Career Idolators (And What to Do About Our Jealousy)

One of the most famous lines in Christian history is Martin Luther’s,“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Church leaders do well to take this to heart. It is for us as much as for our congregants.

David was a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) and he committed some of the most egregious acts recorded in Scripture. While many of us may not commit adultery or murder, what about the unseen sins of our hearts? What pastor has not struggled with jealousy over someone else’s sphere of influence?

A pastor across town has a bigger church than you. A friend gets a speaking invitation at a conference you’re attending. A guy you roomed with in seminary gets a publishing deal. All these things can make us wonder, whether we actually utter it or not: “God, have you forsaken me?”

Pastors and church leaders are not immune to what John Calvin so keenly observed: “Every one of us is, even from his mother's womb, a master craftsman of idols.” Let’s call jealousy what it is: an idol.

The Idol of Jealousy

A friend of mine recently shared that he was nearing completion of his fifth book. While I outwardly feigned excitement, inwardly I recognized an old acquaintance: jealousy. If you’ve been in ministry for any amount of time—and if you’re honest—you’ve experienced this as well.

Jealousy is how we tell God we aren’t content with him and his provision. When we’re jealous, we’re not happy with the gifts God has given us. We want the gifts he’s given to someone else. We scorn our daily bread (Matthew 6:11) and fantasize about someone else’s stew (Genesis 25:34). In David’s example, his own wife—a gift from the Lord—wouldn’t satisfy; he’d take Uriah’s instead. When we resolve to take our lives into our own hands, to acquire things that don’t belong to us, there’s no end to the heinous acts we’ll commit, adultery and murder are just a sampling.

For the pastor who takes his eyes off his own flock to envy the platform of another, jealousy takes a more sanctified form. He might not kill anyone, but he might find himself opposing the very work of God in favor of the things of man (Matthew 16:23). I know, because I found myself awake at night, wishing God had given me a vision for the book my friend was writing. When overtaken with jealousy, we can never pray, “your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10), because our hearts have already decided they don’t want God’s kingdom. They want their own distorted kingdom where they are king and everyone recognizes them for it.

What then should we do when we recognize envy in our lives? I’ve found a three-step process of repentance helpful:

Recognize

First, recognize your desire to have what someone else has is a declaration of war against God. Remind yourself of John Piper’s words, “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in him.” Seeking satisfaction in anything other than God is a stick-and-carrot race that robs God of glory and us of joy. This includes our own desire to have a bigger circle of influence.

It’s unlikely you’re going to be the next Charles Spurgeon. Recognize that it is God that called whoever you envy to their unique ministry and you to yours. Jeremiah’s ministry was anything but envious. He was called to preach to people that wouldn’t listen (Jeremiah 7:27). Recognize that the call of God is to be desired above the recognition of men (Galatians 1:10).

But don’t stop at simply recognizing your own sin. Part of repentance is turning back to God.

Resolve

After recognizing who God is, what he’s done through others, and that he is sovereign over your own life, resolve to find contentment in him alone. Make the words of the Psalmist your own: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26). You can easily substitute the word “ministry” in place of “flesh.” Don’t get your identity from what you do for God, but rather what God did for you on the cross in purchasing you for himself.

While the ministry successes of others may be bittersweet during tough seasons in our own, they don’t outshine the Lord of the harvest. The God who gives himself (John 3:16) is far better than the applause of the sinners he gave himself for. Jesus knew about the fickle nature of human recognition and refused it (John 2:24, 25). Follow him in this.

Rejoice

Finally, rejoice. Don’t rejoice at what God is doing through you, but what he has done in you (Luke 10:20). Far better than seeing the lives of others changed is seeing the face of the Lord. Job realized in his suffering that his redeemer lives and that, even after his skin was destroyed, he’d see God (Job 19:25-26). Likewise, if you or something else destroys your ministry—rejoice that you’ll see your redeemer in a future day.

If God has brought you to repent of your idolatrous envy, thank him for it and rejoice that he considered it a good thing to convict you in the first place. It is evidence that he has claimed you as his own. Go one step further and rejoice over the work he is doing through the person you found yourself envying. For when we accept that God’s kingdom comes through hands other than our own, we’ve begun to relinquish control of our own kingdom as it’s eclipsed by his.