I’m still working my way through Dale Buss’s Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson. The following quote is interesting:
“One of the early by-products of Dobson’s fame…was that some friends had difficulty handling their pal’s rather sudden and clearly inexorable success. Actually, that was commonly the case in Southern California in the seventies and eighties as Dobson’s career and reputation flourished.
“‘When we graduated from college and we were in one another’s weddings and had our babies together and started out in life, we were all kind of at the same level financially and socially and in every way,’ Shirley [Dobson, Jim’s wife] says. ‘But when things started happening to Jim, with Dare to Discipline and being on talk shows and the radio, the gap began widening a bit, and some of our friends had difficulty with that. I’m not sure if it was jealousy; I’m not sure what it was. I would tell them to tune in because Jim was on The Dinah Shore Show or something, and I could tell from their body language and demeanor that there was resentment there. Jim didn’t see it, but I did. We found that it was easier for friends to be there in moments of pain, but in moments of exploding success, they can start resenting you. So we just started being very sensitive about that. If anyone wanted to know anything, we’d wait for them to ask us. Since then, many of our friends have gone on to be successful in their own ways, so that has gone away now‘” (239-240, Emphasis mine).
I know all about jealousy, because I’ve felt it a lot in my life. I once had a friend who was meeting all these Republican big-shots (e.g., Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Armstrong Williams), speaking to Republican events, and appearing on TV, and I felt jealous. I am jealous of people with popularity and attractive women. Not to mention accomplishments. Recently, when I went to the library, I saw that someone with whom I’d graduated from Harvard Divinity School had written a book that got published. And this was a real-life book too, with her picture on the back flap of the cover! How many books have I written?
Jealousy is human, and the way that we often overcome it is by becoming successes in our own right. We do things that bring about our own money, friends, and recognition. We pat ourselves on the back when we see we have a talent that others can appreciate. We possess and project confidence when we have a reason to do so: accomplishments that other people acknowledge.
And, yet, evangelicalism often tells us that this is wrong. According to evangelicalism, we shouldn’t feel jealousy towards people, nor should we seek our security or self-esteem in accomplishments and recognition. Rather, our feelings of self-worth should be grounded in God’s unconditional love for us, and nothing more.
But Dobson’s friends were most likely evangelical. After all, you know the old saying. “Birds of a feather flock together.” And, yet, notwithstanding their faith in Christ, they could still be jealous. And the cure did not come from them looking to Jesus for their satisfaction. It came when they had achieved successes in their own right.
It is so easy for Christians to act like the world. Why? Is belief in Jesus really enough to satisfy our hunger for recognition? When we have a concrete accomplishment that others recognize as valuable, that tends to go a lot farther in boosting our self-esteem than trusting in a Sky Buddy, whom some believe in, and some do not.
Plus, how can God’s unconditional love provide us with self-esteem? If God loves everyone, how’s his love for me make me special? Part of me wants to be liked because of qualities that I have.
At the same time, I can understand evangelicalism’s point: basing our self-worth on our accomplishments is not very reliable. There are people out there who are better than me at a whole lot of things. Can I only feel good about myself when I am the top dog? That can change really fast! Situations in general can change by the day. One reason that some paraplegics may feel worthless is that they based their self-esteem on certain abilities, which they lost.
I think it’s important to lean on God’s unconditional love, and yet I’d like a little elaboration on that. In my opinion, God does not just love me because he’s God and he has to love everyone. Rather, God made me with certain qualities. I am his unique creation. He must have some purpose for my existence, for I am here, and God takes pride in the people and things he has made. He said “It is good” when he created the heavens, the earth, and all that is in them (Genesis 1). And the Psalmist says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God not only loves me, as important as that may be. God also likes me. But that shouldn’t lead me to self-worship, since he’s the one who gave me my qualities in the first place.
Here’s another issue: We know Christians can be jealous. But doesn’t Paul say that envy is a work of the flesh that can bar a person from the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21)? What do Christians do with that? What should they do with it?
I can understand that jealousy is not the best emotion to have, since it’s best to be glad for people in their successes. But, seriously, it does exist. Even if I were to pretend that I’m genuinely happy for people, my jealousy would still be there. Working through it can be a process. I can’t always just wish it away on the spot. Can’t Paul give people some space to be human, without basing salvation on being perfect?
It’s because of this that, if I were to approach Dobson’s friends in their jealous days, they’d probably deny being jealous. I can picture it! Or, if I were to tell them of my jealousy, they’d give me a lecture on why envy is wrong. It just seems to me that Christians cannot be honest with one another, since there’s so much pressure on them to be perfect.
But that’s just my opinion.