If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times.
A fresh seminarian, wide-eyed and hungry for knowledge, steps onto campus and within the first semester, finds himself in the throes of full-blown battle with a litany of subtle sins for which no one prepared him. Of course, he was warned of many dangers. He was warned, “Don’t be so heavenly-minded that you’re no earthly good,” and, even though he had C.S. Lewis in his corner correcting the misconception, the kernel of truth had taken root: “Don’t forget about the people; this is all for the Church—it can’t stay forever theoretical.” Check. He was warned, “Beware of the temptation to allow your theological studies to become purely academic: remember to make it worship.” Check. He was warned, “Don’t put your personal prayer and Scripture intake on the backburner; a Church History textbook is no replacement for humble and quiet soul-feeding.” Check.
But no one warned him, “Beware of envy.” No one warned up of this single, most dangerous and formidable of foes who swallows up unsuspecting victims in a single gulp. It prowls in every class and every online interaction and every after-class conversation, and no one—not one single person—warned him! If I sound incredulous it’s because I am—this one is personal. The deep struggle with this sin was something for which I was not remotely prepared. And as a pastor of a church neighboring an evangelical seminary, I have a front-row view of this hidden trapdoor. For years I’ve watched student after student fall into the snare, unawares. So, with this post, hear me saying, “Be careful! There’s a trap right there.”
“Envy” many feel like a counterintuitive sin to warn incoming seminarians about, but it has proven a true enough opponent by both personal experience and observation. Most of the time, this nasty little sin doesn’t show its ugly face outright. It wears a smile. But you can tell when it’s there by the odd behavior it induces. For example, all the “humble brags” on social media have a green shade if you look closely enough. “So blessed to have all these publications added to my resume!” “So humbled to have my name in this prof’s book as a research assistant.” “Hey super-awesome professor, thanks for that private conversation we just had in your office where you told me how much promise I have. Totally not tweeting this out just to let the world know you and I are tight. #Blessed.”
You may be surprised by the suggestion that envy is behind these kinds of shenanigans, but hear me out. Envy can really be understood as “pride next to people.” That is, the manifestation of your pride when you start looking to your right and to your left with a measuring stick. As far as I can tell, there are at least three outcomes for this game of comparison.
Self-promotion. Self-advancement. This manifestation of envy is perhaps the hardest to spot in yourself and the easiest to spot in others. The good word for it is ambition. But a more accurate word for it is slimy. It’s that hunger for recognition. C. S. Lewis identifies this as the pull of the Inner Ring. He says,
The lust for the esoteric, the longing to be inside, take many forms which are not easily recognizable as Ambition. We hope, no doubt, for tangible profits from every Inner Ring we penetrate: power, money, liberty to break rules… But all these would not satisfy us if we did not get in addition the delicious sense of secret intimacy… Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day one which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.
There are at least a couple of reasons this is so dangerous. First of all, it misses the entire point of what seminaries are for: the glory of God. The envious seminary student who constantly promotes himself is the anti-John the Baptist. He says, “Jesus must decrease, I must increase.” He’s the friend of the bridegroom who shows up at the wedding and, rather than rejoicing at the sound of his best mate saying, “I do,” tries to get the attention of the bride for himself (John 3:22-36). Gross, right? Listen, that’s what most our platform-building amounts to! “No, no, I’m doing it for the gospel.” And this is why it’s so hard to get a hold of this thing; it’s covered in oil and slips through our grasp. It is easy to rebrand it as something honorable. But it is what it is. We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by trying to spin our self-aggrandizement as anything but dishonoring to God. A fellow pastor and friend of mine once said it like this, “Make sure you don’t pass by Jesus on his path of descent while you’re trying to make a name for yourself.”
The second reason self-aggrandizement is dangerous can be summed up like this: you can’t become what you insist you are already are. If you promote yourself as the well-accomplished genius you want to be known as you will find it hard to humble yourself and take on the posture of an actual student. To the degree you believe your reputation is established you will hesitate to ask questions and seek clarification. Someone makes a comment about an obscure theological concept and assumes you know what she’s talking about. You feel flattered that, in her mind, you are informed on such matters. Except in this case you’re not. Do you “out” yourself as ignorant? “Wait, I’ve never heard of that, could you explain yourself?” That’s what a humble learner would do. Or do you let the flattery work its way through your head and out your mouth? “Ah yes, of course. Astute observation.” That’s a learning opportunity squandered.
Inevitably, when you look to your left and to your right, someone will be standing higher than you. Someone will have the attention you want from a certain professor. Someone will receive an opportunity you desire. If envy sets in, you will find yourself unable to rejoice with them or for them. You will find yourself pouting. Whatever reason you previously had for self-congratulations just feels small now. Discontentment spreads, and the accomplishments of your friends begin to feel like personal injuries. “This is a zero-sum game: an opportunity they get is an opportunity I miss.”
I distinctly remember when this became real for me. A friend of mine published an article on a topic I was passionate about, and on which I had written a great deal. The article was a big hit, and I agreed with everything in it. It was a biblical article, just like—I pray—mine was. And the effects his article had were what I primarily wanted (or at least, what I believed I wanted) out of my articles on the topic. People found these ideas helpful. Great, right? As it turns out, my desires for these ideas to glorify God and serve his people were not as pure as I once thought. I couldn’t celebrate the fact that people were helped by the article because it wasn’t my article. “He must increase… but must I decrease? How come my friend gets to increase a little?” (cf., John 21:21)
This is the self-loathing turn. Envy turns the soul sour, especially when it turns introspective. This happens when we look to our left and right and count the accomplishments or intellectual abilities or level of personal piety of brothers and sisters around us, and then take that measurement and stand underneath it. As we look up, the distance between our status and their towering achievement crushes the soul. I’m so far behind. I’ll never catch up. I’ll never have his clarity of thought. I’ll never have her systematic theological knowledge. I’ll never preach like him.
Often, when we see this in ourselves or others, we think we need to be coddled. Someone tell me how dang special I am! Tell me I’m wrong about this low view of myself and that I am the greatest thing to happen to the Church since John Piper! No. What we really need is good ‘ol fashioned rebuke. Don’t be deceived, this is envy. It’s prideful self-importance. You don’t need to be coddled back to self-esteem and told that you actually do measure up because the measuring is the problem. How you measure up to the people next to you is simply not the point. Prideful self-aggrandizement and insecure self-loathing are two sides of the same coin. Insecurity is still pride, it’s just what pride looks like all bruised up.
So, fellow seminarian, take my word for it and add this warning to your current list: beware of envy. The seminary environment is unavoidably good soil for it to grow, so be vigilant and rip it out. Confess it. Forsake it. Put it to death. The potential for rich fruit in this season of your life is too important to allow these thistles of envy to choke it out.