Envy will destroy a community faster than many other sins. Once people allow ungodly jealousy to take root, they seek to undermine those whom they envy, speaking ill of them and attacking their achievements and character. Envy eats at the soul, making it impossible to fully love those of whom we are jealous.
Thus, Paul’s definition of love excludes envy or jealousy of others (1 Cor. 13:4). The Apostle here does not refer to that godly jealousy that is insistent that God alone receive glory or that is zealous to protect godly boundaries in marriage or other relationships (see Deut. 4:23–24; Song 8:6). Instead, Paul refers to that envy or jealousy that is displeased at the success of others and covets what other people have when the envious person does not possess it himself. Specifically in the Corinthian context, envy manifested itself in those who were jealous of Paul’s Apostolic call and thus questioned his status as an Apostle (1 Cor. 4; 9). The way that the Corinthian believers elevated the gift of tongues above other gifts (ch. 14) also indicates envy on the part of those who did not speak in tongues. The result of all this was strife and dissension that threatened to tear the church apart. Of course, envy can manifest itself in many other ways in the church. People can get envious of those who receive a lot of attention because of their service to God’s people. Others can envy other church members because they are wealthier, are married, have a family, or possess something else that those exhibiting jealousy do not. The point is that such envy has no place among the people of God. To show such jealousy is to fail to love our neighbors as ourselves (Gal. 5:14).
Additionally in today’s passage, Paul tells us that love does not “boast” (1 Cor. 13:4). Love does not call attention to itself and its accomplishments. As the great nineteenth-century Reformed theologian Charles Hodge puts it in his commentary, “Love does not seek to win admiration and applause.” It is content even if God is the only one who sees acts of service to neighbor. The Apostle here is saying something similar to what Jesus says in Matthew 6:1–4, where He tells us to be careful about doing good for the sake of being praised by others. It is not inherently wrong to receive the attention of others for our good deeds born of love, but we must take care that we do not seek this praise or help others merely to win the acclaim of other people.