—Galatians 1:22, NC
I’ll begin with a short story I wrote about a year ago (with apologies to Denver Snuffer, from whom I borrowed the idea):
One Monday morning in the spring, as Cooper Pratum was praying, he asked the Lord what he should do that day. In response, he had the urge to get up and walk outside. He walked out into a beautiful, sunny morning. Flowers bloomed, birds sang, and the grass looked particularly green and lush.
The grass. It drew his attention, because it needed mowing, and he suddenly realized with surety, he should mow it. “How odd,” he thought. “The Lord sent me out here to mow?”
Odd or not, he found the mower and got started. When he finished, he noticed his neighbor’s lawn was also looking long, so he went ahead and mowed that one, as well. Then he saw the house next to that, with an overgrown lawn as well. And another, and another. Before he knew it, Cooper had mowed all the lawns on his street.
People began to take notice, and some graciously thanked him for his labor. He appreciated their gratitude, but also felt an increasing conviction he wasn’t mowing for them. He was mowing for the Lord, who asked him to mow.
The next day, he picked up where he left off, and mowed lawns all day. Then, since he was on a roll, he continued for the rest of the week. And the next. And as it turned out, he had a knack for mowing; he didn’t merely make the grass shorter, but he made it beautiful as well, contributing greatly to the overall beauty of the community.
As Cooper mowed his way through the town, his notoriety spread, and people began to take notice of his efforts, and particularly his ability to make the lawns look exceptionally good. As usual, some appreciated his labor, while others simply considered him odd, but harmless. But not content to let him mow in peace, some began to complain about his work, even hurling insults.
“Strongman!” one yelled. “Who put you in charge of mowing lawns? Who do you think you are? You can’t just get on a lawnmower and start working, and expect us to simply accept it!”
“Look at him up on that lawnmower!” said another. “He thinks he’s so important. He just wants to be noticed (projecting exactly what was in the complainer’s heart.) We can never live in peace with the likes of him in our town!”
A third insisted, “This just proves there’s a group of elites who run this town and force the rest of us to live under their rule! There will always be a hierarchy.”
And a fourth added, rather ridiculously, “This abridges my agency. Why, it’s just like the town I used to live in, where they mowed grass as well. This is just mowing, 2.0! I thought I left this behind when I came here! How dare he take away my agency by mowing lawns!”
Then, a man who felt unimportant because Cooper was getting the town’s attention said, “I don’t have a lawnmower and I’ve never mowed a lawn in my life, so this is inherently unequal! I demand access to Cooper’s lawnmower so I can mow lawns like him! How can we be equal if I can’t mow lawns?”
Others complained that Cooper was wasting resources cutting grass when he should be helping the poor instead (though those who so complained did nothing extraordinary for the poor themselves, because they didn’t truly care for the poor. They only cared to attack Cooper.)
Soon, a group organized to take action against Cooper.
“We didn’t vote to let him mow lawns! We didn’t even vote on whether the grass needed to be cut! We need to form a legislative body and send representatives to make these sorts of decisions and legislate grass cutting in this town. It’s the only way to have order!”
Another editorialized in the local paper: “We need to put in place a system whereby we can choose who cuts the grass, how it gets cut, when it gets cut, and the pattern that must be followed. We must have input from everyone before we can all truly agree! We need a large, complicated system for gathering lawn mowing opinions, discussing the issues, breaking ties, and making decisions. This will ensure we all agree on horticultural practices, and nobody gets their feelings trampled ever again by the likes of Cooper Pratum.”
Someone started a petition in favor of long grass. Others hadn’t even noticed the grass was long, because they liked things shabby and unkempt. Some placed “No trespassing” signs to keep Cooper away.
A group formed a competing lawn mowing operation, in hopes of capturing the popularity they thought Cooper enjoyed. But they didn’t seem to have Cooper’s gift for trimming, and their results simply weren’t as good, which only made them resent Cooper all the more.
The local Rabbi weighed in: “Wrong pattern! Wrong equipment! The Toro says you have to mow by hand. Using a machine offends God! And besides, you need to wear a hat.”
And so it went, day after day.
