Jealousy is a very human trait. It’s natural to want what we don’t have. When I see people who have things I don’t, I wonder what it would be like to be them. If I was only better at public speaking, I wouldn’t get nervous when I had to do it. If I only had mechanical skills, I could fix my own car. If I only had a sunnier disposition, I wouldn’t struggle with anxiety. The gist of jealousy is the assumption that if I only had someone else’s gifts, maybe I’d be happier.
Paul talks about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians, and his comments remind me of the indie video game Thomas Was Alone. Released in 2012, the puzzle game follows a group of shapes on a quest to escape their artificial world. The player begins by controlling Thomas, a small, red rectangle with average jumping ability who is exploring an environment designed to challenge his capabilities. Along his adventures, Thomas meets other shapes with various personalities and abilities. These include Laura, a flat, pink shape who is ashamed of what she can do, because other shapes have used her for her talent (the ability to bounce) and then abandoned her. There is also James, a green rectangle who feels like a freak because he falls up instead of down, and Sarah, a small, purple rectangle who is arrogant and treats the others as inferior because she can double-jump and they can’t.
The catch, however, is that you can’t beat the game without each individual ability. You need John’s high jumping to clear tall obstacles; you need Claire’s ability to float on water, as she can carry others across to the next level; you need Chris’ shortness to fit under a space and hit a switch the others can’t reach.
When I’m jealous of someone else’s gifts, it’s usually because of fear. It’s not that I don’t want to be considered different, it’s that I don’t want to be considered “less than” because of my differences. I don’t want others thinking I’m not as useful, I’m not as important, or I’m not as desirable. I’m especially afraid I won’t be accepted for who I am because my identity includes weaknesses along with strengths.
But when I focus on what others think of me, on being happy, and on fitting in, I’m missing a crucial detail—the fact that my skill set is needed. In Romans, Paul details many spiritual gifts, including leadership, mercy, service, and teaching. None of them are lauded as “better” than another.
In Thomas Was Alone, after these various quadrilaterals have gone through some tough times together, James, the green rectangle, decides his weirdness isn’t so bad after all. “James still felt weird,” we’re told, “but he realized now that everyone else was too. They were a crew of weirdos.”
God considers us as part of one “body.” Yet as parts, we’re supposed to be different. The Corinthians may have been experiencing similar feelings of fear and jealousy, because Paul devotes a portion of his letter to explaining how spiritual gifts work. He compares individual gifts to body parts, portions of a whole:
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
Though I’m jealous that other people have strengths where I have weaknesses, I have gifts that those people don’t. I’m not justified in feeling jealous (or encouraging others’ jealousy of me), because it is God’s desire that we work together in humility. Just as Thomas and his fellow shapes wouldn’t get through the game’s puzzles without Laura’s bouncing, John’s jumping, and Claire’s floating, I wouldn’t get through life if everyone looked and behaved the same way I do, or if I behaved like everyone else. I’m thankful my best friend doesn’t struggle with anxiety, so he can help me through mine; I’m thankful my business partner is a talented public speaker, because I’m not; I’m thankful I’m patient, because I can help problem-solve. I’m thankful I’m on a crew of weirdos, because it’s where God wants me to be.