Dealing with Envy

The Seriousness of Envy

Did you know that envy was responsible for the very first sin?  Envy may be defined as “a desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable attribute belonging to someone else.” So it was that Satan, who at that time was called Lucifer, envied what God alone possessed and sought to make himself like God (Isaiah 14:13-14).   It would not be an exaggeration to state that envy brought about the fall of Lucifer, the most exalted creature of God.   

Several significant tragedies in the Bible are attributable to envy and its consequences.  The first recorded murder resulted from the envy that Cain felt for his brother, Abel.  Saul sought to slay David because he was envious of the praises that David received from the people.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because of envy.  

Envy is common to every human heart, but its effects can be very destructive.  Consider the following scriptures:
For wrath kills a foolish man, and envy slays a simple one.  Job 5:2
A sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones. Proverbs 14:30
For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.  James 3:16

The apostle Paul goes so far as to describe a personality characterized by envy as an indicator of an unregenerate soul and as such barring a person from inheriting the kingdom of heaven (Galatians 5:19-26).  In short, envy is indicative of a carnal nature (1 Cor 3:3).  

Clearly, envy is a serious problem.  Every individual needs to be aware of its insidious effects and pervasive nature.  But to deal with envy, we must first know what it is.

Defining Envy

As stated above, envy has to do with an inappropriate longing for or desiring qualities or attributes which another possesses.   In this sense, envy should be distinguished from two other closely related terms: covetousness and jealousy.  

Jealousy is most properly used to describe the feelings one might have toward a potential rival, that is, someone whom we believe is stealing the affections of another toward us.  So then, jealousy deals with the possible loss of someone or something in contrast with envy which desires to gain something that another possesses.   Expressed somewhat differently, envy is when you want what someone else has, but jealousy is when you’re worried that someone is trying to take away what you have.

The distinction between envy and covetousness is subtle.  While envy is the desire to have another’s success or advantages, covetousness is a broader term that generally (but not always) indicates desiring material possessions.  

The important point concerning envy is that it is a desire that is wrong.  Envy is in direct opposition to rejoicing in another’s blessings.  

True love consists of putting the other first.  If we love one another, then we are happy for their successes and we rejoice in their well-being.

The symptoms of envy

Interestingly, although envy is common to the human experience, few individuals are likely to admit that it is a serious problem for them.  Generally the attitude is that others may have a problem in this area, but not me.

There are, however, several attitudes which indicate a problem.  

  1. A feeling that life (or God) hasn’t been fair to us.  We see others who have personality or status or physical attributes that we don’t and we feel that it just isn’t right.
  2. Instead of rejoicing with the blessing or prosperity of others, we are secretly resentful.  
  3. We spend time promoting ourselves or bragging about our accomplishments.
  4. We have an obsession with our personal dress and appearance.
  5. We find ourselves speaking negatively about others.

Sometimes an individual will develop what may be termed the “measuring stick syndrome.”  In this case the person is constantly comparing himself to others.  This is sure to result in a devalued concept of self-worth.   An indicator of this syndrome is the fact that Americans spent an estimated 16 billion dollars on plastic surgery in 2016 in an attempt to “enhance themselves.”

Yet there are major flaws with this manner of thinking:

  • There will always be those who are more talented, more intelligent, more gifted, more physically capable etc. than ourselves.  By the same token, there will always be those who are more disadvantaged than ourselves.  
  • Age and physical deterioration are inevitable despite the efforts of the best cosmetologists.  
  • Of much greater value than outward attributes is the inward character.

As the French author François de La Rochefoucauld once noted, “Our envy always lasts longer than the happiness of those we envy.”  Why should we seek after the fleeting?

Overcoming envy

The key to overcoming envy is to be fully content with how God has individually made each of us.  In this regard it is helpful to remember the words of Paul who was apparently afflicted by an eye disorder which left him with a somewhat grotesque appearance:

Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinithians 12:9).  

Paul recognized that success in life is not dependent on an attractive physical appearance but in fact is sometimes in contradistinction to it.  

Practically speaking, contentment consists of understanding that what we have we have received from God.  Furthermore it is important to recognize that everyone, regardless of their advantages, is presented with problems common to us all.  We should never judge one another based on position or station or physical attributes.  There will always be those who have more and there will be those who have less.  

But contentment is in itself not enough.  We must truly love.  First Corinthians 13:4 states, “Love does not envy.”   True love consists of putting the other first.  If we love one another, then we are happy for their successes and we rejoice in their well-being. 

Ultimately, then, envy must be conquered by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is a process of growing in Christ and, specifically, maturing through conformity to the Word’s transforming power.  First Peter 2:1-2 states:
Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby.

As we come to understand the scope of God’s plans for our lives, envy is left abandoned far behind.  

Jim Haesemeyer – Renew in Knowledge Core Team Member

Jim Haesemeyer is an elder at FreeWay Bible Chapel at Lubbock, Texas. Jim has served on the mission field in Honduras for nearly thirty years.