Cooper endured their insults in sadness as people mischaracterized his heart, impugned his motives, and complained about receiving the gift he freely gave. He wondered why they treated him this way. He wondered if he was crazy, or if the Lord really had asked him to perform this labor. He wondered if there might be a different town where he could simply mow in peace.
He didn’t want their notice; he didn’t want their attention; he didn’t even particularly want their gratitude. He simply wanted to serve in the way he was good at: by making lawns look lovely. He wished he could do it quietly and anonymously, but that’s not how lawnmowers work. So, with a heavy heart, he continued to mow, even against opposition and attacks…
The saints in Joseph’s day faced the very opportunity we now face. A servant, sent by Christ, offered them a legitimate covenant, a functional temple, and the opportunity to become Zion. As we know, they ultimately failed to receive what was offered, leaving us a legacy and a lesson. We are well served to learn from their errors, and recognize to our horror, we are no better than they were, and perhaps worse in significant ways.
As you no doubt recall, after the Saints’ expulsion from Jackson County, the Lord explained why He had suffered such terrible afflictions to come upon them:
Behold, I say unto you, There were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them, therefore, by these things they polluted their inheritances. They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God, therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble. In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel, but in the day of their trouble, of necessity, they feel after me. (T&C 101:2)Along with being “slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God,” which brings to mind the verbs “hinder” and “delay,” they also suffered from a number of related faults, enumerated as “jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires.” These vices all spring from the universal human condition of pride, and represent its manifestations in different forms.
“Envyings” is a curious word, rarely used outside scripture. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines its root, “envy,” as follows:
Envy (verb transitive): To feel uneasiness, mortification or discontent, at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness enjoyed by another; to repine at another's prosperity; to fret or grieve one's self at the real or supposed superiority of another, and to hate him on that account.The sin of envy is unique in that it can only exist by comparison—meaning you cannot envy if you cannot compare yourself to another. Further, though you blame the one to whom you compare yourself, it is, in fact, you who commits the sin. The one you envy is innocent, and you are guilty, though in your mind it is exactly the opposite. You are the innocent victim, and the one you envy is the perpetrator of evil upon you. What a clever deception of the adversary of our souls!
Wrath is cruel, and anger is overwhelming; but who is able to stand before envy? (Proverbs 4:51)Like the adversary, the one who envies becomes Satan, acting as the accuser, opponent, and adversary to those he envies. (T&C 157:8)
Driven by lustful and covetous desires, envy contributes to the other sins listed by the Lord, including jarrings, contentions, and strifes. In fact, if you search the scriptures, you’ll find envying is almost never mentioned without its twin sin, strife.
Strife (noun): Exertion or contention for superiority; contest of emulation, either by intellectual or physical efforts. (Webster, 1828)The hallmark of strife is a contest or contention; the desire to win, to be vindicated, to be right, to press your point of view and conquer all others—blaming, of course, your adversary for the contest, though it is really your own envy that drives the strife.
Envy is therefore toxic to Zion, because it is her antithesis. While Zion requires unity, envy and strife divide. The “us” becomes “us vs. them,” always with an enemy who is in the wrong, the wicked Goliath pitted against you, the righteous David, the innocent victim. But surely God is on your side, and if you sling enough stones, you’ll eventually triumph, won’t you?
Victimhood and Power
Envy, of course, implies victimhood. It’s easy to claim you are the victim of those you envy, while simultaneously claiming to be powerless against them, because you feel inferior to them. In another paradoxical turn of events, playing the victim card may actually end up giving you power over those you claim are victimizing you, because they actually do care about your claims of mistreatment, so they attempt to bend to your wishes, and satisfy your complaints.
This is another great irony. If your “superiors” were actually such awful people, they wouldn’t give a lick about your feelings or your victimhood, and there would be no point in complaining. On the other hand, if they cater to the feelings and needs of their alleged victims, this demonstrates they aren’t so terrible after all, which destroys the whole narrative you’ve constructed, leaving you in a tough position: You have to admit you were wrong about them, or you have to double down on your dissatisfaction to keep the narrative alive and continue to be right. Guess which tends to happen?
