The grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it? As you look at someone else’s life there is something that they have that you do not. Is that fair? Welcome to the world of envy.
Victor Hugo wrote a poem about Envy and Avarice (greed) as two sisters:
The only words that Avarice could utter,
Her constant doom, in a low, frightened mutter,
‘There’s not enough, enough, yet in my store!’
While Envy, as she scanned the glittering sight,
Groaned as she gnashed her yellow teeth with spite,
‘She’s more than me, more, still forever more!’
We need to be clear on what envy is. One of the big mistakes is that we often assume envy is the same as greed or covetousness, but they are not the same. The difference is covetousness is saying “I want that”, envy is saying “I want what she has” or worse “I want him to lose that so we are the same”. It’s about measuring ourselves against others for what they have and we do not.
Another mistake is to say that envy is jealousy. Jealousy is when you are worried about the possession, usually of the relationship, that you already have or at least think you have, and see that threatened. This has its own issues and problems. Envy is about what you do not have and someone else does.
It is linked to ambition. The writer of Ecclesiastes names “envy” the thing that drives us on to achieve more (Ecc 4:4). Yet James points out that envy is often is connected to not merely ambition, but selfish ambition (James 3:14, 16). Again I want the success she has.
To show the darkness of what envy can do, in Hugo’s poem the sisters are offered any wish they wanted with one condition, whatever you ask for, your sister would be given double. Avarice had her own issues with this, unable to ask for anything knowing her sister would have more than her. But Envy, after some thought, came up with this creative request:
Envy at last the silence broke,
And smiling, with malignant sneer,
Upon her sister dear,
Who stood in expectation by,
Ever implacable and cruel, spoke
‘I would be blinded of one eye!’1
Let’s not kid around here. Envy is a sin. It is usually found in the list of sins (Mark 7:22, Rom 1:29, 1 Tim 6:4, 1 Peter 2:1), though it tends to be one of those things we tend to skip over. Interestingly, at the heart of the Jewish leaders sending Jesus to the cross was envy (Matt 27:18, Mark 15:10). If they could not have the followers of Jesus, then no-one would, even if it meant sending Jesus to the cross.
So it is a sin, but it is also a vice. A habit of thinking that we can get sucked into (Prov 14:30). The great danger is that envy cannot co-exist with love. One is obsessed with the self and what I do not have. The comparison with the other leads to pain and a never-ending cycle of discontent. “The commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The envier can do neither.”2 Love, on the other hand, sees the other not as a point of comparison but as a point of seeking to build the other up (Phil 2:3-4).
It will show itself in how we see the success of others. I see this in professional ministry all the time. A ministry or a rival church is being blessed in some way and the assessment is something like “it won’t last” or there is something wrong with how they did it, or even if they are successful, here is what is wrong with their theology.
It will show itself in how we see ourselves. Sadly, one of the key foundations of our society is envy. Don’t you look like this? Don’t you earn this much? Don’t you live here and have this family? Much of envy’s power is coming from its influence to our identity. “The bottom line for the envious is how they stack up against others because they measure their self-worth comparatively3.”
How do you deal with envy?
- Identify it. Who are you envious of? Why? What does this say about you?
- Admit it. One of the reasons that we have the issues we have with envy is that we don’t notice it is there. Confess that you are someone who has envy.
- Ask forgiveness for it. At the heart of envy is the problem that whatever God has given you is not enough and you need what someone else has. It is a sin against God.
- Thank God for what he has given you. Envy is about saying that God has not been generous enough to you and you need what you perceive
- Humble yourself. The vice of Envy is connected to how we see ourselves. We need to see ourselves in the cross, both terrible sinners and incredibly loved.
1 Victor Hugo https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/envy-and-avarice/
2 DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (p. 51). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3 DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (p. 44). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.