From the Lips of a Pharisee: The Subtle Danger of Jealousy in Ministry

“It isn’t about me, it isn’t about me, it isn’t about me,” I repeated to myself in the middle of Starbucks. I was trying desperately to keep my eyes on the high schooler in front of me who was sharing her friend-woes, despite the fact that I wanted to stare – or really glare – at the table across from us.

There she was, another of my mentees, meeting with some other adult. Perhaps a Young Life leader? Perhaps someone she knew from yoga class? Either way, this new adult was instantly flagged in my mind as a threat and, despite my best efforts to forget about the incident, I kept running over it in my mind for the rest of the day.

That pang of jealousy I felt is not unfamiliar to my heart, and my guess is you know the feeling as well. It comes when you see a student’s Instagram post of them on a retreat with another church, or when their habit of hanging out with you begins to wane, when your youth group suddenly isn’t the “cool” youth group anymore. It comes when a student you are invested in begins to connect with a different volunteer, when as a parent your child begins to gush about a new teacher, when the volume of your voice dims.

Sure, we have all had moments when we handled the situation well, the times when we look at these waning seasons with peace…but if you’ve been in ministry long enough, you’ve experienced the deep stab of jealousy that threatens to undo any spiritual maturity you think you’ve achieved. You tell yourself it’s just a kid, it’s just a ministry, it’s simply a popularity thing. But often, convincing my emotions of “just” any of those things seems impossible.

Jealousy in ministry is dangerous not only because it is sin, but because it is sin that so quickly hides itself. It takes refuge in places like “correct theology” and “the right methods” and pretends to be anything other than what it is. “Of course they’re going to get kids to show up. They aren’t teaching anything of depth. Of course she wants to meet with that leadershe won’t challenge her at all. I’m not jealous, I’m just angry that the gospel isn’t being preached!”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s true that there are false teachers. There are those who tickle ears and teach false doctrine. Prayers for protection from erroneous doctrine are good and wise and certainly in line with all the New Testament teaches. Warnings against “any other gospel” (Galatians 1.6) are biblical.

But if I take a closer glance at my heart, it looks a lot like this:

“[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get’” (Luke 18.9-12).

The Pharisee above probably was unlike other men. He fasted. He tithed. He followed the law to the letter. But the Pharisee wasn’t in danger because he was lying, the Pharisee was in danger because he was right. My own prayers betray me:

“God, I thank you that I understand good theology.”

“Father, I thank you that I value expositional teaching.”

“God, I thank you that my kids are getting fed meat and not milk.”

“Lord, I thank you that my ministry isn’t based on hype and games.”

Want to know if you are fighting jealousy with self-righteousness? Perhaps a few diagnostic questions can help:

  1. Is my first thought or comment about this ministry or person a critique?
  2. Do I feel the need to distinguish myself from “them,” to specifically note differences in our theology or methodology?
  3. Am I “leaking” comments to my peers or students that slander or malign this ministry or person?
  4. Do I seek out negative information or opinions, or ask for “more” information under the guise of confirming my bias?
  5. If given the chance, would I want their ministry or impact to suffer?
  6. Am I willing for the Lord to “set me aside” and use someone else? What if it is, indeed, this particular ministry?
  7. If this student comes to know Jesus more through this ministry, would I rejoice?
  8. Is my response to the last question, “but that’s not possible! No student could come to know Jesus more through another ministry!”?

So here I stand, pierced by the Word and by the Spirit. How do I respond? How do I balance love for truth with the awareness of my own sin?

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18.13-14).

Once the Spirit opens my eyes to my sin, everything unravels. I am the older brother from Luke 15, angry at God because I’m doing everything right and I think He owes me. I am jealous because I so desperately want my ministry to have impact and don’t believe that the Father knows my desires. I am this Pharisee, and if Jesus himself were in my town I would probably be envious of his impact.

My brokenness is far deeper than I realize. I use even the kindness God has given me to stand above and apart from others whom He created, saved, and loves. The correct theology I so self-righteously cling to is the same truth I so desperately need. I am in need of the mercy of God – not just for salvation, but every moment of every day. The grace that I offer my students, praise be to God, is enough to cover even my self-righteousness, my jealousy, my pride. Despite this selfishness, God allows me, chief of sinners, to be entrusted with that very gospel I need.

These jealous moments will come, and the self-righteous justification will follow. But thanks be to King Jesus, who has won on the cross mercy for me, a sinner. We have this ministry by the mercy of God indeed.

Sarah lives in Macon, Georgia where she is a high school Bible teacher at First Presbyterian Day School. She graduated from Columbia International University with a BA in Bible and Youth Ministry and an MA in Bible Teaching.

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