Friday, 19 June 2009

Jealousy: What it does and how to deal with it


Two shopkeepers were bitter rivals. Their stores were directly across the street from each other, and they would spend each day keeping track of each other's business. If one got a customer, he would smile in triumph at his rival.
One night an angel appeared to one of the shopkeepers in a dream and said, "I will give you anything you ask, but whatever you receive, your competitor will receive twice as much. Would you be rich? You can be very rich, but he will be twice as wealthy. Do you wish to live a long and healthy life? You can, but his life will be longer and healthier. What is your desire?"
The man frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, "Here is my request: Strike me blind in one eye!"

Jealousy is intensely powerful.

This is a story of what jealousy can do. Joseph has just told his brothers - in his diplomatic way - that one day they will all bow down to him. And in Genesis 37.11 we read 6 words - devastating - 'His brothers were jealous of him"

Jealousy destroys us; it eats us up on the inside. One person wrote in the Sunday Times, 'When my friend succeeds, a little bit of me dies'. It can make us do awful things.

That is reflected in our fairy tales: the wicked queen wants Snow White dead because when she asked the mirror who was the most beautiful of all, the mirror said, 'Snow White'.

I haven't seen the film Amadeus, but I read that it is a study of how jealousy can destroy people. It is a fictional story about the relationship between Antonio Salieri, a gifted classical musician, and Mozart, who continually outshines Salieri. Salieri knew from childhood he was destined to write music, and he dreamed of becoming great. He recognized that music came from God, and he bargains with God:

"Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous throughout the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life".

Salieri becomes a well-respected musician and the court composer; but he knows nothing of the fame or talent God gives Mozart; and Salierihates the idea that God gives such musical gifts to someone who is so profligate and immoral.

On one occasion, wild with jealousy, he sits in his parlor contemplating why God allowed Mozart to drink of the fame that he has thirsted for all his life. Angered, he pulls the crucifix off the wall and throws it into the blazing fireplace. He says to God:

"From now on we are enemies, you and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for my reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation; because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you. I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature on earth. As far as I am able, I will ruin your incarnation".


I suspect that part of the reason why jealousy is so powerful is because it makes us feel inadequate. It challenges our self-worth and who we think we are. If my identity is dependent upon how I do my work, then when someone comes along who - by my own standards - is better at it than me, it is very easy to begin to hate them. If my identity is dependent upon my looks, or my children, or my ability, or my wealth, or my popularity - then when I see someone who seems to do it better than me - jealousy grips. We are only usually jealous of people who are like us.

And here the brothers are jealous of Joseph. They are jealous of his status with their father; they are jealous of his natural presumption of superiority over them; they are jealous of his dreams; they are jealous of his robe - which is the public mark of their father's favour. So often jealousy is most acute in families, and often among brothers and sisters. Cain kills Abel because Abel has God's approval. Jacob and Esau battle it out for supremacy in the family. The brothers intend to kill Joseph because they are jealous of his status with their father.

[As an aside, those of us who are parents or grandparents, must do everything that we can to avoid giving reason to our children to think that one of them is more beloved than the other. God knows, and I mean that with full sincerity, what seeds of destruction we sow by showing favouritism]

And jealousy can lead to so much evil. We might even start out with thoughts of murder. We want to get rid of the person who is such an irritant to our being. Of course we quickly realise, or are persuaded, as the brothers are, that murder is probably not in our interests, and we might get into trouble! So we begin to look for other ways of destroying them: of dropping them into pits - becoming hyper critical - spreading rumours - delighting when things go wrong for them. And, even more deliciously, we can try to use them to further our own ends.

Of whom are you envious? I'm not sure that this is something that becomes less as we grow older. I think we learn to live with it, but it doesn't necessarily go away. Our feelings toward the brother or sister - who always seemed to have your parent's love, who seemed to have all the gifts or the lucky breaks, or who always seemed to have the preeminence? It was just so unfair. The person who got promoted when you didn't. The person who made it, who got what you really wanted to get.

And the problem is that jealousy, like many of the other human passions when not brought under God's authority, makes us do things that we deeply regret afterwards.

We know that the brothers do regret their actions later: When they are standing in Joseph's presence - without realising that it is Joseph,
"They said to one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us."

Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood." (Gen 42:21-23).

Humanly speaking they think that they have got away with murder, or its equivalent, but inwardly they have not.

So this is not a very edifying story. It is about what jealousy can do: It is a story about murderous intent; then, when older and wiser counsel prevails, they decide to throw Joseph into the cistern, to let him die there - it is significant that a place that was meant to give life (a watering hole, a well) becomes a place intended for death. That is what sin does. It is about abuse: selling Joseph for profit [Judah said (v26), 'what profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood' (NRSV)]. It is said that, 'blood is thicker than water', but in this case money is thicker than blood. It is a story about lies (interestingly, the brothers do not lie in words. They take the blood spattered robe home and let dad draw his own conclusions)


But it is not a story without some hope

1. There is Reuben.

Reuben was the eldest of the brothers, and so had a status that probably not even Joseph could threaten. He was also responsible for Joseph. Reuben does not go along with his brothers when they say that they will kill Joseph, but he does not have the power, or maybe the will, to completely stand up against them. So he does what he can (v21). He suggests that they put Joseph in the pit, with the intention of coming back and rescuing him. Having said that, the fact that it is Reuben who says later on, 'Now we must give an accounting for his blood' makes me wonder whether the other brothers had ever told Reuben that they had sold Joseph into slavery - and whether Reuben wished that he had done more to save Joseph.

2. God's hand is in all of this.

I'm not going to say much about this, because this comes out much clearer toward the end of the story of Joseph. I'm not saying that the jealousy or the actions of the brothers were caused by God - but that God was able to use them. And sometimes, when things get very dark, and it seems that sin and evil is overwhelming, it is easy to despair and to think that God is powerless. But he isn't. You can be in the pit, but it does not need to be the end of your dreams.

3. What happens to Joseph prefigures what will happen to a man who bears almost the same name as Joseph - Joshua, or Jesus.

They were jealous of him. They hated his claim that he was the Son of God and that one day he would come and judge all creation. They hated his popularity with people, his spiritual authority and power. He was both sold for 30 pieces of silver, but he was also judicially murdered.

His death looked like the victory of jealousy, the triumph of sin and evil.
But actually his death was the victory of love over jealousy, because Jesus chose freely to take into himself not just the consequence of their jealousy, but even the inadequacy and fear and resentment and alienation from God that caused the jealousy.

And just as God used what the brothers did to Joseph to save those same brothers many years later, so God used what human beings did to Jesus to save us. To save us from the consequences of the penalty for our jealousy and sin, and to save us from the grip of jealousy itself.

You see, as a person grows in Christ, so we begin to discover that our identity and our worth does not lie in our achievements, in our status, or even in how beloved we are/were by our parents. Our identity and worth lie in the fact that God made us and loves us, that we are - because of Jesus - his children, his sons and daughters, princes and princesses of heaven, heirs with Jesus of all things. And I'm not saying that the old pangs of jealousy will not rise up, but we can begin to learn to rejoice in the victories of others. And when things go wrong for them, we can begin to learn not to rejoice, but to really weep with them.

We need to be prepared to name it when it comes, and to repent of it. It is wrong. It prevents us from seeing the blessings of what God has given us, of who God has made us. That means choosing to let jealousy go. It means not feeding it. It means asking Jesus to both set us free from jealousy, and to show us in what lies our true significance and worth. But because of Jesus' death on the cross we really can be set free from jealousy, and we can be set free to love.

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