The end of envy is the beginning of freedom

John 21:19-23 contains an illuminating interchange between Jesus and the two Apostles Peter and John. This small episode right at the end of John struck me as containing a message of freedom for God’s people, a message that I have particularly needed lately.

You Follow Me

In this story, Jesus has just commanded Peter three times to “Feed my sheep,” an episode which offers redemption to Peter who denied Jesus three times on the night of his betrayal. Jesus then proceeds to prophecy concerning the nature of Peter’s death. He speaks a foreboding prophecy which seems to strongly indicate that Peter too will be crucified in a manner like Christ. However, as soon as Jesus informs Peter of the nature of his death, the Apostle John shows up and Peter points at him and asks Jesus, “well, what about him?” To this, “Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me (John 21:22).” 

Jesus’ answer is fascinating and contains a high calling for each individual Christian. To offer a paraphrase, Jesus essentially says, “That’s none of your business. You just follow me.” Jesus is telling Peter to get his nose out of John’s spiritual business because that’s between him and the Lord. Now, I don’t take this to mean that each person’s spiritual journey is so radically unique that we can never speak into each other’s lives in ways that might perhaps offer wisdom or rebuke. Clearly the writings of both the Old and New Testaments are replete with commands and concrete depictions of what a life which is honoring to God looks like. However, Jesus is saying that each individual Christian’s walk with God is not dependent for its shape on anyone else’s walk with God. He’s saying that we don’t get to compare or use each other’s lives as judges for our own. Jesus has as much right to send Peter to the cross as he does to make John live for a thousand years, and John’s glorious thousand year life would not in any way invalidate Peter’s calling. Jesus just says you follow me.

This message preaches a glorious freedom to the believer. It sets us free from the constant call to compare and invites us to fix our eyes solely on Christ. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and die to ourselves daily. What that will look like for me will look different from the person next to me and the person across the globe. It may be the case that God calls me to something particularly hard and sends me into a period of great suffering. I don’t get to look at the person next to me or the other person in my church and see how easy they’ve got it and allow that to become an occasion for grumbling. For one, that person may not have it as easy as they appear. But, secondly, we have no such right to say to God, “how dare you give this hardship to me alone!” That is the heart of the rebel, the heart which arrogates to itself the right to judge God. If we relinquish this rebellious heart though, we can discover the freedom of following Christ rather than being subject to the weight of constant comparison and performance evaluation.

Social Media and Envy

It seems to me that envy is one of the ugliest acts of the human heart. Envy, of course, must be distinguished from jealousy in that jealousy is the assertion of an actual claim that one might have. Because a wife has a binding claim on her husband’s love and affection, she may rightly be jealous for his affection. So too, in the Old Testament, we see that God is jealous for His people precisely because they are His people (and He is theirs!). However, envy asserts a claim where there is none. Envy wants simply because the other person has. Envy wells up in our hearts when we see something that we do not have and we simply wish disaster to fall upon that other person. We hate them, we loathe them, and we wish that they would suffer. I am always shocked when this emotion rears its ugly head in my heart, because, despite how obviously irrational and petty it is, it can grip me with such a power.

I think that social media exacerbates this problem considerably in the modern Christian’s life. In fact, my most envious and petty moments have been prompted by things I’ve seen on social media. Whenever someone posts a picture on Instagram of an awesome adventure they’re on or a happy picture with their significant other, I broil with envy. I find myself bitter that I do not have those things and I hold the other person in contempt for flaunting it. Facebook of course can do the same thing. We are tagged in photos of happy events and those pictures show up in others’ news feeds. I think the deep irony of such content is that our happiest moments are always those when we are not on Instagram or Facebook. No smiling person in a Facebook photo is on Facebook in the picture! They’re living real and authentic existence and that’s why they’re joyful! But we who are scrolling through our feeds are wandering through the limbo of the internet, present but not present, oblivious to the world beyond the screen. We are consuming a mere facsimile of real life. The picture can only ever be a static re-presentation of an authentic moment in time. And there we are, being envious because we feel we can’t have that moment and it’s abominably unfair that God won’t give it to us.

Jesus sets us free from all of that. He looks you in the eye and says, “Follow me.” He looks me in the eye and says, “Follow me.” What utter freedom it is that I get to follow my Savior wherever he leads me! I am a sheep and I trust my shepherd implicitly. He has only good intentions for me and knows my needs better than I do. He has shown himself to be courageous, valuing my life more than his own and laying it down to protect me. I am always so tempted to look at another’s life and grumble to him, “why don’t I have a wonderful girlfriend?” “Why am I not on an adventure in Japan? “Why can’t I go to that amazing graduate school?” But that’s not the Spirit talking. Those burdens can only hold me back. We can’t learn how to ask Jesus what he wants for us if we never shut up about what we want for ourselves. Once we start asking what Jesus wants for us, we will finally start being useful for him, growing to be like him, and being a blessing to our neighbor. We’ll stop tearing other people down and beating ourselves down in the process. When I am filled with envy, I am unprofitable to my Lord and I am hindered from serving him. I’ve wrapped these unnecessary chains around my feet and they are slowing me down! I want nothing to do with them!

A Closing Prayer

Lord, please take away all my envious grumblings and bitter complaining. Give me your Spirit so that I might fix my eyes on you alone. May I never turn to the right or the left, may I never compare my walk to another, and may I always be grateful for everything you give me. Give me the strength to follow only you and to find my life in giving it away for your sake. Amen.

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