A Lesson on Envy from Robert Murray M’Cheyne

by Derek Brown

Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843) was a pastor, poet, and prolific letter-writer in Scotland who, despite only living until he was twenty-nine, has had a profound influence on many Christians since his death in the mid-nineteenth century. While some of you may be familiar with his one-year Bible reading plan, Andrew Bonar’s biography is the primary way people have come to know M’Cheyne.

I enjoyed slowly reading Bonar’s biography last year. While there were many lessons that one could cull from this edifying sketch of this short but well-lived life, there is one story in particular that stands above the rest. During his pastorate, M’Cheyne, his friend and later biographer, Andrew Bonar, and two other pastors visited present-day Israel in order to inquire about the present state the Jews in Palestine.

While these four men were in the country, a minister named William Chalmers Burns filled M’Cheyne’s absence as interim pastor.   Prior to his return, M’Cheyne had learned that the Lord had richly blessed his flock during his trip to the Holy Land, and a great outpouring of the Spirit had caused many people to repent and believe in Christ. Although M’Cheyne had labored faithfully among his dear flock for many years, he had not experienced the same spiritual fruit. That such blessings came the through the work of another, however, did not draw M’Cheyne into envy. Bonar comments,           

[The reports of revival] were such as made his heart rejoice. He had no envy at               another instrument having been so honoured in the place where he himself had               laboured with many tears and temptations. In true Christian magnanimity, he                     rejoiced that the work of the Lord was done, by whatever hand. Full of praise and             wonder, he set his foot once more on the shore of Dundee.          

Robert Murry M’Cheyne, 175

Although he had labored among his people for several years prior to an outpouring that came after an interim pastor had only served a few months, M’Cheyne was neither bitter nor envious. His motivation for ministry wasn’t the increase of his own reputation or the praise and admiration of fellow ministers. No, what mattered most to this young pastor was the glory of God in the salvation of sinners and the edification of the saints. If that goal was achieved through his ministry, praise God. If that goal was achieved through another’s ministry, praise God.  

Our response to another person’s success is often a reliable indicator of our deepest motivations for ministry. If we are bent on securing for ourselves a reputation of godliness and ministerial achievements, we will be frustrated when other people seem to be gaining a reputation for gospel fruitfulness. But if we are only concerned about the glory of God and good of others, we won’t likely chafe when others reap spiritual blessing, even if, like M’Cheyne, we were the ones who tilled the soil.  

There is glorious freedom, then, in focusing all our energy on glorifying God. If we are consumed with magnifying God’s reputation in the world and seeing the gospel spread as far and wide as possible, then we won’t be burdened with the soul-shriveling sin of ministerial envy. We will be able to rejoice when the Lord blesses our ministry, and we will be able to rejoice when he blesses another person’s ministry (Rom 12:15). We just want to see Christ exalted!  We won’t be like Diotrephes who tried to shore up his feeble reputation through self-promotion (see 3 John 9); instead, we will be like Moses who didn’t cling selfishly to his position and gifts, but was happy to see all of God’s people speaking the word of God to each other (see Num 11:29).  

What a way to live. Envy is a joy-killing, depression-inducing, passion-devouring sin. Let’s put it to death by giving ourselves wholly to the glory of God, the salvation of sinners, and the edification of the saints, seeking our joy in the expanse of God’s reputation, not our own. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

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