the elevated position of Moses, Miriam and Aarom became envious. They wanted to be equal with Moses.

Miriam was the instigator of the open rebellion. Because she and Aaron could not find fault with the way Moses was leading the people, they chose to criticize his wife. But this was a smoke screen for the real issue at hand, envy.

Before we start beating up on Miriam and Aaron, we need to face the fact that they are not unique in their struggle with this sin of envy. One writer puts it this way. "If envy were an illness, the world would be a hospital."

We need to understand the definition of envy.

We need to see if we can understand more clearly what constitutes envy. Social psychologist Mory Silver says, "I can't imagine anyone who hasn't experienced envy at one time or another. To be human is to compare ourselves with others." People can be comparable in work, in salary, in almost anything. That is the basis of envy. You must first compare, then in the comparison, you feel deprived.

We need to distinguish between two closely related and envy.

Jealousy is an unpleasant suspicion or resentment arising from fear or mistrust of another. It's intolerant of rivalry. Usually there are three people. There's a rival. It's a triangle, and I'm afraid I'll lose what I already have. For example, I would be jealous of another woman in fear that she might take away my husband.

Envy is malicious grudging. It can be just two people. I want what you have. We envy because there is a difference between who we are and who we feel we should be. We are a society obsessed with comparisons.

We're taught to compare. Parents may have compared you with siblings or friends or cousins. Then we have teachers, coaches, standardized tests, performance evaluations at work, beauty contests. Our society not only encourages envy, it requires envy to maintain itself.

Betsy Cowen writes that we encourage everyone to look better, to do better, to learn more, to have more. Our society creates inevitable comparison and inevitable dissatisfaction. Advertising is one of the primary catalysts for envy. In the United States alone, the advertising industry spends six billion dollars a day. The result is that envy is pervasive, and far too many of us live in a perpetual state of longing.

God is so serious about envy that he prohibited coveting as the tenth commandment. Exodus 20:17 says, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

Most of us don't spend a lot of energy envying other people's oxen, but we do envy other people for their appearance, their cars, their stock portfolios, their personalities, their achievements, their lifestyles, or even their spiritual gifts. Our first experience of envy is often in the home, with the infamous sibling rivalry.

Siblings compete every day for the love of their parents. There's an assumption that the love supply is limited. So whoever gets the bigger scoop of ice cream must be loved more by Mom and Dad. One of my daughter's most frequently uttered phrases is "It's not fair." I hear this all day long. But envy moves out from the home into school, the workplace, and even friendship. We have a tendency to keep looking over our shoulders to see who gets the office with the window, who has the most gifted children, and who gets to go to the Caribbean while we freeze in Chicago.

Robert Bringle, a professor at Purdue University, stresses that we covet most strongly in areas that are important to our sense of self worth. In other words, each of us is most susceptible where we feel the most vulnerable.

The area where my is weakest is domestic life: cooking, gardening, home decorating. Therefore, I'm most likely to become envious around women I call the "Martha Stewarts." These are women who effortlessly design and sew their own curtains, make their own candles, prepare gourmet meals to die for. I have a few friends in this category. One of them put in the plumbing when she made over the bathrooms in her home. Another is such an outstanding gardener I'm sure she makes her own dirt. To top it all off, my brother married a "Martha Stewart." Not only can she mother four young children, create a fabulous home, sew everybody matching outfits, and cook like Julia Child, she also happens to be very nice. She's a godly woman. She's loving. She's generous, fun, pretty. In short, she makes me sick.

When Chip and Tammy first got married, I would feel depressed whenever I left their home. And as the years have gone by, I've recognized my tendency to use humor or sarcasm as a mask for what is really envy. You see, envy has many disguises. It can look like constructive criticism, self pity, or avoidance.

Here's a few questions we can ask ourselves to see if envy might be creeping into our hearts.

• Are you upset when acquaintances advance professionally or socially?
• Do you feel pain because of another person's success?
• Do you belittle the accomplishments, the talents, or the appearances of others?
• Are you tempted to bad mouth or sabotage a person to whom you feel inferior?
• Are you secretly pleased when a friend, even a loved one, suffers a setback?

