“Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.” …Harold Coffin
“When men are full of envy, they disparage everything, whether it be good or bad”…Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Resentment kills a fool,
and envy slays the simple. (Job 5:2)
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching TV with my seven year old boy and five year old girl. We were watching Extreme Home Makeover together before they went to bed. They like the show, and I like the idea that they get to see people helping one another. In that respect, it’s a great show for them to watch.
On this particular episode was the story of a woman with four kids of her own who had promised to watch her sisters ten kids when she died of cancer several years ago. She had fourteen kids and was living in three hotel rooms at the local hotel before ABC showed up. At one point, Lyndsey turned to me and, with the requisite amount of shock and horror said, “Fourteen kids?!?! Aren’t you glad you only have four?” It has nothing to do with envy, but I thought it was cute!
Later in the show they revealed the new house to the family. They always go overboard on the show, and this episode was no exception. The house was over 5,200 square feet with bedrooms large than many houses. Instantly, my five year old said “that guy needs to come to our house!” My seven year old further explained, “Yeah! We need bigger bedrooms.” Now, our house is not huge, but it is not small by any stretch of the imagination, and one of the reasons I bought it was because I liked the big bedrooms for the kids. Talk about a teachable moment! We talked about greed and envy, being content with what we have, and rejoicing for other people when good things happen to them. I’m not sure they really got it, but it was a chance to be thankful for what we do have rather than wish for something someone else has.
Here is a quick test to gauge the extent of envy in your life:
The more times you answered yes to the questions above, the more likely it is that you struggle with the sin of envy. This test is based in part on, and adapted from, the book Mind Over Emotions by Les Carter.
Let’s have another quick look at the description of love from 1 Corinthians 13:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. [1 Corinthians 13:4-8]
The original word for envy in the Greek encompasses both envy and jealousy. Of the translations I reviewed, 58 translated the word “envy,” and another 23 translated the word “jealous.” Another two included both envy and jealousy in their translation. A couple of translations rendered the passage as not wanting what it doesn’t have or what belongs to others, and one translation reads “not possessive.”
Dictionary.com defines envy as follows:
“a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions, etc.”
Envy is the result of desires born out of judging our level of contentment compared to what other people have rather than what we have. As our passage tells us, there is no room for envy or jealousy in love. Love is sacrificial and therefore intends that the one loved would prosper, even at our own expense. Love is not hurt when it comes out 2nd best. Love does not mourn when others rejoice or rejoice at other people’s mourning. Rather, the Bible tells us we should:
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
So, what is envy, and where does it come from? Envy is part of our sin nature that we are all born with and must battle against. In is an internal attitude that gives rise to external manifestations and actions. The root of envy is pride, and it is based on a comparison of our attributes and/or belongings to those of other people (real or imaginary). Envy always beings with a desire. The desire itself is not always evil. Desires are fine so long as they are realistic. However, when we begin to view our desires as the thing(s) that gives value to our life, then we have moved past desire to envy. The big problem with envy is that it is insatiable. When you give envy an inch, it takes a mile. When you let desire begin to consume you, it is a short trip into devastation. When envy rules your life, there is no such thing as enough. Take for example the infamous words of James D. Rockefeller. One of the richest men of his day, when he was asked how much money was enough, he answered “One more dollar.” It was a sad statement on his day, and unfortunately, it is still true today.
We live in a society rooted in envy. Watch the commercials during your favorite program sometime. You will find out that you deserve things that you didn’t even know you needed. You will find out that one more, one bigger, one newer, one more expensive thing will bring you happiness. You will see a reflection of a society that believes each individual has a right to have anything and everything that their neighbor does. The rising level of credit card debt in our country is indicative of the insatiable appetite of envy. Unfortunately, we live in a society that truly believes that the grass is always greener on the other side.
The list of things people envy in our society is endless. Common things include:
- Social Position
- Happy marriages
- Successful children
- And many more
The list of problems caused by envy and jealousy is equally long. Envy leads to malice and bitterness. It warps our perspective and can so consume us that it limits our ability to function properly. Envy corrupts our motives, thoughts and actions. Envy is so focused on the object of the envy that it limits our ability to recognize our own strengths, and it detracts from the object of our envy’s ability to enrich our lives through the very thing or ability which we envy. Envy causes us to compare our weaknesses to others’ strengths. Envy and jealousy leads to barriers between people, division in families, and violence.
What does the Bible say?
The Bible is replete with examples of envy and the harms caused by envy. God’s word does not leave us empty handed in understanding the evils and effects of envy.