And thus, we have perpetual complaints, classes and divisions, but never Zion. Envy protects its own existence above all else.
“By these things, they polluted their inheritances.”
As a people, we suffer from crippling envy, as well as the flotsam of sins that travel in its wake. Here are some examples I’ve noticed over the past couple of years. Hopefully, these examples are all in our past, and we (myself included) have learned to do better. I hesitate to even point these out, and I only do so with full recognition of my own sins and weakness, in hopes these examples will be instructive toward a better way. Please consider these items carefully, and if they offend you, ponder why that is.
- Some who labor, sacrifice, and serve are falsely accused of lusting for power, notoriety, or importance—by those who actually lust after these things and project their lusts in the form of envy. The Lord knows this, and warned us, “Nor is it enough to say you love your fellow man while you, as Satan, divide, contend and dispute against any person who labors on an errand seeking to do my will.”
- Accusations fly against those labeled as “elite” who “secretly control” the movement as part of some alleged “inner circle.” Oddly, anyone who actually steps up, labors, sacrifices, and accomplishes anything to help the movement, gets automatically thrown in and accused with the “elite” movers and shakers. Thus, actually doing the Lord’s work with alacrity gets condemned as a sin, while passiveness and being “slow to hearken” are preached as virtues.
- Those who have been sent by God with a mission to teach are labeled as “big” voices and accused of thinking themselves important, when the true situation may well be exactly the opposite. Enoch was such a man, tasked with a very uncomfortable responsibility, who suffered anguish over the attention brought by his assignment. He neither wanted nor sought notice or attention, but was rather thrust into it by God’s calling to him. “And [not surprisingly] all men were offended because of him.” (Genesis 4:4 OC)
- Some who claim to have no voice, no influence, and no power in this movement (they are victims, after all) actually exercise great influence and power over others by their claims. It seems nobody wants to be accused of trampling the little guy, so others go to great lengths to patiently accommodate those who complain. Of course, this removes the basis of the complaints, requiring complainers to double down. Who actually has the power and the voice in such a situation?
- Some, who do not adequately study or inform themselves, complain when events take place of which they were not aware. Likewise, some complain when meetings happen without their involvement, or even their awareness. The accusation is that others “operate in secret” and leave the “little people” out, as if their permission and involvement are required for others to act, or even meet together.
- The poor who do not get their needs met by their own fellowships rail against the perceived “wealthy” in other fellowships who aren’t doing enough for them, regardless of the true situation or their ignorance of it. They also accuse “the wealthy” of wasting money on conferences, the temple, or other endeavors, when they have no idea what people have been asked by the Lord to accomplish, nor of the sacrifices made by such people in His service.
- Those who step up, organize, sacrifice, labor, and serve have been accused of exercising control and unrighteous dominion, while “trampling the agency” of those being served, simply because those being served would have organized things differently, had they actually stepped up to do something. Sadly, this attitude demonstrates a very poor understanding of agency, but this is a topic for a different blog post.
Well, none of these are pleasant, and perhaps some of them sting. I truly dislike even bringing them up, but frankly, time is short, the opportunity we’re squandering is immense, and the time for idle pleasantries has passed. We MUST take a good, hard look at ourselves and eradicate our envy before it’s too late.
I also fully realize there are counter arguments that have been, and will be, advanced to justify every situation I’ve highlighted. Some of these counter arguments are long, loud, and well worded. But since the very nature of envy is, like a computer virus, to disguise and perpetuate itself, is it worth considering that the true root of the continuing arguments may be envy? (And if you claim you are immune to envy, that is the surest sign it has taken over your thoughts and emotions.) ALL of us are susceptible and in peril every hour from this pernicious evil.
