I Samuel 8:4-22
As we continue our journey through Lent we come to the fourth in our series of messages based upon the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth). This week we study the sin of envy.
I am, unfortunately, an envier from way back. In fact, thinking about envy has caused me to consider whether or not I should post on social media about upcoming sermons. Last week, while talking with a friend of mine, the topic turned to something that caused me to reveal a bit of envy. He turned to me, with a surprised look on his face, and said, aren’t you preaching about envy on Sunday? I was busted!
But I take some comfort in knowing I am not the only one. I believe all of us have an element of each of the Seven Deadly Sins within us, and the sin of envy is, I believe, the most universal. Is there anyone who does not struggle with envy? I don’t think so.
Our Scripture text for today comes from I Samuel, which tells of the time when the nation of Israel petitions the prophet Samuel for a king. Once the people had settled into the land of Canaan, after the exodus from Egypt and a generation of wandering in the wilderness, the important matter of governance had to be determined. During their early years of living in the Promised Land, the people were governed by a series of judges. Unsatisfied with that arrangement, the people came to Samuel and expressed their desire for a king, so that they “will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (verse 20). Is there a ring of familiarity in that verse? A modern version would be but mom, but dad, all the other kids have an iPhone! I want one too!
Instead of reading this passage at one time, I am going to break it into sections and read a portion with each point I have to make.
1. Envy preys upon dissatisfaction and the erroneous belief that possessing something that someone else either has or is will bring us satisfaction.
I Samuel 8:4-8
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.
5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.
7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.
8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.
There is an interesting tale of a custodian and CEO whose paths crossed one evening. The CEO was working late one evening in his large, top-floor, corner office. It has been a long, tough day for him. He was facing budget and profitability pressures and had experienced a contentious meeting with his board. The shareholders were unhappy and the board was unhappy. He watched the custodian, working in the corner of his office, and felt a tinge of envy. That guy has it made, he thought. He comes in to work in the evening, when few people are here. He doesn’t have a board to answer to. He doesn’t have shareholders constantly demanding a greater return. I wish I could have some of what he has! The custodian, at the same time, was thinking of the CEO, that guy has it made. A big, corner office. A large salary. Lots of people to do what he asks. I wish I could have some of what he has!
It is important, I think, to note that there is a difference between envy and admiration. In my first message of this series I mentioned my professor who taught my class about how good qualities have a shadow side. A good work ethic, for instance, is a positive quality, but it has a shadow side – workaholism. Envy is the shadow side to admiration. Admiration is a positive quality. Admiration allows us to learn from our teachers and role models and mentors. We admire the good qualities of their lives and we seek to emulate those qualities. Envy, however, is the dark side of admiration. Envy twists admiration into something that is negative and destructive.
Looking at their neighbors, the people of Israel fell prey to envy, which led them to believe their lives would be better if they could only be like the nations surrounding them. Be careful what you wish for would certainly be applicable to their situation. Samuel warned the people that a king would take their sons and daughters to do his bidding and take their resources as well. Despite his warning, the people were undeterred in their wish for a king, and they would quickly find Samuel’s warning to be accurate.
Envy is all around us, and that envy can, and often will, permeate every aspect of our lives. Everywhere we turn are reminders of what we don’t have and we are awash in images of what someone – usually advertisers – believes we should have in our lives. The overwhelming number of images will conspire to create envy within us. As the character of Dennis the Menace once said, as he leafed through a catalogue, this catalogue’s got a lot of toys I didn’t even know I wanted.
Envy preys upon any kind of dissatisfaction we have in our lives. Envy will cause us to think, if I get this thing I desire, then I will be satisfied. My life will be complete in some way. But that is seldom, if ever true. Take a moment and reflect upon a time you greatly desired something, and eventually attained it. Did it bring any lasting sense of satisfaction? For a time, perhaps, but satisfaction can be very, very fleeting experience. We too easily fall for the deceit that if I get something I desire – a new car, a new job – I will finally be satisfied, but this is rarely the case. Envy is unique among the Seven Deadly Sins in that all the others can bring some sense of satisfaction, but envy can never do so.
Envy preys upon dissatisfaction. The great tragedy of envy is that it prevents any level of satisfaction. Nothing is ever enough. There is no level of achievement and no amount of gain that is enough. Someone always has more, and as long as we see someone with more, envy will never allow us to be satisfied.
2. Envy is built upon illusion.
I Samuel 8:9-17
9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.
11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.
12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.
13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.
15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.
17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.
Magicians, or more correctly, illusionists, perform their tricks by the use of misdirection. Misdirection uses some type of distraction that keeps one from seeing what is really taking place. It’s relatively easy for an illusionist to fool an audience, because they want to believe that what they see is real. I once saw an illusionist perform a very impressive trick, and after performing it asked the audience how many people believed there was some type of magic involved. Quite a few raised their hands, and I have to admit, it was so impressive that it was tempting to believe something else must have been at work. He told the audience he would perform it again, but before doing so, he gave a partial explanation of how he did it and reminded them it was only an illusion. After performing the illusion a second time, he asked the audience how many believe it was more than a trick and a number of people still raised their hands. Envy finds its power in our desire to believe that an illusion is true.
