A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.
– Proverbs 14:30
Envy is poison to our souls, and we will be betrayed and even destroyed by it if it gains solid purchase in our character. The fall out of unbridled and unrepentant envy includes relationship difficulties, missing out on joy and peace, cynicism and lack of trust towards neighbors, friends, and family. Worst of all, envy is incompatible with love. If we are carried along by envy, we will end up feeling alone without God’s loving presence and the presence of others. We will be miserable.
Envy is a natural human behavior
We are inclined to envy. We want what certain others have. Seeing the good things that others have and aspiring to reach their level of achievement is okay. This is simply observing and following healthy role-models. But healthy aspiration is derailed when:
- We are unwilling to submit to what is needed to achieve a good thing, or
- We feel it is not FAIR that others have what we want, or
- We do not want others to have what we want and do not have, or
- We are tempted to think that God does not love us like he does others.
“It’s not fair!” How often have we heard children cry and complain about what seems to them is a fairness issue among their siblings when things are not going their way. And if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit to times of struggling with fairness and envy. Perhaps your friend’s children are excelling academically, athletically, or whatever, you are hoping this would be your own children’s life trajectory, but it is not happening. Your understandable concern begins to needle you as you COMPARE your children to others and, this is the most vexing part, you begin to hope the other children will fail!
My mother-in-law used to tell me, “Never brag about your children. You will be placing them on a pedestal that other mothers will want to push over.”
Lord have mercy.
Envy and jealousy are not the same
Though the words, envy and jealousy, are used interchangeably, there is a difference.
Jealousy is an emotional response to being afraid of losing someone or something we consider ours. It is typically accompanied by feelings of exclusion and abandonment. When the Bible describes God as a jealous god, it means God does not want to share the affections of his people with idols of wealth, power, or false gods.
Envy is an emotional response to wanting something that someone else has. It is a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another (Webster). Envy quickly devolves to coveting (10th Commandment) when we want to rob the other of what they have..
Lord have mercy on us.
Envy is diabolical
It is listed as a vice that God condemns. It appears in narratives throughout the Bible. Satan envied God and enticed Eve into sin. Cain envied his brother and murdered is brother Abel. Envious magicians devised a plot to have Daniel thrown into a den of lions. Religious leaders who envied the popular appeal of Jesus orchestrated his crucifixion.
Envy blooms when we compare ourselves to others like us
We do not envy billionaires and celebrities. We may admire or ridicule them. We may daydream about what it would be like to have their beauty, wealth or status; But we do not judge ourselves against them.
Nor do we envy the materially poor.
We become discontented when we COMPARE ourselves with friends, families, and neighbors of similar status.
I once counseled a woman in the Middle East who was mistreating her son especially around homework time. Her initial complaint was around her son’s grades. She wanted advice on how to motivate him to excel. But a subsequent session revealed that it was envy of her sister whose children were excelling that was the root cause of her abuse towards her son and the root cause of his lying about his homework. No wonder he was anxious around his mother and wanted to avoid the predictable yelling and slapping.
I have metastatic breast cancer. I have had family members and friends who had breast cancer detected at an early stage and consequently treatment did what it was supposed to do: cure them of this dreaded disease. Have I been tempted to complain that it is not fair that I wasn’t cured? You betcha! I shudder to think that if I allowed this brooding to bloom, I could actually reach a point where I could wish we were all struggling against metastatic cancer.
Lord have mercy.
Practical steps to fight the green-eyed monster
To beat back destructive envy or to keep the seed from germinating, try these strategies.
Use thought experiments help manage envy
A thought experiment is a hypothesis, story or procedure that is invented to examine its consequences.
Einstein devised his theory of special relativity (time slows down for objects traveling fast) through a thought experiment decades before it could be proved through measurement.
My personal thought experiments sometimes help me combat my vices. I imagine that even with metastatic breast cancer I feel well enough to visit a refugee camp. I meet people who have lost loved ones and endured unimaginable terror and grief and continue to fear for themselves and their families. I listen to their tragic circumstances and then I speak:
“Hey guys, what about me? I have metastatic cancer and you don’t. That is not fair!”
Sounds ridiculous, right?
But this ridiculous thought experiment helps me manage feelings of envy and unfairness when I start comparing myself to people like me socially, whose breast cancer was caught early, allowing treatments to cure them.
Speak blessings and compliments to others
Since my late 30’s I realized that envy could be a spiritual downfall for me, so I consciously decided to speak blessings to the person I was tempted to envy. Example: I am in somebody’s lovely home which has all the features I would want in a home including its placement in a beautiful environment. Instead of entertaining covetous or envious thoughts I speak to the fortunate person of how beautiful their home is and how blessed they are. Yes, I even gush in relation to the strength of the power of envy in a particular situation. And, I complement people about their children, grandchildren, ministries, careers, physical appearance, and also about their good health outcomes that I could hope were mine.
Bottom line: It works! (Most of the time.)
Love and envy cannot co-exist. The antidote to envy is love expressed in gratitude to what God has blessed us with and a love for others, rejoicing in God’s blessings towards them; realizing that Gods gifts are inexhaustible.
I keep a running list of God’s blessings. I recite them when I’m not feeling so blessed.
Read and study scripture
The Scriptures are inspired by God and are useful to teach us what is true and make us realize what is wrong in our lives.
– 2 Timothy 3:16
None of us like to be judged but if we are overly committed to this position, we will not read the scriptures with conviction. And, there is always grace when judgment does its convicting work in us of exposing wrong-doing or wrong-thinking. Thank God for grace!
Comparing ourselves to others erodes healthy self-esteem. When we study the scripture our perception of reality is expanded. We are loved by God and called to fill a particular purpose in this life. When we realize this, we stand at the cusp of transcendent self-esteem with has more power and encouragement than we could ever get from worldly gains.
Take the long, eternal view
It is not only gratitude to God that cuts into envy. Ultimately, having the long eternal view of our lives reassures that God’s blessings will be ours forever no matter what happens in this life. Believing and anticipating an afterlife with Christ is a deterrent to envious feelings. When we realize that we do not have to scratch and claw our way to the desired life we want; when we realize this life is not all there is; when we realize that the point of our lives is to serve God and others; then we hold the weapon against vices like envy that threaten to consume us with resentment, hatred, and bitterness.
I have not mastered these strategies, but over years I have gotten better at recognizing envy and parrying envy’s thrusts to my soul. Many times, maybe even most of the time, I feel authentic happiness for others’ good fortune AND I am more aware of Gods blessings and love for me.
Not a bad trade off…….even with metastatic cancer.