Recognizing envy in ourselves may be difficult, but the solution is simple; it is repentance. And by that, I mean “repent” in the sense of “turn away from.” This was exactly the prescription given to us specifically, by Mormon:
Turn, all ye gentiles, from your wicked ways, and repent of your evil doings—of your lyings and deceivings, and of your whoredoms, and of your secret abominations, and your idolatries, and of your murders, and your priestcrafts, and your envyings, and your strifes, and from all your wickedness and abominations—and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may receive a remission of your sins and be filled with the holy ghost, that ye may be numbered with my people who are of the house of Israel. (3 Nephi 14:1 NC)Interestingly, this is the VERY SAME language used by the Lord in the Covenant:
All you who have turned from your wicked ways and repented of your evil doings, of lying and deceiving, and of all whoredoms, and of secret abominations, idolatries, murders, priestcrafts, envying, and strife, and from all wickedness and abominations, and have come unto me, and been baptized in my name, and have received a remission of your sins, and received the Holy Ghost, are now numbered with my people who are of the house of Israel. (T&C 158:10)If those who have turned from these things and received what is offered are now numbered with His people who are the house of Israel, it follows that any who have NOT turned from these things can claim no such blessing. Sobering indeed.
Envy requires comparison. Perhaps an important way to turn from envy is by refusing to compare. We ought to be grateful for what the Lord has allotted us (Alma 15:12 RE), and likewise rejoice in the gifts He has given others. The Lord cheers on every runner in this race of life, while we who run are tempted to view other runners as our competition. Only by focusing on the Lord who waits at the finish line, can we shift our attention away from everyone else.
Wherefore, seeing we are also encompassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which does so easily beset, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus (the author and finisher of faith) who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest you be wearied and faint in your minds. (Hebrews 1:51 NC)We all hail from a competitive, striving, comparative culture. Contests are our livelihoods, entertainment, recreation, and worldview. It seems envy is part of our very nature—a nature which must be put off and made holy. Such change is not easy, but is possible through Christ. We must defeat the scourge of envy in our own hearts if we would claim to be His.
As the weeks went by, Cooper Pratum followed the long grass and mowed inexorably toward the center of town. One day he mowed right to the center of the town, where he came to the Lord’s house. (They called it the Lord’s house, anyway, because it had been built for the Lord. But nobody had ever actually seen Him there.)
Cooper thought he might as well mow this lawn too, comforted by the hope that the at least the homeowner wouldn’t abuse him. As this thought of simple mercy took hold after so much sacrifice and adversity, he stood by his lawnmower and wept at the bitterness of what he had endured, grateful that this might be the only place in town where he wouldn’t be mistreated. He wept and prayed to the only one who would understand, not for himself, but in behalf of those who had mistreated him. He asked the Lord to forgive them.
After a few minutes, Cooper wiped his eyes, started his lawnmower, and prepared to mow the Lord’s lawn, when, very much to Cooper’s surprise, the front door of the house opened, and the Lord walked out. He walked right up to Cooper and embraced him, then took him by the hands. As realization swept over Cooper, he was utterly overcome with embarrassment at his sweaty, filthy mowing clothes, his grass odor, and most of all, his own inadequacy, which caused him to fall to his knees with his face toward the ground. But the Lord stood him back up, looked at him earnestly, and thanked him for mowing His lawn.
“But I haven’t even mowed your lawn yet…” stammered Cooper, still looking down.
“They were all my lawns,” said the Lord. “If you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me.”
“The people don’t see it that way,” said Cooper, at last able to look his Lord in the face. They mostly hate and reject me. They say I have no right to mow lawns at all.”
“Yes, but they also claim they built this city as a place for me to dwell, and I like order and beauty. I saw the lawns needed to be mowed, and I saw that your heart was willing. It was me that spoke to your heart and asked you to mow. I knew you would be abused for your service, because I was abused for mine. But I also knew that through this struggle, you would come to know me.”
“I would come to know you by mowing lawns?” Cooper uttered in confusion.
The Lord replied kindly. “It was never about the lawns. It was about redeeming you, Cooper. I knew that as you mowed across the town, you would eventually come to my house, and you would arrive with a broken heart. Mowing lawns brought you to me, and so the grass has served its purpose. Well done, my good and faithful servant! You are now my friend; come into my house and rejoice with me.”
And Cooper Pratum rejoiced, content to be the Lord’s gardener and friend.
Who is a wise man, and endowed with knowledge among you? Let him show out of good conduct his works with meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descends not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish; for where envying and strife are, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.
—Epistle of Jacob 1:14 NC