Envy asks us to believe that what we see elsewhere is reality. It asks us to look at the life of another person and to imagine how much better our life could be if it were like the other person’s. I wish my family could be like theirs. I wish I had such a great job. I wish I lived in such a great neighborhood and house. I wish I had a spouse like that. Their life appears to be perfect, or at least as close to perfect as one can get.
What we do not want to believe, however, is that what we see in another person’s life may be far from reality. While on the surface we might see success, financial blessing, family harmony, and many other wonderful things, the reality might be far different. I have worked with people for enough years to become convinced that what we see in the lives of others is not always reality.
I spent a number of years in great envy of a childhood friend of mine. I envied his athletic ability, his outgoing personality, his large number of friends, and many other aspects of his life. There was a time when I would have gladly traded lives with him. I was wrong. Behind the public face of his life was a great deal of difficulty and struggle. And, sadly, the envy that captured my heart and mind blinded me to the gifts that were in my life.
Samuel gave the people a very stern warning about the reality of placing themselves under a king. The king will take your sons and require of them to become his soldiers, and they will be the first ones to run into battle and the first ones to die. He will take others of them and force them into indentured servitude for him, working his land, while still others are forced to manufacture the implements that he needs in his kingdom. And he’ll take your daughters and force them to become his cooks and his bakers, and he’ll take the best of your land, and he’ll take the best of your vineyards and he’ll give them to members of his court to curry favor with them. And then he’ll take a portion of the best of your flocks and herds and eventually you will become a slave to this king. But the people wouldn’t hear of it. No, they wanted to believe the illusion that somehow a king would give them a great life.
In spite of the fact that Samuel was telling the truth, the people could not believe it, and it was not long before they found that he did indeed speak the truth and all his warnings came true.
3. Envy promises something better, but in the end delivers nothing of good.
I Samuel 8:18-22
18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.
20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord.
22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
There is a fable of an eagle who was envious of another eagle that could fly higher and further than all others. One day, the envious eagle saw an archer with his bow and arrow and said to him, I wish you would bring down that eagle up there. The man said he would if he had some feathers for his arrow, so the jealous eagle pulled one out of his wing. The arrow was shot, but it didn't quite reach the rival bird because he was flying too high. The archer said he needed another feather and the first eagle pulled out another, then another, and still another until the archer had come to his final arrow. It was then that the archer turned his bow and took aim at the eagle on the ground, and that eagle could not fly away to safety because he had given away too many of his feathers.
So, if envy does nothing positive for us, how is it that envy can have such a powerful hold over us? Rosanne Cash, in her song World of Strange Design, sings a line that gets to the heart of the question – we talk about your drinking, but not about your thirst. The question is, what creates that thirst within us that then drives our desire, our envy, for what others have?
Envy is very much about failure and comparison. We compare our lives to the lives of others, and we only see the ways in which we come up short. We imagine a version of ourselves that we wish we could be, and that version of who we wish we could be is created by the comparison that we make between ourselves and other people. Sadly, we convince ourselves that we almost always come out on the short end of the comparison.
Compared to someone else, we never seem to be happy enough, smart enough, attractive enough, wealthy enough, spiritual enough, blessed with enough friends or success, and never, then, are satisfied with who we are.
I officiated a funeral the other evening, for a family with whom I have long been acquainted. At the conclusion of the service, the funeral directed gave opportunity for all the guests to pay their respects to the departed and to the family. When the guests had exited the room, it was just myself, the funeral director, and the family remaining in the chapel. Such a moment is a bit awkward for me, as I feel as though I am intruding on a family as they say their final good-byes to their loved one. And this will sound a bit odd, but it was a time when I felt blessed by the observation of the family. It was, certainly, a time of sadness and grief, but there was a shared connection among that family that was a blessing to experience. There were hugs all around, and it was a blessing to watch sons hug their fathers, their uncles, and grandparents (it was a blessing because men often struggle to show their emotions). There was an obvious bond of love among the family and a shared faith that connected them in a very deep way. Their family will not be remembered in a hundred years or more, and they don’t care. What mattered to them was one another, their loved one, and their faith. It was a beautiful to witness what they experienced, and I admired them even more because of it.
It is easy in life to spend a great deal of time desiring the things that do not add blessing to our lives. We too often desire – we envy – the tangibles of life rather than the intangibles. We want the things that might bring a brief time of satisfaction and even joy, but do not add any real quality to our lives.
We must stop comparing our lives to those of others, we must stop believing in the illusion that some product or possession will bring us lasting satisfaction in life, and we must realize there are things that, instead of bringing us blessing, will only bring us difficulty. Turn away from envy, and turn toward the blessings God has provided!