This sermon on how love conquers envy was part of a sermon series on how grace covers our shame.
The remarkable response to Brené Brown’s TED Talks on shame is one indicator of how pervasive shame is. In my observation, it’s not only people who have experienced failure, trauma, or abuse who feel shame; people who are exceptionally accomplished also experience a sense of not being enough.
It’s not simply Asians raised in shame and honor cultures who wrestle with this. The feeling that we don’t measure up is pervasive across cultures, and especially so in a world that defines our self-worth by our achievements. With this in mind, we engaged our multi-ethnic church community in a preaching series on how grace covers our shame.
In this sermon, I address how grace covers feelings of shame fueled by envy. As I note in the sermon, envy is the most pervasive but the least admitted of the seven deadly sins. In the age of social media, as we compare our ordinary lives to the edited highlight reel of someone else’s life, we are constantly invited to envy others and feel we don’t measure up. How can we avoid the temptation?
In this message, I provide an opportunity to engage in spiritual practice within the sermon itself. St. Teresa of Avila, in her spiritual classic The Interior Castle , describes seven “mansions” that represent stages of deepening union with Jesus Christ.
In the first mansion, a person crosses the line of faith—sometimes out of desperation. In the second mansion, a person feels pulled by the world, and by God. In the third, a person settles into a faith community and begins to pray and read the scriptures. Mansions four to seven represent a deepening union with Christ; in these stages, what fosters a deeper intimacy with God isn’t teaching or preaching (I can’t believe I just wrote that for a Preaching Today piece!), but a direct experience of God in silence and through spiritual friendship or direction.
If this is the case, ideally our preaching will offer not only information and inspiration but a direct encounter with the living God. Part of the way this can happen is by creating times in a sermon where people are encouraged to pray or listen to God in the moment. In this message, I invite people during part of the sermon itself to pray the 500-year-old prayer of gratitude called the Examen.
Finally, the sermon draws on the findings of neuroscience in relation to spiritual transformation. I pastor a church in what is considered one of the most secular cities in North America. I also believe that “all truth is God’s truth,” no matter where it’s found. Therefore, people who do not regard the Bible as the final authority appreciate when I can demonstrate how secular sources—including the findings of neuroscience—corroborate what Scripture teaches.
For example, in this sermon, while teaching people to meditate on Christ and Scripture, I draw on the research of Daniel Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, who says “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connections grow.”
If you were making $500,000 a year, would you feel satisfied? You would be in the top 1% of all people in North America and way ahead of most people in the world. But what if that $500,000 a year came from being a professional baseball player for the Los Angeles Angels? And what if you learned, as happened earlier this year, that one of your teammates—say, Mike Trout—signed a $430 million deal (nearly half a billion dollars!) to stay with the team for another 12 years. Now your $500,000 looks measly in comparison.
A study that sought to determine whether money correlated with happiness revealed that poverty can cause despair—so let’s not glorify poverty. But once a person gets out of poverty, extra wealth adds little, if any, additional happiness.
What does matter, as far as happiness is concerned, is how much money a person has compared to his or her social group. Studies have been done where people were asked, “Would you rather be making $50,000 if your neighbors were making $25,000 or would you rather be making $100,000 if your neighbors were making $200,000?” Most people choose to make $50,000 if their neighbors are making $25,000, rather than making $100,000 if their neighbors are making $200,000!
Most of us don’t envy the King—he may inhabit the same planet, but he lives in a different world. We compare ourselves with and envy people who are part of our group or people we can relate to in some way.
We’re in a series right now on how God’s grace covers our shame. Envy and shame are close siblings. Envy is the feeling that someone else has it better than me or is better than me and the feeling naturally follows: I’m not enough. What’s wrong with me?
We tend to envy those who are right around us and who we can relate to and easily make comparisons with. Someone makes more money than we do and we envy them. Or a person is smarter than we are and we feel envious of them. Or they are more attractive. Or healthier. They have a partner. They have a better partner. Or if we feel stuck in a relationship, we may envy someone who is single and free. We struggle with infertility and we envy those who are able to conceive and have children. Or if we have children, we feel their children are doing better than mine. Of if we feel our lives are bogged down by our children, we can envy people who seem to have so much freedom because they have no kids. We can envy people who own a house or a house that is bigger than ours or in a better neighborhood.
