But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. —James 3:14
This is a story about two young men who were friends, roommates, and pastors.
In other words, this is a story about jealousy.
In the mid-90s, I was a student at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. I was a successful student with a successful grade point average. I was leading a large college ministry. I was, simply put, on the fast track to success in the field of my choice—pastoral ministry.
My sophomore year a student transferred in who captured the attention and imagination of much of the student body.
His name was Matt Chandler.
Matt had a natural ease about him. He was confident and funny. He immediately commanded a room when he entered. And he, too, was studying in the school of theology. We attended class and church together. I liked him from the moment I met him.
Our junior year, we decided to rent an apartment together. We had different social circles, but many evenings we ate together or watched television or discussed theology or played practical jokes on each other or watched the massive thunderheads roll across the West Texas plains.
It was an idyllic time.
There are three small-ish Christian universities in Abilene. During our student years, a weekly college Bible study met where students from all over the city would gather on Thursday nights for prayer, worship, and a time of teaching. The study was growing, and there was word that the pastor—Steve Hardin—was looking to hand off leadership.
I hoped they would choose me. I was, after all, a great student and a decent communicator.
Instead, they chose Matt.
And that’s when the jealousy began.
The weekly Bible study swelled in attendance to approximately 2,000 students—in Abilene! Matt was receiving invitations to speak all over West Texas. In one story that became an almost-legend among our apartment, a man sold him a car for the incredible price of one dollar. He was becoming the local spiritual authority, and he was in his early twenties.
I was amazed at God’s blessing on Matt’s life.
And I badly wanted it for myself.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been jealous of someone you were simultaneously friends with. It is a difficult spiritual condition to describe. On the one hand, I was happy for my friend. He was experiencing the sort of ministry success that is impossible to orchestrate. God was clearly ordaining a path for him. On the other hand, I felt slighted. I felt I had worked harder; I felt I had “paid my dues.” Why was he getting to live the life I wanted to live?
To add insult to injury, I was now known around campus and around town by a new label: “Matt Chandler’s Roommate.”
In case you don’t already know Matt’s story, his meteoric rise in ministry only continued. His speaking engagements reached higher heights. And then he became pastor of First Baptist Church, Highland Village, Texas. From my limited vantage point, it was as if his church—now named The Village Church— grew from 150 to 1,500 to a billion or so overnight.
I say “my limited vantage point,” because I was serving on staff at a church in rural East Texas. I loved it, to be honest. It fit who the Lord had made me to be. But it wasn’t a place to be noticed. It wasn’t The Village. And I wasn’t a success.
As if he couldn’t rise any faster, Matt was then diagnosed with brain cancer. It soon seemed that everywhere I looked, Matt was there, preaching with a bald scalp and a pronounced cranial scar, testifying to the goodness of God.
While all the truly saved Christians listened with delight, I found myself in the ridiculous position of envying a cancer patient.
He may have had brain cancer, but I was the one who was sick.
In the midst of my secret jealousy, Matt remained my friend. He encouraged me. He prayed for me.
(That’s the thing—Matt’s the real deal. He’s not different from the pastor that’s on the platform. He truly loves the Lord that much.)
And so finally, one day, when we were talking on the phone, I told him.
I told him I was jealous of him. I told him that I wished I had the life he had.
And I’ll never forget what he said, although he may not remember it. It was probably just another conversation to him. It was life-changing and transformative for me.
“That’s funny,” he said, “because there are days when I envy you.”
He continued talking after that, but I honestly don’t remember what he said. He was explaining something about the pace of life and ministry, but I was too busy attempting to process his words. In a flood of recognition, the grace of God opened my eyes. I realized that I had made ministry “success” an idol, and I had made my imagined fantasy of celebrity pastoring something that was simply that—fantasy. Matt’s days were just like mine—he was leading a church. His church—just like mine—had warts, wins, sheep, and the Spirit.
He could wistfully hope for another ministry some days because his days were hard, too. Just like mine.
And, just like that, the Lord used my willingness to confess and Matt’s gracious words to change my heart.
Most spiritual disease takes longer to root out, but, mercifully, this one the Lord chose to kill dead in the moment.
The past eight years or so have been entirely different.
I now get to root -- freely -- for my friend to succeed in ministry. I praise God that He chose, in His sovereign wisdom, Matt to be a powerful voice for the grace of God in Jesus in our world. I had the opportunity to see him speak at two conferences this past year, and it was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed.
I have a new perk, as well. I use this experience to warn young pastors against the sin of comparison. My struggle, I have found, was not unique to me. Many pastors are comparing worship attendance, baptism numbers, budget size, and ministry “success” with their peers, and, in the process, they are missing the grace gifts the Lord is pouring in their laps day in and day out.
“Comparison,” as Teddy Roosevelt said, “is the thief of joy.”
Scripture speaks often of the danger, too. Personally, Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 3:3 rings most true for me: “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
And so I rest in the things I know for sure: God has made me with the gifts He wanted me to have. He has ordained my steps in ministry, and I can simply be obedient. I am loved more than I can ever know in Jesus.
And I can root for my friend, Matt.
So I do. I am glad to call him one of the best pastors I know.
I’m comfortable with that.
Even if the masses only know me as Matt Chandler’s Roommate.