I have envy and I’m learning how to fight it

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.)

Count blessings

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.

Important life questions: Readers respond

We asked you to offer up hard questions designed to uncover what we are really about. They spanned the range from the eternal to the minute-to-minute.

Earlier, we (my husband, David, and I) wrote a post about questions we should ask ourselves but don’t.  The reasons we do not ask these questions vary; they could be busyness, belief we will live forever, or simply just a lack of humility.  Whatever the reasons, we need to stop occasionally and ask ourselves those hard questions about what we are about. These questions fall between the philosophical, ultimate questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?) and the important everyday questions (Which car should I buy? Why is my relationship with my teenager so difficult?). 

We asked you to offer up your questions and – WOW – you did.  As we reviewed the questions, we saw certain categories (essential/ultimate, self-assessment, relationships, change-agent, worry/anxiety) and grouped them accordingly.  These categories, by themselves, are worth thinking about.

So, here they are.   Personally, I (David) am going to take up a notebook and try to journal through them over the next several weeks.

Thank you, reader-thinkers, for contributing.

Life’s essential, ultimate questions: 

We call these the 1st order questions.  We noticed several of you could not pass by these.  Note the comment on the second bullet…..

  • Who am I? Why am I alive now?
  • Where will I spend eternity?  As one responder noted, “It is only with this settled that I feel I have the correct perspective to look on this present life and to be able to respond to James 1:2, to “consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
  • How and why was the universe created?

If we live in the universe, are we not aliens just living on our home planet?

Self-assessment and self-awareness questions:

  • What is my greatest pleasure in life and is it appropriate?
  • Am I longing for life in the New Heaven and Earth with God, or am I too content to pursue a comfortable life now?
  • Quick, without reflection or over-thinking, who are my idols?
  • If I wrote a letter to the Younger Me, what would I say?  (If you’re between 18 – 34 years old write your letter to a ~16-year-old you. If you’re 35 or older, write your letter to a ~20 – 30-year-old you.) 
  • To whom am I looking for my deepest satisfaction?  Is that working?
  • What baggage am I carrying that I don’t need because it steals my joy?
  • Am I action-oriented, or reaction-oriented?
  • What am I pretending not to know?
  • Am I doubting my doubts?  Or, has my skepticism run full-circle?
  • Am I content with my financial situation? If the answer is “no’” then the next questions might be, Will my concerns about my financial situation be important 10 years from now? (They might.) Or, what are my concerns about my financial situation telling me about my relationships, fears, priorities, self-image?
  • Is my identity in Christ and not my occupation, bank account, status?
  • What deeper questions are my emotions raising?  (We need to listen to our emotions; not obey them, not deny them.  Listen for the questions of the soul they are raising.  Am I angry?  Why am I angry?)
  • Related to the question above, one responder offered this question-to-next-question process:
    1. What emotions am I experiencing?
    2. Dig deeper: what am I really feeling? (Check out the comprehensive feelings-wheel here.  Very helpful.)
    3. What is prompting me to feel that way?
    4. Why does it make me feel that way?
    5. What does that say about my desires? …relationships? …commitments? …expectations?
    6. What does God think about this?
    7. What should I do in response?

Which came first, the chicken-salad sandwich or the egg-salad sandwich?

Daily review questions:

  • When I think of my first and last thoughts of the day, am I pleased with those thoughts?
  • What did I do today that was eternal?
  • What was my end goal in my parenting/grandparenting today?
  • Did I point anyone toward God today?
  • Have I moved into the opportunity to share my faith (the hope that I have) authentically, with gentleness and respect for the hearer?  1 Peter 3:15
  • Should I put my device down and make pancakes for breakfast?

Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?

Relationship questions, both with God and others:

  • Do I need to be forgiven?  Am I forgiven?  How do I know I am forgiven?
  • How am I doing supporting those closest to me?  Is there anything I can do this week to better support them?
  • What was my end goal in my parenting/grandparenting today?
  • What do I hope the end result of this conversation to be?  What space can I make for God in this conversation?  Am I expecting God to show up on this conversation – to change both him/her and me? 
  • Thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, who are the people in my life I feel too important to help in their need?  (These could be people I don’t like, people who don’t like me (imagine that) and people who probably will never be able to give anything more than a thank you.  They can be people whose religious and cultural backgrounds are different than mine.  Maybe their language is different, their values different…..people I have to make an effort to enter into their world.)
  • What difference will my life have made in those I love?
  • Are there broken or unhealthy relationships (spouse, family, friends) that are within my power to mend?  As another respondent put it:  What relationships do I need to ask or give forgiveness?
  • Have I passed up an opportunity to tell someone I love them?  To whom do I need to say, “I love you”?

Looking towards the months or years ahead:

  • What does God want me to know or experience before I die?  What has God told me to do that I have not done?
  • What should I risk doing with whatever years I have left?
  • What is the thing I am most afraid of?  (It seems to me that to identify and name it is the first step towards taking away its power over us.)  If I was not scared what would I do? 

Do I have a signature dance move? Why not?