Our envy of others can generate feelings of shame about ourselves. The two feelings are close siblings. Unhealthy shame is the feeling that someone is or has it better than me and therefore I am not enough. I don't quite measure up. I'm inadequate in some way.
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. It is considered the most widely experienced of the deadly sins but also the least admitted-to. It’s embarrassing to confess that we envy someone. And envy certainly is more pervasive than ever before in the age of social media where it is so easy to compare our lives to the highlight reel of someone else and feel as though we don’t show up in favorable light.
We’re going to look at 1 Samuel 18 and then a passage from 1 Corinthians 13. To give you some context, David, a young shepherd in Israel and complete unknown, has killed the archenemy and menace of his people, the giant Goliath, with God’s help using just a sling and stone. Saul, the king, sends David to lead military campaigns and with God’s help David is successful. In this passage notice how King Saul responds to David,
(Read 1 Sam. 18:5-11)
And now I will read I Corinthians 13:4. Notice what Scripture says about what love is not?
(Read 1 Cor. 13:4)
We’re going to explore how God's grace helps us overcome our shame fueled by envy—the feeling that someone is better than we are or has it better than us.
Saul Is Envious of David
In the passage we read in 1 Samuel 18, we see that King Saul feels envy toward David. David not only has slain the Philistine Goliath, the enemy of the people of Israel, but wherever Saul sent David on military campaigns he was successful. When David and his men returned home, the women came out in towns across Israel dancing with tambourines and singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” This made Saul angry with envy.
Saul experiences the torment of envy and the connected emotion of shame—he feels, in comparison to David, he’s not enough. Solomon Schimmel has described envy as hot, hissing coals. Other deadly sins like lust, gluttony, and sloth can make us feel good in the short-term, but there's no such upside to envy. Envy simply makes us miserable.
The researcher Frans de Waal trained capuchin monkeys to use stones as a sort of currency, teaching them to trade a stone for a slice of cucumber. The monkeys were perfectly content with this agreement as long as they were all getting the same thing, a slice of cucumber in exchange for a stone.
Then de Waal changed the social dynamic. One monkey was given a sweet grape instead of the cucumber slice and the monkey in the cage beside him became irate and threw his cucumber slice back in the face of the trainer and then shook his cage in rage.
Some of you may say, how is this relevant? Certainly, we are above monkeys and other higher primates. In lots of ways we are, but when it comes to our proneness to feel envy perhaps not so much.
Researchers looked at data from millions of flights to look at what predicted incidences of air rage where passengers were unruly, disruptive, or violent in some way. The study found that flights that had a first-class or business-class cabin and a separate economy-class section were more likely to report incidents of air rage, cases where passengers became disruptive or violent, than flights that had just one class of seats.
The study also showed that flights that board from the rear of the aircraft rather than inviting first-class passengers aboard first had fewer incidences of unruly behavior. When people walk past those in the first-class or business class cabin and see others swilling their champagne and eating caviar—at a subconscious level they feel like they have been treated unequally and unjustly and are more prone to becoming out-of-control, rude, disruptive, or violent.
We see that Saul envied David and became violent toward him—he tried to kill David with a spear. The passage tells us that an evil spirit from God came over Saul. The text indicates that God, who has power over demons, sends or allows an evil spirit to torment him.
Respected biblical commentator, Walter Brueggeman, points out that this description is also a way ancient people explained mental illness. If we harbor and nurse envy, our sense of peace and well-being will be compromised. Envy can undermine our sense of peace and well being (that is not to say that if you are experiencing some kind of mental illness, it’s because you are envying someone). So how do we overcome envy?
Overcome Envy with Love
One way is by becoming a channel of God's love. In 1 Corinthians 13, which is widely considered the greatest definition of love ever written, we heard that love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy. Personally, I can think of nothing more important in my life than growing into a person of love.
