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“Jealousy and Envy - Psalm 73” by Joe Ellis — June 9, 2024

As we’ve been walking through the Psalms — we’ve been looking at them as a mirror of our soul — the Psalms reflect back to us the emotions that we experience, and show us how to bring those emotions before God in prayer. Some emotions can be scary and uncomfortable, and often times it's easiest just to try and ignore them in hopes they will just go away. That’s especially true of the emotion explored in Psalm 73 — envy or jealousy. Envy or jealousy can almost make a person feel less than human, as if I’m a worse person because I have envy.

When characters in movies and books show envy and jealousy, they are usually the bad guys — their envy and jealousy pretty much lead them to do bad things. And that’s fair, envy and jealousy often lead people to act badly — but movies and books can often confuse the actions brought about by envy with the feeling of envy. So, yes, the villain was bad to kill their rival lover out of jealousy, but in those stories the villain is often a villain long before they killed their rival — they were a villain because they were jealous. If they were never jealous, then they would not be a villain. Bonifer Squoon in the Wingfeather Saga is a good example, but I’m sure you can think of other examples.

While it is helpful to name that jealousy often leads a person into bad actions, I don’t find it especially helpful to say that jealous people are bad because they are jealous. It's not helpful because I experience jealousy or envy, and knowing that jealousy is bad does not help me deal with my feelings of jealousy. And let’s be honest, envy and jealousy leave you feeling lousy, just gross.

Asaph, though, shares with us honestly about the impact that jealousy had on him, and how he wrestled with those feelings. On top of that, Asaph was not even a villain! He was a friend of King David. Asaph’s job was to write temple music. Asaph likely even set up a school of music, teaching others to lead in worship music. Twelve Psalms in the Bible bear his name.

Asaph felt such deep envy that he opens the Psalm with “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”  Note that Asaph shows us that it is possible to separate the actions of envy from the feeling of envy. “My feet almost slipped” — in other words, he almost acted on his envy, and that would have certainly been destructive. But he felt jealous without acting on his jealousy. Later in verse 15, Asaph acknowledges to God that if he had acted on his envy, “he would have betrayed God’s children.”  What that would’ve looked like isn’t super clear, but Asaph knows that acting on his envy would have been a sort of betrayal to his faith community.

Yes, Asaph doesn’t act on his jealousy, but he poignantly describes just how disorienting was his experience of envy. His feelings of jealousy move him to wonder if holding to his values was pointless. He says, “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.” It's his jealousy that felt like a punishment. There he is, trying to live a principled life. He’s choosing to what — be honest in dealing with people? To be celibate? To not gossip? To abide by any one of the 10 Commandments?… and he sees those who don’t abide by his principles as enjoying life. That was hard for him. As Christians, we can often be familiar with this kind of envy, especially when we see people who seem to enjoy life because they don’t have the same sort of moral obligations that we do. And that’s hard, especially when you see others enjoying what you’d like to enjoy. Perhaps you are reminded of that every time you see them. You might feel like Asaph, who felt “punished every morning.”  You might feel like crying out, “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.”  

Let’s also name another reality — sure, sometimes we are jealous of those who enjoy that which is off limits to us as Christians… but sometimes we are jealous of those who enjoy ‘good things’ that for one reason or another are beyond our reach. One person might bear the pain of jealousy toward married people or people who have kids, or people who own a house; or toward people who seem smarter; or toward people whose spouse or parents are still alive and healthy; or toward people who seem more popular, or to whom making friends come easily, or people who have the job that they want; or toward people who perform better in sports; or toward people who have a lot of money. That’s when envy is quite hard. Envy makes us aware of our own desires, many times our desire is good, but because we are unable attain to those desires, bitterness, envy and jealousy creep in. Asaph describes it this way: “My heart was grieved and my spirit embittered.”  

Envy is a bitter, bitter fruit, and it makes the stomach sour, it grieves the heart. And when you are continually seeing others who have what you so dearly desire, it's never clear how to get away from that feeling. In verse 15, after reflecting on his envy of the wicked, Asaph says, “when I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me.”  Despite his best efforts, he isn’t able to just think his way out. He feels oppressed by his envy. He wasn’t able to flick a switch to turn off his envy. He just felt stuck.

And in verses 4-11, Asaph describes the people of whom he is jealous. He describes them as free from burdens, prideful, violent, callous in heart, evil in mind, malicious, arrogant, oppressive, and god-like. And he feels jealous that they are always healthy, carefree, and so wealthy! In their book The Cry of the Soul” Dan Allender and Tremper Longman note that for Asaph: “Envy had distorted reality for the psalmist. The target of his envy, the wealthy wicked, had taken on superhuman qualities in his mind… fear makes others seem more powerful and ourselves weaker. Here we can see how resentful desire distorts reality by making other people appear better off, richer, happier than they really are, and ourselves worse off, poorer, sadder.”

We don’t know what the people Asaph was jealous of were really like — but what Allender and Longman are naming is that envy distorts reality, and we can see some of that distortion of reality when Asaph describes the people of whom he’s jealous:

They have no struggles;

Their bodies are healthy and strong.

They are free from the burdens common to man;

they are not plagued by human ills.”

