The Evil of Envy

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (v. 17).

- James 3:13–18

The evil fire of the wicked tongue is fueled by the wickedness of the human heart, says James. By way of contrast, the one who has wisdom in his innermost being will demonstrate it by a different use of the tongue (James 3:13–18).

One of the worst ways the tongue is used is to promote envy. Covetousness—the desire to have things God has said we may not have for the present—is a central aspect of original sin. Adam and Eve coveted the forbidden fruit and seized it unlawfully. Envy is connected, says James, to selfish ambition. The ambitious man is unwilling to take the lowest seat and wait to be invited higher. Rather, he seeks by hook or crook to get there as soon as possible.

If all covetousness means is the desire to have something we don’t have, then we can earn money and buy it. This is not really covetousness at all, because it is not sinful. Covetousness and envy begin to come into play when we seek to steal what someone else has. Even this, however, does not get at the full depth of envy, because the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” has already covered this sin. What marks envy is this: It is the desire to tear down another person because of who he is or what he has. Envy says, “If I can’t have it, nobody can.” Envy does not seek to obtain the coveted item; rather, envy seeks to destroy it and its lawful possessor.

Thus, envy leads to “disorder,” says James (3:16). We don’t think of “disorder” as an important issue, but in God’s kingdom it is crucial. God commands that everything be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). James links “disorder” with “every evil practice.” God hates disorder, and the restoration of true order is a primary goal of His kingdom.

The sinful man uses his tongue enviously to tear down other people, but the wise man uses his tongue to promote peace. Peace is the opposite of disorder. The tongue should be used considerately, says James. It should be used submissively, esteeming the other person, and mercifully, helping other people. It should be used with sincerity, not with hypocrisy and idleness.

Coram Deo

Selfish ambition is very dangerous. God has many good things for us, but often He tells us to be patient. We must be careful not to eye jealously what God freely gives to our neighbors. Going about our daily business with delight for the prosperity and well-being of our neighbor is most difficult. How have you been doing?

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 12:18; 15:2–4
Luke 6:45

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