Envy is an especially embarrassing sin because it often seems petty. It creeps around, and often we don't realize it's there until it's become bitterness. In her book, The Snow White Syndrome, Betsy Cowen shares a picture of the continuum of envy; this shows us the destructive extremes of envy and then the more positive. On the destructive side of envy is the wish to harm. It's self hatred and resentment. But then it can be converted on the positive side to admiration and emulation. Everything above admiration is really crossing the line into the sin of envy.

If our comparisons drive us to admire a trait in someone, motivating us to want to emulate them, this can be a force for good. For example, it was my college roommate who inspired me to commit to exercising. She was a runner, and I envied her consistency. But I converted that envy to a decision to follow her example.

Proverbs 27:4 says, "Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming. But who is able to stand before envy?

Envy is not a sin the Lord would have us treat casually. This passage makes it clear that God is extremely angry about envy.

Moses didn't complain to God about the envy of the siblings. Verse 2 says that the Lord heard the grumblings of Miriam and Aaron, and he immediately summoned them to a meeting. We're told in verse 9 that the anger of the Lord burned against them.

Why does envy ignite such anger in God?

What is it about envy that ignites such anger in God?

1.) Envy devalues my self worth. It denies the uniqueness God made when he created me, and it defeats the constructive work of the Spirit in my heart. Gordon MacDonald wrote that "the soul cannot be healthy when one compares himself or herself to others. The soul dies a bit every time it's involved in a lifestyle that competes." Primarily, we envy because we look outside of ourselves to feel good about ourselves.

The fact is that our Creator longs for us to become content with how he chose to make us and with what he chooses to give us. We forget that God is the Potter and we are the clay. In Isaiah 29 we read, "Can the pot say to the potter 'He knows nothing'?" When I envy the "Martha Stewarts" of the world, I waste precious energy focusing on what I cannot do instead of celebrating what I can.

2.) Envy distances us from God. Numbers 12:9 says, "The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them." God was angry because, in the words of one of my friends, Miriam and Aaron were not appropriately small. They thought they knew better than God; they showed no respect for his sovereignty.

In verses 68, God explained to Miriam and Aaron that he had placed Moses over all his house.

It's not that God loved Moses more than his siblings, but he chose to give him a different role. God wanted to commune with Miriam and Aaron, but the nature of their roles as leaders would not be the same as their brother's. It's not for us to shake our fists at God about his assignments. We need to examine our hearts and submit to the authority, wisdom, and love of our Creator. God wants us to know that his supply of love and grace is unlimited. He can be trusted to reveal whatever part he wants us to play.

3) Envy destroys community. The envy of Miriam and Aaron would have driven a wedge between them and Moses, but it also would have a damaging effect on the entire community.

God struck Miriam with leprosy. Miriam had failed to build up the house of her people, and she had criticized its leader. She had to be separated from the rest of the community. The children of Israel could not move on until she was brought back.

When I first read this passage God's punishment seemed harsh to me. I felt like saying, She just asked you a question. But as we reflect on God's actions, we sense that God must see envy as terribly destructive to his people. God was making a strong statement.

God gets angry about our envy because he knows that envy gradually separates us from others spoiling our enjoyment of them. Envy is divisive, driving people to isolation. In James 3:16 we read, "For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice."

We have countless opportunities for envy. We all know people who we think are more attractive or who have a better lifestyle. Single people can envy married people and the other way around. Those without children may envy those who have children, and some with children envy the freedom and opportunities of those without.

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is for us to mourn with those who mourn than it is to rejoice with those who rejoice? I want to celebrate the gifts of this community without wasting energy wishing I had a different gift. In 1 Corinthians 12:11 Paul says that God gave gifts to each one just as he determines. We are called to steward that gift and cheer on our brothers and sisters as they use their gifts.

Try these practical suggestions to constructively deal with envy.

I'd like to offer some practical suggestions to constructively deal with the sin of envy.