This is helpful to me — it names that when I’m jealous, I’m more likely to throw the people that I’m jealous of under the bus with a list of ways that they’re terrible. You may be more spiritual than me and may be able to resist maligning those of whom you are jealous. But it’s hard. This tendency to cut down those we’re jealous of points to the pain and vulnerability we carry when we see people enjoying what we so dearly want.

So, here is the million dollar question. What do we do with our envy? What do we do with jealousy? First, let me disappoint you by saying that what follows are not three fool proof steps to get rid of your envy. Our envy is rooted in some of our deepest unfulfilled longings — and I’m sure you know that we can’t get rid of our envy as easy as 1, 2, 3. But, nonetheless, I will point to three practices that may help us carry our envy. Let me note the significance of verse 16 and 17:

When I tried to understand all this,

It was oppressive to me,

Till I entered the sanctuary of God;

Then I understood their final destiny.”

Let’s name again that Asaph wasn’t able to simply think his way out of envy on his own — there is a place for that, for trying to put our jealousy into perspective — but Asaph also had great help in this from God when he was at the temple. He doesn’t tell us what sort of spiritual experience happened, but Asaph left the temple with understanding and connection. This again just underscores why it is so good to talk to God even about our difficult emotions like envy and jealousy — as Asaph shows us, it makes a difference.

First, God helps Asaph to play the long game. In this world, we will have longings that will go unsatisfied. In this world, we will see people we believe to be undeserving people have our deepest desires. That hurts. Yet, God assures Asaph that there will be justice. That one day, Asaph will not have to carry the pain that he has in his heart. There will be justice for the wicked, and the afflicted will receive comfort. Asaph is able to trust that God will sort things out, and that the sacrifices he has made to follow God will be worth it in the end. God will also reveal the choices of unscrupulous people for what they are. Asaph finds comfort there, in playing the long game.

Second, Asaph finds connection with God. And I believe that this may in fact be the heart of his experience of the temple. Notice that God helps Asaph in a way that doesn’t really have anything to do with the people Asaph is jealous of. God doesn’t immediately smite those people, nor does he give Asaph the things that the other people have. Instead, what God does is to give Asaph closeness and connection, a closeness that helps Asaph to say:

Yet I am always with you;

You hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

And afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And earth has nothing I desire beside you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

But God is the strength of my heart

And my portion forever.”

In closeness and connection, Asaph finds the antidote to his jealousy. In closeness and connection, his jealousy diminishes, and he says, “And earth has nothing I desire beside you.”  Closeness and connection with God and with others is such a powerful antidote to our feelings of jealousy — Taking the step to simply name our envy and jealousy to God and to those we are close to (this can be scary to admit that we feel jealousy) but connection is such a powerful antidote to envy.

Finally, what do we do when we are in the throws of envy and jealousy? What happens when the hope that one day God will set everything right doesn’t really seem to help with the pain of jealousy here and now? What happens when connection to God or connection to others is not for the moment soothing our jealous feelings? What happens when we cannot get a handle on our envy of those who currently enjoy what we so deeply want?

Well, remember when I said that books and movies tend to portray people with jealousy or envy as rotten to the core? Well, I can think of one book that doesn’t do that — A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Jealousy is one of the themes Dickens explores throughout the book. The character Sydney Carton is terribly jealous of Charles Darnay, because Darnay is loved by the character Lucie. Throughout the whole novel, Dickens highlights this jealousy — Sydney Carton grows to hate Charles Darnay for his relationship with Lucie. Sydney Carton’s feeling of love for Lucie would be good if Lucie had returned his love — but because that love is not returned, Syndney Carton’s love threatens to twist his soul. As the plot unfolds, Charles Darnay is imprisoned and sentenced to death, and Sydney Carton is in a place of power over his rival. Throughout the novel, you think that Sydney Carton is rotten to the core because of his jealousy, and you expect he will allow his rival to die so that he can then be with Lucie and finally satisfy his desire. But instead, out of love for Lucie, Carton trades places with his rival, Charles Darnay. Sydney Carton is executed in place of his rival. Right before he is beheaded, Sydney Carton says these wonderful words: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Dickens wants us to think of Sidney Carson as a type of Christ figure. Yet what is unique about Carson’s Christ-like sacrifice is the intense jealousy he had for the man he sacrificed himself for. Carson’s act is not beautiful despite his jealousy, his act is made far more beautiful because of the intensity of his jealousy.

Christ calls to all of us, saying “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) Jealousy shaped Carson’s experience of carrying the cross, and so it also may be with us. Choosing to act in a way that blesses those we are jealous of or envious of may be one of the hardest aspects of the cross that we carry. And in blessing those that we are jealous of, we may strangely find that our envy and jealousy can actually draw us closer to Jesus, as his character is emulated through our actions.

Asaph says that whenever he sees those of whom he is jealous, he feels plagued and punished. And Jesus invites us to “Love your enemies and pray those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Perhaps this is true even if that persecution is simply that we are jealous. Perhaps a person seems like our enemy simply because they are enjoying what we cannot. But in this way, our jealousy becomes a pathway to more deeply follow Jesus, a pathway to finding deeper union with Jesus. Perhaps, in this way, our jealousy may be a gift, as it helps us journey through the pain to become more deeply immersed in union with God, our Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ.


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