By Daniel Bobinski
Note: At the beginning of the year I decided to use this space to focus on God’s greatest command. If you’re connecting with this series for the first time and would like to read the earlier columns on this topic, I encourage you to visit Christian Living’s website to read the whole series. Visit https://www.christianlivingmag.com/columns/
When asked, Jesus said the greatest command is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Then he immediately volunteered more information, saying, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In modern society, the concept of love often correlates to having warm fuzzies for someone. This is not what Jesus meant. Thankfully, the Apostle Paul gave us an itemized definition of “love” in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and that definition is a list of verbs – things we are to DO.
As we work through these verbs, note that in some places Paul tells us what to do, (e.g., be patient, be kind), but also what not to do (don’t envy, don’t boast, don’t be proud, etc.).
I strongly believe one key to living a life of agape love is understanding that nature abhors a vacuum. In other words, we need to choose a “do” to replace a “don’t do.”
Let me illustrate. The importance of choosing a “do” to replace a “don’t do” came to me in a story about one of the best pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball, Warren Spahn. Let’s go back to the 1957 World Series, and in Game 4, Spahn was one out away from winning the game for his team, the Milwaukee Braves. It was the top of the ninth and the Braves were ahead 4 to 1, but two men were on base for the New York Yankees, and respected slugger Elston Howard was at the plate with a full count.
Spahn’s manager came out to the mound. He said only one sentence: “Whatever you do, don’t throw him a high outside pitch.” As the manager walked away, the only words flashing through Spahn’s mind were “high” and “outside.” And that was the next pitch Spahn threw. Howard swung on it for a home run and tied the game.
Although the Braves eventually went on to win the game and the series itself, Spahn shared this story throughout the years, questioning why someone would motivate another person to do something by giving them a mental picture of what they didn’t want.
I don’t know why the Apostle Paul didn’t follow Warren Spahn’s advice (yes, that was humor), but as we go through the verbs in 1 Corinthians 13, sometimes Paul tells us what not to do. When that happens, I believe it’s best to seek God and identify an action He might have us do in its place. Options will always exist, but I believe choosing any godly behavior and focusing on that will be better than relying only on a “don’t do ‘x’.”
In “does not envy,” the Greek word for envy is zēloō, which means “to burn with zeal.” The word can be used in a positive or a negative context, but it’s fair to say Paul wants us to avoid the negative aspects, which, according to the Greek, mean be heated or to boil with envy, hatred, or anger.
I should note that Paul’s use of “envy” (a verb) is different from when God says He is a jealous God (an adjective). The Old Testament Hebrew word translated as ‘jealous’ (‘qanna’) means God is someone who bears no rival. He is, after all, the Relational Righteous Ruler of the Universe and has no equal. Thus, the Hebrew word translated jealous and the Greek word translated envy are two distinctly different things.
So, if we’re not supposed to “boil with envy,” what should we do instead? Remember, our choice should align with the character of Jesus.
When I teach this, I ask people to identify situations in which they get envious. In my own retrospection, I realized that I got envious when I wanted something before someone else could get it. And with that envy came anxiety – another trait that isn’t of the Lord (“be anxious for nothing” – Philippians 4:6a).
For example. Years ago, I would look through the Craigslist “free” section for something I might be able to use. Oftentimes those ads say, “It’s in the front yard, we’ll remove this ad once it’s gone.” If I wanted an item, I’d zip over to pick it up.
One day someone was giving away some bicycles. I knew someone who was in the market for bikes, so I hurried over to pick them up, and I was anxious the entire way. As you might guess, when I got to the address, someone was already loading the bikes into their truck.
I’m ashamed to say it, but I was heated with envy. “If only I hadn’t hit those red lights!”
Later, when contemplating “love does not envy,” I thought, what could I do differently? I realized my action (envy) was a choice, and an alternative choice could be to celebrate someone else being blessed. It’s more than merely accepting I don’t get something. In my heart, I genuinely celebrate someone else being blessed. And it feels good. So celebrating is now my alternative to envy.
Remember, God is our example. He’s not envious of us, but He certainly celebrates us.
I believe that choice also aligns with Philippians 4:6. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (emphasis added)
Pray about it. What is your choice to replace envy? I encourage you to celebrate God, and also the achievements and possessions of your friends and neighbors. And whatever God has chosen to give us, we can celebrate with a heart of thanksgiving. In so doing, we’re living a life of love.
Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is an award-winning and best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 375-7606.