1.) Call envy what it is and admit our feelings. Dr. Joyce Brothers says that we are so ashamed of envious feelings we seldom pull them into the light where we can get a good look at them. Envy has many disguises. If you're frequently finding fault with others, if you feel a lack of joy, if you can't rejoice with those who rejoice, examine your heart carefully; if what's really going on is envy, admit that to be true. Say it aloud: "I am feeling envious." Once we own up to envy, we empower ourselves to use it instead of the other way around.

2.) Stop making comparisons. Train your mind to keep from viewing people in a hierarchy. Remember that different means different not necessarily better or worse. When you get close to some people you envy, often you find their lives aren't as wonderful as it might have appeared. You find out that they struggle with some other things you had no idea about.

3.) Use envy as a stimulus for change. If what you want is attainable, such as a healthier body from regular exercise, then transfer your envy towards emulation and start working out. But if it's not attainable, you need to come to a place of acceptance. All the voice lessons in the world aren't going to make me a singer. Know that you don't have to be good at everything.

4.) Reaffirm your uniqueness and choices. When I'm tempted to envy my friends who don't have young children and therefore have freedom and time for solitude, I have to stop and remember how peaceful I am with choosing to have a family.

5.) Stop hiding and start talking. If possible, talk to the person you envy. Bring this secret out into the light and see if you can work together to dispel the envy and avoid a breakdown in community. Chances are you're going to find find that that person envies something about you.

6.) Celebrate the gifts and opportunities of others. We need to be able to say "I'm so happy for you" without gritting teeth. It really helps to remember that my friend's victories are my victories. When it comes to serving God, there is room for everyone.

In Numbers 11:28, Joshua came to Moses, upset because the other men were beginning to assume some of Moses' leadership. But look how Moses responds in verse 29: "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them." Moses didn't want to monopolize power or giftedness. He wanted God to be at work through many servants. In God's kingdom, shared accomplishments are more important that individual achievement.

When someone in your small group or your ministry uses their gifts, be the first one to cheer them on. When a friend receives a promotion or gets a new car, rejoice with their good news. Don't let the stab of envy rob you of the joy of shared celebration.

7.) Find your contentment and significance in God. Joe Stowell writes that the focus of our contentment needs to be our confidence that Christ is all he says he is, that he is aware of and will supply our needs. If we have him, we have enough.

Psalm 73:2328 describes a heart that has wrestled with envy and has come to a place of peace and contentment. "Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you take me into your glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And being with you, I desire nothing on earth…. As for me, it is good to be near God."

Everything in our culture is driving us to seek significance from the wrong things. God longs for us to have hearts at peace. He knows how deadly envy is, and he's asking us to get rid of it, for our sakes, for our relationships to him and for the sake of true community.

In the winter, I run laps at the YMCA. There are three lanes. The walkers are supposed to stay on the inside lane, the speed demons are on the outside lane, and the rest of us in the middle. Sometimes I find myself looking over my shoulder to see a fast person coming. I think, They're not going to beat me. So I start running faster. If they do pass me I think, they're not going to lap me another time. I start running too fast for my own pace and by the end of my run I'm out of steam.

Other days when I run there's a group who comes from a home for adults. They come with big smiles on their faces, and start walking slowly on the inside track. Sometimes they stop, or start going the wrong way.

I don't need to compete with the super speedy guys, and I don't need to compete with the slow, adults. I need to run my own race. And we need to remember that we're running this race together. Someday when we arrive in heaven, we're going to say we played a part in a movement of God in the north suburbs of Chicago. We didn't get dragged down by the sin of envy.

© Nancy Beach
Preaching Today Tape #172
www.PreachingTodaySermons.com A resource of Christianity Today International

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Nancy Beach is programming director at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


Miriam and Aaron aren't alone in their struggle with the sin of envy.

I. We need to understand the definition of envy.

II. Why does envy ignite such anger in God?

III. Try these practical suggestions to constructively deal with envy.


God knows how deadly envy is, and he asks us to get rid of it.