Envy of God led Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3). Envy of God’s acceptance and Abel’s sacrifice led Cain to kill Abel (Genesis 4). Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to have a son then became jealous of that son resulting in a history of violence and confrontation that continues to this day (Genesis 16). Saul was envious of the crowds reaction to David, and it led Saul to try to kill David (1 Samuel 18). David was envious of Uriah’s wife which led him to commit adultery and led to the death of his son (2 Samuel 11). The administrators and satraps were jealous of Daniel’s status and position and contrived a plan to have him killed (Daniel 6). Haman was jealous of the accolades given to Mordecai which eventually led to his own downfall (Esther 6). Peter was envious that he would have to die for Christ and John would live (John 21). And, it was envy and jealousy that led the Chief Priests and the Pharisees to turn Jesus over to be crucified:
9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. (Mark 15:9-10)
The Bible is clear that jealousy and envy are sins and displeasing to God.
14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. (James 3:14-16)
It also makes it clear that envy is worldly and of the Devil. It is no surprise then that envy and jealousy are included in numerous listing of evils included in the Bible. Consider the following examples:
21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ ” (Mark 7:21-23)
29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:29-31)
19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
Envy and jealousy are also included in other lists of evils at Romans 13:13; 2 Corinthians 12:20 and 1 Timothy 6:4. It is very telling to note the other items included in the previous listings along with envy and jealousy. They include everything from disobeying parents and insolence to hating God, adultery, and murder, as well as everything in between.
That said, the Bible is very clear in its command that we should not envy others:
Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. (Proverbs 23:17)
Do not envy wicked men,
do not desire their company; (Proverbs 24:1)
Interestingly, both of these verses deal with envying sinners and wicked men. While the command against envy is not limited to envy of non-believers it is particularly relevant to believers who may be tempted to envy the actions and/or belongings of those who have not subjected their lives to God.
Lest there be any doubt about the prohibition on envy, God included the command against coveting in the Ten Commandments:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:17)
The Bible is also very clear when it comes to the negative effects of envy. Envy affects the people in our lives, but the Bible makes it clear that one of the principal effects of envy is the negative impact on the one consumed with envy.
Resentment kills a fool,
and envy slays the simple. (Job 5:2)
Envy has a negative impact on the envier. Like unresolved anger, envy can consume us and rot to the very core.
A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones. (Proverbs 14:30)
Thus far we have looked at the internal impacts of envy on the envier. There are, of course, also external impacts when envy expresses itself. The Bible tells us that envy provokes.
Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:26)
Envy also results in fighting and quarreling. The following verse explains that envy is at the very root of fighting and quarreling and can even lead to worse offenses such as murder if left unchecked.
1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. (James 4:1-2)
Last week we learned that being unkind can stunt our spiritual growth. Harboring envy also keeps us from a more complete understanding and appreciation of God’s Word thereby limiting our spiritual growth.
1 Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, (1 Peter 2:1-2)
This verse makes it clear that we must set aside envy in our lives. So, how do we do that? Again, the Bible provides clear guidance. Jesus made it clear that the antidote to envy, as well as numerous other numerous other moral shortcomings is love.
9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)
So, not only does love not envy, it is also the cure for envy!
Furthermore, we must recognize that envy is born out of discontentment. At its core, envy represents discontentment with God as our creator, father and shepherd. When we are jealous or envious of others, we are really saying to God that he failed us in how he created us or the circumstances of our lives that he has placed us in. Envy represents a lack of security and confidence in God’s plan and purpose for our life. Therefore, finding contentment represents another cure for envy.
Psalm 73 presents a biblical example of how contentment with God can reverse the effects of envy in our lives.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:2-3, 16-17, 25-26)
The Psalmist suffers with envy and searches for a natural explanation or remedy to no avail. Only after he realizes that contentment comes only through a relationship with God is he able to overcome his envy. Paul also modeled contentment for us and spoke to the importance of contentment in our spiritual lives.
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:11-13, 19)
The writer of Hebrews makes it perfectly clear.
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Our contentment comes from our Heavenly Father who provides everything we need. We often fail to see the blessings God has given us when we focus on earthly rather than eternal things. Envy is a clear sign of worldliness.
You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:3)
As Christians, our minds should be focused on Christ and things above.
1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2)
The Bible points out the simple truth that we came into this world with nothing and we will leave it with nothing. Accordingly, all of our actions and decisions in this world should be made with an eye towards their eternal consequences. The things of this world are minor in comparison.
