The game of social comparison results in winners and losers, haves and have-nots. In the church, a spiritual dimension is added, making the game more dangerous. Some people may be puffed up with the sense that they enjoy God’s special favor, while others feel deflated. And what goes missing is any true and life-giving grasp of a gospel of grace.
As we’ve seen, that’s why I believe when Paul says that love “is not envious or boastful or arrogant” (1 Cor 13:4, NRSV), the three adjectives (they’re actually verbs in the Greek) should be kept together. They describe the unloving attitudes and behavior on both sides of the game of comparison; the winners brag and the losers envy them.
But before we move on to what Paul says next about love, I want to pause to consider the importance of the word translated above as “envious.” As mentioned in an earlier post, Paul’s word — sometimes translated as envy, sometimes as jealousy — actually means to be zealous, which can be good or bad depending on the goal of one’s zeal.
It reminds me of what Jesus taught in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). The word “righteousness” can also mean “justice”; blessed, therefore, are those who deeply desire to see justice done, to see God put things right, because one day, they’ll get their wish.
So: what are we zealous for? At what target do we aim our energies? Is it love, justice, peace, or something else?
The winners and losers, after all, the braggarts and those who are jealous or envious of them, are all playing the same game. And they all want to win.
Imagine two spouses having a long, drawn-out argument. After a while, they may not even remember how the argument got started or what they’re supposed to be fighting about. They each have one goal: to score points against the other and eventually to win.
That’s not love. Not from either side.
The point is this: learning to love is not simply a matter of rooting out envy, jealousy, bragging, and arrogance (though that certainly wouldn’t hurt). Put positively, it’s a question of zeal.
What are we aiming at? Status, superiority, winning arguments? Even if we claim to value loftier things, our behavior may betray us; how we conduct ourselves in an argument shows what’s most important to us.
What we need is to cultivate a vision of the loving, righteous peacemaker that in our better moments we want to be. That vision — of following in the steps of Jesus — needs to become tangible enough that we can bring it to mind even in the midst of conflict and the fear of losing some zero-sum game.
Because if we don’t have something like that toward which to aim our zeal, we’ll aim it at something else.