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Love Does Not Envy: Insights from Jonathan Edwards

What is this thing called “envy” which the apostle Paul insists is inconsistent with genuine Christian love (1 Corinthians 13:4)? Continue reading . . .

What is this thing called “envy” which the apostle Paul insists is inconsistent with genuine Christian love (1 Corinthians 13:4)? Jonathan Edwards defines it as “a spirit of opposition to others’ comparative happiness, or to the happiness of others considered as compared with their own” (Charity and its Fruits, Yale, 8:219). People who are envious are unhappy that other people appear to experience greater prosperity or happiness than they do. They “cannot bear that others should rival them or vie with them in honor and prosperity” (219).

How do you respond to the success of others? Does it trouble you, or cause you to rejoice? Is it grievous to your heart or grounds for great delight? And what is your feeling when such folk suffer harm or appear to diminish in their happiness? The person smitten with envy, notes Edwards, is glad when he observes another being brought low. In fact, “if they have an opportunity put into their hands to pull them down, they will embrace it. And it is from this disposition that seeing others’ prosperity often sets persons talking against them and speaking evil of them. They envy them the prosperity or honor they have obtained, and they hope by speaking evil of them in some measure to diminish that honor and to beget a mean [lowly] opinion in others of them” (221).

A truly Christian spirit of love, on the other hand, “disposes persons to rejoice in others’ prosperity. It not only mortifies a disposition to grieve at it, but on the contrary gives a disposition to rejoice in it” (222).

So how might we cultivate in our hearts a disposition to rejoice in the success of others rather than resent it and envy it? Edwards finds the answer in a proper grasp of the gospel. For in the gospel,

“we are taught how far God was from grudging us [i.e., being reluctant and hesitant to give us] the most exceeding honor and blessedness, and how he has grudged us nothing as too much to be done for us, and nothing as too great and too good to be given us; he hath not grudged us his only begotten Son, that which was most precious and most dear of all to himself; for what was dearer to God than his only begotten, dearly beloved Son? He hath not grudged us the highest honor and blessedness in union with him. The doctrines of the gospel teach us how far Jesus Christ was from grudging us anything which he could do for or give to us. He did not grudge us a life spent in labor and suffering; he did not grudge us his own precious blood; he hath not grudged us a sitting with him on his throne in heaven, and being partakers with him of that heavenly kingdom and glory which the Father hath given him, and sitting with him on thrones judging the world, though we deserve to be had in infinite contempt and abhorrence by him” (224).

His point is simply this: Have we rightly regarded the truth of the gospel? Have we fully embraced and do we cherish the truth that God has happily and without the slightest tinge of reluctance gone to the farthest degree imaginable to give us eternal life at the greatest cost to himself? If so, how can envy find a place in our hearts? How can we possibly yield to the belief that we deserve the prosperity that others experience and that they should have none of it? Envy, then, has no place in the heart of a person who rightly understands and lives in the power of the gospel of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ.

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