Questions for making changes in 2021, or any year:

  • What are the spiritual disciplines I need to cultivate to keep me connected to God?
  • What are the practices of self-care I need to attend to my body and nurture my soul?
  • What core relationships do I need to support me on my journey?
  • What are the gifts, passions, and burdens within me that God wants me to express for the blessing of others?

Questions dealing with worry and anxiety:

  • Will it matter in 10-20 years?
  • If you were dying would you worry about this? 
  • How important will this be in 100 years?  (The responder noted that this is similar to another question above but “making sure that I will be dead before I reflect on this so that it is not just the older self looking back but the one who has now entered into eternity.”)
  • Does __________ really matter?  (Insert anything, relationship, situation, worry, anxiety-maker into that sentence.)  But, does ___________ REALLY matter?

Cancer, COVID-19 and the fear of God

It has taken me decades to learn the meaning of  “fear God or fear everything else.”  Here is my story.

In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, the majority of Americans finally turned against the Vietnam War, Disney World opened in Orlando, James Taylor and Janis Joplin were at the top of the charts, and I was looking for peace of mind.

At the spontaneous invite of a college acquaintance I joined a bible study. After listening and reading for several weeks, I began to believe, or so I thought, I was finally exposed to the “real Gospel.” I was told Jesus wanted to be my buddy and cheerleader; a celestial presence that would give me peace and lead me on paths of success and happiness!

Fearing the Lord, a common refrain in the scriptures, was tamed by well-meaning Christian encouragers. No need to fear God, just trust that Jesus died for my sins and then enjoy an “all good, cleared for heaven status.” Discipleship, as in learning how to live like Jesus, sounded nice but it also sounded optional and too radical. I thought I was okay with that, but guilty and confusing feelings persisted as I tried to walk the fence between my youth culture and the Christian life. Little did I realize that “fear of the Lord” was wedded to love and comfort from God. I was trying on the new clothes of a Christian commitment and not finding them very comfortable and certainly not stylish. It was grueling. Anxiety and insecurity abounded but I stubbornly persisted towards this dead end; always hoping I would get a thumbs up from Jesus for labeling myself as a Christian. Jesus would understand a young woman just wanting to be, well, cool and culturally relevant while still loving Him or so I wanted to believe. I suspected that I was eventually going to give up this fling; the cognitive dissonance was driving me nuts. My secular friends were also waiting for the penny to drop and figured it would be just a matter of time before I was brought back to my secular senses.

Slide2Before writing further, let me be clear. I had no question that I was accepted by God. I had peace with God through Christ’s sacrifice, not through any action or behavior on my part. But I did not have peace of mind.

Living a double life was becoming too stressful. I finally cried uncle. I embarked on a good old-fashioned biblical activity. I began to REPENT of my double mindedness in order to learn how to live the way Jesus wanted me to.

First, I realized that I had to circle back around to the fear of God. It wasn’t easy. I circled with trepidation; the skittish movements of a timid animal trying to get close to a compelling fierce presence that was simultaneously good and terrifying. For much of my youth fear was the compass that directed my ways and thoughts. It had worked until it didn’t!

Dale Bruner, commenting on one of the most ominous but, paradoxically, comforting sayings of Jesus (Matthew 10:26-31), concluded, “And blessedly, the one who fears God is liberated from fear of people – no little liberation…..Fear God or fear everything!” 1

Again, clear explanations are needed. We are not to be scared of God. Fear of God is not the fear a servant has for a harsh master. It is more akin to the love, reverence, awe, and, yes, fear a child might have for a loving, wise parent who has expectations of the child for her own good. Like the loving parent, nothing can separate us from his love. He will never leave or forsake us. (Romans 8:38-39; Hebrews 13:5)

As I approached the center of that terrifyingAs it turned out, as I approached the center of that terrifying, fearful, holy presence that I began to experience a beautiful, flourishing life. I experienced a power to not just want to be good but a liberation that made it possible for goodness, wisdom, love and community to begin to be part of my nature without the white knuckling attempts to be good. My deepest needs were finding the source and power to become a learner of Christ and I was being renewed and refreshed; not overnight but the trajectory was set. I had purpose and purpose that finally brought the peace.

Here I am, 47 years later with metastatic breast cancer, a compromised immune system, and a lung inflammation (side effect of cancer drug). As it turns out, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I never been more grateful for embracing the fear of God. There is an ultimate authority who reminds me of who is in charge and why and for whom I exist.

What is the Fear of God?
Psalm 34 is helpful here.

Seeking the Lord,
Embracing that God is in charge, not me or any other person, institution, or government,
Recognizing that he is the center of the universe, not me,
• Gladly accepting that He is the boss of my life, not me, and finally,
Operating as a mortal destined for immortality because of the will of the one “who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Many of you will have your own descriptors for a healthy fear of the Lord. The bottom line is that the ‘Fear of the Lord’ is a good and needful truth that grounds and encourages us in this chaotic world.

 

1. Bruner, F.D. 2004. Matthew, A Commentary, Vol 1: The Christbook. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 483 pp.