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)
Envy is rooted in selfishness. When we share our worldly goods, we fight the urge to envy and experience the joy that comes with giving.
Finally, the Bible reminds us that we should be thankful in all things.
Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
When we are focused on, and thankful for, the things we already have, it is hard to envy those things which we do not have.
Envy and Marriage
Just as envy and love can not coexist, there is no place for envy in marriage. Envy and jealousy can take several forms when it comes to marriage, and all are equally dangerous to the health and longevity of any marriage.
The first avenue for envy in a marriage occurs where one partner is envious of the other. Take for example the case of a stay-at-home mother and a working dad. The stay-at-home mother can easily become envious of the fact that her husband does not have to deal with the minute-to-minute headaches of dealing with kids, engages in adult conversation every day, and does not have to worry about making sure that the kids are where they need to be at all times. On the flip side, the husband can easily become envious of the fact that his wife does have so much time to spend with the kids, the relationship that develops because of all that time spent together, the fact that she does not have to deal with the headaches that come along with being in the workforce, and many other things. This envy can lead to resentment, bitterness, arguments, and sometimes even irreparable damage to the relationship. It is easy to lose sight of our own blessings and focus on those things that someone else has – even when that other person is our spouse. Rather than wasting our energy on envying our spouse, we should delight in their gifts and opportunities.
In marriage, we can also find ourselves envious of other peoples’ marriages. Regardless of how strong or week our own marriage is, there is always another couple out there (real or fictional) who will have a “better marriage.” Perhaps they laugh a little bit more; maybe they yell less; maybe they work through their issues in a more rational way. Maybe they don’t have the same kind of concerns over finances or kids or health issues. No matter what the circumstances, it is always possible to find someone, or a couple, who just has it easier or better than we do. The problem is that when we focus on someone else’s marriage and wish ours were more like it, we begin to live in a fantasy world when we should be focusing our efforts on how we can make changes in our own marriage to make it better.
Lastly, we must guard ourselves and our marriages from a possessive jealousy. Unlike envy, jealousy is not a sin in and of itself. Indeed, if there is a reason for the jealousy, it is appropriate in a marriage as a means of protecting the sanctity of that marriage. However, when jealousy becomes irrational, all consuming and possessive, it moves beyond the realm of protection and into sin. Far from protecting your marriage, this type of possessive jealousy can drive spouses apart.
It has become a bit of a cliché, but we should remember that marriage is a partnership – a team. It is not, and cannot be, a competition. We should strive for the betterment of our spouse through our actions, but never demand it through their actions. Everything we do in our marriages should be to edify and build up our spouses, and when we let envy and jealousy seep into our outlook, we limit our ability to do that and put our marriages in jeopardy.
Envy and kids
It is no surprise that kids compete for their parents’ attention, and as parents we have to make sure that we do not foster envy and jealousy between siblings. The worst thing a parent can do in this regard is to play favorites. No parent will admit that they have a favorite child, but many parents certainly act as if they do. Kids are very astute, and they pick up on those clues from their parents. The results can be devastating to a family and can include fighting, strife, broken relationships and closed hearts. The Bible includes a couple of classic examples of what can happen when this type of envy overtakes a family.
Genesis 25-27 tells the story of Jacob and Esau. It tells us that:
Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:28)
This favoritism led to competition among the kids and ultimately led Rebekah to help Jacob deceive Isaac and steal the birthright which Isaac intended to give to Esau.
Esau’s envy and jealousy, and Jacob’s deceit led Esau to a murderous plan:
Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)
Jacob fled from Esau and spent years apart from his family. It is no surprise that Jacob continued this pattern of playing favorites as set by his parents and had a favorite son of his own. Genesis 37 tells us that:
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. (Genesis 37:3-4)
The results of this was bitter envy amongst Joseph’s brothers led them to plan to kill him, eventually sell him into slavery in Egypt and lie to their Dad about Joseph’s fate. It is clear from Genesis 44 that the loss of his favorite son still haunted Jacob years later.
There is one final word of warning to parents when it comes to envy. We must also make sure that we don’t find ourselves in a position where we envy our kids. Many parents envy their kids youth and opportunity and view their kid’s childhood as a chance for the parents to relive their youth vicariously. If the kids’ soccer games and baseball games I’ve been to, and the overbearing and over-involved parents I’ve come across, are any indication, then this is becoming an epidemic in our country. As parents, it is important that we let our kids live their own lives free from our preconceptions and dreams for them.
Envy has been described as a “green-eyed monster.” It is a monster that can consume us entirely if given a foothold, and there is no place for envy in love!