During my morning times of prayer and meditation, I have been reflecting on 1 Corinthians 13. In fact, I have memorized it and recite it as a prayer of intention, using it to express the kind of person I want to become.
God can use a passage of Scripture like this one to reweave our souls. God can also use a text like this to rewire our minds. Neuroscientists tell us that where our attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.
How does love help us overcome envy?
Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British scholar, compiled the original English dictionary, and while doing so defined 42,000 words. Johnson had a vivid imagination which helped him come up with definitions of words, but it also caused him to make detailed and envious comparisons with his rivals and he became miserable. Johnson devised a strategy to try and beat envy. He tried to convince himself that he was superior to everyone else. But that strategy was not effective.
As Johnson committed his life to God and turned in a more biblical direction, he came to believe that love was the answer. He wrote that the world is so bursting with sin and sorrow that “there are none to be envied." Everyone has some deep trouble in their lives, or in the life of someone close to them, so no one is to be envied.
Johnson also observed that people who are successful often cannot truly enjoy their successes. Many of us are goal-oriented, with Type-A personalities, and we know that it is difficult to enjoy our successes because we are so preoccupied with our next goal. But people who are successful also can’t enjoy their success because they are comparing themselves to people who are even more successful. We tend to compare ourselves upward to people who are more successful than we are.
I had a friend growing up who was a very good ice hockey player. He went on to play at the Junior A level, which is just below the NHL. But he had some acquaintances and friends who made it to the NHL. In comparison to them, he felt mediocre. In comparison to me, he was a superstar, but he wasn’t comparing himself to me. He was looking at these hockey players who had made it into the NHL and next to them he felt like a loser.
As I reflect on Samuel Johnson's insight that no one is to be envied, and observe the lives of real people, I am not surprised. I'm in a vocation where I have the privilege of seeing a little more deeply into a person’s life circumstances and experiences. There are a lot of people who look like their lives are going well on the outside, but almost everyone has some kind of sorrow as well. A person may struggle with anxiety and depression, or they may be in a difficult relationship with their parents or a family member or have lost a parent or family member prematurely. Or they struggle with feeling worthy or have confusion over their identity.
I once had a group conversation with the respected theologian N.T. Wright. He described how he attended a small church in the countryside of Great Britain. On a typical Sunday a group of 10 or 15 people, mostly older, gather for worship. N.T. Wright is in his 60s and says he’s one of the younger people. He said, “If you look at these English people, who are smartly dressed and very warm people, looking at their outward appearance you would think they don’t have a problem in the world. But every one of them carries a secret sorrow.”
Love does not envy. If we love, according to Scripture, we will rejoice with those who rejoice and we will weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).
I have observed that spouses can envy each other—seeing the other as a rival. I’m a competitive person by nature, but if something good happens to my wife—she’s now enrolled in a spiritual development course based out of Oregon and is spiritually flourishing—I don’t envy her. I am happy for her. If she were to go on a vacation without me to Australia and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and see all kinds of amazing tropical fish … well, come to think of it, I would be envious of her! But I’d also be happy for her.
I know people who are envious of their children. If their child is poised to accomplish more, or surpass the parent in some way—the parent feels threatened, and diminished. But if we really love our child, we won’t envy them, we will rejoice in their flourishing.
If you love someone—and something good happens to them—you won’t envy them. You cannot love and envy someone at the same time.
One of the ways we overcome our sense that we are not enough is by deeply experiencing God’s love. We can pray with the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1 and 3 that the eyes of our heart would be enlightened, so that we would know how wide and long and high and deep is God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, and that we would know the love that surpasses knowledge and be filled with the fullness of God.
And when we know we are deeply loved by God—we know that love, according to Scripture, conquers fear (1 John 4:18), including the fear of rejection which is at the core of shame.
Love also conquers envy. You cannot love someone and envy them at the same time. When we experience God’s love deeply, and then become a channel of love, envy will be vanquished. Envy and love are incompatible.
Overcome Envy with Gratitude and Joy
Another way we overcome our sense of envy and the shame that accompanies it is by embracing gratitude and joy. Envy is the feeling of discontent that someone has it better than me or is better than me, but if we experience gratitude, discontented envy gets flushed out.
Francis de Sales, who lived in the 17th century, said that the immature are unhappy with what they don't have; the mature are happy with what they do have. Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose University in Calgary, has said that gratitude is the most important heart-posture of the spiritual life. Gratitude and envy are incompatible. When we experience joy it flushes out shame because joy and shame are incompatible. They are like oil and water.
Psychologists tell us that human beings have a “set point” of happiness. A set point of happiness is like an air-conditioning system that has been set to a certain temperature such as 20°C (68°F). If the sun begins to stream through the window, the temperature may rise above 20°C, but will eventually come back to the set point of 20°. Or, if there is a snowstorm, the temperature may drop below 20° for a time, but it will eventually return to that “set point” temperature.
Some people are by nature more cheerful and others more gloomy. According to psychologists, about half our happiness seems to be based on our personal set point. External circumstances account for only about 10%, but an amazing 40% of our happiness is determined by intentional activity.
One of the most fruitful intentional activities that can boost our happiness and sense of contentment and gratitude is thanksgiving. We talk about this regularly, I highly recommend the app “Reimagining the Examen.” It’s free. I open it up every night. It plays a little bit of music, and then it invites me to look back over the last 24 hours and identify two or three things that I felt were gifts from the day. So, if I were to do the examen right now, I would think of how we had a really good lunch yesterday.
Our neighbor is a French chef, how fortunate is that? He started a Michelin starred restaurant here in Vancouver and he gave us some quince jelly he had made. Do you know what quince is? It’s this fruit that looks like a cross between a pear and an apple. My wife did a quick Internet search and some believe it was the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. We obviously can’t verify that. But at lunch yesterday we enjoyed this delicious jelly with toast. So, I’m thankful for that right now as I do this little examen.
Then after lunch, it was crisp, clear outside, and I thought this would be a great time to rake leaves with our son, Joey, who is 11-years-old. Then we went for a run in the clear, crisp air—it felt really great, at least for me.
Last night, I came here to the church. Some of you were here and we had a Taste of Cambodia evening and I was so thankful that we have remained committed to Cambodia and continue to support several missions there, including work that prevents people from being sold as slaves. I am grateful that we can help them find freedom and connect them to communities where they can experience healing and the love of Christ.
I want you to think for a moment over the last 24 hours, or 48 hours. Recall two or three things that felt like gifts to you, things for which you felt grateful. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly, take a deep breath, exhale slowly, close your eyes if that helps you focus, relax and center yourself.
Look back over the last day or two. Were there two or three things that felt like gifts? It might have been an experience, a person, a word of affirmation, an opportunity that opened up for you.
Can you now identify one thing that you felt especially grateful for in the last day or so and just hold it in your heart.
As you hold that in your heart, turn to the Lord and say, “Thank you Lord for _____ (and then name the gift, the experience, the person, the opportunity.) Thank you Lord for _________. Thank you Lord for _________. Amen.”
Neuroscientists tell us when we take time to savor a good experience for 30 seconds, the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine are released in our brain. So, giving thanks will literally change the chemistry in our brain and make us feel better.
If we believe in God and associate those good gifts with God’s love for us—we will grow more content and less envious. In the evening I pray this prayer of thanks, and I am slowly becoming a more grateful person. Nothing dramatic needs to change in your outer life for you to experience gratitude.
Earlier in this message we talked about how envy and the shame that accompanies it brings nothing good into our lives, just hissing coals that cause us to seethe in torment. The way to overcome feelings of envy, and the associated shame, is not to convince ourselves as Samuel Johnson tried to do that we are superior to everyone else or to repeat mantras to ourselves like, “I am the greatest, I am the greatest, I am the greatest.” Ironically, the research shows that people who use such mantras end up feeling worse.
The answer is to look to the Lord. In Psalm 34:5, the psalmist prays, “Those who look to the Lord are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” Those who look to the Lord and experience his love and then become a channel of that love to others and in turn offer that love back to God in thanksgiving are radiant. Their faces are never covered with shame.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything